Politics, PR and National Pride – The First Grand Prix

By Mick Palmer

Politics – it’s the central theme that surrounds modern day Grand Prix racing. It fills almost as much space in print as does the actual racing itself. Magazine editorials repeatedly bemoan how motorsport has corrupted its own origins. They ruminate upon how the sport is now run as a reactionary delicacy for an elite few, or for the monetary gains of an organisation that cloaks itself disguised as an entertainment company.

Manufacturers vie with one another to influence rulemakers while attempting to gain advantage by outspending their rivals. They try to work around the rules and develop technological superiority, with the aim of showing the world that they are the best in the field, however at ground level the sport contains real competitors and passionate individuals who are driven to compete and win, in turn they are given license to use their knowledge to ensure that the world will purchase the wares of those who fund them, whether that is cars, drinks or industrial machinery.

In essence, Grand Prix racing has not changed one iota in the 114 years that have passed since what is considered as being the very first Grand Prix was held just east of the French city of Le Mans.

1906 French Grand Prix starting grid

That race was borne from a need for the developing French motor industry to stamp its authority on world motoring. It was an attempt also to ensure that the sport, and the plaudits that came with domination of it, would swing in their favour instead of being directed towards Germany, Italy, the USA or Great Britain. The Automobile Club de France (ACF) was charged with formulating a competition by French manufacturers that they felt wouldn’t inhibit their inclusion, and success, in these new sporting events.

Prior to 1906 the main series of races held between international makes had been the Gordon Bennett Cup. Instigated by the American newspaper magnate who the cup was named after the French felt that they had been restricted by its format regarding how many makes from each country could compete. The cup had limited each country to a total of three manufacturers. The burgeoning industry in France had a number of high profile companies who were angry at being ostracised and excluded from the events. Panhard, Renault, Peugeot, Mors, Clement-Bayard, Darraq, Lorraine-Dietrich, Gobron-Brille, Automobiles Grégoire, Brasier and Turcat-Mery all wanted to be able to compete on an even footing with each other, and against international competition.

With a venue chosen the ACF committed to the format for this new race – The Grand Prix. It was to be held across a 64 mile long triangular circuit over closed public roads. The race would start in the village of Montfort, head in the direction to Le Mans itself before negotiating a hairpin bend and heading for Saint Calais. The town of Bouloire was circumnavigated by a specially constructed wooden road, which was one of a few deviations from the new specially tarred surface. From Saint Calais the cars headed north to La Ferte-Bernard before heading back towards Montfort. Fencing to separate the public from the roads was erected, along with a number of bridges where the public could cross the track.

Felice Nazzaro – A frontrunner who went on to win the 1907 French Grand Prix

The race was to be run over 12 laps, across two days. But it wasn’t deemed as being a satisfactory set of circumstances for all. Notably for the British manufacturers. They didn’t trust the French and considered the race to be tilted in their favour. The Americans also were noticeable by their absence. Italy provided two teams and Germany one. It already appeared that the Tricolore was to be the flag of choice at the end of the competition.

On the 25th of June 1906 the competitors went through what would now be considered as scrutineering the day before the race. The tented paddock adjacent to a newly constructed 2,000 person grandstand was a testament to the interest that these new machines were stirring in public circles. Huts and tents sprouted around the course as people travelled from afar to witness, and gamble on, this emerging pastime of a developing industrial society. To the spectators it was obviously an awe inspiring vista, an incredulous display of what man and machine could achieve. Something that has not changed in the intervening years when you observe people attending their first motor races even in the present day.

The national pride was evident, and the media of the day were glad to fan the flames of propaganda. The French press championed their own cause in what they saw as being a patriotic display, a public service to the nation with its proclamations of French automotive superiority. It was a game that insulted the international contingent involved. The British press were also quite happy to attach blatant jingoistic bigoted sentiments to their copy. The Motorworld magazine report of the race went with the headline ‘HOW FRANCE WON ITS OWN FRAME UP – THE GRAND PRIX.’ The article said: “The Frenchmen did not relish that sort of sport. They believe in 100 to 1 chances with the 100 in favour of France.” It further went on to claim: “It was framed up so that France could scarcely fail to win,” and finally in closing: “Upholding the glory of French manufacturers and some other rot.” It’s not what you’d expect in a specialist press magazine today, however these kind of opinions in this day and age would almost guarantee employment as an F1 correspondent for one of the big European tabloids.

The newly tarred roads weren’t kind to driver or machine over the two days of competition.

Race day dawned with a fog that had crept in from the east overnight, it burned away sharply before the beginning of the days proceedings at 6am. The two days of running were eventually to become the two hottest days of the decade in the Sarthe region, and the heat was to play hell with the competitors throughout. The cars were to time trial the course starting at 90 second intervals. Gabrial stalled his Dietrich while Vincenzo Lancia (who would found Lancia Automiblies later that same year) got away cleanly with his riding mechanic in their Fiat. Ferenc Szisz was next away in his Renault. It took 50 minutes to get all the cars away which kept a constant flow around the track as the faster machines were lapping the circuit in 52 minutes.

A chalk covered blackboard beside the start/finish line was updated on a lap by lap basis to allow the public, and the throng of bookmakers, to keep up with the positions on track. Sponsorship was also heavily evident as a feature of day, especially from the three tyre manufacturers providing rubber for the race. While Continental and Dunlop signs were evident, Michelin seized the opportunity to emblazon their name anywhere they could. It was a PR success aided by the fact that their quick change tyres and rims were to play a significant part in the outcome of the race. Typically, suits, hats, well trimmed beards, bonnets and full length dresses were the choice of styling for the day. For the crowds it uncomfortable and restricting as the temperature reached 49 degrees centigrade. Vendors had an incredibly profitable time providing refreshments. Their success led to the problem of litter, added to which was struggling public sanitation facilities that blighted the event as an unpleasant odour swept over the area where the grandstands and parc ferme were situated.

On track the competition was playing out fiercely and intensely. Top speeds of 96mph were achieved. The drivers were fearless, they were more than happy to slide and drift the cars through the sharp hairpins that made up the three far reaches of the circuit. The ethos of a light chassis and large engine was evident in all of the cars, but the spectacular roll angles reached by the Mercedes’ of Florio, Mariaux and Jenatzy in their 14.5 litre behemoths defied all conventions of known physics at the time! As the clouds of dust and melted tar rained into the faces of the drivers and mechanics, inhibiting their views and causing no end of discomfort, they pushed on and on for hours on end over the first day.

The scoreboard was essential reading for the bookmakers

Szisz topped the timesheet as the cars returned after their six laps to be taken to a locked enclosure. Overnight the ACF would patrol the parc ferme to ensure that no team member would gain access to any of the machines. It was a tradition that returned to Formula One in the early 2000s which, in both cases, meant that they could pick up where they left off on the following day.

The standings after 6 laps looked like this:

  1. Szisz – Renault, 5hrs 45mins 30secs
  2. Clement – Clement-Bayard, 6hrs 11mins 40secs
  3. Nazarro – Fiat, 6hrs 26mins 53secs
  4. Shepard – Hotchkis, 6hrs 30mins 45secs

In last (17th) place Rougier had completed the course in his Dietrich in 8hrs 16mins 35secs.

On the second day of the event the cars were towed to the start line by horse. For Szisz a 5.45am start would ensue in relation to his finishing time the previous day. Clement would restart at 6.11am, Nazarro at 6.26am and so on.

Szisz and Clement both went from the startline to the pits to work on their machines to prepare them for the action while the clock was running. Tyre changes and lubricant top ups were the order of the day. Not so for the flamboyant Nazarro. The Fiat driver stalled at the start which meant that his riding mechanic had to quickly refire the engine to get the car running once again. Caught up in the bravado of the moment Nazarro hit the hammer down and flew off. The erstwhile mechanic clinged haplessly onto the large bonnet of the 135hp car and had to carefully manoeuvre himself back into his position as Nazarro accelerated up to 80mph.

Szisz dominated the second session in much the same way as he had dominated the first. Despite a suspension failure he nursed the car over the final laps to claim a victory that has gone down in history as the very first international Grand Prix race win. Nazarro and Celment had a different type of day altogether.

Szisz changing a wheel

A stoic display from Nazarro was to capture the imagination of those in attendance even if Szisz was the name to matter most in history books. The Italian spent the race focussing on catching Clement ahead of him in the Clement-Bayard. Pushing the Fiat to the limits Nazarro whittled away at the 15 minute deficit he had to the Frenchman. At the end of the 11th lap, with one lap remaining Clement pulled into the pits for servicing, a few minutes later Nazarro also pulled up to service and repair his car. Both of the drivers, and their riding mechanics, were frantic in their attempts to fettle their machines for one more lap of the circuit. Clement was first to depart for the final lap but Nazarro was only a matter of seconds longer. The last lap was an all out race between the two with the advantage going to Nazarro who managed to complete the final lap quicker than Clement.

In the final standings Ferenc Szisz was comprehensively ahead, finishing the race in 12 hours 14 minutes and 14 seconds. This was 32 minutes quicker than Nazarro who in turn had completed the second day 18 minutes quicker than Clement to top him in the standings by 3 minutes.

The standings after 6 laps looked like this:

  1.  Szisz, Renault, 12hrs 14mins 14secs
  2.  Nazarro, Fiat, +32:19.4
  3.  Clement, Clement-Bayard, +35:39.2
  4.  Barillier, Brasier, +1:38:53.0
  5.  Lancia, Fiat, +2:08:04.0
  6.  Heath, Panhard, +2:33:38.4
  7.  Baras, Brasier, +3:01:43.0
  8.  Duray, Lorraine-Dietrich, +3:11:54.6
  9.  Pierry, Brasier. +4:01:00.6
  10. Jenatzy/Burton, Mercedes, +4:04:35.8
  11. Mariaux, Mercedes, +4:34:44.4

Szisz and his riding mechanic Marteau were now an integral piece of motoring history. A marker for the very first Grand Prix win and an unmovable point in time from where the sport can always measure itself from. He is credited as having started four Grands Prix, all French, with a record of one win and one second place.

The very first Grand Prix podium

Felice Nazarro won the French Grand Prix in 1907 along with the German equivalent the Kaiserpreis and the Italian Targa Florio. A second Targa was won in 1913 and a second French GP in 1922.

Albert Clement had shown talent in his first year of racing in 1904 with a win and two podiums from the four races he entered driving for his fathers company. 1905 was hampered by reliability problems. 1906 witnessed his podium at the French GP and moderate success elsewhere. Aged 28 Clement was killed in practice for the second running of the French Grand Prix. The sport had lost one of its first potential superstars.

Of course, in the aftermath of the race the apathy continued in motoring magazines, the emerging sport was in a state of flux as different manufacturers and international concerns tried their damnedest to influence the direction the sport was heading. Their was no nod towards nurturing competition, it was a case of everybody wanting their piece of the pie to be larger than those sitting with them at the table. In this respect it truly was the start of Grand Prix racing. In the latter respect nothing has changed in the slightest.

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