- Dan Knutson
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Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso drove into the Grand Prix record books in 2006.
Schumacher rounded off his 16-year F1 career with a record 91 victories plus a host of other marks. Alonso, age 25, became the youngest driver ever to win two world championships.
The duo also put a bookend on a century of Grand Prix racing that began in 1906.
The history of auto racing can be traced back to 1894. In Europe, racing evolved into city-to-city races. Held on open roads, the events resulted in many injuries and deaths to drivers, riding mechanics and spectators. In 1903, the Paris-to-Madrid race had so many casualties that the French and Spanish governments banned open road races on the spot.
After that, races such as the Gordon Bennett Cup still were held on roads, but on temporary circuits closed to the normal traffic.
In 1906, the Auto Club de France put together a triangular 60-mile track between Le Mans and two other French towns and staged the first ever "Grand Prix" on June 26 and 27. The race, much longer than today's 190-mile events, was held over two days, and the cars, sent off at intervals, ran six laps each day.
Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz won in a 4-cylinder 13-litre Renault at an average speed of 62.9 mph.
One hundred years later, on June 25, 2006, Alonso won the Canadian Grand Prix in a V-8 2.4-liter Renault at an average speed of 120.279 mph. Then, on July 16, the Grand Prix teams raced in France on the centennial of that country's and the sport's first-ever Grand Prix. Schumacher won in his Ferrari at an average speed of 124.875 mph.
In honor of the first-ever Grand Prix and Szisz' victory, the Renault F1 team released his account of the race.
Born in 1873, Szisz trained as a machinist and auto mechanic and eventually went to work for the Renault brothers where he was a riding mechanic in some of the city-to-city races. Following the death of Marcel Renault in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, the team withdrew from competition for two years. In 1905, they returned to racing, and Szisz, now a driver, was entered in the 1906 French Grand Prix.
Here is how he described his victory:
"I was held up on the first lap by a defective tire. In this contest one had the choice of two evils: either to take solid tires and slide or round tires with less rubber and risk a puncture. Which do you prefer: to be hung or shot? To be sure we had removable rims but we weren't the only ones. While other competitors had them on all four wheels, we only had them on the two in front.
"Nonetheless my car ran not only with excellent consistency but also with extraordinary speed. The only exceptions were the changing of a spark plug at the start and the stop to change the tire. I lapped faster than virtually all of the competition including Lancia, Baras and Jenatzy. None of them overtook me on the track except when I had to stop to change tires.
"On the second lap I was overtaken by Baras when I burst another tire. Around the middle of the lap, though, I managed to overtake him to put myself back in the lead. When I drove past my team I saw the index fingers of all hands uplifted to show I was leading. On my fourth lap I stopped in front of the stands at my pit to take on supplies and learn my lap times.
"The race was exceptionally hard. Whenever I passed one of the competitors who was struggling -- which happened at least thirty times during the race -- the tar thrown up almost burned my eyes. With our short wheelbase we had the front wheels virtually in front of our eyes and suffered awfully. My hour of desperation came late on the first day. At five that evening my eyes were so inflamed I couldn't see anything. A thick fog seemed to have descended before me.
"That whole night the Renaults and Hugé Grus made efforts to look after me. By eleven it finally got a bit better, and at midnight M. Renault was racing around Le Mans trying to find a pair of safety goggles for me.
"At one in the morning, needle and scissors in hand, he took on the role of tailor and cut me a face mask to fit around the goggles. My distressed condition had been well nigh critical. To have been the victor on the first day and then perhaps on the second to have to watch another winning! Inconceivable!
"When I finally got started everything went well. Knowing that no competitor was in front of me and with the aim of profiting as much as possible from the clear road, on the second day I set my fastest lap. I lingered eleven minutes at my pit for recuperation and started off again at 5:45 a.m. I was back at 6:47 a.m. after completing the lap in 51 minutes.
"I drove the final laps in a state of tremendous excitement. Victory was to be mine and as I drove past M. Girardot I couldn't keep from shouting to him, "We've done it!" My mechanic was as delighted as I. The honest Martaud is the best tire fitter I know. While we reckoned on four minutes to change a removable rear rim, he could fit a fresh tire on a non-removable front rim in five.
"And then came the finale, the Marseillaise (French national anthem), the Minister, the ovations. All very gratifying -- as was the return journey to Paris and the factory where our colleagues awaited us."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
The first Grand Prix held 100 years ago was truly a grueling test for Ferenc Szisz, the Renault driver who won it, writes Dan Knutson.