Formula One’s Grand Prix history (briefly known previously as Formula A), Grand Prix History can trace its roots back to the earliest days of motor racing, with the first Grand Prix’s being held from 1906 and its emergence from the up-beat European racing scene in-between WW1 and WW2.
In History 1906 was to be the year of the first Grand Prix. This was a two day event covering 12 laps of a 65 mile triangular course near Le Mans in the sparsely populated Sarthe region (departement). To avoid having to slow down through towns, a temporary wooden road was laid past the village of St Calais along which the drivers could speed at 90mph. In place of the old nation versus nation scenario, this was a maker versus maker race, a 1000kg limit was retained as a part of the emerging rules of racing and only the driver and the mechanic were allowed to make repairs. Detachable wheels were disallowed so damaged tyres had to be slashed off and depots were set up close to the spectator stands so that all could view the crews fetching oil, fuel and water for engines that had up to an 18 liter capacity. This the first grand prix was run over 770 miles. At the last minute it was decided the race would be run in an anti-clockwise direction in grand old roman style. It was won by Ferenc Szisz in a 13 liter Renault in blazing heat with an average speed of 63mph.
Brooklands was opened in 1907 as a response to the ban on road racing in Britain and the 20 mph speed limit. Brooklands was a purpose built course constructed on swampy forest grounds outside Weybridge. It took 700 men, 9 months to construct and cost 150,000 pounds. It was laid out on the model of a horse racing track and with horse racing rules put in place. It was a 2.75 mile course and had a 30 meter wide banked track that reached 8 meters in height. Brooklands was more of a speed track than an endurance track. In 1907 Captain
Edge set out to break the 24-hour distance record at Brooklands. Medical opinion was divided and betting as to whether he would have a heart attack or go mad in the attempt. Edge ringed the course with lanterns and clocked up 1,581 miles. A French equivalent of Brooklands were roads like Arpajon near Paris, where a stretch of dirt highway was wet down to test cars at speeds of well over 100 mph.
The 1907 Grand Prix was run outside of Dieppe in France, it was run over the period of a day, the circuit was 47 miles long and was 10 laps long. Speeds of over 100 mph were seen here. It was won by Fiat.
In 1908 the Grand Prix was again run over the Dieppe course. The depots were put in front of the pits and sunk into the ground so as not to disturb anybody’s views. Mercedes won. Fed up by being outclassed by foreigners, 17 companies decided to abandon Grand Prix racing in a boycott that lasted until 1911.
By 1911 the US had developed the Indianapolis circuit where 300,000 people watched the first 200 lap race.
Grand Prix racing resumed in 1912, the year which marked the coming of the age of the petrol motor and the production of the first completely modern engine. This engine was the creation of Ernest Henry a Swiss engineer working for Peugeot. Henry devised the first multi-valve engine with four per cylinder. Enlarged from three cylinder to seven for racing in Grand Prix’s, Henry won the 1912 French Grand Prix, beating monsters nearly twice their size. Henry was so far ahead of the game that it would be 1983 before standard production cars such as corolla and civic caught up
Henry being more pre occupied with reliability rather than speed and probably never realised just how good his engine was, other manufacturers caught on quickly and the three liter, fast revving Sunbeams managed to finish third, fourth and fifth overall. Fiat developed a new push rod system and the Hispano Suiza developed the supercharger which pushed more air into the engine. At the same time the American Cadillac developed the electric starter motor which eliminated the need for a car to be started by two people.
With a continued trend to shorter circuits and increased laps the 1913 Grand Prix took place near Amiens with a 29 lap and 19 mile circuit. The race was run clockwise, with the stands being on the outside and the pits on the inside which were serviced by a loop road and tunnel for safety of access. As the racing formula became more complex, cars now had to comply with a fuel limit and a maximum weight of 800 kilos. Henrys engines won at both Amiens and Indianapolis and were back in the following years boasting streamlining and four wheel brake systems.
In the last year of racing pre WW1 the Grand Prix moved to Lyon, where the circuit boasted Le Piege de la Mort (the death trap). The latest rules were an engine size limit of 4,5 liters. Mercedes used a simplified, faster revving version of Henrys car which was supercharged to reach 116 mph. Mercedes also introduced team tactics into the sport, sacrificing a car to wear down George Boillots Peugeot.
The effects of WW1 on European motor manufacturers were a huge expansion in production capacity as well as improvements in metallurgy and design as rival engineers such as Mercedes and Rolls-Royce developed lighter, faster revving, supercharged, multi cylinder engines for use in planes. For the USA the 1914-1918 war had been the 1917-1918 war, and while the French, British and Germans were fighting, American motorsport had developed in its own way, they developed a 3–cubic inch capacity formula and improved on the French designed cars which had won the 1914 Indy 500.
The first post-war race, the 1919 Targa Florio was typically demanding and was won by George Baillots brother Andre, who cried, “cest pour le France” and collapsed after the rigors of the race in which he had shot off the wolf infested, rutted mountain tracks at least six times.
Normal Grand Prix racing resumed in 1921 with a three liter maximum capacity and an 800 kilogram minimum weight. This era was dominated by the US Dusenbergs and their “straight eight” engines. They triumphed is a series of European races including the Big one, The Le Mans Grand Prix. (the 24 hour race did not start until 1923).
Plans for a Formula One drivers’ championship were discussed in the late 1930s but were shelved again with the beginning of World War 2.
The WW2 ended on the 15th August 1945 and motor racing returned the following month with a Coupe des Prisonniers held in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. with much of Europe in ruins motor racing was not a high priority. Most cars had not raced in years. Two years later there were still only four Grand Prix, the Swiss, Belgian, Italian and the French, but by this time the FIA had re adopted the 1941 planned formula; 4,5 liters maximum or 1,5 liters supercharged. This formula was intended to encourage as many cars to take to the track as possible, big or small.
While the supercharged Alfas dominated Europe the Argentinians, not as affected by the WW had specialised in its own epic race of a thousand miles called the turismo carretaria. The greatest popular star in these grueling races was 1940 champion Juan Fangio, legendary for his cool head. In 1948 the Argentinian government backed Fangio to compete in Europe in which Fangios own co-driver died in a crash. The following year armed with a Maserati, Fangio took on and won in front of 300.000 fans .
In Europe, the huge new motor racing presence was Ferrari, who had begun making its own cars after Alfa shifted to voiturette racing in 1938.
Enzo Ferraris team made their first car in 1940, but were banned from using his name, so the 8 cylinder 1,500cc motor was called the Tipo 815. Three years later they moved their production to Maranello near Ferraris hometown of Modena, this site was bombed the following year. By 1947 a 1,5 liter V12 Ferrari had appeared. Followed the following year by a supercharged version. 1948 is the year which also marked the year in which Michelin introduced radial tyres and Dunlop created the new lighter tubeless tyres.
In 1947 the decision was made to launch the drivers’ championship. It took until 1950 for the details to be hammered out and in May 1950 the first world championship race was held at Silverstone – in England, where concrete filled oil cans where decked with flowers. The result was a one-two-three victory for the gas guzzling 1,5 miles per gallon Alfas.
The first F1 race had taken place a month earlier in Pau.
Only seven of the twenty odd Formula One races that season counted towards the title but the championship was up and running.