Motor Racing ... The Early Years
In Victorian times, health and safety was regarded with a disdainful curl of the stiff upper lip, so there was little serious driving regulation. ‘Motor racing’ took place on long stretches of dusty country road and so gripped the pioneers and engineers of the age that technology advanced rapidly. By 1900, the world speed record, which was set by an electric car, topped 65 mph.
In 1903, 2 million enthusiasts lined the route from Paris to Madrid as 274 cars of all shapes and sizes battled for supremacy. British racing ace Charlie Jarrott set the scene:
Long avenues of trees, top-heavy with foliage and gaunt in their very nakedness of trunk; a long, never-ending white ribbon, stretching away to the horizon; the holding of a bullet directed to that spot on the sky-line where earth and heaven met; fleeting glimpses of towns and dense masses of people – mad people, insane and reckless, holding themselves in front of the bullet to be ploughed and cut and maimed to extinction, evading the inevitable at the last moment in frantic haste; overpowering relief, as each mass was passed and each chance of catastrophe escaped; and beyond all, the horrible feeling of being hunted.
The first day saw eight fatalities and 20 injured, perhaps unsurprising in an environment where drivers achieved average speeds of 65mph on narrow lanes packed with spectators. The French authorities shut the contest down before it left Bordeaux. Road racing was abandoned and the pioneers moved to closed circuits at places like Le Mans and Brooklands.
The gruelling, high-speed epics that followed would eventually spawn every piece of technology on the modern car, from disc brakes to power steering. It created a set of driving principles that continues to be developed inside the cauldron of competition in Formula 1 and across the spectrum of the sport.