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OTD in Formula 1 history – The first ever Grand Prix

June 26, 2019

On the 26th of June 1906 32 cars set off on a race around closed public roads in Le Mans, France for what was to be the first ever Grand Prix.

Long before the Formula 1 World Championship was conceived the 64 (sixty four!) mile circuit took around an hour to complete, and the race was scheduled for twelve laps.

The course began in Le Mans and headed north-east to La Ferte Bernard, where it turned south to Saint-Calais via Vibraye and then west back to the start-finish.

The primary aim of the Grand Prix was to let the world know that the French automotive industry was the greatest in the world, and the field was comprised of thirteen teams; ten of the manufacturers being French with Renault among them, two from Italy including FIAT, and Mercedes of Germany.

After the drawing of lots to decide starting order, cars set off at ninety second intervals beginning at 6am on the 26th.

‘Pole-sitter’ Fernand Gabriel driving a French Lorraine-Dietrich stalled on the line and was replaced as first man away by Vincenzo Lancia (who would later found Lancia) in a FIAT, followed by Gabriel and thirty other drivers.

Philippe Tavenaux’s Gregoire refused to start and he was joined as a non-starter by fellow Frenchman Marius Barriaux whose Vulpes car was discovered to be overweight.

Paul Baras driving a Brasier set the early pace in the opening laps before Ferenc Szisz, a Hungarian living in France took over the lead of the race.

Many drivers encountered problems with tar from the road surface melting in the heat of the French sun being flicked into their faces from the car in front.

Renault’s J Edmond found his goggles broke allowing tar to seep into his eyes rendering him partially blind.

He pitted for a new pair only to be told, to his dismay, that no equipment was allowed to be replaced and that he’d have to either pull out or continue with his limited vision.

He opted to continue but was forced to retire injured two laps later.

Szisz maintained his lead until the end of lap six when the race was paused for the day, to be resumed the following day when the remaining six laps would be completed.

When the race resumed, Szisz’s Renault suffered broken suspension but his lead was such (he was over half an hour ahead of second place Felice Nazzaro and so he could afford to slow his pace and maintain his lead.

When Szisz took the black flag that signalled he’d won the race he’d been driving for over twelve hours over the course of the two days.

His top speed was 96mph – the best of the race, and the fastest lap of the race – 53 minutes and 16 seconds – was set by retiree Henri Rougier.

Only eleven of the 32 starters finished the race, with eleventh place “Mariaux” driving a Mercedes coming home over four hours behind winner Szisz.

Renault’s success in the Grand Prix tripled the manufacturer’s annual sales in the following two years, but the aim of demonstrating the French manufacturers’ might fell short somewhat with FIAT taking second and fifth and only a third of the French cars that started the race making it to the finish.

Despite criticism that the race was too long, and the 90 second gaps between cars setting off meant that there was very little on-track passing, a second race was scheduled for the following year, and as such made the race the first annual race to be called a ‘Grand Prix’.


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