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History Of Motor Racing

A Renault Formula 1 car at the Design Museum

Motor racing today is presented as a highly competitive sport, often described as "Darwinian" in its ferocity. The title of one book on modern Formula 1, called The Pirhana Club, catches this sentiment. Huge sums of money are at stake, and in pursuit of victory successful designs and techniques replicate themselves, weaker machinery and people quickly making way for the strong. This merciless natural selection is flaunted each time the top three drivers in a race squirt phallic champagne over the gathered masses below. And yet it is undeniably true that modern sport is more of a show than a battle, organised for the benefit of the paying spectator: and that means it has generally been organised to try and reduce the risk of one person or team dominating for an extended period. In 1913 the MCC refused to change cricket equipment or rules to give more interesting play, and refused to concede that having Yorkshire winning all the time was boring (see Professional Sport in Britain 1875 - 1914 by Wray Vamplew). This kind of attitude would not be accepted in modern sport where keeping the interest of the paying audience is vital. It would also, incidentally, not be accepted by Charles Darwin who pointed out in The Origin of Species that one unopposed species would multiply so quickly that "the world would not hold them" (Origin Of Species P117). The evolution of motor racing does not only involve the uncomplicated defeat of the weak by the strong. As in other modern sports, competition actually comes second to the business of giving the spectator the excitement they are paying for, which can only come from doubt about the outcome. While there are a few sports where the outcome is unashamedly fixed - forms of wrestling for example - most modern sports have a trickier task of balancing the appearance of competition with the need to maintain doubt without actually "fixing" competition, which is seen as the height of corruption. This balancing act has defined motor racing. Motor racing had to become a "show" in which competition is real, and yet planned to at least minimise boring dominance. The first step in producing this show was the creation of a "theatre" for the show to be staged in, and that's where we'll start.





The world's first motor race was a reliability trial between Paris and Rouen, which took place on July 22nd 1894. The winner's prize was awarded jointly to any car which could reach Rouen in less that eight and a half hours. Twelve Panhard-Levassors and Peugeots managed to do this. Then with automotive technology developing rapidly, races became just that, a competition to see which car could reach a destination first. The first actual motor race is regarded as the Paris Bordeaux event of 1895. City to city racing briefly became the dominant form of motor sport with thirty five events organised between 1894 and 1903. Many of these races were run by United States newspaper tycoon, Gordon Bennett. Bennett organised the first racing formula, which was based on national teams identified by cars of a particular colour. These Gordon Bennett colours still have an echo in modern motor racing - the colour for Italian cars was red, and Ferraris of course are still red. But the Gordon Bennett city to city races came to an end after a disastrous Paris to Madrid race in 1903. By now cars could reach ninety miles an hour, and between Paris and Madrid there were a number of deaths, including that of car maker Marcel Renault. It was now apparent that city to city racing did not make sense for a number of reasons. They were dangerous, since the huge course could not be modified for safety. They also did not make business sense since people had free access to the main commodity on offer - the race. It was now becoming obvious that racing circuits were needed, to improve safety and to control access of paying spectators. This was the first step in making motor racing a show, by creating a viable theatre in which its plays could be staged. At first, there was resistance to creating circuits. Racing driver Leon Theary said, on looking at plans for a twenty eight mile circuit at Amiens in 1905, that he was "not disposed to risk his neck by turning like a squirral in a cage" (quoted in Power and Glory by William Court). These attitudes meant that early huge road circuits were not much of an improvement on city to city routes. Ironically, the blueprint for future motor racing was not provided by the first grand prix, the French Grand Prix of 1906 - this event took place on a 103km circuit near Le Mans. Instead the future was heralded by Brooklands circuit, opened by a landowner in Weybridge Surrey, in 1907. This remarkable two and a half mile banked circuit was the first purpose built motor racing track, and had many features of venues that eventually came to dominate motor racing. Echoes of Brooklands are still heard at grand prix today. With no tradition to draw upon the officials at Brooklands used horse racing as their model, calling the area where teams gathered the "paddock". The paddock is still the place where modern racing teams gather at each grand prix. Although Brooklands showed the way ahead, early twentieth century racing continued to be centred on the annual French Grand Prix on a long road circuit. Significantly this race was suspended between 1908 and 1912 because of financial problems. Meanwhile the first Indianapolis 500 race was held in 1911 on a banked circuit at Indianapolis, very similar to Brooklands. Following the First World War it would be this kind of short, closed circuit that would slowly become standard. In 1921 the first Italian Grand Prix took place at a circuit near Bresica. In only the following year the Italian Grand Prix moved to Monza Autodrome, a closed circuit, where the Italian Grand Prix continues to run today. There was still a desire in some quarters to preserve the old road races, and a number of circuits developed which maintained the feel of long road circuits - Spa (1925) and the Nurburgring (1927) for example. There was also a new long distance road race, in the shape of the popular Mille Miglia race being run over open roads between Bresica and Rome and back from 1927. But racing's economic realities were always pushing towards smaller circuits. This made financial sense for the teams, and made sense for audiences who had a chance to see a whole race, rather than experiencing the confusing and short lived sensation of seeing a gaggle of cars speed by occasionally. The Belgian Grand Prix of 1970 was the last to be run over a true open road circuit. The only real echo of open road racing now exists in rallying.



The Paddock at Silverstone

While racing circuits were being dragged towards a form that would make motor racing a saleable commodity, the sport now had to put on a show in the "theatres" it had created. This meant guarding against a situation where there was little competition. For an interesting race there had to be a reasonable field of fairly evenly matched cars and drivers. Motor sport ran into difficulties when a sense of competition was not achieved. 1926, for example, was not a classic year. Only two Bugatti drivers completed the Italian Grand Prix, and at the French Grand Prix three Bugattis made up the entire field. Even the most fanatical Bugatti fan would find it hard to get excited about a race with no opponent. Into the 1930s the success of German and Italian drivers and teams was linked to money provided by their respective governments determined to enhance their reputation abroad. To Hitler and Mussolini there was no sense of creating a sport in which a number of teams entered into an exciting contest in which a number of them had the chance of winning. Instead winning was all: As Mussolini said, in relation to the World Cup of 1934: "You athletes of all Italy have particular duties... You must hence make use of all your energy and all your willpower in order to obtain primacy in all struggles on the earth, on the sea and in the sky." (Quoted in The Ball Is Round by David Goldblatt P254). Mussolini sounded like he was declaring war rather than opening a sporting competition, and in an effort to help Italian motor sport dominate on the earth, on the sea and in the sky, Mussolini brought Alfa Romeo under the wing of the Instituto di Reconstruzione Industriale. Through this organisation extensive state funding was provided. Hitler provided similar support to Daimler and Auto Union in the 1930s. All of this is consistent with a ruthless desire to win. But sport cannot survive on winners alone, a fact that people like Hitler with his crazy ideas of a master race would not understand. Motor racing from the beginning had an international nature, which had made a nonsense of those early Gordon Bennett races where each car had to be built by, and was representative of, a particular country. Components were being made all over Europe, and it was impossible to build a competitive car by only using parts made in one country. Motor sport had different values to fascist dictatorship, in that it was not fundamentally based on national divides, and grudgingly accepted that winning is not everything. In 1951 Fangio in an Alfa Romeo managed to beat Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari. But at the end of the season Alfa withdrew from motor racing, leaving Ferrari virtually unchallenged. It was inconceiveable to go back to the situation of 1926 when Bugatti were the only competitive team. Once again no Ferrari fan would want to see a race in which Ferrari was certain to win. In 1952, therefore, Formula 1 was run under Formula 2 rules, which allowed in a number of small British teams to make up a half decent field. Alberto Ascari's Ferrari victory that year only meant something because his triumph was at least in a modicum of doubt. Into the modern era the contradictions of winning continued. In 2002 Michael Schumacher was winning all the time for Ferrari. I noted Martin Brundle commenting during the 2002 Imola Grand Prix that viewing figures for Formula 1 had declined by 20% in Italy during 2002. Even though Michael Schumacher had reversed a twenty year period of failure for Ferrari, the monotony of his new success resulted in a loss of interest. Constant effort continues to go into trying to make sure there is a competitive field to give good racing. When Honda withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 2008, team principle Ross Brawn bought the team in an attempt to save it. Rivals knowing the importance of maintaining a competitive field helped Brawn out. McLaren assisted in the provision of Mercedes engines, only to find themselves beaten in 2009 by Brawn, who went on to win the championship with Jenson Button.




Roman Theatre near the Verulanium Museum, St Albans

Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool Football Club, once said: "Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

In a way he is right. Sport has bigger aims than a life and death struggle. It has to make sure that the competition itself will continue, and in a sense has to consider the wellbeing of opponents as well as allies. In this sense sport is not war waged by other means. It is show business put on for the delight of its public, with winners and losers both playing roles of equal importance. It has always been this way. Erich Segal, for example, has pointed out the closeness between ancient Greek sport and show business:

"I first discovered the true character of ancient Greece in a modern helicopter... All that remained of this kingdom, whose heyday had been in the sixth century BC, were the clear outlines of its theatre and its stadium, the gathering places for the Greek's two greatest passions: drama and sport. And from my lofty perspective the two structures looked like contiguous circles, forming a symmetry that was also a symbol of the entire Greek mentality. For both, consciously and unconsciously, they equated these two seemingly disparate activities, which together formed a unity that epitomised Hellenic culture." (Preface to Sport And Recreation In Ancient Greece)

Why not compare the shape of the Greek inspired Roman theatre at St Albans, with the sweep of Brooklands...




Motor sport tries to give the impression of ruthless and clear cut competition. Nelson Piquet Junior and his Renault team were punished severely in 2009 for engineering a crash that favoured his team mate Fernando Alonso. This was seen as "race fixing". But in a sense every race is fixed, to try and give a good show to people who come and watch. It is like an episode of Big Brother in which the scenario is set up, with some careful measures introduced to provoke conflict. Then the contestants are thrown in to add some unpredictability, and hopefully provide the last ingredient in good entertainment. The fact that modern sport is organised in this way is better than having a philosophy based on a desire to dominate on earth, on the sea and in the sky.

The motor racing historian William Court felt this. The simplistic idea of great champions was not for him: losers and winners had their part to play, and the difference between them in the end fades away:

"The line between winning with the glorious persistence of Ascari, Fangio, Clark and Stewart and losing with the distressing frequency of Ickx, Gurney, Surtees, Amon and even Moss, when all five of them were so good, can be as fine as it is inexplicable" ( Power and Glory Vol 2 P253).