Race Centenary: The beauty that won the first Grand Prix
Alistair Weaver takes his life in his hands as he pilots an armchair, mounted on a seven-litre engine, with no brakes, in traffic on modern French roads, and finds out how the racing pioneers did it
Tuesday 16 May 2006
One hundred years ago next month, on 27 June 1906, the Hungarian-born Ferenc Szisz won the inaugural Grand Prix, held on a 64-mile circuit near Le Mans. Over a two-day period, Szisz and his Renault AK 90CV had completed 12 laps of the circuit at an average speed of 62.9mph, winning the race by more than half an hour. Szisz became a folk hero.
The Szisz car was a victim of the First World War but today, almost exactly a century later, I find myself back at Le Mans in the company of "Agatha", the oldest surviving Renault race-car. Commissioned by the American millionaire and motorsport pioneer William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr in 1907, Agatha is virtually identical to the Grand Prix car. The only significant modification was the introduction of a 7.4-litre engine in place of the original 13-litre. Agatha won a 24-hour race at New York's Morris Park motordrome in 1907 and the 1909 Brighton Beach 24-hour race. It was owned by an airman during the Second World War and, after spending several decades in storage, was sold to the German car collector Wolfgang Auge, in 1992, who restored her.
This car belongs to a transitional phase in motoring history: major manufacturers had at last learnt how to make their horseless carriages work properly, but the cars remained crude and primitive. In the metal, it has a simplistic brutality that could easily be described as beauty. The radiator, bizarrely, is situated behind the engine and directly in front of the driver's toes. The oil system relies on gravity to drip lubricant on to the relevant parts, while the gearbox is a sequential three-speed affair, controlled by a lever on the right-hand side of the cockpit.
The driver and his trusty mechanic perch on simple leather seats - not dissimilar to a Chesterfield armchair - and exposed to the elements. Crash-helmets were still a futuristic fantasy in 1906, so the occupants had to make do with leather caps and goggles. In the interests of authenticity, I'm handed some replicas and a huge, grey, smock-coat. A men's lifestyle magazine might describe my look as retro-chic, but I'm not so sure.
I'm ushered into the mechanic's seat as Auge takes the wheel. Agatha starts on the twist of a handle, and we're away. The original Grand Prix car weighed a tonne and boasted around 95hp - roughly equivalent to a contemporary Ford Fiesta. Agatha's engine is smaller, but it still feels unnervingly rapid.
The original, triangular, circuit was composed of public roads and from the town of Le Mans ran east to St-Calais and then north to La Ferté-Bernard. The roads were closed for the occasion, but the poor-quality surface began to disintegrate in the heat. Several drivers suffered burns from melting tar and one of Szisz's teammates was forced to retire with glass in his eye.
Today, those original roads are tarmac-covered but we have to cope with 21st-century French motorists and their laissez-faire approach to road safety. Not since I drove blindfold at 160mph have I felt so vulnerable in a car. We're bumbling along at 60mph in what feels like a motorised park bench. From my vantage point, I look down upon the simple leaf-spring suspension and the huge "artillery" wheels, which look like they've been pinched from a cannon. If one of them should give way, we'd be in huge trouble.
While the drivers fought for death or glory, the accompanying mechanics faced a terrifying ride into the unknown. They were the unsung heroes of the early racing scene - the history books don't even record the first name of Szisz's mechanic, Mr Marteau. His role was to mend the car when problems arose, which was often. The Renault featured innovative Michelin tyres with removable rims, which could be changed in under four minutes, compared with the 15 minutes required for more conventional wheels. Given that the Renault suffered eight punctures during the race, this was an advantage.
Mortal accidents were not uncommon in the early days of racing and Szisz owed his drive to tragedy. Marcel Renault, one of the company founders, was killed while competing in 1903 and his brothers vowed never to race again. Szisz, who ran Renault's testing department and had served as the riding mechanic to Louis Renault, was promoted to the race seat. He thus became the first works Renault driver.
Auge has first-hand experience of the dangers, having survived a near-death experience in Agatha. When a modern car braked suddenly in front of him, he found himself with nowhere to go and was pitched into a terrifying roll. Only by crouching down in the cockpit, below the level of the radiator, was he able to escape serious injury.
It's a less than reassuring thought as we swap seats. Auge seems a little nervous about letting someone else drive his baby and it's not difficult to see why - Agatha is worth at least £250,000. "You need to feel it," he says in broken English. Apparently, I'm supposed to blip the throttle, wait for the revs to die a moment and then shift the lever forwards to engage first gear. Timing is crucial if we're to avoid an unnecessary and embarrassing crunch.
After a couple of false starts we trundle out on to the highway. Even at comparatively modest speeds, Agatha feels a handful. It is big, heavy and overpowered. There is a feeling of uncontrolled inertia and imminent disaster. The brakes are all but useless. A handle on the side of the car operates the rear brakes and is used most of the time. The pedal controlling the front brakes is to be employed only in an emergency. Neither is very efficient. The handling is equally rubbish. There were only three significant corners on the original circuit so the Renault does without a rear differential. Turning the car therefore requires plenty of arm twisting and more than a little space.
Racing one of these cars for 12 hours over rough terrain must have taken courage. Driving Agatha at speed is not only physically exhausting; it also requires tremendous powers of concentration. You're forever conscious that once false twitch of the steering wheel could result in oblivion. Today's multimillionaire Grand Prix racers, cocooned in their carbon-fibre survival cells, don't know how lucky they are.
No one should doubt the magnitude of Szisz's achievement, but, even as he supped the celebratory Champagne, his victory was being shrouded in political controversy. The forerunner to the Grand Prix, the Gordon Bennett Cup, had only allowed three cars from each country to enter. But the Automobile Club de France imposed no such restriction, ensuring that 23 of the 32 entrants were French. The British teams boycotted the race and questioned the result. Some things, it seems, never change.
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