The History of French Automobile Racing

Home to Peugeot, Renault and Citroën, France is one of the pioneers of the automotive industry. Having more than 350 car manufacturers through out the years, it was clear why car racing in France became a major sporting event.


Paris – Rounen Race – 1894

After the gasoline or petrol-fueled internal-combustion engine was invented in the 1880s came the birth of automobile racing. Motor racing started in France with the Paris–Rouen race as the first organized automobile competition and took place on July 22, 1894.  This car racing contest was organized by a Paris newspaper, Le Petit Journal. This 126 km contest in 1894 traversed from Porte Maillot in Paris, through the Bois de Boulogne up to Rouen, France. A pioneer of the automobile industry in France won the race. Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne completed the race at an average speed of 19 km/h (12 mph) within 6 hours 48 minutes. However, the prize was not awarded to him because his steam-powered car needed a stroker and cars were judged on their combined speed, handling and safety characteristics. The judges then declared Peugeot and Panhard as official winners.

Paris-Bordeaux Race – 1895

The world’s first true automobile race was held in 1895 going from Paris to Bordeaux, France, and back. The Paris-Bordeaux Race was headed by a committee of journalists as well as automotive pioneers including Armand Peugeot and the contest winner Emile Levassor. The contest had a distance of 1,178 km and the winner completed the course with an impressive speed of 24.15 km/h (15 mph). Levassor won the race in just under 49 hours but got disqualified because he drove a 2 seater and the race was for 4 seaters. The first place then went to a Peugeot that finished the course 11 hours behind him.

This Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race showed France’s superiority in automotive technology then and founded the Automobile Club de France within the same year. It was created in order to foster the development of the motor vehicle and regulate future motorsports events.

Course de Périgueux – 1898

Town-to-town race in France or from France to other countries was the norm back then in Europe until it was stopped due to a large number of accidents. Course de Périgueux was the first closed-circuit road race in 1898 governed by the Automobile Club de France. This race had a distance of 145 km in one lap starting in Perigueux going to Mussidan, Bergerac and Le Bugue then back to Perigueux.

The Gordon Bennett Races – 1900

James Gordon Bennett owner of The New York Herald established the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1900. International racing began after Bennett offered a trophy to the Automobile Club de France. The trophy was to be competed for annually by the national automobile clubs in various European countries. Each country was allowed to race up to three cars. But it required that every part of the competing vehicle be fully built in the country that it represented including wheels. This marks the first international race series in history. Of the six races held till 1905, France was the most successful country winning four of the six. The remaining two were won by a British Napier (in 1902) and a German Mercedes (in 1903).

Paris–Madrid Race – 1903

During this time in France, there was great interest in international car racing. In May 1903, Paris–Madrid race was organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF) and the Spanish Automobile Club or Automóvil Club Español. Racing in public was an early experiment in auto racing and proved to be very difficult. Cars hit trees, cars overturned and caught fire, inexperienced drivers crashed on the rough roads and other accidents continued throughout the day. The race was then called off with half of the cars either crashed, over 100 wounded and eight people dead. Marcel Renault, a French racing driver and co-founder of the carmaker Renault, was included in these eight people who died in the Paris-Madrid Race.

Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – 1904

Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) or International Automobile Federation was founded on June 20, 1904, and known as the governing body of many auto racing events. FIA promoted safe, sustainable and accessible mobility for all road users across the world. 

24 hours of Le Mans – 1907

Grand Prix motor racing originated in France near Le Mans in 1906. French manufacturers refused to be limited to three cars and this led to their boycott of the Bennett Trophy Race in 1906. During this year at Le Mans, they established the first French Grand Prix organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF). It was the oldest and the first recognized Grand Prix race with a starting field of 32 automobiles. The Grand Prix name (“Great Prize”) referred to the prize of 45,000 French francs awarded to the race winner. The circuit used was triangular in shape, each lap covering 105 kilometers (65 mi). Automobile Club de France decided to race on a circuit instead of racing on ordinary roads from town to town because of the Paris to Madrid race in 1903. It was in this race where a number of people, both drivers, and pedestrians were killed.

The oldest and the most famous endurance race in the world was the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans still held every year. Over the years, the race has been a seat for professional competition and personal rivalries. Henry Ford made huge investments to develop superior race cars and vowed to defeat Ferrari on this race track after his unsuccessful attempt to buy the Italian stallion. 

Formula One – Present

Grand Prix motor racing began in France and eventually evolved into formula racing with Formula One (Formula 1 or F1) seen as its direct descendant. Formula 1 is still referred to as Grand Prix racing and each Formula One World Championship event is still called a Grand Prix.

Formula 1 up to this present day is the highest class of single-seater auto racing. It is owned by the Formula One Group and sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Since its inaugural season in 1950, The FIA Formula One World Championship has been one of the premier forms of racing around the world.

Before a car’s ability to navigate roads effectively was sufficient enough. Speed was not even important that is until the flag is dropped. Today, one of the oldest motor race in the world, the French Grand Prix will return after a 10-year absence. The race will be held in 2018 at the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet near Marseille, France.

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