Roland Garros (aviator)


Roland Garros was a French aviator, lieutenant pilot during World War I. He was born on October 6, 1888 in Saint-Denis de La Réunion and died in an air battle on October 5, 1918 in Vouziers (Ardennes). He received his pilot”s license at Cholet airfield in Maine-et-Loire.

His fame first came from his sporting exploits in airplanes, and especially from the very first crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, which he made on September 23, 1913 aboard a monoplane.

Today, his name remains associated with the French Open tennis tournament (which is also and simply called Roland Garros), as it takes place in the stadium that bears his name since its construction in 1928.

A childhood in the sun

Roland Garros was born on October 6, 1888 on rue de l”Arsenal (since renamed “rue Roland-Garros”) in Saint-Denis de La Réunion. His family had long been established on the island, with origins in Toulouse on his father”s side and in Lorient (via Pondicherry) on his mother”s side. He was only four years old when his father Georges Garros decided to leave with his family for Cochinchina. Georges Garros opened a law office in Saigon to handle the commercial affairs of his Vietnamese merchant friends. His mother was responsible for his schooling, but when he reached high school in 1900, his parents were forced to send him alone to the mainland to undertake his “humanities. At that time, the sea crossing between Saigon and Marseille lasted nearly two months. From that moment on, and until the end of his life, Roland Garros led a practically autonomous life, alone with his responsibilities.

As soon as he arrived in Paris, at the Collège Stanislas where his parents had enrolled him in the 6th grade, the twelve-year-old boy was struck down by a serious case of pneumonia and, without waiting for the advice of his parents who were too far away, the school administration decided to send him to the other Collège Stanislas in Cannes.

An accomplished sportsman

He found the sun and sports, especially cycling, which helped him recover his health. As his friend, the writer and journalist Jacques Mortane, wrote, “the little Queen succeeded where the Faculty failed”. They were inter-school cycling champions in 1906, he under the pseudonym of “Danlor”, anagram of his first name, so that his father would not be informed… He also led the soccer team of the Masséna high school in Nice to victory. His schooling, without being brilliant, will be nevertheless supported: he will catch up without too much difficulty the school year lost during his pneumonia. In the middle of some prizes obtained by the schoolboy, we find a first prize of piano, denoting a certain attraction for the music.

He went to Paris for his final year in Philosophy, which he studied at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly, where he made friends with Jean Bielovucic, a young Peruvian who, like him, would make a name for himself in aviation. Then he successfully entered HEC Paris, from which he graduated in the class of 1908 that now bears his name. Émile Lesieur, his friend and fellow student at HEC, a rugby international, sponsored him when he joined the Stade Français, where he was registered in the rugby section. And if he plays a little tennis, it is really only as an amateur.

As soon as he received his diploma, he was hired by Automobiles Grégoire. While practicing business, he quickly learned about mechanics and motorsports, which are not taught at HEC. It wasn”t long before he wanted to stand on his own two feet. His father, who wanted him to become a lawyer, cut him off. With the financial help of the father of another HEC student, Jacques Quellennec (an engineer who participated in the construction of the Suez Canal), at the age of 21 he became a company director and agent for Grégoire in the store he opened at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe de l”Étoile under the sign “Roland Garros automobiles – sports cars”, located at 6 avenue de la Grande-Armée. At that time, he designed a tubular car with the Gregoire “bucket”, a chassis on which two seats were fixed. He is able to leave his maid”s room at 10 rue des Acacias for an apartment on the third floor of 7 rue Lalo in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

The birth of a passion

During his summer vacations in 1909 at Sapicourt near Reims, at the home of his friend Quellennec”s uncle, he attended the “Grande Semaine d”Aviation de la Champagne” from August 22 to 29. It was a revelation for him: he would be an aviator.

The profits of his car business allowed him to order immediately at the Salon de Locomotion Aérienne at the Palais de la Découverte the cheapest flying machine of the time, a Demoiselle Santos-Dumont (7,500 francs against 30,000 to 40,000 for a Blériot XI). The aircraft was fragile and dangerous because of its fragile landing gear that broke, which earned the Demoiselle the nickname of “man killer”. There was no flight school yet: he learned on his own, with the help of another “Demoiselliste”, the Swiss Edmond Audemars, whom he had met at the Issy-les-Moulineaux airfield, which some people already considered to be the “cradle of aviation”.

He had not even obtained his pilot”s license when he was hired for the July 14, 1910 ceremonies by the Comité Permanent des Fêtes de Cholet, where he obtained his Brevet de l”Aéro-Club de France, No. 147, on July 19, at the Cholet airfield, which now bears his name. And he had just over three hours of flight time when he was hired by the American industrialist Hart O. Berg for the Belmont Park meeting in New York. His frail “Demoiselle” and that of his friend Audemars were to fly alongside the powerful Blériot XI, the Antoinette and other Wright and Curtiss aircraft, without of course trying to compete with them.

At the Astor Hotel where he stayed, he met his American friend of French-Canadian origin, John Moisant, whom he had met at the Issy field. This one organized with his brother Alfred a tour of aerial exhibitions through the United States. The young man had no hesitation when John offered him to come and fly in the Moisant Circus, where he was joined by Audemars, René Simon and René Barrier. For the 22-year-old, it was an unhoped-for opportunity to fly every day and thus refine his compass and piloting skills in all weathers. The “Cirque Moisant” train crossed a good part of the United States, then Mexico and finally Cuba and earned R. Garros the nickname of “cloud kisser” at the numerous aviation meetings of the time.

Man of record and precursor in South America

Back in France in May 1911, R. Garros took part in the three major events of the year, the Paris-Madrid air race, the Paris-Rome and the European Circuit. Despite his undeniable qualities as a pilot, he was beaten to the punch each time and journalists nicknamed him “the Eternal Second”.

He soon took his revenge. He was then hired for a meeting at the Champirol airfield located in the villages of Villars (Loire) and Saint-Priest-en-Jarez near Saint-Étienne, where he met, among other aviation stars, his friend “Bielo” who had become his “brother in arms”. But above all, he met Charles Voisin and his friend, the Baroness de Laroche. The sympathy passes immediately between them and Voisin, who already takes care of Bielovucic”s business, agrees to take in hand the aeronautical career of his new friend. He was the one who prepared their participation in the “meeting” in Le Mans and, immediately afterwards, he organized the first altitude record that Garros snatched from Captain Félix with 3,950 m, on September 4, 1911, taking off from the beach in Cancale. Garros professed that altitude records were the most useful for the development of aviation because the aircraft that had to be built for them were the “safest”, the “least dangerous” and the most “capable of rendering services”. This first record placed him among the best, and he was solicited from all sides. In Marseille in particular, where he was to renew his relationship with his father thanks to the mediation of their mutual friend Jean Ajalbert. At the Borély park, more than 100,000 enthusiastic spectators attended his aerial evolutions, alongside Jules Védrines, the other star of the show.

Then the American industrialist Willis Mc Cormick, creator of the Queen”s Aviation Company limited, hired him, along with René Barrier, Edmond Audemars and Charles Voisin, for a major tour of South America. With his Blériot XI, Garros was the first to fly across the bay of Rio de Janeiro, to fly over the tropical forest, to take aerial photographs in relief with his Richard Verascope. He was the first to fly from São Paulo to Santos, symbolically carrying a small mail bag, and it was with his friend Eduardo Chaves, one of the future creators of Brazilian civil aviation, that he triumphantly made the return flight from Santos to São Paulo.

It was also in Rio, at the end of a public demonstration, that he was approached by Major Paiva Meira, head of the Brazilian Military Commission, and Lieutenant Ricardo Kirk: with them, he organized an aviation week for the military, giving the first flight to many young officers who would form the core of the future Brazilian air force. Lieutenant Kirk, considered in Brazil as the father of military aviation, was one of them. In September, he commanded the delegation of young Brazilian officers who came to Étampes to take their pilot”s licenses. His pilot”s license was number 1089. As such, Roland Garros can be considered the initiator of Brazilian military aviation.

In Argentina, the aviator will leave in the popular memory a respected name that many will not hesitate to associate later with that of another great French aviator, “the archangel” Jean Mermoz.

Circuit of Anjou, records of Houlgate and Tunis, raid Tunis-Rome

But it is in Angers that Garros will obtain his first great success. The Grand Prix de l”Aéroclub de France was to crown the winner of the Anjou circuit: the aim was to fly the Angers-Cholet-Saumur triangle seven times in two days, on Sunday 16 and Monday 17 June 1912, a little over 1,100 km. R. Garros, who presented himself with his personal Blériot 50 hp (he had long made it a point of honor to fly only on his own machines), was opposed to the thirty-three best pilots in the world, supported by all possible means of the most powerful industrial firms in the world. If a few courageous people took flight despite the wind and the storm, Garros will soon remain the only one in the air with the young Brindejonc des Moulinais who, unfortunately for him, will cross the finish line outside the regulation time. Roland Garros was the only one to finish the first and second day”s events. From then on, the journalists only called him “the champion of champions”.

He confirmed this at the first meeting in Vienna where, all prizes combined, he received 21,000 crowns, the largest sum awarded to a Frenchman, Audemars having to be content with 7,500 crowns. He did not rest on his laurels and, immediately after these brilliant victories, he again obtained the altitude record with his Blériot, at Houlgate where his friend, the industrialist Émile Dubonnet (pilot”s license no. 47), had offered him hospitality in his sumptuous villa. With an aircraft of the same type as the one used the previous year in Cancale, he gained almost a kilometer in height: here he was at 4,950 meters.

But after these brilliant successes, he had the misfortune to lose his friend Charles Voisin who was killed in a car accident. Overcoming a difficult period of disarray, he was lucky enough to be contacted by Raymond Saulnier and Léon Morane, and he became a test pilot for the young Morane-Saulnier company.

His record of Houlgate not having lasted more than fifteen days, he decided to reconquer it. This time, he used the Morane-Saulnier Type H of Georges Legagneux, the new record holder, from whom he bought it with his own money. After a few unsuccessful attempts marked by numerous rollovers on the terrain of Les Milles, near Aix-en-Provence, he decided to go to Tunis where the climate seemed more favorable. It is there that he obtained his third record, approved by the Aero Club of France at 5610 meters.

According to the contract which binds him from now on to the Morane-Saulnier company, there remains “a feat” on the two that he had to do. He opted for a Tunis-Rome raid (Trapani-Santa-Eufemia, 400 kilometers; Santa-Eufemia-Rome, 438 kilometers), which allowed him, through his Tunis-Trapani flight, to be the first to link two continents, Africa and Europe, by air in December 1912. He was also delighted to be “the first to fly over Vesuvius” and the warm welcome he received in Rome from the authorities, his friends from the Italian Aeroclub and the enthusiastic crowd compensated for the disappointment of his second place the previous year in the Paris-Rome race, which had seen the victory of André Beaumont.

First aerial crossing of the Mediterranean Sea

At the same time, Roland Garros became the technical advisor of Raymond Saulnier, whose treatise Equilibre, centrage et classification des aéroplanes (Balance, centering and classification of aeroplanes) has been an authority among aircraft manufacturers for three years. In Le Figaro, Saulnier and Léon Morane wrote an article in which they explained and ardently defended Garros” theories on “excess power” and “quality of flight”.

In the spring of 1913, Garros went on vacation to the Côte d”Azur with his companion Marcelle Gorge, to rediscover the scenery of his adolescence. But he could not help but participate in the cup that his friend Jacques Schneider (see Schneider Cup), the commissioner of his first altitude record, had just created for seaplanes. He only got the satisfaction of having been able to stand up to much more powerful aircraft with a modest 60 hp engine.

R. Garros has meanwhile received his prize from the Academy of Sports for the year 1912 (Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe prize). On June 15, he participated for the second time with success in the second meeting in Vienna. On July 2, along with Audemars, Léon Morane and Eugène Gilbert, he went to Compiègne to welcome Brindejonc des Moulinais back from his “circuit of the capitals”: the five Moranes flew together to the capital, forming, according to the historian Edmond Petit, “what must be the first group flight of five in history”.

R. Garros also met the prestigious car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti in Molsheim. The two men got along very quickly. R. Garros immediately ordered a 5-liter Bugatti Type 18, the only car that could morally bear the name “Roland-Garros”, since Bugatti himself had named it that way (only seven examples were ever built; Garros” car, chassis number 474, survived in the United Kingdom under the name “Black Bess”). It was delivered to him on September 18, 1913. He had already secretly planned to cross the Mediterranean in July or August, but the wind was to the south and the sea was rough. On the morning of Sunday, September 21, 1913, a phone call from his mechanic Hue informed him that the weather was improving on the Mediterranean and that the wind had changed. On September 22, he arrived in Saint-Raphaël on a train from Paris.

And on September 23, 1913, Roland Garros became famous for having successfully completed the first aerial crossing of the Mediterranean in 7 hours and 53 minutes, flying at an average speed of 101 kilometers per hour. His friend Marcelle is the only woman and the only civilian present on the field of the Aviation Center of the naval aeronautics base of Frejus-Saint Raphael from where he takes the air. Jean Cocteau, who would later write a long poem about Roland Garros entitled Le Cap de Bonne Espérance (The Cape of Good Hope), evoked the “young woman with a coat of skunks”. The Morane-Saulnier monoplane, equipped with an 80-horsepower Gnome engine and a Chauvière propeller, took off at 5:47 a.m., weighed down with 200 liters of gasoline and 60 liters of castor oil. Garros left by compass, with an engine that broke down twice and lost a part, off Corsica and over Sardinia. He had five liters of gasoline left when he landed in Bizerte at 1:40 pm after having flown some 780 kilometers.

In Marseille, then in Paris, the aviator was welcomed in triumph. It must be said that after this feat, the winner of the Mediterranean became the darling of France and the whole of Paris. Jean Cocteau who, as Jean-Jacques Kihm, one of the best connoisseurs of the poet, said, “had a real passion for being friends with the most famous people of his time”, succeeded in being introduced to the hero of the Mediterranean, who took him several times by plane to do aerobatics. He dedicated his poem Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance to him.

All of his most prestigious peers congratulated the aviator on his feat and the press was already talking about the first airlines, which would not really see the light of day until after the war. The 39 km crossing of the English Channel was only four years old. It would take six years and a war for the first air crossing of the Atlantic, on June 15, 1919, by the British Alcock and Brown (well before Lindbergh).

R. Garros is at the origin, with Jacques Mortane who assures the general secretariat, of the association which they simply call “The Group”, gathering about fifteen stars of aviation. This group has, among other goals, to help the widows and orphans of their comrades who died and they are already numerous to have paid their tribute to their passion. To collect funds, they just have to organize “meetings” and exhibitions. Thus, they were fourteen on June 14, 1914, to present, apart from the official patronage, their first realization, the “Day of the Aviators” in Juvisy.

The last meeting in Vienna

It was in October 1913, in Como, during the Circuit of the Italian Lakes, that R. Garros met the German Hellmuth Hirth, an experienced pilot and then technical director of the Albatros Flugzeugwerke in Johannisthal. They met again shortly afterwards in Èze, in the villa of the Grand Duchess Anastasie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the most ardent admirer of Garros, who was none other than the mother-in-law of Kronprinz Wilhelm himself.

The two men met again in June 1914 in Aspern for the third and last “Vienna meeting”, which was marked by two tragic events. First, it was the first of the world”s great air disasters: an Austrian military airship of the M III type on a photographic mission was hit in flight by a Farman. The two aircraft crashed to the ground in front of the Aspern field, causing the death of nine officers. The French airmen organized an aerial procession to salute these “brothers in arms”; all their black-capped aircraft, including the Morane N, which R. Garros presented in public for the first time, flew one after the other over the site of the disaster, giving the victims a magnificent aerial funeral.

Then comes the other drama, the historic assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but no one yet imagines the war so close.

R. Garros asked H. Hirth to visit the Morane-Saulnier factories, and in return H. Hirth invited him and Raymond Saulnier on a tour of the German aeronautical factories: it was in Berlin that the rumors of war would surprise him. At the wheel of his Bugatti, in the company of his mechanic Jules Hue, Garros managed to cross the German border just before it closed.

First development of the shots through the propeller

Although he was born in a colony and did not owe any military service, he enlisted as a private on August 2, 1914, for the duration of the war. First assigned to Escadrille 23 (en) (called MS 23, because it was equipped with Morane-Saulnier Type H aircraft), he took part in numerous observation and reconnaissance missions, dropping shells that were carried as bombs, and fighting with observers armed with rifles.

At the beginning of hostilities, enemy pilots made friendly signs to each other when they met, then after a few weeks they shot at each other with rifles or revolvers, without any real efficiency. The first world aerial victory was recorded on October 5, 1914, when the mechanic Louis Quenault shot down an Aviatik B.I. with a machine gun fixed to the front of his Voisin III. It was proven that this type of weapon had to be adapted to aircraft, but many aircraft had their engines placed on the front, thus prohibiting the use of weapons because of the presence of the propeller.

As early as November 1914, Garros was the first specialist to define, in a report to the GQG, the single-seat fighter aircraft as it would be used in all countries of the world over the decades. Knowing the system of shooting through the propeller invented in April 1914 by Raymond Saulnier (and the design office directed by Louis Peyret), he proposed in December to develop the device. He carried out the first shooting in flight and improved the device by reducing the size of the metal deflectors placed on the blades. In January 1915, he completed the development of the very first single-seat fighter in history, armed with a machine gun firing in the axis of the plane through the propeller”s field of rotation.

He then returned to the front, to the MS26, and his adapted firing system on a Morane-Saulnier type L “Parasol” enabled him to obtain, at the beginning of April 1915, three consecutive victories in fifteen days: for the Allied forces as a whole, these were the 4th, 5th and 6th aerial victories and, moreover, the first ones won by a single man at the controls of a single-seater.

Prisoner of war

On April 18, 1915, Second Lieutenant Garros was on a mission over Belgium when he was hit by a German flak bullet. His plane ran out of fuel, forcing him to land at Hulste, where he was taken prisoner before he could set fire to his plane.

The system of firing through the propeller is immediately studied by Anthony Fokker, his engineers Heinrich Lübber, Curt Heber and Leimberger, who will create a different system, making the machine gun completely synchronous with the propeller, the bullets passing between the blades without touching them, which avoids dangerous ricochets. The Fokker system was the first to equip the Fokker E.III, with which the German air force dominated the air until mid-1916, until the Fokker system was copied by the Allies.

Like all strong heads, R. Garros was subjected to special surveillance and moved from one camp to another (Küstrin, Trier, Gnadenfrei, Magdeburg, Burg and Magdeburg again), because he had to be prevented from having time to create the conditions for an escape. After many unsuccessful attempts, he managed to escape from the Magdeburg camp after three years, on February 15, 1918, in the company of Lieutenant Anselme Marchal, who spoke very good German. The two men made two crude German officer”s uniforms, and with the help of the darkness and Anselme”s irascible tone, they passed the four sentries present. Finally out of the camp, they stole civilian clothes and began a journey that took them to Holland, then to Great Britain, and finally to France.

On this subject, we can emphasize that, if the filmmaker Jean Renoir benefited from the testimony of the future general Armand Pinsard, Roland”s former companion in MS 23, taken prisoner and then escaped like him, he was necessarily inspired by the account of the captivity of R. Garros given by Jean Ajalbert in The Passion of Roland Garros, or by Jean des Vallières in Kavalier Scharnhorst, to play the character of Boëldieu in The Great Illusion. It is certainly not by pure coincidence that his companion in the film bears the name of “Maréchal”.

The last moments of a very short life

These three years of captivity seriously degraded his health, particularly his eyesight: his latent myopia became very annoying and forced him to go underground to get glasses to be able to continue flying.

Clemenceau tried in vain to keep him as an advisor to the General Staff, but “the Tiger” had to bow to the stubborn will of the airman: he wanted to return to combat, as if he considered his captivity as a guilty act. In the meantime, the escapee was elevated to the rank of officer of the Legion of Honor, without any difficulty this time, because for the knight”s ribbon, President Poincaré himself had to intervene against strong opposition so that it would be awarded to the winner of the Mediterranean.

After a convalescence and a complete overhaul (the aircraft and air combat methods had completely changed in three years), he was assigned to his former MS 26, which became the SPA 26, since it was now equipped with SPAD XIII. It is part, with the three other Cigognes squadrons, of the No 12 Combat Group (GC12).

Through tenacity, Roland Garros managed to regain the ease of his flying. The squadron left Nancy for the Noblette airfield in Champagne.

Although he did not like the atmosphere of the “rear”, which he had reluctantly encountered in 1914 while working on the development of the “firing through the propeller”, he came regularly on leave from La Noblette in Paris. Marcelle was not there, she was following a long convalescence in Billère, in the Pyrenees. Except for Audemars, who, as a Swiss citizen, could not take part in the fighting and had to be content with delivering new equipment, and who still occupied the 4th floor of 7 rue Lalo, all his friends were at the front or dead, so that he often found himself in Passy at the home of his pianist friend Misia Edwards, with whom he shared a love for the music of Chopin. The former student of Gabriel Fauré will play for him entire evenings when it is not Roland Garros, whose musical talent has been affirmed since Nice, who is himself the interpreter of their favorite composer. One evening in September, Isadora Duncan, who was one of the many guests in Misia”s salon, asked Roland to play Chopin at the piano. He did so and Isadora began to dance. As she herself recounts in her autobiography My Life, as he accompanies her to her hotel on the Quai d”Orsay, she dances for him again at the Place de la Concorde during an air raid, while “he, sitting on the edge of a fountain, applauded me, his melancholy black eyes shining with the fire of the rockets that fell and exploded not far from us (…) Shortly thereafter, the Angel of Heroes seized her and transported her elsewhere.”

On October 2, 1918, Roland Garros won his fourth and last victory. The day before his 30th birthday, on October 5, five weeks before the Armistice, after a fight against Fokker D.VII, his SPAD exploded in the air and crashed on the territory of Saint-Morel, in the Ardennes, not far from Vouziers where he is buried.

A name linked to tennis

The name of Roland Garros is generally associated with tennis. Indeed, Roland Garros had joined the rugby section of the Stade Français in 1906, with the sponsorship of his fellow student of HEC and athlete Emile Lesieur, and it is the latter who, in 1927, having become president of the prestigious association, firmly demanded that the name of his friend be given to the Parisian tennis stadium that was to be built to host the Davis Cup events brought back to France by the “Mousquetaires”. In the words of the account: “I will not take a penny out of my coffers if this stadium is not named after my friend Garros. A quote attributed to Roland Garros is now inscribed on the railing that separates the lower part of the central stand of the Court Philippe-Chatrier from the upper part, the French version: “La victoire appartient au plus opiniâtre” (Victory belongs to the most stubborn) facing the English version: “Victory Belongs To The Most Tenacious”.

Other tributes

However, several associations and institutions are working to preserve the memory of the winner of the Mediterranean and the inventor of the single-seat fighter plane.

External links


  1. Roland Garros
  2. Roland Garros (aviator)
  3. Stéphane Nicolaou, Roland Garros. Héros du siècle, ETAI, 2000, p. 11.
  4. Georges Fleury, Roland Garros. Un inconnu si célèbre, François Bourin Editeur, 2009, p. 9.
  5. Jean-Pierre Lefèvre-Garros, Roland Garros. La tête dans les nuages, la vie aventureuse et passionnée d”un pionnier de l”aviation, Ananké/Lefrancq, 2001, p. 32-33.
  6. Georges Fleury, Roland Garros. Un inconnu si célèbre, François Bourin Editeur, 2009, p. 44.
  7. Stéphane Nicolaou, Roland Garros. Héros du siècle, ETAI, 2000, p. 15.
  8. Фамилия окситанского происхождения произносится именно так и не подчиняется правилам ФРПТ, предписывающим не транслитерировать конечную s[источник не указан 1562 дня].
  9. ^ “Roland Garros: a venue open all year long. Past Winners and Draws”. Archived from the original on 8 August 2007. Retrieved 7 August 2007.
  10. ^ a b c d e “A trailblazer for aviation and a war hero: Roland Garros”. Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT).
  11. ^ Lefèvre-Garros, 2001, pp.32–33
  12. ^ “Black Bess, famous Bugatti Type 18 goes under the hammer”. New Atlas. 30 January 2009. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  13. ^ “Bugatti Type 18 Sports Two-Seater ”Black Bess””. Louwman Museum. 4 August 2013. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  14. primeras exhibiciones aèreas en Mèxico (Memento vom 24. August 2012 im Internet Archive) (mit Fotos)
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