Motorsport has come a long way over the course of its 154-year history, from 8 mph steam carriages puttering around the outskirts of Victorian Manchester to aerodynamic £10 million Formula One speed machines flashing down straights at 220 mph.
The development of motorsport has mirrored the technological advances of the modern age to continuously deliver faster and more thrilling racing spectacles.
Buckle up and join us on a race through motorsport history.
1. The first car race was contested in Greater Manchester
Our list begins with an event that can reasonably be described as the inception of motorsport. On 30 August 1867 the first prearranged race between self-powered road vehicles over a prescribed route commenced at Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, England.
The race, which followed an 8-mile route to Old Trafford, was contested by two solid-fired steam carriages, a single cylinder vehicle built by Isaac W. Boulton and a two-cylinder model by Daniel Adamson and Company. Boulton’s smaller, and evidently nippier, carriage took the lead a mile into the race and held on to the finishing line. The race took about an hour, meaning that the carriages achieved an average speed of 8 mph.
2. The 1894 Paris-Rouen race heralded the dawn of motorsport
Though the 1867 Greater Manchester race pipped it by the best part of three decades, an 1894 contest in northern France is often described as the world’s first competitive motor race. The Paris–Rouen Concours du ‘Petit Journal’ Les Voitures sans Chevaux (Le Petit Journal Horseless Carriages Contest), which was preceded by four days of vehicle exhibitions and qualifying competitions, certainly generated more excitement.
As the dramatic centrepiece of a well-funded event designed to stimulate interest in motoring, it’s easy to see why Paris–Rouen is widely regarded as the race that heralded the arrival of motorsport. Interestingly, the first driver across the finishing line was the automobile pioneer Jules-Albert de Dion but he was disqualified because his steam-powered car required a stoker. Victory was instead awarded to the first-placed petrol car, a Peugeot driven by Albert Lemaître.
3. The first purpose-built motor racing circuit was in Australia
Perhaps surprisingly given the European origins of motorsports, the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit was on the other side of the planet, in Australia. The Aspendale motor raceway was built on the site of a horse racing course in a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria and hosted its first motor race in January 1906. The pear-shaped course was just short of a mile in length and its gravel track featured slightly banked curves.
4. The first Grand Prix motor race predated Formula One by 40 years
Grand Prix racing is most readily associated with Formula One, to the extent that Grand Prix and Formula One racing are effectively synonymous. But the first references to Grand Prix motor racing actually predate the inaugural Formula One race by four decades.
The term, which translates as ‘great prize’, traces back to the early 19th century when the famous Prix Gladiateur race bore the name – France’s oldest surviving horse race only assumed its current moniker in 1869. The first example of the term being regularly applied to a motor race came with the advent of the French Grand Prix at the Le Mans circuit in 1906.
5. Formula One became the world’s premier motorsport in 1946
Formula One was defined in 1946 by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) as the premier single-seater racing category in worldwide motorsport. The ‘formula’ refers to a set of regulations that all competing cars must abide by. Formula Two was introduced at the same time and referred to a less powerful second-tier category of ‘Voiturette’ (small car) racing.
The first race under Formula One regulations was the 1946 Turin Grand Prix, won by Achille Varzi in an Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta. But the World Drivers’ Championship wasn’t formalised until the following year, so some dispute its standing as the first Formula One race. The first FIA Formula World Championship race took place at Silverstone in 1950. 150,000 spectators watched Giuseppe Farina triumph in another Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta.
6. Ray Harroun won the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911
Rather like the Baseball World Series, US motorsports have usually been home-grown affairs and no race exemplifies all-American motor racing better than the Indianapolis 500. Billed as ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, the Indy 500 is traditionally held over the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May at the Indianapolis Speedway, a 2.5-mile oval circuit that dates back to 1909.
The Indy 500 is the showpiece event of America’s top-level open wheel, open cockpit formula, the IndyCar Series, and sees a field of 33 cars compete over 200 laps (500 miles) of racing. The Inaugural Indianapolis 500 was raced in 1911 and won by Ray Harroum who recorded an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour in a Marmon Model 32-based Wasp racer controversially outfitted with his own invention – the rear-view mirror.
7. The Olympics has almost never featured motorsports
Motorsport has long been conspicuously absent from the Olympic Games, and with good reason: the Olympic committee doesn’t recognise machine-based or motorised sports. Barring a reversal of this firmly held position, it seems likely that the Olympics will remain a motorsport-free event for the foreseeable future.
However, before the committee decided to deny the inclusion of motorised sports, there was a brief window of Olympic opportunity for motor racing: the 1900 Paris Summer Olympics. No fewer than 14 motorsport events were contested in conjunction with the 1900 World’s Fair, which was also being held in Paris. Entries for the events – which included taxi, delivery van and fire truck racing – were by manufacturers rather than drivers. Consequently, the names of the victorious drivers have been lost to history.
8. Graham Hill remains the only driver to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport
The Triple Crown of Motorsport is an unofficial achievement that requires a driver to win the three most prestigious motor races in the world over the course of their career: the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix. Given that the three races have rarely been part of the same World Championship, completing the trio of victories is close to impossible – most drivers won’t even race in all three.
Only one driver can claim the Triple Crown. The British driver Graham Hill, who competed in the F1 World Championship for most of his career, won the Monaco Grand Prix five times but also triumphed in the Indy 500 as a rookie driver in 1966. He completed the Triple Crown with a victory in the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Henri Pescarolo.
9. Maria Teresa Filippis was the first woman to drive in an F1 race
Maria Teresa Filippis, who proved her undeniable talent on the Italian sports car racing circuit, was given an opportunity to race at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix and became the first female driver to compete in Formula One. She just missed out on qualification but went on to finish 10th in the Belgian Grand Prix of the same year.
10. NASCAR may have never emerged without prohibition
America’s other leading auto racing brand, alongside the IndyCar Series, is NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). NASCAR has its foundations in stock car racing – which once revolved around the use of production model cars. But stock car racing may never have emerged were it not for the introduction of prohibition in 1920s America: moonshine runners often had to outrun authorities, so they needed especially fast cars. This required discrete modifications that would enhance the performance without attracting suspicion.
By the 1930s, runners were challenging each other to races in their customised production cars and a nascent form of stock car racing emerged. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) was formed in 1948 by Bill France Sr. as an attempt to unify stock car racing and standardise the rules.