Grand Prix motor racing has its roots in organized automobile racing that began in France as far back as 1894. It quickly evolved from a simple road race from one town to the next, to endurance tests for car and driver. Innovation and the drive of competition soon saw speeds exceeding 100 mph, but because the races were held on open roads there were frequent accidents with the resulting fatalities of both drivers and spectators.
A seminal event in racing came in 1900 when James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (1841–1918), the owner of the New York Herald newspaper and the International Herald Tribune in Paris, established the Gordon Bennett Cup in Europe, an annual race that attracted international competitors. Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars. Following Bennett's lead, in the United States, the wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt II launched the Vanderbilt Cup at Long Island, New York in 1904. Influenced by these racing events, Louis Chevrolet (1878–1941), a Swiss-born employee of a French motor vehicle manufacturer would move to the United States. Beginning in 1910, he would become a major figure in American racing and the designer of a car for General Motors that bears his name.
The first Grands Prix
In 1906, the first (and at that time only) race carrying the name Grand Prix was organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF), and run over two days in June. The Le Mans based circuit used was roughly triangular in shape, each lap covering 105 km (65 miles). Six laps were to be run each day, and each lap took about an hour using the relatively primitive cars of the day. From the 32 entries representing 12 different automobile manufacturers, the Hungarian-born Ferenc Szisz (1873–1944) won the 1260 km race in a Renault.
Races in this period were heavily nationalistic affairs, with a few countries setting up races of their own, but no formal championship tying them together. The rules varied from country to country and race to race, and typically centered around maximum (not minimum) weights in an effort to limit power by limiting engine size indirectly (10–15 L engines were quite common, usually with no more than four cylinders, and producing less than 50hp). The cars all had mechanics on board as well as the driver, and no one was allowed to work on the cars during the race except for these two. A key factor to Renault winning this first Grand Prix was held to be the detachable wheel rims (developed by Michelin), which allowed tire changes to occur without having to lever the tire and tube off and back on the rim. Given the state of the roads, such repairs were frequent.
For the most part, races were run over a lengthy circuit of closed public roads, not purpose-built private tracks. This was true of the Le Mans circuit of the 1906 Grand Prix, as well as the Targa Florio (run on 93 miles of Sicilian roads), the German Kaiserpreis circuit (75 miles in the Taunus mountains), and the French circuit at Dieppe (a mere 48 miles), used for the 1907 Grand Prix. The exceptions were the steeply banked egg-shaped near oval of Brooklands in England, completed in 1907, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, first used in 1909 with the first Indianapolis 500-Mile Race in 1911, and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, in Italy, opened in 1922.
In 1922], Italy became the first country outside France to host an automobile race using the name Grand Prix (or Gran Premio), run at Monza. This was quickly followed by Belgium and Spain (in 1924), and later spread to other countries. Strictly speaking, this still wasn't a formal championship, but a loose collection of races run to various rules. (A "formula" of rules had appeared just before World War I, finally based on engine size as well as weight, but it was not universally adopted.)
In 1924, however, many national motor clubs banded together to form the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), whose Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) was empowered to regulate Grand Prix and other forms of international racing. Since the inception of Grand Prix racing, competitions had been run in accordance with a strict formula based on engine size and vehicle weight. These regulations were virtually abandoned in 1928 with an era known as Formula Libre when race organisers decided to run their events with almost no limitations. From 1927 to 1934, the number of races considered to have Grand Prix status exploded, jumping from five events in 1927, to nine events in 1929, to eighteen in 1934 (the peak year before World War II).
The Pre-WW II years
Important individual and corporate names emerged during this time which would change the face of automobile design and engineering:
- Alfa Romeo
- Ettore Bugatti
- Enzo Ferrari
- Vittorio Jano
- Alfieri Maserati
- Harry A. Miller
- Ferdinand Porsche
The 1933 Monaco Grand Prix was the first time in the history of the sport that the grid was determined by timed qualifying rather than the luck of a draw. All the competing vehicles were painted in the international Formula One colors:
- blue for France,
- green for Britain,
- red for Italian,
- yellow for Belgium, and
- white for Germany.
Beginning in 1934, the Germans stopped painting their cars, after the paint had been left off a Mercedes-Benz W25 in an effort to reduce weight. The unpainted metal soon had the German vehicles dubbed by the media as the "Silver Arrows".
French cars continued to dominate (led by Bugatti, but also including Delage and Delahaye) until the late 1920s, when the Italians (Alfa Romeo and Maserati) began to beat the French cars regularly. At the time, the Germans engineered unique race vehicles as seen in the photo here with the Benz aerodynamic "teardrop" body introduced at the 1923 European Grand Prix at Monza by Karl Benz.
In the 1930s, however, nationalism entered a new phase when the Nazis encouraged Mercedes and Auto Union to further the glory of the Reich. (The government did provide some money to the two manufacturers, but the extent of the aid into their hands was exaggerated in the media; government subsidies amounted to only about 10% of the costs of running the two racing teams.) The two German marques utterly dominated the period from 1934 to 1939, winning all but three of the races run in those years. The cars by this time were single-seaters (the riding mechanic vanished in the early 1920s), with 8 to 16 cylinder supercharged engines producing upwards of 600hp on alcohol fuels.
As early as October of 1923, the idea of an automobile championship was discussed at the annual fall conference of the AIACR (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus) in Paris. However, discussion centered around the increased interest in racing by manufacturers and holding the first European Grand Prix at Monza in 1923. The first World Championship took place in 1925, but it was for manufacturers only, consisting of four races of at least 800 km in length. The races that formed the first Constructors Championship were the Indianapolis 500, the European Grand Prix, and the French and Italian Grands Prix. A European Championship, consisting of the major Grand Prix in a number of countries (named Grandes Epreuves) was instituted for drivers in 1935, and was competed every year until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
The post-war years and Formula One
In 1946, following World War II, there were only four races of Grand Prix caliber held. Rules for a Grand Prix World Championship had been laid out before World War II, but it took several years afterward until 1947 when the old AIACR reorganized itself as the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile or "FIA" for short. Headquartered in Paris, at the end of the 1949 season it announced that for 1950 they would be linking several national Grands Prix to create Formula One with a World Championship for drivers, although due to economic difficulties the years 1952 and 1953 were actually competed in Formula Two cars. A points system was established and a total of seven races were granted championship status including the Indianapolis 500. The first World Championship race was held on 13 May at Silverstone in the United Kingdom.
The Italians once again did well in these early World Championship races, both manufacturers and drivers. The first World Champion was Giuseppe Farina, driving an Alfa Romeo. Ferrari appeared at the second World Championship race, in Monaco, and has the distinction of being the only manufacturer to compete during the entire history of the sport, still competing in 2006. (Follow the History of Formula One link for more history after 1950.)
Grand Prix races
- List of major automobile races in France
- List of major automobile races in Germany
- List of major automobile races in Italy
- List of major automobile races in Spain
Grand Prix drivers
Some of the notable drivers of the Grand Prix motor racing era included a few women who competed equally with the men:
- Antonio Ascari - Italy
- Robert Benoist - France
- Clemente Biondetti - Italy
- Georges Boillot - France
- Manfred von Brauchitsch - Germany
- Malcolm Campbell - Great Britain
- Rudolf Caracciola - Germany
- Luigi Chinetti - Italy and United States
- Louis Chiron - Monaco
- Albert Divo - France
- René Dreyfus - France
- Philippe Étancelin - France
- Luigi Fagioli - Italy
- Giuseppe Farina - Italy; he became the first Formula One champion
- Enzo Ferrari - Italy
- Jules Goux - France
- Elizabeth Junek - Czechoslovakia
- Hermann Lang - Germany
- Christian Lautenschlager - Germany
- Emilio Materassi - Italy
- Felice Nazzaro - Italy
- Guy Moll - Algeria
- Hellé Nice - France
- Tazio Nuvolari - Italy
- Kay Petre - Great Britain
- Charles Pozzi - France
- Georges Philippe (Baron Philippe de Rothschild) - France
- Bernd Rosemeyer - Germany
- Richard Seaman - Great Britain
- Henry Segrave - Great Britain
- Raymond Sommer - France
- Whitney Willard Straight - Great Britain
- Hans Stuck - Germany
- Ferenc Szisz - France
- Achille Varzi - Italy
- Emilio Villoresi - Italy
- Luigi Villoresi - Italy
- William Grover-Williams - France
- Jean-Pierre Wimille - France