In 1900, Gordon Bennett, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald, established an annual motoring event which was not entirely unlike the Nation’s Cup in today’s Race of Champions. Drawing entrants from across Europe, as well as the United States , the races were between national teams, with several cars making up each nation. After the first event, which was held in France , the subsequent races were held in the nation of the previous year’s winner, with France taking the laurels on four occasions, with Great Britain and Germany sharing a win apiece.
Though victorious more often than not, France still grew frustrated with the Cup’s format. With so many potential French marques available for the race, most had to eliminate their entries in order to make room for manufacturers from other nations. For 1906, France killed off the Gordon Bennett Cup and put together an event in which all manufacturers would have a chance to compete. Held on a triangular shaped road course running between Le Mans and two other small French towns, this would be the first Grand Prix.
Over the course of two days in late June, a Tuesday and Wednesday no less, the drivers would compete over twelve laps of the 60 mile course, six each day, for a total of 720 miles. Thirty-two cars were brought by twelve different manufacturers, including Renault, Fiat, Itala, Panhard and Mercedes. The three car factory Renault squad would be led by Hungarian Ferenc Szisz.
Born in the Austro-Hungarian town of Szeghalom in 1873, Szisz had trained as a locksmith and coppersmith before falling in love with automobiles and switching his studies to car design and engineering. His schooling and early career took him to Vienna , Salzburg , Munich and Berlin before finally settling in Paris . It was here that he joined Renault, a company founded by brothers Louis, Marcel and Fernand just a year previous.
Szisz quickly became head of the test department, as well as riding mechanic for Louis Renault during open road races.
In 1903, Marcel Renault was killed during the Paris-Madrid race, a disastrous event which also saw the deaths of numerous other drivers, riding mechanics and spectators. The French and Spanish governments banned open road races immediately and Renault pulled out of racing altogether. However, Louis Renault knew the importance of racing as a marketing tool, so the company’s hiatus did not last long. Their first new racing machine was built in 1905 and, by this time, Ferenc had moved from mechanic to driver.
For the inaugural French Grand Prix, a new rule was put into place requiring all pitwork to be completed solely by the driver and mechanic. In the case of a flat, changing the standard tires of the day was a slow, complicated procedure which required the tube to be cut away from the rim with a knife. Because of this, Renault decided to go with an innovative new tire from Michelin with eight removable bolts holding the tube to the rim. Though less reliable, this new tire could be changed more quickly. Where other teams chose one option or the other, Renault actually split the difference, with the new rims on the back and the old ones up front.
Szisz later commented, “While we reckoned on four minutes to change a removable rim, he (riding mechanic Martaud) could fit a fresh tire on a non-removable front rim in five. I was held up on the first lap by a defective tire. In this contest, one had the choice of two evils: either to take solid tires and slide or round tires with less rubber and risk a puncture. Which do you prefer: to be hung or shot?”
With drivers starting individually, staggered by 90 second intervals, Szisz took the lead early, only being overtaken just after the start, when he had to change a faulty sparkplug, and during two later tire changes. Following each, he quickly regained the lead and held it until the end of the sixth lap, the mid-point of the race. By the end of that first day, he had a healthy twenty-six minute gap over the second place Clement-Bayard of Albert Clement. Ferenc, however, was physically anything but healthy.
Taking place on a day in which temperatures reached 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit!), the heat took its toll on driver, car and track. Renault teammate Edmond had retired from the race with glass in his eye and severe burns caused by the melting road tar being thrown up onto his exposed arms and face. Ferenc suffered the same.
“Whenever I passed one of the competitors who was struggling, which happened at least thirty times during the race, the tar thrown up almost burned my eyes. At five that evening my eyes were so inflamed I couldn’t see anything. That whole night, the Renault brothers made efforts to look after me. At midnight, M. Renault was racing around Le Mans trying to find a pair of safety goggles for me. At one in the morning, needle and scissor in hand, he took on the role of tailor and cut me a face mask to fit around the goggles. To have been the victor on the first day and then perhaps on the second to have to watch another winning! Inconceivable!”
As the race leader, Ferenc left Le Mans first on day two and, with a clear road ahead of him, his lead was never challenged. He would go on to win in a total time of twelve hours and fourteen minutes, some thirty-two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor, at an average speed of 62.9mph. One hundred years later, on the centenary of the first Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher would win the 2006 French GP at an average speed of 124.875mph.
Ferenc Szisz continued driving for Renault, finishing 2nd in the 1907 GP and falling out of the ’08 race while in third place, until the manufacturer pulled out of racing at the end of that year. He continued on with other teams before volunteering for the French army in WW1. He became leader of their troops fighting in Algeria and, because of this, was subsequently granted French citizenship. He saw out his final days, along with his wife Barbe, in Auffargis, just outside of Paris, passing away peacefully at his home in 1944 at the age of seventy. A statue of Ferenc stands at the main entrance of the Hungaroring and his grave in Auffargis is still maintained jointly by the Auto Club of France and Renault.