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City to City Races 1894-1903
Although there had been an unsuccessful attempt to organise a motoring competition near Paris as early as 1887, motor racing was born on 22 June 1894 when 21 cars left the Porte Maillot in Paris for the 80 mile trip to Rouen. The Petit Journal-sponsored event was a reliability trial, with the first prize of 5000 francs awarded to the driver of the first car that completed the course safely and at low running cost. Another stipulation was that each car should have both a driver and a mechanic, so when the first driver to finish, Count de Dion, did not have a mechanic he forfeited the spoils of victory.
Within 12 months a newly formed committee (which would become the Automobile Club de France in 1896) organised the first true race from Paris to Bordeaux and back. This set the format for the inter-city events that would dominate international racing for the next eight years.
Each year the ACF chose a new destination for its Paris races, and in 1903 this was Madrid. Cars had to weigh under 1000kgs so designers built light (and fragile) chassis to allow the largest possible engines. On the first day's run to Bordeaux, an estimated three million spectators lined the roads to watch these huge cars, some of which were capable of over 80 mph in a straight line. Unfortunately, their brakes were not as effective and a series of fearful accidents left five competitors and numerous spectators dead, forcing the event to be abandoned.
The searing heat, blinding dust, and poor crowd control had turned the Paris-Madrid race into a disaster, and the ACF turned to closed circuit racing for the future, albeit on courses of over 50 miles in length.
Gordon Bennett Cup 1900-1905
The promotional value of motor racing was recognised early in its history. In 1899 James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald's European edition announced the first Coupe Internationale, now better known as the Gordon Bennett Cup.
National teams of up to three competitors could enter, provided drivers and riding mechanics were members of its national motoring organisation and all of the car's components were made in that country. These requirements led Mercedes to build cars both in Germany and Austria in 1904 and 1905 to gain extra entries. The winning country won the right to hold the following year's race.
Although not well supported at first, by 1904 six nations competed and the Automobile Club de France were forced to organise an elimination race to decide its entries from an original field of 29 hopefuls. This pressure for French entries finally forced the event to be abandoned after the 1905 race. The ACF decided to replace it with a new race in which all manufacturers, irrespective of nationality, could enter up to three cars – Grand Prix racing was born.