Motor racing

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Motor racing refers specifically to racing by means of motor cars aka automobiles. The term is also used generically as a synonym of "motorsport" in the sense of all sports in which motorised vehicles are used for racing. Hence, motorsport extends to motorcycle racing, truck racing, air racing, speedboat racing and others.

Types of racing

The principal form of motor racing (known as "autoracing" in North America) is Formula One, which encompasses Grand Prix racing for world championships in the driver and constructor categories. Although both the USA and Canada stage Formula One Grand Prix races, North America has a prestigious similar concept in its National Championship, which is colloquially known as the IndyCar Series. There are lower levels of "formula" racing such as F2, F3 and numerous "one make" formulae such as Formula Ford. The essential factor in formula and IndyCar racing is the use of a single-seater, open-wheel car on a closed circuit. Open-wheel means the wheels are uncovered. Additionally, the cars normally have aerofoil wings to assist dynamics and produce what is called "downforce", which enhances road handling.

Stock car racing is hugely popular in North America where the main organisation is NASCAR. Its most prestigious competition is the Sprint Cup Series, including famous races such as the Daytona 500. Stock car racing is done on closed circuits but, unlike formula racing, the tracks are invariably oval-shaped. Stock cars resemble production models but have been technically adapted for racing purposes.

Rallying involves cars that can be used legally on public roads and so formula and stock car types are excluded. Rallies are point-to-point races (i.e., not on a closed circuit) held on closed public roads or "off-road" areas. The most prestigious competition is the World Rally Championship (WRC) and there are a number of significant individual events, most famously the Monte Carlo Rally.

Sports car racing uses production versions of sports cars operating on closed circuits similar to those used for formula cars. These races are often held over very long distances (i.e., more than 500 miles) and the cars tend to be co-driven with changes of driver every few hours. The most famous event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in which the goal is to cover the longest distance in a period of 24 hours. Not far removed from sports car racing are touring car racing and production car racing which are run over shorter distances using cars based on normal production models.

Other forms of motor racing are drag racing, off-road racing and kart racing.


The internal combustion engine was developed from simple gas-fuelled designs during the later part of the 19th century to the point in the 1880s where several technicians such as Karl Benz in Mannheim and the partnership of Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart had built the first true automobiles.

Racing of horse-drawn carriages has been popular among its participants in the past and it was a natural progression to race the new automobiles. The beginning of motor racing is generally traced to a run from Paris to Rouen on 22 July 1894. Although there had previously been some private events, this first real contest was organised by Paris magazine Le Petit Journal as a reliability test, but it was not actually a race as the contestants did not start together, so it was more of a rally than a race. Albert de Dion was the first to arrive at Rouen in his de Dion-Bouton car, but the judges ruled that the steam-powered vehicle was outside the competition's scope and a Panhard-Levassor was judged to be the winner.

Beginning of organised racing

Early races

The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Rally was held in 1895 and was the first real motor race as all competitors started together. The winner was Émile Levassor in his Panhard-Levassor 1205 cc model. He completed the course in 48 hours and 47 minutes, finishing nearly six hours before the runner-up. The race is in retrospect sometimes referred to as the I Grand Prix de l'ACF.[1] The significance of the event was that it proved that cars and their drivers could travel very long distances in a reasonable time. It gave an enormous boost to the motor industry and the enthusiastic public interest in the event ensured the lasting popularity of motor racing as a sport. Subsequently, in November of the same year, several French motoring pioneers formed the Automobile Club de France (ACF), which thereafter governed most of the major races in France.

In 1896, the next major event was the Paris-Marseille-Paris Trail, held over 1710 km from 24 September to 3 October and won by Émile Mayade driving a Panhard-Levassor 8 hp model in a time of 67:42:58. This race is in retrospect sometimes referred to as the II Grand Prix de l'ACF.[2]

The Paris-Amsterdam-Paris Trail was run during 7–13 July 1898 over 1431 km and won by Fernand Charron driving a Panhard-Levassor in a time of 33:04:34. This race is in retrospect sometimes referred to as the III Grand Prix de l'ACF.[3] A year later, the Tour de France Trail was held during 16–24 July 1899 over a distance of 2172.5 km. The winner was René de Knyff driving a Panhard-Levassor in a time of 44:43:39. The race is sometimes referred to in retrospect as the IV Grand Prix de l'A.C.F.[4] In 1900, the Paris-Toulouse-Paris Trail was run on 25–28 July over 1347 km and won by Alfred Velghe (France) driving a Mors in a time of 20:50:09. This race is in retrospect sometimes referred to as the V Grand Prix de l'ACF.[5]

On 24 May 1903, the fact that motor racing is an extremely dangerous sport was realised for perhaps the first time when the Paris-Madrid Trail ended in disaster. Retrospectively referred to as the VIII Grand Prix de l'ACF,[6] the race had a scheduled distance of 1014 km but it caused at least eight deaths, including those of drivers Marcel Renault and Claude Barrow, before it was stopped by the authorities at Bordeaux. As a result, open road racing was banned and the legacy of the event was the introduction of closed circuits, the first being opened at Le Mans in 1906 for the inaugural official French Grand Prix, organised by the ACF.

Gordon Bennett Cup

It was in 1900 that James Gordon Bennett junior, owner of the New York Herald newspaper and the International Herald Tribune, established the Gordon Bennett Cup. He hoped that the creation of an international event would drive automobile manufacturers to improve their cars.[7] Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars, which had to be fully built in the country that they represented and entered by that country's automotive governing body.[7] The 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup race, from Paris to Lyon was won by Fernand Charron (France) driving a Panhard & Levassor.

The 1903 race saw international racing colours formally adopted with Italy taking red, Germany white, France blue and Great Britain taking its British racing green (BRG) for the first time. The British choice of green was partly due to the 1903 event being held in Ireland, which at the time was part of the UK, and to precedent as the winning British Napier of 1902 had been painted olive green.

The Gordon Bennett Cup was awarded annually until 1905, after which it was superseded by official Grand Prix motor racing, the inaugural event being organised by the ACF on the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans in 1906.

Vanderbilt Cup

In 1904, William Kissam Vanderbilt II launched the Vanderbilt Cup at a course set out in Nassau County, New York on Long Island. It created controversy in New York with numerous attempts made, including legal action, to try and prevent it taking place. The inaugural race was run over a 30.24 mi (48.7 km) course of winding dirt roads through Nassau County. Several European drivers with experience of the Gordon Bennett Cup took part and the event was a huge commercial success. The winner was George Heath (USA) driving a Panhard-Levassor 70 hp model.

The Vanderbilt Cup had a chequered career. It was run almost annually until 1916 and then, having been discontinued because of World War One, saw three resurrections. The original race was revived in 1936 and 1937, but quickly disappeared again due to lack of interest. In 1960, the trophy was awarded for a single junior event only. Then, from 1996, a copy of the trophy was created for the Champ Car series run by CART and it was contested annually until 2007, after which CART went into liquidation and its races were merged into the IndyCar Series.

The original Vanderbilt Cup is housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Start of official Grand Prix racing

Having been banned from open public roads, motor racing reached a watershed in 1906 when the first official Grand Prix race was held on 26 June at the Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans. Organised by the ACF, this was the inaugural French Grand Prix. Although it was the first Grand Prix race organised as such by the ACF, it is in retrospect sometimes known as the IX Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. in homage to the pioneering races that preceded it.[8] The winner was Ferenc Szisz of Hungary, driving a Renault AK 90CV, who covered the 1238.03 km distance in a time of 12h14m07.

The French Grand Prix was repeated at Dieppe in 1907 and 1908 but then it could not be staged between 1909 and 1911 when no racing of the highest standard could be held in Europe. Meanwhile, the American Grand Prize began in 1908 but, like the Vanderbilt Cup, had a chequered existence with occasional runnings. It became the United States Grand Prix in 2000. However, the race is currently (2010) discontinued and its future remains uncertain.

The ACF managed to resurrect the French Grand Prix in 1912 when it was again run at Dieppe over 1535.76 km (76.788 km x 20 laps). The winner was Georges Boillot of France driving a Peugeot L76 in 13:58:02.6. The 1912 race is retrospectively referred to as the XII Grand Prix de l´ACF. The French Grand Prix ran again in 1913 and 1914 but then major racing in Europe was ended until 1921 by the First World War.

Inaugural Indy 500 and Monte Carlo Rally

1911 is a significant year in motor racing history with the inauguration of both the Indianapolis 500 (Indy 500) and the Monte Carlo Rally. The Monte Carlo Rally took place on 21 January. It was organised by Albert I, Prince of Monaco and won by Henri Rougier driving a Turcat-Mery. The first Indy 500 was held on 30 May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was won by Ray Harroun (USA) driving a Marmon "Wasp", which was based on Marmon's 1909 Model 32 and incidentally featured the world's first rear-view mirror.

The Indy 500 ran until 1916 and then was discontinued for two years before its revival in 1919 when it was won by Howdy Wilcox (USA) in a Peugeot L45.

Inter-war years

Grand Prix racing recommenced in 1921 and immediately expanded when the inaugural Italian Grand Prix joined the French Grand Prix on the racing calendar. The first Italian Grand Prix was run at Brescia and the second, in 1922, on the famous Autodromo Nazionale Monza outside Monza, near Milan.

Jimmy Murphy was the most famous racer in the aftermath of the First World War. He won the 1921 French Grand Prix and the 1922 Indy 500 driving a Duesenberg. Murphy was killed during a race in 1924.

In 1923, the inaugural 24 Heures du Mans ("24 Hours of Le Mans") was won by André Lagache and René Léonard (both of France) driving a Chenard-Walcker over 128 laps and 2209.536 km.

On 28 June 1925, the first Belgian Grand Prix was run at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps over 809.06 km (14.98 km x 54 laps). The winner was Antonio Ascari (Italy) driving an Alfa Romeo P2 in 6:42:57. The race was given the honorary designation of European Grand Prix, a race title that has had sporadic use subsequently. Four weeks later, on 26 July, Ascari was killed at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry following a crash on the 23rd lap of the French Grand Prix.

Normally a front-runner in terms of sports development, Great Britain was surprisingly late in taking to motorsport. On 7 August 1926, the first British Grand Prix was run at Brooklands over 463.10 km (4.210 km x 110 laps) and won by co-drivers Robert Sénéchal and Louis Wagner (both of France) driving a Delage 15-S8 in 4:00:56. The inaugural Spanish Grand Prix, which became an infrequent event, was also run in 1926.

1927 was the year of Robert Benoist (France), later a war hero, who won four Grand Prix (British, French, Italian and Spanish) driving his Delage 15-S8.

On 14 April 1929, the first Monaco Grand Prix was run on the streets of Monte Carlo over 318.000 km (3.180 km x 100 laps). The winner was William Grover-Williams (Great Britain), another future war hero, driving a Bugatti T35B in 3:56:11.0. Now considered a classic race, the Monaco Grand Prix is sometimes aligned with the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Heures du Mans in an informal "Triple Crown of Motorsport".

In 1931, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), then called the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), introduced a European Championship for Grand Prix drivers on a points system. The first winner was Ferdinando Minoia (Italy), driving for Alfa Romeo in its 8C-2300 and 6C-1750 models, even though he did not win a race. The most famous driver at the time was Louis Chiron of Monaco, who won the 3rd Monaco Grand Prix that year driving a Bugatti T51.