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100 years of Grand Prix Racing (1894-1994)
Important Events and Changes

1894: The first relevant Motorsport event was held in France. The event was organized by a french newspaper Le petit Journal and was run over 126km between Paris and Rouen. A steam-driven tractor finished first but was disqualified as it was not thought to be a practical road-going vehicle. First prize was jointly awarded to the next finishers - a Peugeot and a Panhard-Levassor, with an average speed of 17km/h.

As these events became more popular the quest for speed led to 7 and 8 litre engines and even one 16 litre version! The chassis and brakes couldn't match the pace of engine development until the 35h.p Mercedes was introduced in 1901. The racing version was modified to a 9 litre engine and produced about 60 horsepower. It became a consistent winner and other manufacturers followed suite and further developed their cars to keep pace.

1906: The first official Grand Prix was held near Le mans around a 64 mile course. Of the 32 cars to start the race only 11 actually completed the 12 laps. The winning entrant was a 90h.p Renault which utilised Detachable Rims allowing relatively fast tyre changes (2-3 minutes instead of the usual 15). By this time speeds were reaching up to 100mph.

1928: Grand Prix/Formula racing was abandoned due to escalating costs and few perceived benefits. This brought in the era of Privateer drivers who were either privately funded or, in some cases sponsored by specialist manufacturers. An important factor in the future of Formula 1 (in particular) came in 1930 when Alfa Romeo enlisted Scuderia Ferrari (Run by Enzo Ferrari) to direct all of their racing efforts.

1950: Introduction of the World championship consisting of 7 races, events were listed as follows:

  • Switzerland
  • Britain
  • Monaco
  • Belgium
  • France
  • Italy
  • Indianapolis (Indy 500)
In 1951 a driver named Juan-Manuel Fangio won his first championship. Fangio has since been hailed by many as one of the greatest drivers of all time.

1952-53 were dominated by Ferrari who won 30 out of the 33 races run. The formula also changed at this time restricting engine capacity to 2 litres (naturaly aspirated) or 500cc (supercharged).

1955: On 11th June '55 the Le Mans Grand prix played host to the worst motorsport accident of all time when the Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh collided with another car at 130mph. His car launched into the air and landed on the crash barrier. The force of the impact caused the engine and front suspension to come loose, crashing through the crowd and resulting in 83 deaths, with over 100 more injured.

1958: Between Grands Prix Fangio and Stirling Moss (teamates at the time) both entered in a 500km race in Cuba. Moss took the chequered flag after Fangio was kidnapped by Cuban rebels in support of Fidel Castro. Fortunately he was released unharmed after the race.

1961: Formula change to a maximum of 1500cc engines and a minimum weight of 450kg. Supercharging was banned at this point amongst arguments that the new rules would slow the races down and lose public interest. It seemed that the arguments were well founded and in 1963 the rules changed again to allow 3 litre (3000cc) engines.

1968: A major event in the sport in this year was the rule change to allow tobacco advertising and sponsorship. This effectively ended the era of the privateer driver (who could no longer keep up the funding and research needed to remain competitive). Amongst the first companies to take advantage of this were Gold leaf tobacco and Marlboro. This year also saw the introduction of aerodynamic 'wings' which are used to increase downforce, allowing for faster cornering speeds.

1969 By this time the cars were becoming very complex machines, and in 1969 both Matra and Lotus created the first 4WD racecars. Unfortunately for them the possible advantages of the setup did not overshadow the less than ideal side effects which included "heavyness" in steering and bad understeer.

1975: After 11 years out of the spotlight, Ferrari had regained the top spot in Grand Prix racing by winning both the contructor and driver championship titles.

1976: In this year the season was extended to 16 races. It also saw the first (and only) six-wheeled racecar. It was produced by Tyrell and had four small front wheels instead of two.

1977: Renault designed and raced the first turbo car in this year with their 500bhp 1.5 litre engine (by the mid 80s they were producing over 1000bhp) and lotus began experimenting with Ground effects by using a specially shaped underbody section. With this new technology the front running cars were able to corner at 3G compared to about 1G in the 60s and 0.6G in the 50s.

1982: Rule changes in this year banned the Moveable skirts which provided much of the car's downforce. This forced manufacturers to lower the cars to approximately 25mm ground clearance which in turn nessesitated much firmer suspension which had a travel of only milimetres. In 1983 the rules were further refined to exclude flat Undertrays which removed any ground effects from the car.

1987: Lotus develops the first Active suspension technology which herald the beginning of the "Active car era".

1989: The friendly rivalry (read: fierce personal duel) between teamates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna came to a head when Senna attempted a dangerous overtaking move on his teamate. Prost refused to move over and the two collided and ran off the track. While Prost left the car furious Senna insisted on a push-start from the marshalls, pitted to get a new nose section and went on to win the race. He was later disqualified. Prost left the team soon after but that did not prevent a similar event the following year when Senna did much the same thing to his Ferrari. Incidently this Ferrari was the first car to feature a semi-automatic gearbox.

1993: New regulations ban several Driver aids including Active suspension and Traction control amongst others.

1994: Cornering at over 180mph, Ayrton Senna's car bottomed out, causing him to lose control and run head on into a wall. A steel rod punctured his helmet and skull and he was pronounced dead upon arrival at hospital. Despite the controversial events described above many consider Senna to be the greatest driver ever. To this day he is the only Formula 1 World champion to die in a Grand prix. Senna's passing was the start of a new era in the sport largely dominated by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, along with the McLaren racing team.

Today: The last decade has been a time of constant development in the sport and the gap between the top few teams and the "also rans" has widened over this time. Recent rule changes have attempted to even things up a little and so far the 2003 season appears to be more of a mixed bag than previous years but exactly how effective the changes will be remains to be seen. Over the sport's evolution it has become a multi-billion dollar show and is almost universally considered to be the pinnacle or motorsport. The only sure thing is that next year's cars will be better and the show will be faster than ever before...