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The Controversial and Glorious Beginnings of Grand Prix Racing

One might think racing, especially Formula One racing has come a long way since its beginnings, but history tells otherwise. This is the story of the events leading up to the first French Grand Prix - the grandfather of all F1 races and how people and politics have not changed since.

Doughnuts. Burnouts. A spinning racecar. Thick tread marks on the asphalt. A relentless scream of eight cylinders by Renault and of an international crowd just absolutely losing it. Sebastian Vettel stopped his car in the middle of the front stretch of the Buddh International Circuit in India - embraced by a massive cloud of tyre-smoke, super-stardom and four gold-pieces - being immortalized and crystallized in history as one of the all-time greats in a technical sport that happens to be one of the most popular one of all the sports around the planet. He got out of his car, threw his fists in the air as if claiming “I am the master of the Galaxy”. He was, in fact, even if just for a few moments. An indisputable master of... some sort the least. He then turned back to his vehicle and bowed down in front of it - the craft of composite materials and solutions that helped him to reach the final frontiers of driverhood where only just a handful of people have gone before. As the cloud settled and the man stood tall was it clear that it was history happening. Live. History, whose pages started to fill multiple ages before, in another place. Where mankind was taking another unfamiliar, roaring step into the unknown with no professionals, just fearless daredevils with beautiful minds.


The Locksmith from Hungary

Ferenc was all about machines. That was what he was doing for a living and that was what he was dreaming about. In fact, he was just a simple locksmith in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plains in the late 19th century. Nothing but the worst possible place and time for greatness. He was quite handy with machinery, though, and had a good eye to see through structures. His ancestors were Saxon people from Transylvania, which meant that a natural stubbornness was paired with a meticulous, methodical approach to solving problems - all one needs when pondering a lot about putting theory into practice. His last name, Szisz even came from the German “süß” (i.e. ‘beautiful’) to further prove the point. Needless to say, he became really good with all this infernal puzzle of metallurgy. Really, really good. It was apparent that his abilities would be overgrowing the limits of its surroundings. He was working during the day and studying mechanical engineering during the night. So much talent could barely be contained within such a small community - as the town of Szeghalom -, especially with the appearance of the automobile that seemed to shrink the boundaries of the physical world and open up another universe of pistons, cylinders, gears, joints, axles and rods - a perverted dream world of an oil-dirty mind.


Coupled with his wife, Elisabeth - while still being just 27 at the turn of the century - he then left Hungary behind to seek out engineering opportunities in the West. They first travelled to Vienna and Salzburg - where it was apparent the Austrian-Hungarian empire was not on top when it came to innovation, hence going even further to Germany. Munich and Berlin was quite allright, but from there the horizon opened up to a whole different level of mechanical world. In fact, everything that happened in the world at the time was happening around Paris. And indeed, there was a more going on in France than he expected.

The Wealthy Scotsman from New York

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was not very much into in his father’s business. As a matter of fact he was not really interested in his father either. The New York Herald was a prosperous paper - nothing to worry about it seemed - but it could deserve a bit of ‘oomph’ he thought. Junior - or preferably Gordon Bennett, to clearly distinguish himself from his father - was certainly into watching heroic competitions, but not much into dissecting and analysing their glory and putting them in his paper. He worked a way around that problem by simply sponsoring and making up events he liked with the help of the exposure and the wealth the Herald provided - tagging his own name to the events. It was happening all around the world. Hot air balloon competitions, polo games, airplane races, yacht races, including one of the hottest topics of the time - motor racing.


The Gordon Bennett (motor racing) Cup hence isntantly gained interest. Especially due to its format - it was truly the Olympics of motor sports of the time. Each country would host an elimination race where the first two cars finishing would be granted admission to the big event with country fighting against country in an annual race with the winning nation gaining the glory to host the race the following year. The most competitive community was hands down France with all the engineering know-how and established infrastructure to motoring, hence the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup was given to the Automobile Club of France in late 1899. Surely as the new century already being on the horizon, 1900 would seem to change the world for good.

The Brothers in Moustaches

Louis was the brightest of them all as far as engineering capabilities concerned. And the car was just a captivating object, too much of an attraction to just let it go and continue his father’s textile business. He took a few spanners and other tools, locked himself into their backyard shed and worked on his creation day and night causing a bit of headache for the people living in the neighbourhood. But when he was finished it was a work of excellence. It was a genuine motorcar with cutting-edge technology. He was so proud of his creation that he gave his own last name to it: Renault. To further improve on his success he managed to sell the car instantly. He knew there was serious business in it. So, by teaming up with his brothers, Marcel and Fernand, they established the ‘Société Renault Fréres’ in 1899. From there the small firm skyrocketed in just a few years. They were assembling cars in a rapid pace, coming up with new ideas all the time. Just as the company was in its process of turning from a backyard project to a multi-million success they got help from where they least expected.


Meet The Team

Louis and Ferenc bonded instantly as the Hungarian stepped in the front door in 1901. They were about the same age and both of them had a love to engineering. Moreover Ferenc did not only prove to be an expert in mechanics, he already had several patents to sell, which the Renault company was quick to buy - such as the pneumatic engine starter or the controlled self-combustion engine. His knowledge immediately proved to be invaluable to the company and it was not until long till he was elected to be one of the chief engineers at Renault with virtually unlimited R&D possibilities granted to him. A classic win-win situation one might say. Although Louis and Ferenc were very much comfortable at the drawing board, Marcel and Fernand were good at management and marketing and they already saw the shape of things to come when it came to further amending the profile of the company. There was a serious racing scene sweeping across the continent. The Gordon Bennett Cup was the place to be if you were a car manufacturer it seemed after its second run in 1901. The competition was tough, the financial and physical risks were high, but crossing the finish line first meant immortality and serious cash indirectly. Marcel and Fernand convinced Louis to enter their cars to competitions. Louis was more careful with the approach but nevertheless it was clear for him, too, that this was the path the company must take. Louis and Marcel both chose to race for greater exposure. Louis, needing a hand when it came to quick fixing the car when needed, chose to race with Ferenc as his personal riding mechanic. By 1903 the company got to the point to produce their own engines and the time had come to join the major league of competition in a race that was advertised as one of the most thrilling and rewarding rally between Paris and Madrid.


The Month of May

Indeed, the Paris-Madrid race of 1903 was a bit more in focus for all major manufacturers on the continent as that year’s Gordon Bennett Cup was to be held in Ireland (with Britain winning the 1902 race, however since the UK has had a ban on racing on public roads, the competition had to be moved to Ireland - thus British Racing Green as the official racing colours of Britain since then - honouring Ireland for their hosting). Everyone who thought they mattered wanted to take part in it. Marcel and Louis had to face with fierce competition. The mighty Mercedes fielded 11 cars, the Italian FIAT started the race with two living legends: Luigi Storero and Vicenzio Lancia and of course there were the rest of the French teams upping France’s chances in winning. There were also a handful of Americans willing to compete, including one William K. Vanderbilt.


Shattering Dreams

The race started in the small hours of May 24 with the cars speeding into the distance covered by a cloud of smoke and dirt in one minute intervals. The day looked to be a glorious spring closer and the beginning of a new era of motorsports. Quite rightly, it proved to be changing the sport forever, but not the way anyone expected. As the day ripened there were less and less cars passing through the checkpoints. By late afternoon - after collecting the information from all around the route - a horrific image started to be forming. There were news coming in about fatal accidents including competitors and spectators alike. Half the cars never reached the latest checkpoints and the field had not even reached the Spanish border yet. It was horror on wheels. Before night fell, there were eight people dead and about a 100 injured. This was to be one of the darkest days of sports. The Spanish government - hearing the news - shut its borders down in front of the competitors and the race was cancelled. The result was devastating to the whole continent and to the small community of the Renault brothers as well as Marcel was lying dead among the eight people that were killed that day.


Louis was so shocked about his brother’s death he swore he would never race again. The results were equally downbeat continentally. All countries in Europe - except partly Italy - chose to voluntarily ban racing on open public roads with serious restrictions to motor cars put forward as well. The fear to falling back on horse-power for civilian use at the time was a possible outcome. The car as we know it was lingering in thin air.


Despite the loss of their brother, racing was too much of a precious advertisement for the surviving Renaults to give up. Ferenc Szisz was promoted as the no.1 factory driver. The racing scene suffered a huge loss. However, despite all matters the Gordon Bennett Cup was still rolling on, but the tensions were growing high as the competition was distorted by politics. There was now a clear opposition among the European powers. Most of them were the leading forces in the world. Unknowingly, this was all a preparation to a war - where engineering was to be a crucial part of winning. Technical sports thus were thrown into the spotlight - showing off mechanical innovation was now part of enumerating technological and overall supremacy. Two thirds of all the new cars in the world was coming out of France. This caused a significant problem when competing at the Gordon Bennett Cup. The French wanted to change the rules of just enabling two cars only from each country. The organizers were reluctant first to cut a deal as the French were winning most of the races anyway. To make matters worse, there was now an example to circumventing the rules. Mercedes had a second production plant in Austria. This enabled them to potentially and practically field four cars at a Cup race as two of them would be coming from Germany and two of from Austria. As the French threatened to create a breakaway race to rival the well established Cup, the organizers now had to give in and promised an adjustment to the number of cars to enter the race according to the car production volumes of each country. But it was too late. France announced in 1904 it would not participate in any further Gordon Bennett Cup following 1905 and would launch their own annual competition starting in 1906 according to their own terms and rules.


Rock Bottom and A New Hope

The 1905 Gordon Bennett elimination race in France would be held at Clermont-Ferrand, a twisty, tight circuit in the mountains. This marked the first time rookie driver Ferenc Szisz appearing at such a prestigious event with two other Renault racers. The competitors had to drive for hours and hours on the track. Szisz was second to start, ultimately finishing his laps in seven hours, 55 minutes and 47 seconds, beating the next-in-line Renault by over an hour. Although his time was quite brilliant - with only 21 minutes off the first place driver - it only rendered him to fifth place on the results, which was a spectacular finish for a practically first-timer, but it also meant Renault was out of the Gordon Bennett Cup for 1905 and the history of Gordon Bennett races in general. The result thus was bittersweet for Renault and Szisz, but a few rays of light was already shining through the disappearing clouds as a partnership with a local, Clermont-Ferrand based tyre-manufacturer was born.


Enter Michelin

While making a racing car fast was important, making it fast did not only mean adding more horsepower to the engine, also but taking it to the finish line in the first place and avoiding breakdowns as much as possible. Given the heavy machinery on rough roads, the most common cause of breakdowns was tyre-deflation. Michelin have already been working hard on a solution that enabled quick tyre-changes. Up to that point the wheel was one complete unit - tyres included - which meant that in case of a flat tyre the driver or the riding mechanic would have to cut off the rubber of the wheel and fix the new one on the rim in a rather complicated and elaborate process - losing tremendous amounts of time. This solution was very much in focus of all manufacturers, particularly Renault. But before Renault could benefit from all this, they had other commitments on the other side of the Atlantic.


The American Connection

William Kissam Vanderbilt II was one racing enthusiast member of the much respected Vanderbilt family. He did not quite live up to the expecations of his family as he was more interested in motor powered crafts than studying. He was driving all around Europe, breaking land speed records at Daytona Beach and survived the Paris to Madrid race. He saw what influence did the Gordon Bennett Cup had on the European automobile industry and comparing the cars found overseas he was much disappointed with the cars produced in the US up to that point. Linking pleasure and importance he sought to organize his version of the Gordon Bennett Cup in the US inviting many European manufacturers to clash with the best of America, hoping that the experience drawn from the competition would give a boost to the auto industry of the US. Long Island was the place and late 1905 was the time when Ferenc and the Renault team set a foot in the new world to win at the second Vanderbilt Cup organized.


It was of course not only Renault being present at The Great American Race from the old continent, all the established stars of Europe took a trip over the Atlantic to run away with the title - including Vicenzio Lancia, the whole Mercedes line-up and one Louis Chevrolet. Among the spectators there were some very influential people, too, e.g. Henry Ford to name one. The Americans were not too much of a competition technologically to most of the European - especially French - teams, nevertheless the US drivers fought with double the dare, surprising the Europeans. At the end Victor Hémery ran away with the cup in a Darracq, Szisz was fifth in the Renault. This was of course excellent result for the French and for the driver at his first actual international race. Renault returned home with high hopes.

The Day It Was Not Raining at Le Mans

Upon returning to France, Michelin was done with their new invention: a detachable rim. This meant an invaluable increase in tyre-changing speed. Now it only took a couple of bolts to be loosen, replacing the rim and tightening the same bolts - all within a matter of few minutes when on track. The Automobile Club de France was busy in the meantime setting up the new competition - simply called a Grand Prix, grand prize, as 45,000 French francs, equalling 13kg of gold was offered to the winning driver. An over 100km closed course was designated - titled the Cuircuit de La Sarthe - in conjunction of the Automobile Club de la Sarthe, running from just outside the town of Le Mans through Saint-Calais to La Ferté-Bernard, then returning to Le Mans. In a two-day race cars would be starting in timed intervals, run six laps on the circuit, being parked in parc fermé for the night and restart the next day at the exact hour and minute of time as the duration of covering the six laps the day before, run another six laps with the winner being the first finishing the second batch of laps on day two. As expected, it was dominantly the French taking part in the event.


The only technical restriction to the cars was a maximum weight limit to vehicle, driver and riding mechanic, which limited the amount of spare parts to be carried around. Taking loads of spare was vital as the cars keened on breaking down on the long circuit and pit work was forbidden, too. Everything needed to be fixed had to be accomplished by the driver and riding mechanic, out of the parts they were carrying themselves. The course was linked public roads closed off from traffic, bypassing certain parts by temporary plank roads and some parts of the surface was treated with tar, making a much mixed surface, but it was still dirt road to the most percentage. Accompanied with a heatwave (hitting 50C degrees at race weekend) the conditions were proving to put loads of strain on competitors and vehicles alike, especially on the tyres. Renault was not the only team going with Michelin’s new development. But they were certainly among those few who were prepared to pull a wildcard. Ferenc realized the advantages of going hybrid. While the new Michelin rims and tyres meant fast tyre-changes, they also meant more of them as the structure of it was more fragile, which meant they had a tendency to cause a flat tyre more often as opposed to the older solution with the one-unit wheel, which had the problem of desperately slow rubber-swapping, but only a few of them. Ferenc opted to putting the old wheels on the front and the Michelins on the back. This was done because his riding mechanic was skilled in fitting new rubber on the old wheel, which could potentially prove useful in a case of multiple tyre-deflation. The tyre-change was only as fast as the slowest member to finish, thus he could still work on the Michelins while his mechanic could work lightning fast on the old one.

On June 26, 1906, just after 5am Ferenc Szisz was the third to start (and to second one to actually be able to get off the starting line) in pursuit of the Italian star, Vicenzio Lancia. In the early hours it was only dust that caused problem, but as time went along, heat started to be one of the main issues. Even the tar started to melt on the roads, which negated close pursuit - unless the drivers behind wanted to get blinded by spraying tar. Lancia developed problems early on, causing him to back off, with Ferenc Szisz storming into the lead, finishing the cca 620km day on top at five hours 45 minutes, causing an early rise for the next day. At quarter to six the next day the small Renault set off from the starting line. The competition on the previous day was so grueling, that it was not until Ferenc completed two laps could the last competitor still in race start his own race. He was seemed to be invincible until the rear suspension broke not long before the end of the race. The Hungarian backed off and eased their trip to the finish line. Despite the problem, they were still over half an hour ahead of the second car, finishing the race under 12 hours, 12 minutes and seven seconds. They tackled the 1238.16km distance with a 100.8kph average speed. Instantly he became a national hero in France, gaining French citizenship, the 45,000 francs and he became the first ever racing driver in France to be awarded by the state.



The outcome of the Grand Prix was not that celebrated elsewhere. Most of the critical voices cited the ridiculous majority of French teams, the dominance of Michelin-equipped cars and the shabby organization compared to the earlier Gordon Bennett races. The race was nevertheless catching on. The French Grand Prix became the standard and definition of motor racing competition until World War I. Soon enough after the success of its first running, many other countries opted to host their own invitaional, international motor Grands Pix. From 1925 to 1927 a World Manufacturers’ Championship was established with selected events counting towards the championship. This was replaced by the European Drivers’ Championship four years after the demise of the Makes’ championship in 1931. As its popularity grew larger, it was planned to be expanded to a World Championship, which fell through after WWII broke out. After the war the idea was revived once again, only now the cars would run under a set of rules and restrictions, created by the sporting department of the newly formed FIA. They had plans for three classes of cars: Formula A, B and C. The first Grand Prix to field the “A” category cars took place as early as 1946 in Nice, on the Promenade des Anglais, just a stonethrow away from Monaco. By 1949 the plans for a World Championship was completed and the classes were renamed by numericals instead of the alphabetical designation, thus the FIA Formula 1 World Championship kicked off at Silverstone in 1950.


The Automobile Club de la Sarthe continued to organize races, but they were more and more disappointed with the even shorter Grand Prix racing formula, they set up the ultimate competition of touring cars by racing for 24 hours on the Circuit de la Sarthe, now to the South of Le Mans, starting in 1923. The Club later renamed itself the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO).

The Vanderbilt Cup remained the most presigious race in the US until a certain gentleman named Carl Graham Fisher of Indiana returned to the States from Europe with the same vision to host similar grand racing events in America. Bought a land in Indiana and proposed his plans for a cutting-edge track, serving as a proving ground for car manufacturers. The facility was named the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which would later host one of the biggest racing events in the world, the Indianapolis 500. The Vanderbilt Cup was soon to be rendered to be a secondary event and kept returning in various forms. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it was CART/ChampCar’s most valued winning prize.


Louis Chevrolet and Vicenzio Lancia both went and established their own car manufacturing brands. Chevrolet is the primary brand of General Motors, one of the biggest car-maker in the world. Chevrolet cars are all over the racing world to this day. Lancia as a brand remained small as a part of Fiat, but its successes in racing - especially in rallying - made it a legend.

After the Grand Prix, sales of Renault cars skyrocketed, making it one of the most influential car brands in the world. It is now partnered with Nissan and its subsidiary includes Dacia. Renault continued a prosperous career in racing, especially in Formula 1. They were the first to go ahead with turbocharging in the 70s and more F1 cars won races with Renault engines than anything else.


Ferenc (or now Francois) Szisz took part in the 1907 French Grand Prix as well, coming in second. In the 1908 race he retired, just as at the first American Grand Prix at Savannah, Georgia. He then retired from racing and Renault completely, only to be brought out of retirement by in 1914 by Fernand Charrons, one of his great rivals to compete one last time. He retired from leading position during a tyre-change when he was swiped away by a passing car. When the war broke out, he joined the Frnch army voluntarily. Surviving the war he lived a peaceful life with his wife, outside PAris as Auffargis. He died in 1944 and he is buried at the local churchyard. The Renault Museum is responsible keeping the grave tidy. There is a Szisz Museum next to the Circuit de la Sarthe, which is part of the Renault Museum. In Hungary he has a statue at the entrance of the Hungaroring F1 racetrack. The first corner is named after him, and there is a small museum bearing his name in his birth town, Szeghalom. Its most valued exhibition piece is Fernando Alonso’s Renault racing suit donated to the museum out of gratitude. An annual Szisz rallycross cup is held outside Szeghalom on a dirt track.

Sources: Wikipedia, First Super Speedway

A film made by the author of this post, heavily containing copyrighted material. No copyright infringment intended. A short film taking an artistic spin on the events described above (with eventual ruined cuts by YT):

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