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The History of F1 Auto Racing
Part I : Before the 1950s
March 8, 2005


The world has taken on a different shape with the birth of Formula One more than 50 years ago. Races were exclusive either to the world’s elite or top notch car manufactures such as Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. The races were scattered around the year with no calendar or championship structure.

The world of professional motorsports had two separate lives, one before the 1950’s and one right after it.

The F1 Grand Prix championship took on a more organized role in 1950. It scheduled a calendar of motorsports bringing together most of the developed nations to host a race. It was an expensive hobby that translated into a championship held in several countries over a calendar year where teams would fight for the title. Each race was a glittery event on its own.

However, the world of motor racing kicked off as early as 1885 when the invention of the first successful petrol-driven car was announced by the Motor-Wagen of Karl Benz. The first motor car race was held in 1887 from Paris to Versailles at a top speed of 21 km. The aim was simply to finish. But in the events that followed, the idea of speed came into play in respect to the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris which took place in June 1895. The race was a distance of 1,178km and this was often taken as the first proper motor race, even though there has been a claim that a race took place in the United States in 1878, from Green Bay to Madison, Wisconsin which was won by an Oshkosk steamer.

In July 1898 the first international race was organized to run from Paris-Belgium-Amsterdam-Paris. This was the first race that had categories. The organizers set two categories based on the weight of the cars; one category was for cars above 400 kg while the other was for the lighter ones.

In 1900 Gordon Bennett Jr. financed an international event, the inaugural 'Gordon Bennett Trophy Race' to be held in France and organized by the l'Automobile Club de France (ACF). Each country's national motoring association was allowed to register three cars entirely built in their country; the winner's national association would be responsible for hosting and organizing the following year’s event. The Gordon Bennett races were marred by many competitor and spectator deaths leading the French government to ban motor racing many times. However, these bans were quickly overturned as the French motor industrialists exercised there growing influence on the government.

In 1905, the ACF withdrew their substantial support of the event, frustrated at being limited to a maximum of three entries. Without the ACF the Gordon Bennett trophy races were discontinued in 1906. In 1906 however the ACF organized a new event - the ACF Grand Prix to be held at Le Mans. Purpose built pits, spectator grandstands and barricades were used for the first time even though the race was still held on closed public roads. The ACF provided marshals to help the police with crowd control.

By this time the cars were no longer 'on the road' production cars. The cars were now stripped of all non-essential parts to decrease the weight and increase the speed. Special features to enhance the cars’ speed were designed - this is when motor racing began to develop as a serious sport.

The world of Grand Prix was born. Soon many races were being staged in Europe. A world governing body called the Association Internationale des Automobiles Reconnus was formed; in 1946 this became the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). Closed-circuit racing developed quickly in the United States while road racing burgeoned in Europe.

In 1909 the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built. It was an oval circuit of 4.023 km (2.5 mi) and the first Indianapolis 500 mile race was held in 1911. By 1914 many of the great car engineering and manufacturing firms were established.

Between the world wars the sport boomed in Europe and America. Numerous circuits were built, and better and faster cars were developed. After World War II the growth and popularity of the sport increased, and many more races were introduced. During the same period, car manufactures were racing to produce the ‘best car’ that can win. The most memorable car was the Bugatti Type 35 that won around 200 races.

In 1933, the Le Mans 24 hour race was held while in 1937 the Mille Miglia race of Italy was geared. Most of the car drivers were top of the line including English aristocrats such as Sir Geoffrey Berkins and Lord Hugh. Other European drivers joined in such as French Louis Chiron, Germans Rudolf Caracciola and Herman Lang. However the best driver of all time during that period was Italian Tazio Nuvolari.

Car manufactures went through a string of experiments as they tried to produce a winning car. In 1921, three liter cars were introduced and then decreased to two liters the following year. Rules in races were amended throughout the years. In 1925, the technical co-driver was banned due to safety scares while in 1926, cars that had 1/2 to one liter were allowed to race. In another two years ‘open formula’ was born where the rules didn’t control the size of the engine.

In 1947, a logical change to the regulations allowed 1500cc supercharged cars and 4.5 liters normalcy aspirated cars to compete. The international formula becomes ‘International Racing Formula no.1’. The name would later change to Formula One. The supercharged cars were the dominating category notably with Alfettas, Maserati and 4CLTs.

Formula 2 began shortly after the world war two in 1947. It aimed to give those drivers and teams not involved in grand prix racing the chance to close the gap to the top of international motorsport.

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