Formula 1 was officially founded in 1946, but its automobile races weren’t the first to boast the Grand Prix name. That honour goes to the first of a series of annual races held by the Automobile Club of France (ACF). The inaugural ACF Grand Prix event took place in 1906 and the series was gradually adapted to become formula racing as we know it today.
However, many people credit another international motor racing competition with being the precursor to Formula One: the Gordon Bennett Cup. So what was this long-gone sporting event and what part did it play in the history of the F1 Championship?
The Origins of Gordon Bennett Cup
This series of annual automobile races was initiated in 1899, when James Gordon Bennett Jr., a notorious playboy and the publisher of the New York Herald newspaper, donated a trophy to the Automobile Club of France.
The trophy was to be used as the prize for a motor racing competition, which would initially be between members of the French, German, British, Belgian, Austrian, Swiss, American and Italian national automobile racing clubs. Prior to this, motor racing competitions had been between individual drivers rather than between teams from different countries, so this new event was to become the first ever truly international automobile race.
1900 – The First Race for the Cup
The inaugural race for the new trophy took place on 14 June 1900 and was officially known as the Coupe Internationale. Each nation was allowed to put forward three drivers. The cars had to have been made in the country that they were representing and were required to be painted in the country’s official race colours.
The route used for the first race began in Paris and ended in Lyon, and covered a distance of 568.66km. Only five drivers competed – three French, one Belgian and one American – and only two crossed the finishing line. The winner was Fernand Charron, from France, while his fellow countryman, Léonce Girardot, finished in second place.
Unfortunately, the event was considered by many to be a failure. With few entrants, even fewer finishers and a gap of more than an hour and a half between the first and second placed drivers, it didn’t provide the excitement that the organisers and spectators had hoped for.
The 1901 Race – An All-French Affair
In order to negate the criticism that the previous year’s race had attracted, the organisers decided to combine the II Coupe Internationale race with the open-entry Paris-Bordeaux race, giving spectators the chance to watch drivers competing for two different motorsports trophies. The event took place on the 29 May, with the Coupe Internationale competitors crossing the starting line in advance of the Paris-Bordeaux drivers.
This year, only three drivers competed for the trophy, all of whom were French. Britain had planned to enter a car, but unfortunately the vehicle was disqualified when the fact that its tyres had been manufactured in France came to light. The inaugural race’s runner-up, Léonce Girardot, took the title, while both the defending champion, Fernand Charron, and Alfred Velghe (usually known by his pseudonym, Levegh), were forced to retire early.
1902 – Cup Success for Britain
The III Coupe Internationale race was held at the same time as the Paris-Vienna automobile race, which began on 26 June. Six drivers participated this year, three from France and three from Britain, but only one, Selwyn Edge from Britain, completed the race.
The finishing line was at Innsbruck, one of the rest-stops on the Paris-Vienna route, but Edge continued on in his Napier to claim eleventh place in the longer race too.
1903 – The Coup Internationale Heads to Ireland
In honour of Edge’s 1902 victory, the IV Coupe Internationale was held in Ireland; road racing was banned within the British Isles. The race was held in Kildare and twelve competitors took part, the highest number so far. It was eventually won by Camille Jenatzy of Belgium.
1904 – France Triumphs Again
The V Coupe Internationale race took place on 17 June 1904 in Germany. 18 drivers took part this year; three from France, three from Germany, three from Austria, three from Belgium, three from Italy and three from Britain. It was won by Léon Théry from France.
1905 – The Final Gordon Bennett Cup Race
The VI Coupe Internationale competition was the last to be held. It took place on 5 July 1905 in France and, as with the previous year’s event, featured a line-up of eighteen drivers. Léon Théry won and claimed the trophy for France for the second consecutive year.
The Race’s Legacy – The Formula One Championship
Whilst these early automobile races may seem a world away from the high-tech, high-speed world of Formula One, there’s no doubt that they played a key role in formula racing’s history. The switch from drivers racing as individuals to being part of teams was certainly significant and, while Formula 1 teams are international affairs today, the flag of the nation in which the winning manufacturer’s operations are based is still raised aloft at each podium presentation.
Would Formula 1 exist if it weren’t for the Coupe Internationale? It’s certainly possible – but perhaps not in the form we know today.
How far do you think the Coupe Internationale influenced the development of F1? Let us know your thoughts.