The beginning of motorcar racing in the Auvergne goes back a long way, starting in 1899 when the first motorcar rally came through the region followed by the Gordon Benett Cup in 1905 which took place on a 137 kilometre circuit designed by the Michelin brothers. These motor racing events set the way for other rallies to be organised all around the town of Clermont Ferrand.
In the 1950’s, the driver Louis Rosier accompanied by the ASACA president Jean Auchatraire, drew up plans to build a circuit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Gordon Benett Cup. In the spring of 1955, after having considered several sites, they settled upon a 6,124 kilometre track near the Brézet zone. All was signed and sealed for the organisation.
The town of Clermont Ferrand authorised the necessary installation works, lending the grandstands whilst Michelin gave its full but discrete support to the Automobile Club.
Unfortunately, in June 1955 everything came to an abrupt halt with Pierre Levegh’s tragic accident during the 24 Heures race in Le Mans. His Mercedes drove into the grandstands leaving more than 80 spectators dead and over a hundred injured. This accident led to an immediate, provisional ban on all high speed motor car racing and the installation of circuits within town centres.
Hence, the building of a permanent circuit on the outskirts of Clermont Ferrand was inevitable and Louis Rosier himself (who was with the Renault car manufacturer) set about the task of finding the ideal spot, not too far from the town in his brand new Dauphine, just delivered to his garage.
This is how the Charade circuit came about and they agreed upon the site in between the town of Royat and the Thèdes & Manson villages encircling the Gravenoire peak. The result was a magnificent mountain circuit, 8,055 kilometres long with 51 bends combined with important dips.
Alas, Louis Rosier never saw the finished product, he died after a car accident on the Montlhèry circuit on 29th October 1956. So it was without him that the drivers first discovered the Auvergne mountain track for the opening race of the “Auvergne 3 Hours”.
The Scotsman, Innes Ireland was the winner after 328.56 kilometres at the wheel of his Lotus MK XI, a light and easy car to drive. After his defeat in a Ferrari, Maurice Trintignant changed wheels and went to to win the Formula 2 race in a Cooper-Climax. The opinion and end results are positive and the track is much appreciated by the drivers. From 1959 onwards, Stirling Moss declared that “it is the most beautiful circuit in the world”, a legend was established.
The 7th October 1964 was the moment of consecration for Jean Auchatraire’s team and the Charade circuit. The French Automobile Club chose Charade for the French Formula 1 Grand Prix, meeting the following year. This entailed certain adjustments, such as the widening and resurfacing of the track and the enlargement of the car parks.
A grandstand for the press was erected with 5 telephone lines. The hotels and restaurants in the town were taken by storm by the public and the event was broadcasted by Eurovision. For the duration of a weekend, the name of the once unknown town of Clermont Ferrand resounded throughout the world.
In 1959, the motorcycle world began to take a look at the Charade circuit. The Auvergne Motorcycle Club (MCA) was already involved in the international organisation of such events and its president, Marcel Cornet, took it into his own hands to contact the French and International Motorcycle Federations with the view to obtaining the go ahead for the French Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1959.
Lots of apprehension notably for budgetary reasons and numerous warnngs could not dissuade the MCA to pursue with the idea. Finally, the 350cc, 500cc and the sidecar categories were all on the starting grid for the 1st May 1959.
The Englishman, John Surtees on a MV bike took the first victory in the 350cc category and then went on to win in the 500cc category still on a MV. The Swiss, Scheidegger won the in the sidecar category on a BMW.
Despite the superb weather conditions this meeting did not attract the crowds. However, it did attract the media and the circuit became renowned for yet another mechanical sporting event. It was the starting point for 15 exceptional years where the motorcycles and their champion riders bought the fame to this track. Nine other French Grand Prix’s in the world championship table took place here until 1974. In 1973, Charade organised a round of the FIM 750 Prix, created at the beginning of the year. It was a difficult task for the organisers. The problems created by the necessary security measures tarnished this event and Charade became a catalyst for the new vision of motorcycle racing which had become too dangerous for certain circuits which were not suitably adapted.
Many were lucky enough to be able to witness an exceptional moment in 1974 when the public areas with a crowd of 130,000 were described as the “Auvergne Woodstock”. It was a completely different picture when 2 years earlier, the last of the four French Formula 1, Grand Prix which took place took place on the circuit only managed 50,000 paying spectators.
One can remember the spectacular duels between the motorcycle champions such as Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read or Jarno Saarinen in the 70’s.