|It was won by Georges Bouton of the De Dion-Bouton Company, in a car he had constructed with Albert, the Comte de Dion, but as he was the only competitor to show up it is rather difficult to call it a race.The French were at the forefront of early motor racing, their long straight Routes Nationale being ideally suited for the purpose. The first official Trial was held in 1894, between Paris and Rouen and the following year the first proper race took place from Paris to Bordeaux and back.Those early vehicles, such as the Panhard & Levassors and Peugeots were crude by modern comparison, yet to the spectators of the time would have seemed marvels of the age. Held on public roads, designed more for horse-drawn carriages than for cars, the roads were rough, potholed and unlit. That Paris to Rouen Trial of 1894 was run over a distance of 78.75 miles (126.7 kilometres) the winner averaging 11.5 mph (18.5 kph), the best performing vehicle being a De Dion steamer (really a tractor, capable of carrying six people). Of the finishers, 13 were petrol cars and 8 were steam driven. The cars ran on either solid rubber tyres, or steel wire spoked wheels and most had direct steering (usually by means of a tiller).
The important cars at the time were the Peugeots which had large upright Panhard & Levassor engines with crude ‘hot tube’ ignition systems and used surface carburettors. Transmission was by side chains, driven though an unenclosed gear chest.
The first proper race Paris – Bordeaux – Paris, held in 1895 was over 1062.5 miles (1710 kilometres) which was won at an average speed of 14.5 mph (23 kph) by Émile Levassor in a Panhard & Levassor, which had a top speed of 18.5 mph (almost 30 kph) in 48 hours and 48 minutes, nearly six hours before the runner-up. However as the race was officially for four-seater cars (both Levassor and the runner-up were driving two-seater cars) the official winner was declared as Paul Koechlin, who arrived third in his Peugeot, exactly 11 hours behind Levassor.
From as early as 1898 different classifications were introduced, to differentiate between motor cycles and different sized cars. Motor cycles were classified as those up to 100 kgm and those over but no more than 200 kgm. Cars were classified as those between 200 – 400 kgm and for vehicles over 400 kgm. Those early engines were very basic, they would run at constant speed, the only means of control was by cutting the ignition. In the early days the only means of getting more power was to build ever bigger engines, for instance the monstrous 18,279 cc Panhard & Levassor of 1903. In order to come within the weight limit, this huge engine was mounted in a wooden chassis!
Suspension was initially what had previously been used on horse-drawn carriages – leaf springs. Brakes were extremely primitive, usually consisting of a combination of a ‘spoon’ on the rear tyres and a contracting band on a drum on the transmission. Hardly surprising that on pot-holed dusty roads these vehicles were a handful, with their direct steering, inadequate brakes and poor lighting (at such great distances, events would often run into the evenings, and there were no street lamps on these open roads). No wonder there were plenty of accidents. In 1903 the Paris – Madrid race was stopped at Bordeaux by the Government, due to the many accidents that had occurred during the event. This led to future events being held on closed public roads. These were triangular circuits, each leg being many miles long on essentially straight roads. But it was the start of racing as opposed to trials, or rallies which continued to use open public roads.
As time went by the cars became more ‘sophisticated’, with ever larger more powerful engines, improved suspension, tyres (the pneumatic tyre had been in existence from the early days – 1845, but initially manufacturers favoured the more reliable solid rubber tyres). Gear cases became enclosed to improve reliability and drive shafts took over from the side chain drive used previously.
Gordon Bennett (who is considered to be the first international playboy) was an American publisher and editor-in-chief of the “New York Herald”. He sponsored the Bennett Trophy in motor racing from 1900 to 1905. One of the rules was that the winning car’s country of origin was to be the venue for the next race one year later. The first two races were won by French machinery but in 1903 Camille Jenatzy clinched victory at the wheel of a 60 hp Mercedes in 1903 bringing the race to Germany. After the success of these races, Grand Prix (literally meaning ‘Big Prize’) racing came into being, a ‘formula’ was devised to ensure cars were pitted on roughly equal terms, the evolution of which extends to this day in Formula 1, although heavily revised to reflect the advance in technology. The modern Formula One World Championship started in 1950, these races continue to be called Grands Prix (Grand Prix; singular).
By the 1908 French Grand Prix speeds had increased to over 100 mph (160 Kph). Initially French cars were at the forefront with such makes as Panhard & Levassor, Peugeot, De Dietrich, De Dion – Bouton and the Mors (later to become Citroen). Manufacturers from other countries soon took on the might of the French, notably the Coventry Daimler, which was the first British car to compete on the Continent (gaining third in the Tourist Class of the 1899 Paris – Ostend race) and the mighty Daimler Mercedes team from Germany, with the which came 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the 1914 French Grand Prix.
The first purpose built closed racing circuit was opened in 1907 at Brooklands, in England. This banked circuit gave the spectators the advantage of being able to see the cars go past more than once and that they could see much of the track action from one vantage point. The Americans were soon to follow suit with their banked ovals, many being of wooden construction. although not all – the most notable being the Indianapolis Speedway which was created to provide local manufacturers with a suitable platform on which to test and show off their cars, thus a quality solid road surface much like that used today was laid in a rectangular oval, allowing spectators to see much more of the action than was possible on a linear track, as was still the case in Europe with it’s town to town races.