First Grand Prix Auto Race

The inaugural Grand Prix automobile race, hosted by the Automobile Club of France, laid the foundation for the successful future of international Grand Prix auto racing.

Summary of Event

The first Grand Prix auto race was the result of an earlier international competition known as the Gordon Bennett Cup. Gordon Bennett Cup The decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the formation of a number of international automobile racing events that quickly gained both notoriety and popularity. Among these were the Gordon Bennett Cup races, which were sponsored by wealthy New York newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, Jr. Bennett, James Gordon, Jr. The races took place at different venues throughout Europe, and each participating country was limited to only three entries in a single race. The French did not like this restriction; given that France had more automobile manufacturers than any other nation (ten separate companies producing twenty-nine competitive models), they believed they should have the right to more entries. Automobiles;racing
Grand Prix
Sports;automobile racing
[kw]First Grand Prix Auto Race (June 26-27, 1906)
[kw]Grand Prix Auto Race, First (June 26-27, 1906)
[kw]Auto Race, First Grand Prix (June 26-27, 1906)
[kw]Race, First Grand Prix Auto (June 26-27, 1906)
Grand Prix
Sports;automobile racing
[g]France;June 26-27, 1906: First Grand Prix Auto Race[01650]
[c]Sports;June 26-27, 1906: First Grand Prix Auto Race[01650]
[c]Organizations and institutions;June 26-27, 1906: First Grand Prix Auto Race[01650]
[c]Transportation;June 26-27, 1906: First Grand Prix Auto Race[01650]
Szisz, Ferenc
Nazzaro, Felice
Lancia, Vincenzo
Florio, Vincenzo

When it was time for France to host the Gordon Bennett race in 1905, the Automobile Club of France (ACF) Automobile Club of France proposed that another race, to be known as the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, be held simultaneously. The Grand Prix would allow for proportionate representation of manufacturers. This idea raised considerable controversy, and eventually it was decided that the two events would be held separately. (It should be noted that the name of this race can be a cause of some confusion, because the French often referred to eight earlier city-to-city races sponsored by the ACF as “grand prix” races and included the words grand prix—that is, “large prize”—in the titles of those races. However, the 1906 Grand Prix is considered the true first international auto racing competition to have the term “Grand Prix” figuring prominently in its title. Nevertheless, occasionally the 1906 race is labeled the IX Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France.)

By 1906, the Gordon Bennett races were no more, as the newspaperman had turned his attention to aviation and no challenge was put forth to the French winners of the 1905 trophy. With the absence of the Gordon Bennett Cup, the stage was set for the ACF to promote its Grand Prix race as a replacement. The publisher of L’Auto magazine put up a purse of 100,000 francs for the winner, and a location was chosen in northwestern France in the department of Sarthe near the town of Le Mans. The racing circuit was designed as a triangle about 64 miles (103 kilometers) long, connecting the towns of Le Mans, Saint-Calais, and La Ferté-Bernard. The racers were to run the circuit counterclockwise twelve times over two daily sessions for a total of approximately 768 miles (1,236 kilometers). Natural roadway provided the majority of the racing surface, but the shortest leg of the course consisted of a plank boarding surface through a forest. This area contained a very narrow stretch that many observers considered to be a death trap.

The ACF spent a great deal of money on laying out the circuit, but the expenditure was offset by entry fees and grants from the city of Le Mans and local hoteliers. Every detail of the race was carefully organized and rehearsed, from the general marshaling guidelines, which utilized flag signals (blue for caution and yellow for stop), to the horses that would bring the cars to the starting line, which were repeatedly exposed to engine noise so they would not be startled on the day of the race.

The guidelines for entry specified that each factory could be represented by three cars, a rule that was viewed with a bit of cynicism by countries other than France. The entries included three cars from each of the French manufacturers Darracq, Panhard, Renault, Brasier, Lorraine-Dietrich, Clément-Bayard, and Hotchkiss. Two cars representing Vulpès and one Gobron-Brillié rounded out the French entries. Italy sent three-car teams from both Itala and Fiat, and the German manufacturer Mercedes fielded three cars. All of these cars were basically similar in design, with four-cylinder engines in the front (to allow for larger size); the exception was the Gobron-Brillié, which had eight opposed cylinders.

The most significant technical novelty debuting in the race was the detachable rim to facilitate quick tire changes. The rules stated that only the driver and his riding mechanic were permitted to work on their car, so some teams made use of detachable rims, which allowed them to make a tire change in two to five minutes rather than the nearly fifteen minutes it took to change a tire without such a rim. Not all teams utilized this new technology, as a complete set increased the weight of a car by about 80 pounds (about 36 kilograms), and some cars, such as the Itala, were already dangerously near the weight limit of 2,205 pounds (1,000 kilograms).

Among the well-known drivers in the race were local French driver Victor Hémery; Paul Baras, Baras, Paul a onetime tricycle champion; Italian Vincenzo Lancia, who later founded the Lancia motorcar company; Italian Vincenzo Florio, the founder of the Sicilian auto race the Targa Florio, which had been held earlier that month; and popular Italian racer Felice Nazzaro.

The race began at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 26, in front of a full crowd. The cars were numbered according to teams in the fashion of 1A, 1B, 1C, and most were painted in national colors. The cars were started individually in ninety-second intervals. The first driver to start the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France was Fernand Gabriel in car 1A for the Lorraine-Dietrich team. Lancia led the first lap with a time of 53 minutes, 42.4 seconds, with Ferenc Szisz second and Baras third. On the third lap of the race, Szisz took the lead, which he held for the remainder of the day’s racing. Just before noon, he completed his sixth lap and acknowledged the yellow flag. Sixteen additional cars completed the sixth lap to join Szisz’s Renault in the enclosed locked area where the cars were guarded overnight to prevent anyone from attempting any sabotage or repair work.

The race was grueling, with the drivers and mechanics suffering from the stinging of dust and tar in their eyes. All the drivers had their eyes treated by a doctor during the night. One of the Mercedes drivers decided he could not face another day and opted for a replacement. Lorraine-Dietrich driver Henri Rougier, Rougier, Henri who had finished last, barely recovered from his fourteen tire changes in time to meet his starting time on Wednesday.

The starting times on the second day were determined by the racing times on the first. Seventeen cars were left to start the second day’s racing circuit. Szisz started first, and Rougier, in last place, set out 2 hours and 47 minutes later. Szisz held his lead and completed his final lap at 4:30 p.m. As his Renault crossed the finish line, the Hungarian and his riding mechanic, M. Marteau, were cheered on by a significant crowd, although fewer were in attendance than had been on the first day. Nazzaro, at the wheel of his Fiat, finished second and Albert Clément Clément, Albert was third in a Clément-Bayard. Eleven of the thirty-four cars slated at the beginning of the race finished, with the Brasiers being the only complete team. The fastest lap of the race was set by Baras, who completed the lap in 52 minutes, 25.4 seconds, at 117.94 kilometers per hour (about 73.28 miles per hour).


The Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France was considered to be a success, despite opinions that the racecourse itself had been too long. The race both established the tradition of the Grand Prix and secured the sustainability and future of international motor racing.

The direct descendant of the Grand Prix is the modern-day international Formula One series, which is the pinnacle of motor racing, both in status and in technology. The two-day format of the Grand Prix also inspired the future endurance race known as the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans.

Technological innovations that debuted at the 1906 Grand Prix, such as the detachable-rim wheels created by Michelin, hydraulic dampers invented by Louis Renault, and high-tension magneto ignition, became staples of later model race cars. These innovations also served to promote the advancement of automobile technology in general. Automobiles;racing
Grand Prix
Sports;automobile racing

Further Reading

  • Dick, Robert. Mercedes and Auto Racing in the Belle Epoque, 1895-1915. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Presents a window into automobile racing during the early twentieth century through the development of one car manufacturer. Scholarly work provides extensive coverage of technical and engineering developments. Includes photographs.
  • Garrett, Richard. The Motor Racing Story. London: Stanley Paul, 1969. One of the best books available for information on the development of the idea of the French Grand Prix. Includes an excellent section on the Gordon Bennett trophy races.
  • Hilton, Christopher. Grand Prix Century: The First One Hundred Years of the World’s Most Glamorous and Dangerous Sport. Yesvie, England: Haynes, 2006. Uses extensive archival materials to re-create the hundred-year history of the Grand Prix. Includes an excellent compilation of statistics and driver biographies.
  • Hodges, David. Classic Racing Cars: Grand Prix and Indy. London: Regency House, 1995. Covers the rules and technical innovations of each race in detail and provides an overall history of the development of the sport.
  • _______. The French Grand Prix. London: Temple Press Books, 1967. The definitive book on the French Grand Prix. Contains charts of all circuits, participating drivers, and statistics for all the courses and entries. An excellent quick reference source on any aspect of the Grand Prix through 1966. Includes a good selection of photographs.

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