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The First Grand Prix – History of the 1906 French GP

By Art Evans
The series we now know as Formula One traces its roots back to 1906. Before the term, Formula One, was coined in 1950, essentially the same sequence of events were called the Grand Prix Series. But those words became bandied about so much that different ones were needed to describe the contest for the World Driving Championship. Nevertheless, each country’s race is still called a Grand Prix.
The very first Grand Prix took place on June 26 and 27, 1906. The venue was public roads in the vicinity of Le Mans, France near the Sarthe River, so it became known as the Sarthe Circuit. Previously, the only series that could be called international was the Gordon Bennett, established by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald. (I touched on the Gordon Bennett in my July history column). Entrants came from a number of European countries that had national teams. Each country could enter only three cars and they had to be made in that country. There were no mechanical or physical limitations placed on the cars.
At that time, France had quite a number of car makers and they objected to being allowed only three entries from each country. To top it off, the Germans got six because Mercedes had an additional factory in Austria. The new series—Grand Prix—had no such requirement. The cars, however, had to adhere to a formula. At the 1906, the cars couldn’t weigh more than 1,000 kilograms. Other than that, there were no other limitations.
Course map of the first Grand PrixThis first Grand Prix was organized by the Automobile Club of France (ACF) at the urging of French automakers. The city fathers of Le Mans and local hotels provided the necessary funding and persuaded the ACF to hold the race near the city. The course was laid out by the Automobile Club de la Sarthe over 64.11 miles of local roads. The route was roughly triangular with each leg approximately 20 miles long. Sharp corners were at the apexes of the triangle.
The route ran just outside the village of Montfort towards Le Mans, but made a sharp turn before reaching it. Next it ran through Bouloire to Saint-Calais where it turned to Vibraye and on to La Ferté-Bernard and back towards Le Mans. When the route would have gone through some of the villages, temporary bypasses were constructed of wood planks. Some 40 miles of fencing was built at various points where spectators were expected to gather.
The start-finish line was near Montfort where a grandstand that could accommodate some 2,000 spectators was built. The event was conducted over two days. Entrants did six laps each day covering a total distance of 769.36 miles. The road surface was the usual dirt of the time, so tar was applied to the entire length. Unfortunately, hot weather melted the tar and caused it to adhere to tires.
The race was not only between drivers, but also automakers. Cars were entered by Renault, FIAT, Panhard and Mercedes plus ten other manufacturers no longer in business. There were a total of 34 entries, but two failed to make the start. Twenty-three French, six Italian and three German cars started, one at a time, set off at 90-second intervals.

1906 French Grand Prix weigh in
This is the scene of the weighing-in (or pessage) that took place at the Bastogne railroad station. The only vehicle limitation (or formula) was a maximum weight of 1,000 kilograms or 2,205 pounds. The weighing-in excluded tools, upholstery, wings, lights and other light fittings. Those cars with a magneto were allowed an extra 15 pounds.

Wooden passerelles at 1906 French Grand Prix
Wooden passerelles or bypasses were intended to keep the cars from passing through the larger villages, this one at Ste Calais. The intent was to avoid the many spectator injuries experienced in previous events.

The First Grand Prix – History of the 1906 French GP Continued

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The roads that made up the course were closed at 5 a.m. the morning of June 25, 1906 with the race scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. Fernand Gabriel in a Lorraine-Dietrich was supposed to start first. But his engine stalled and he wasn’t able to re-start before it was time for Vincenzo Lancia in a FIAT to get going. The last of the 32—De la Touloubre in a Clément-Bayard—left at 6:49:30 a.m.
At the end of the first lap, Lancia’s FIAT led with a time of 53 minutes, 42 seconds. At the end of the second lap, Paul Baras’ in a Brasier was in front. But by the end of the third lap, Ferenc Szisz in a Renault took over the lead, which he never relinquished. Baras in the Brasier set the fastest lap with a time of 52 minutes, 25.4 seconds. Many of the cars achieved almost 100 mph. After six laps and 372 miles, racing stopped and re-started the following day for the concluding six laps.
Ferenc Szisz held onto the lead after the second day, finishing 32 minutes ahead of Felics Nazzaro’s FIAT with Albert Clément coming third in an additional three minutes in his Clément-Bayard. Two of the three Mercedes finished, but, much to the disappointment of Germany, some four hours behind the winning Renault.
Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz won the 1906 French Grand Prix in a Renault
Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz won the race in a Renault. Two other Renaults driven by French drivers failed to finish due to accidents.

1906 French Grand Prix - Georges Teste Panhard
Georges Teste of France had an accident in a Panhard and failed to finish. Board fencing was erected where the course went through towns and villages in order to keep spectators safe.

De la Touloubre in a Clement-Bayard - 1906 French Grand Prix
Frenchman De la Touloubre in a Clement-Bayard failed to finish when his gearbox broke. The wooden-road in the background was built to bypass Ste Calais.

George Heath Panhard 1906 French Grand Prix
One of only two Americans in the race was George Heath who drove a Panhard to sixth place.

Elliott Shepard Hotchkiss 1906 French Grand Prix
The second American driver in the race was Elliott Shepard who drove a Hotchkiss. He did not finish due to the failure of a wheel.

Renault driver Ferenc Szisz winner of the 1906 Grand Prix
Renault driver Ferenc Szisz, the winner of the 1906 Grand Prix, leads the Hotchkiss of Elliott Shepard

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Winner Szisz was born in Hungary, but moved to Paris in 1900 where he worked for Renault as head of testing. George Heath was the only American driver. He finished sixth in a Panhard, more than two hours behind the winner. The only injury due to a crash was sustained by J. Edmond in a Renault. There were five additional accidents while 15 retired due to mechanical troubles; most commonly due to wheel failures.
Virtually all of the contestants had tire problems. Much of Szisz’ victory was due to the fact that Michelin had supplied his Renault with detachable rims which allowed him to change in under three minutes. Changing took the others around 15 minutes.
Ferenc Szisz crosses the finish line at the end of the 1906 French Grand Prix
Ferenc Szisz crosses the finish line at the end of the race

1906 French Grand Prix winning Renault of Ferenc Szisz picture
The winning Renault completed 12 laps in a time of 12 hours, 14 minutes and 7.4 seconds. It was more than 32 minutes ahead of the second- place FIAT.

Victory ceremony 1906 French Grand Prix picture
Victory ceremony at the 1906 French Grand Prix

It’s interesting to note that gambling at this event was similar to that at horse races. Bookmakers had stands near the start-finish line. The odds that Szisz would win were set at 200 to 1, longer than that placed on any other entrant. Few other than fellow Hungarians bet on Szisz. Odds on Lancia winning were 10 to 1. He ended up in fifth, more than two hours behind Szisz.
One of the intents of the French in staging the race was to prove the superiority of French motorcars. It did indeed result in increased sales for Renault. The company sold about twice as many cars in 1907 as it had in 1906. But the fact that only seven of the 23 made-in-France cars were able to finish didn’t speak that well for their reliability.
Another notable event in 1906 was the very first Targa Florio. It was organized by a wealthy Sicilian, Vincenzo Floria. The course was over almost 100 miles of public roads on the island of Sicily. The race consisted of three laps.
The following year, the second Grand Prix took place in Germany plus there was a second French Grand Prix as well. With time outs for the two world wars, the Grand Prix series, or Formula One as it came to be called, have continued to this day. But the first one took place nearly Le Mans in 1906.
That first Grand Prix started the tradition of racing near Le Mans that has continued to this day with the famed 24-Hours of Le Mans, held on a much shorter 8.5 mile course. Another tradition, that of automobile manufacturers competing against one another, also began in 1906.

[Source: Art Evans]