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

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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little