In Retro: A very brief history of motorsport and the birth of Formula 1

Giuseppe Farinadrives his Alfa Romeo 158 to victory in the 1950 British GP - the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 world championship

Giuseppe Farina drives his Alfa Romeo 158 to victory in the 1950 British GP – the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship

As the legend goes, automotive racing began the first time two gentlemen rolled up aside each other at an intersection. One looked over to the other. He gripped the steering wheel and blipped his throttle. The other nodded in silent agreement. In mere moments, their horseless carriages were neck and neck, approaching a breakneck speed of around twelve miles per hour.

The actual history of organized motorsport, however, is more definite. On June 13, 1895, a group of French journalists and automotive industry leaders organized a race from Paris to Bordeaux and back. Judged on a range of criteria beyond just the finishing order, Emile Levassor, driving a vehicle co-designed with his partner Rene Panhard, came first. He was quickly disqualified on a technicality—which goes to show that regulation disputes have been a part of the sport since its inception.

In these early days of the sport, races ran from city to city on public roads. The events were as much about conquering the course as they were about racing the blokes around you. Before long, clubs of likeminded gear-heads sprang up.

Léon Théry, the winner of the 1904 and 1905 Gordon Bennett races, in his 1904 Richard-Brasier

Léon Théry was winner of the 1904 and 1905 Gordon Bennett races, in his 1904 Richard-Brasier

These clubs grew with the increasing popularity of the automobile. In 1904, from these growing clubs came the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), founded in Paris. The first French Grand Prix originated from the Gordon Bennett races, established by American millionaire James Gordon Bennett, Jr. in 1900, and thus the grand prix was born.

Early grands prix were a far cry from the sprint races we know today. The 1904 French Grand Prix, for example, was a two-day, 800-mile affair.

The 1906 Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, commonly known as the 1906 French Grand Prix, was a motor race held on 26 and 27 June 1906, on closed public roads outside the city of Le Mans.

In time, the more prestigious grands prix came to be known as grandes epreuves. Over the next thirty years, with the exception of the World War One years, motorsport left its novelty status behind. The public came to accept the quest to be the quickest as a worthy spectacle.

Mercedes-Benz W 125 was the core of the legendary pre-WWII Silver Arrows

Mercedes-Benz W 125 was the core of the legendary pre-WWII Silver Arrows

Whether internal or external, politics have always exerted a heavy influence of organized motorsport. In the 1930’s, German nationalism exerted a heavy hand on grand prix racing. During one of the darkest, but most technically prolific periods of racing, the Nazi party threw massive national resources behind Auto Union.

The sport, previously dominated by amateurs and gentleman racers, watched in awe as the Germans ushered in unprecedented precision. Their technical dominance extended beyond the design of the cars, to nearly every aspect of racing including the structure of the team and even pit stops. They were untouchable.

With the onset of the Second World War, organized motorsport went on hold as the allied powers drafted the able-bodied to fight for what was right and just in our modern world. However, just as boys will be boys and men will be men, a few of us will always feel the pull of speed. And so it was following World War II.

The early years of Formula 1

The early years of Formula 1

From those who learned how to swing spanners to fix ships, as my grandfather did, to those who had designed airplanes, there was a glut of mechanical and engineering talent around the developed world. A fraction of this talent breathed new life into the by then somewhat forgotten art of the grand prix car.

Structural developments to the sport also took place. The old AIACR reorganized itself as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). In 1946 and 1947, the newly organized FIA began to standardize entry regulations. Each set of regulations was characterized as a ‘formula’.

At the summit, of course, was Formula One. For 1950, the FIA instituted a points system, which linked together the most important Grands Prix into a World Championship. On 13 May, 1950, at Silverstone Circuit, the Formula 1 World Championship – which has persevered until today and will continue for the foreseeable future – was up and running. (Travis Turner – GP Evolved)

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