Found on a wall: the first Grand Prix

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

I was on my way to a restaurant in London the other day when I came across a striking building I hadn?t seen before.

But the beaming face of a character whose body appeared to be made out of tyres and letters spelling out the word ??Bibendum? made it unmistakeably clear this was an old Michelin building:

Bibendum Restaurant
Bibendum Restaurant

I later discovered this was Michelin House, which was built as the tyre manufacturers’ UK headquarters in 1911.

And portrayed on the side of the building was a picture of a special event that took place five years before Michelin House was built: the first ever Grand Prix:

Ferenc Szisz winning the 1906 French Grand Prix
Ferenc Szisz winning the 1906 French Grand Prix

The race was won by Hungarian Ferenc Szisz. But apart from the title ??Grand Prix? and the constructor of Szisz?s car ?ǣ Renault ?ǣ the event had little in common with what we recognise as Grand Prix racing today.

The event was run over two days, with 12 laps of a 64-mile loop of public roads. It was organised by the Automobile Club de France, and the significant innovation that set it apart from the road rallies that preceded it was that the roads would be specially closed for the occasion.

The roads were mainly made of tar, in the days before tarmac became ubiquitous. In little time the cars cut the road to pieces and the race became a gruelling struggle against dust, debris and punctured tyres.

Szisz’s tyres – which were, of course, Michelins – gave him a decisive advantage. As the cars burned through their rubber at a frantic rate, speedy tyre changes were vital. The detachable rims on the Michelin tyres allowed new tread to be fitted in two minutes instead of the usual 15.

Szisz took the chequered flag having covered the 12 laps – split into two days of six laps’ running – in 12 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds. His closest rival, Felice Nazzaro, was 32 minutes behind. It is not recorded whether the crowd grumbled about how processional Grand Prix racing had become.

You can take a peek at the building, now the Bibendum Restaurant, on Google Street View:


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