Chapter One


UP TO 1949


   It all started in 1894 when a French newspaper organised a “run” over the 78¾ miles from Paris to Rouen to be held on the 22 July. This was not a competition, as such, and certainly not a race! Remarkably, 102 vehicles turned up! After some preliminary trials, 21 machines went to the start. Two failed to start but there were very few breakdowns. 8 finishers were steam-driven, and the rest were 3½ h.p. petrol-engined machines.

The first home was Count Jules-Albert de Dion in his big De Dion steamer at an average of 12m.p.h. but was disqualified for carrying a “stoker” and not a “mechanic” as stipulated in the rules!!


Count Jules-Albert de Dion





The “win” was giving to Georges Lemaître in a Peugeot.




Georges Lemaître







The first proper race wouldn’t be until the following year when the newly formed Automobile Club of France ran one from Paris to Bordeaux and back - a distance of 732 miles. It took Emile Lavassor 48 hours and 48 minutes to complete in a Panhard-Levassor, and although he stopped every 100 kilometres or so for supplies, he was only stationary for a total of 22 minutes! He was some 4½ hours ahead of the second man and his average speed was 15mph.  But he wasn’t awarded first prize because he and the runner-up were driving two-seaters, and the rules called for four-seaters. The official winner was 3rd placed Paul Koechlin in a Peugeot. 





Emile Lavassor





By 1902 the average had risen to 54.5mph. when Charles Jarrott won a 318 mile race in Belgium.






Charles Jarrott





Races were organised to run from city to city and attracted lots of spectators, many of whom had never seen cars racing before, and were completely unaware of the short time it takes a car travelling at 100mph to cover the ground. In 1903 the French Government stopped the Paris to Madrid race at Bordeaux after spectators had been killed strolling across the road in the path of on-coming cars, and drivers had died in crashes caused while trying to overtake blind in the clouds of dust kicked up from the primitive road surfaces. Thereafter races were only permitted on closed roads and circuits.


1904 saw the first race in Italy and the start of the Vanderbilt Cup in the USA, but true international racing had been going on since 1900 in the form of the Gordon Bennett Trophy. The idea was for cars to be entered by nations. Not only did the drivers have to come from that country, but the chassis, tyres, engines and components had to be manufactured there. The nation that won would host the next year’s race. After the 1905 race there was some dispute over the rules and the French, believing that they were entitled to enter more than the statutory limit of three cars because they had twice as many car factories than any other country, withdrew and the series collapsed. So in 1906 the Automobile Club of France organised their own international race and called it a Grand Prix.  A 64.11 mile (103.18 kilometre) circuit was lapped six times on day one and another six on day two – in excess of 769 miles (1238.18 kilometres) in total.  It was won by the Hungarian Ferenc Szisz in a Renault.


Ferenc Szisz



Although national automobile clubs in countries like the UK and Italy had their own rules for home races, they soon adopted the Sporting Code for international events. This governed the type of cars and races, and the behaviour of officials, entrants and drivers, etc. It is notable that the USA continued to run races under its own rules. As time went by it became apparent that different cars should run under different rules, and the “Formula” principle was born. The French club that had started it all, drew up an international body (the Association of Recognised Automobile Clubs) to control the sport with delegates from each member club, helping to formulate rules and decide on disputes. In a much expanded form, and under a string of different names, this system remains in force, in Paris, to this day as the sporting division of the Federation Internationale l’Automobile (FIA). The first rule, for the 1906 race was that cars must weigh less than one ton. Thus a car with a very light chassis could turn up with a truly enormous engine. So, as has happened ever since, a new rule was introduced to curb the skill of the designers and engineers. A fuel consumption rule of about 9mpg meant smaller, more efficient engines. Other rules were written, such as the one for any weight and any engine but a chassis size of at least 5ft 9in width.


It is interesting to note that in 1908, we find that during the Targa Floria, a road race round Sicily, mechanics found that by digging a shallow depression in the ground where they worked on their cars, they were able to change the detachable wheel rims and tyres much more easily. These areas where the depressions were dug became known as “The Pits”.


By the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 the concept of the Grand Prix race was well established with distances reduced round a circuit to about 330 miles and average speeds increased to around 70 mph in cars still weighing less than a ton and with engines no larger than 4.5 litres capacity. It all kicked off again in 1921 but as the economic depression gripped the western world during 1928 to 1933 car manufacturers could not afford to participate in Grands Prix and indeed, many went broke. It did herald an era of drivers with small factory-made cars like the Bugatti entering races which, although called Grands Prix the organisers tended not to be too strict about the rules just so they could get cars to run in their race! Bugatti’s only real rival at this time was Alfa Romeo. As the depression eased its grip other manufacturers needed to get the public to see how good their cars were and built pure racers. This concept was grasped by the Nazi Party of Germany who financed Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union (an amalgamation of Audi, Horch, D.K.W. and Wanderer. They had the famous engineer Dr Ferdinand Porsche working for them, who had some new ideas about cars, such as putting the engine at the back instead of the front as convention at the time dictated.)


Now cars were reaching 180mph on the straights and new rules were written to curb speeds and that too has been going on ever since! The international body at the time decided that limiting the weight to 14½ cwt (hundredweight) would do the trick as engines would have to be smaller. As usual the engineers overcame this rule by introducing, among other things, new lightweight metals and alloys. In 1934 Mercedes had a supercharged 8 cylinder engine of about 4 litres, and Auto Union turned up with a car made with aircraft fabric and with a 16 cylinder 5 litre supercharged engine mounted behind the driver. The rules had to be changed again as by 1937 the cars were still under the weight limit but being made of lighter materials and with bigger and lighter engines developing up to 600 h.p., they could do 200mph and were becoming difficult to handle. The new rules meant cars had to be at least 14½ cwt with engines of no more than 3 litres supercharged or 4.5 litres unsupercharged. Unfortunately the rule makers got it wrong and the cars were faster than ever! Not so down the straights perhaps, but better acceleration, road-holding, stability, and brakes, and easier to control, so faster through the corners. A trend that has continued to this day both in car building and rule making. With unlimited funds the German cars were unbeatable. And then came another war.


Not quite “Hot on the Heels” of the Second World War, people who had successfully managed not to lose their pre-war racing cars soon dusted them off and got them out of the garage and onto a track somewhere. Alfa Romeo, for example, had secreted a number of 158's in a cheese factory during the conflict! The old pre-war rules still applied and disused airfields like Silverstone, for example, became popular venues for races, as they offered ready-made, flat, asphalt surfaces with no dangerous lamp-posts, etc. for the wayward to collide with.