Letter to readers

Author

Denis Jenkinson

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History lesson

Dear reader

I know, and I hope you know, that the first motor race to take the title Grand Prix, was the one organised by the Automobile Club de France in 1906. The winner was Francois Szisz and he drove a Renault. Grand Prix racing has continued ever since, and a great number of countries have had a major race which they named as their Grand Prix. For a time not all of them followed the lead of the Automobile Club de France, but eventually conformity appeared and Grand Prix races adhered to a Formula laid down by the international governing body of motor sport.

Between the two World Wars there were regular sets of rules governing a Grand Prix motor race of any standing, these covering the specification of the cars and the running of the event. The rules were changed every few years, in the light of experience and technical progress, for the years 1920 to 1939 saw some major break-throughs. Engine design, metallurgy, suspension knowledge, streamlining and tyres all benefited from the progress encouraged by Grand Prix racing.

Until 1939 the whole scene was described as “Grand Prix” (Grosser Preis in German, Gran Premio in Italian) which was the accepted international expression to describe cars or events run to the pertaining rules, and to the people that drove. At the time there was also racing for smaller cars, to a similar format as Grand Prix cars, and these were known generally as “voiturettes”, the inference being that Grand Prix cars were “voitures” though the expression was never used. After the 1939-45 World War the sport of motor racing proliferated and presumably due to everyone having been trained on six years of military discipline and a sense of order, the expressions “Grand Prix”, “Voiturette” and “Petit Cylindre” were given the formal, and rather dull, titles of Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3. There were attempts to continue this trend, with Formula 4, 5 and 6, but thankfully we stopped there, or otherwise we would probably be up to Formula 69 by now!

In 1950 the international governing body, the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) schemed up a World Championship for Drivers, based on a fixed number of Grand Prix events and points scored on the results. In 1958 they added a similar championship for manufacturers, though unofficially successful manufacturers had been acclaimed World Champions for many years.

For a while only a limited number of Grand Prix events counted for championship points, though there were many other races staged to Formula 1 or Grand Prix rules, that were of an equal challenge but not supported by all the manufacturers and teams.

As the World Championship series progressed more events were added to the list that counted for points, eventually reaching a total of sixteen. This very full programme of major events meant that the minor ones suffered from falling entries, lack of support, and lack of financial stability. Added to that the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans accident took its toll, as racing was outlawed from the public roads by one country after another and forced to go to permanent tracks.

This caused the death-knell of the smaller Grand Prix races, which was a pity as it took away the opportunity for drivers and teams to learn the profession of Grand Prix racing before launching off into the World Championship series. Today any driver or team that wants to get into Formula 1 has to go in at the deep end, committing themselves to a full season of sixteen events, and many of them sink without trace. Sadly a large section of the press and television media have become obsessed with the World Championship, especially that for drivers, viewing the driver as an individual rather than as a member of a team. Even more sad is their inability to think of anything else but ‘NOW’. They forget all about those drivers and teams that built the foundations of Grand Prix racing over the last 83 years, and brought it through to the strong position it was in in 1950 when it was able to support a World Championship. Due to press and television indoctrination too many people today think that Grand Prix (and Formula 1) racing started in 1950. They forget everything that happened before then, not just in the years from 1906, but even 1947/48/49. Motor Sport fell from grace recently by listing the past winners of the British Grand Prix only from 1950, ignoring Villoresi (Maserati) who won in 1948, and Baron de Graffenried (Maserati) who won in 1949; to say nothing of the two British Grand Prix races in 1926 and 1927.

This obsession with the World Championship and 1950 has been nurtured by the publicity department of Marlboro cigarettes who established a department called Marlboro World Championship Team (whatever that meant) and have dispensed valuable information to the media for many years now. It is all good stuff, but it only deals with events since 1950, and the world’s press (or most of them, especially newcomers) think that Formula 1 racing started in 1950.

Those of us to whom Grand Prix racing is the ultimate way of motor racing life can look back beyond 1950 I am glad to say. Recently there have been some articles, prompted by the recent Grand Prix of Belgium, about Richard (Dick) Seaman, who died 50 years ago as the result of his crash in the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix while driving for the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team and who was everyone’s hero at the time. Some friends placed a small memorial stone by the side of the road where he crashed. It was there for many years, just in front of the Automobile Club of Spa clubhouse, having survived the war years.

During the Stewart/Bonnier era of “double row armco everywhere” this stone was hidden behind the armco, but you could still see it if you knew where to look. Then one day it disappeared, but I do not recall exactly when; it was a case of one day realizing the road had been realigned and widened and the stone was gone. Attempts to trace it have repeatedly failed, though many people remember it. If anyone has any ideas I, and numerous other readers, would like to hear from you. It is not a great National Monument, but it honours one of Britain’s most famous Grand Prix drivers from an important age, before the world became obsessed with “points” and championships, when winning the Belgian Grand Prix would have been sufficient acclaim in itself. DSJ

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