Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Grand Anniversary: The First Auto Racing Grand Prix Held 110 Years Ago

Photo Credit: Groupe Renault/Renault Communication

Transpiring 44 years prior to the formation of the Formula 1 sanctioning body that would collect international grand prix racing under a single organization, the groundwork of the first French Grand Prix proved pivotal for establishing open wheel motorsports. On June 26th and 27th of 1906, the cornerstone to modern motor racing was set within France's Le Mans region, a familiar epicentre of motorsport history for 24 hour endurance events, the first recognized auto racing event under the 'Grand Prix' moniker (translating to mean "Great Prize" in English) was held.

The Grand Prix race structure was conceived by the ACF (Automobile Club de France) as an alternative to a earlier motorsport contests held under from 1900 to 1905 sanctioned by millionaire James Gordon Bennett Jr once a year in Europe. Gordon Bennett Cup races functioned events where drivers and car makes competed under the banner of nations (popularizing the racing colors such as British Racing Green). One of the original intents for the ACF Grand Prix setup was to overcome a limit the Gordon Bennett Cup placed on entries permitted by countries. An era where automakers were abundant in France, Germany and Great Britain, the restriction of three entries per country through much of the running of those events choked off small auto companies from larger producing nations. However, with the creation of the new Grand Prix, there was criticism by other countries that the ACF attempted to provide an advantage to French automakers. Citing the race as propaganda, British entries boycotted the race.

In this first grand prix for auto racing, the great prize being fought for was 45,000 French Francs for the winning team (The inflation-adjusted value for 2016 of that financial prize is difficult to precisely estimate but calculation could arrive at roughly $550,000). Contended on a course running along farmlands and forest area, 32 cars started the inaugural race with vehicles from Mercedes, Fiat, Darracq, Panhard and Renault featured in the field.

Though the first French Grand Prix was significant for innovating the foundation of modern Formula 1, some aspects did not conform to the modern consensus to motor racing grand prix events. The actual race took place over a two-day period. The course itself was well beyond the distance of current Formula 1 races. A 103.18-kilometer track was a massive test where competitors drove for six laps per day. Working contrary to weight optimization found in today's auto racing, there was a maximum weight set for competitors. At the time when one entrant of the race ran an 18.3 liter engine resulting in some vehicles barely making the 1,000 kilogram maximum weight.

Interesting enough, one rule existing for the first Grand Prix has recently been reapplied to current Formula 1 racing. A fuel consumption limit existed for the 1906 Grand Prix race cars requiring engines to burn no more than 30 liters per 100 kilometer. With the rollout of new Formula 1 power unit regulations in 2014, teams have been restricted to 100 kilograms (100 liters) of fuel per fuel.    

After two days and 12 laps, Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz won the race driving a 90-horsepower Renault Type AK race car. At the time a young French company, Renault greatly benefited from the publicity of winning the major event. As Renault flourish into a major international brand initialised by the French Grand Prix win, the company's commitment to motorsport remained paramount.

The first Grand Prix in Le Mans, France was successful effort to launch other similar events across the world. After being held 86 times including every year except for 1955 on the Formula 1 series calendar, the French Grand Prix has not been run since 2008. Last held at Magny-Cours circuit, Felipe Massa driving a Ferrari won the final event on June 22nd of 2008.

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