Ferenc Szisz, a locksmith and railway engineer, left his homeland to take a factory job with Renault. Six years later he made history by becoming the first grand prix winner. Adam Hay-Nicholls reflects upon the life and times of a Hungarian hero.
The lead driver’s eyes were on fire. With an ambient temperature of more than 40 degrees Celsius, the freshly laid tarmac of the Circuit de la Sarthe was melting, and the hot gooey black surface was being flicked from the front wheels of Ferenc Szisz’ Renault onto the exposed skin and into the eyes of Szisz and his onboard mechanic, Marteau. The date was June 26, 1906 and 32 cars were fighting the conditions to become the glorious victor of the world’s first grand prix race.
The stinging would worsen every time Szisz and Marteau lapped a fellow competitor, which occurred at least 30 times during the race. The narrow wheels of the car in front compounded what was already a serious and potentially race-ending vision problem. “With our short wheelbase we had the front wheels virtually in front of our eyes and suffered awfully,” wrote Szisz. “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. It was like a plague for the eyes.”
Team principal, Louis Renault, was himself distressed and rummaging through his pit garage finding the necessary implements – two sets of new safety glasses and a sewing kit. He cut face masks to fit around the goggles, and presented them to Szisz and his mechanic when car number 3A next swung into the pits. Tears were streaming from his eyes as Ferenc gratefully took the impromptu equipment. He was four hours into the race and there was a long way to go. But the 32-year-old from Szeghalom was leading and nothing was going to stop him, no matter the agony. “To have been the victor on the first day and then perhaps on the second to have to watch another winning? Inconceivable!”
The triangular course along 103km of public roads took place to the east of Le Mans. The 12-lap race was split over two days and would total 1236km of bone-rattling racing. A crowd of 180,000 had flocked to the event, many of the spectators belonging to Parisian high society. Because of the extreme heat, it was decided that the race would commence at 6am under cooler conditions. The cars were started at 90-second intervals, and by lap 3 Szisz’ Renault AK90CV, which had started third, had seized a lead it would never surrender. The 1000kg Renault, propelled by a 105hp 13-litre engine, was clocked at a top speed of 149km/h as it charged across the start/finish line and after two grueling days of competition had set an average speed of 101.20km/h.
Ferenc Szisz was not only Renault’s top driver, he was also their chief test and development engineer. He had taken a job at the Renault brothers’ Boulogne-Billancourt workshop in Paris in 1900, starting out as an unknown mechanic. Ferenc was fascinated by the motorcar, having originally worked as a railway engineer in his native Austro-Hungary and also as a coppersmith and locksmith. The second youngest of seven children, he was drafted into military service and left the Theiss lowlands to join a cavalry regiment stationed on the Russian-Galizian border.
After service he returned to Budapest to work as a tyre fitter but was, by his own admission, erratic and restless. He took jobs in the wagon and automotive factories in Prague, Brunn, Graz and Munich before finally arriving in Paris on June 22, 1899, an epicenter of car production at that time. Or so he thought. “I admit that my first impression wasn’t exactly one of splendour. Hitherto I’d only worked in large establishments and the Renault factory in those days was a simple wooden shack. I just couldn’t take the company seriously.”
Szisz was certain he would quit within a week, but that was before he met Louis Renault. Monsieur Renault was impressed by the proactive nature of this particular employee. Szisz was found to be capable of complex tasks and responsibilities, and was invited to work on the cars competing in the Paris-Bordeaux and Paris-Berlin races of 1901. Renault recognized the marketing value of motor racing and the marque became dominant in these early city-to-city races.
For the Paris-Vienna race of 1902 Louis Renault entered, and there was room for a riding mechanic. Szisz was selected. “I could speak German and, as the route took in my homeland, he brought me with him. Thus I emerged from the workshop onto the race track.”
Victory wasn’t theirs. It was Louis’ brother, Marcel, who tasted champagne that day. But Ferenc had impressed Louis when, following a collision, he repaired a broken wheel by carving rough spokes from lumps of wood at the roadside, and the pair were able to continue.
Tragedy occurred in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race with the death of Marcel Renault. The company shut down its motor racing campaign for two years, concentrating solely on road car production. In 1905 the decision was taken to return to competition, and Louis appointed Ferenc to drive. Entered under the name François Szisz, his car overheated during qualifying for the Gordon Bennett Trophy of 1905, but later that summer he finished fifth in New York’s Vanderbilt Cup. The inaugural Grand Prix was his third ever race.
“I was full of confidence. I knew that I wouldn’t find worse roads in the Sarthe than those in the Auvergne or in the race from Paris to Vienna”. But despite his bravado, Szisz had problems from the start. A spark plug needed replacing and, by the end of the first lap, one tyre had split. Szisz suffered 19 punctures in the course of the race, but this was where Renault had an advantage, thanks to Michelin and their detachable rim. The rims were heavy, but allowed new wheels with pre-inflated tyres to be fitted within two minutes, against the five to 15 minutes it took to replace and inflate standard wheels.
At the end of the first day, each car was impounded in parc ferme and then dragged to the start line by horses at sunrise. Britain’s Motor magazine wrote at the time: “We have all come to regard today as being devoted to the weeding-out process, whilst the morrow is to find the winner”. The 17 cars still in the grand prix left the line at precisely the same intervals that they had finished the day before. Such was Szisz’ advantage that by the time he finished his first lap, taking 53 minutes, 11 cars were still waiting to set off. The heat was, again, taking casualties. Medical staff had to deal with 300 cases of sunstroke in the grandstands, and one of the other Renault works drivers, known only by the name Edmond, had severe problems down in 13th place. With the tarmac crumbing due to the temperature, his goggles were shattered by a stone and glass pierced his eye. He tried to continue, the pain almost unbearable as dust and fresh tar blew into his torn cornea. When he pitted the team rubbed lotion into his eyes and even administered a shot of cocaine to overcome his discomfort, but he was forced to retire.
Only 11 cars finished the grand prix, and Ferenc was the first to do so in 12 hours, 14 minutes and seven seconds, 32 minutes ahead of Fiat’s Felice Nazzaro. A bugle call was sounded as the red Renault came into view over the crest a mile away, as team members and spectators rushed to the edge of the track in celebration.
The Hungarian was granted French citizenship for his services to racing, along with an enormous cash prize of 45,000 Francs. It was 80 years before Hungary would host its very own grand prix, but when Formula One came to the country, the Hungaroring was dedicated in Ferenc Szisz’ honour, and its first corner bares the name of grand prix racing’s first victor.