The Great Felice Nazzaro


In 1905 the biggest, most important auto race in the world was the James Gordon Bennett Cup. Bennett, the mercurial Paris editor of the New York Herald, was an avid sportsman enthused by horses, gas balloons, airplanes, and race cars. He loved celebrating them in competition and becoming the center of attention by awarding the triumphant with trophies carrying his name.
Notorious for such outrageous behavior as riding his steed into the palatial mansion of a dignitary or urinating into his host’s fireplace at a dinner party, Bennett harbored an over-the-top lust for life. His passion for competition drove him to help organize contests for cars, airplanes, and balloons with impressive trophies as the prize. None were greater lionized or more widely reported than his auto races, founded in 1899.
Consistent with the convention of these formative days of the automobile, an international competition was defined by Olympic conventions. The standard-bearers of each participating nation represented their flag and the pride of its citizenry. This meant rules. Being avid sportsmen, the organizers issued an edict that each nation should be represented by three driver and car combinations to be selected at the discretion of their home country.
For leaders of the automobile industry in France, this was the rub. This was the outrage, really.
At the time, France was the preeminent automobile-producing company in the world, with marques like Panhard, Darracq, Mors, De Dietrich, Renault, Hotchkiss, Peugeot, and Clement-Bayard. All were quality manufacturers, while other countries such as Germany (Mercedes) and Italy (Fiat) were represented by a single brand each. Britain, despite its 1903 victory with Napier, was not taken seriously. American cars were the laughing stock of the industrialized world at the time.
The French collectively bristled at the notion that some of the top car factories in the world — French companies — were expected to sit at home while clearly inferior entries were ushered to the starting line. All for the sake of some sporting ethos.
An irony emerged in that just as Mr. Bennett’s race rose to worldwide prominence in 1905, France literally pulled the rug out from under it. They had the muscle to do it. The French Automobile Club announced the organization of a new event — the Grand Prix — to take place the following year.
France welcomed the world to their contest and in whatever number factories could support. The fundamental rule essential to their Grand Prix founding principle was that there was no limit to the number of cars that could represent a given country.

Indeed, 24 of the 33-car field were produced by French companies. The only other nations represented were Italy with three Fiats and three Italas and Germany with three Mercedes. Despite the huge advantage of the host country, the Fiat of Felice Nazzaro nearly upended France’s best-laid plans by finishing second.
The winner was the unheralded Ferenc Szisz who the betting lines had labeled a 200-to-1 long shot going into the contest. Szisz was at the wheel of a Renault, which was reason enough for the partisan crowd numbering 180,000 and scattered around the 64-mile course to emit roars of approval when he prevailed.
The contest was a marathon that took place over two days — June 26 and 27 — in exceptionally excessive summer heat that tested both the drivers and their mechanical mounts. The dirt roads, freshly treated with oily tar, presented an unanticipated hazard as dust clouds carried particles coated with the petrochemicals that worked their way into drivers’ eyes to nearly blind the most sensitive.
The result carried an ominous foreshadowing for the Franco-faithful with that red Fiat of Nazzaro coming home second. Despite overwhelming odds, France was one mistake, just one mechanical malady, from sincere and monumental embarrassment.
That embarrassment was realized the following year in 1907 when Nazzaro and Szisz swapped finishing positions to produce an Italian Fiat victory. The promising young Albert Clement, who had finished third in his father’s Clement-Bayard racer the previous year, wasn’t present to figure into the results. He had perished while practicing for the contest weeks earlier. While French racers captured the subsequent eight finishing positions, there is nothing that can compare to the winner’s bragging rights.
Matters got out of hand in the third running of the contest. This 1908 go saw Germany emerge as the absolute dominant force by nailing down not only the top three finishing positions but six of the top seven.
Christian Lautenschlager drove his Mercedes to a convincing win with the Benz entries of Victor Hemery and Rene Hanriot following in second and third. Almost lost in the mix of this wholly unpalatable, wicked German stew was Victor Rigal in his Clement-Bayard, the only French entry among the top 11.

Adding to the pall of emotion over the event were the first deaths in Grand Prix history. Driver Henri Cissac and his riding mechanic Jules Schaube perished when their Panhard barrel-rolled over them after a tire exploded.
The biggest news about the French entries coming out of the contest was that one of their kind had taken the lives of two young men in brutal fashion. This might have been convenient to the country’s automotive leadership to issue forth a decision to curtail their Grand Prix indefinitely. It returned in 1912 but would be interrupted again during years of global insanity such as the World Wars and, in 1955, in the wake of the astonishing Le Mans 24 disaster that claimed over 80 spectators’ lives and injured as many as 150 more.
Today we find the historic tradition of the French Grand Prix again in hiatus since 2009 as the economic model of the sport has evolved and local authorities have assessed it as unsustainable. Born in anger, toiling in disappointment and sometimes tragedy, today’s status is another morose chapter in the event’s history when you consider that the home of the first Grand Prix harbors no berth for its latest generation to relish.
The image here is of Felice Nazzaro - click thru and see what you can learn from him...