Formula One 1910 to 1919

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Barney Oldfield at the wheel of his Christie Racer
Advertising on racing cars made its appearance in 1910 on the side of the Christie racers. At the wheel is none other than Barney Oldfield, the "Barnstormer Showman".

A streamlined 15.9 liter Diatto at Brooklands in June 1910
A streamlined 15.9 liter Diatto at Brooklands in June 1910. This model was not particularly successful prior to the Great War, but after hostilites the Maserati brothers changed all that.

3-Liter Works Sunbeam at the Coupe de L'Auto category of the 1912 Grand Prix
3-Liter Works Sunbeam at the Coupe de L'Auto category of the 1912 Grand Prix. Number #3, driven by Rigal, took third place in the Grand Prix, and won the L'Auto cup.

Hancock's 3-liter side-valve Vauxhall at Boulogne for the 1911 Coupe de L'Auto
Hancock's 3-liter side-valve Vauxhall at Boulogne for the 1911 Coupe de L'Auto. The car competed in the voiturette class but retired - although contemporary Vauxhall's were successful in hill-climbs and speed trials.

Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt
Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt who was responsible for preparing all competition Hispano-Suizas at the Levallois-Perret factory from 1911 to 1914.

1914 Mercedes GP Engine
For 1914 Mercedes used a 4.5 liter four-cylinder with shaft drive, overhead camshaft, pent-roof heads and four spark plugs per cylinder. This combined to give 110 bhp and a top speed of 100 miles per hour. After the demise of Boillot's Peugeot, the Mercedes Team drove with Teutonic precision to finish 1-2-3 in the French GP.

Ernest Henry

Racing for the Grand Prix was abandoned for political reasons between the years 1909 and 1911 when long-distance events were boycotted out of jealousy by the major French and German manufacturers. When it was revived in 1912 at Dieppe, Ernest Henry had brought about a revolution in racing-engine layout with his Peugeot Grand Prix cars. These had the epoch-making feature of overhead valves inclined in the cylinder heads and operated by two overhead camshafts, and the formula followed ever after for the majority of top-racing power units.

By having a camshaft above each line of valves, the lightest possible operating gear could be applied to them, killing valve float; the use of inclined valves meant that the hemispherical combustion chamber of maximum efficiency could be used. The then existent problems of the noise of driving two camshafts situated so far from the engine crankshaft and the manufacturing expense of the whole set-up were not problems that governed the design of a racing engine.

Ernest Henry did not, in 1912 and the remaining pre-war years, exploit to the full his splendid new engines. The hemi-head that his properly actuated inclined overhead valves made possible was less suited to the comparatively low crankshaft speeds he envisaged than for quicker-running engines, and another pre-eminent aspect of his design, namely the use of four valves to each cylinder, was at the time more a concession to its ability to combat valve breakage than a serious endeavour to obtain optimum breathing through the additional, if smaller, inlet valve ports.

But these comments notwithstanding, the advance was of great significance. Indeed, overhead valves were soon to become universal for specially constructed racing power units and it is worth remembering that when Fiat first used their push-rod overhead valves on their 1905 racing engines, they also had the valves inclined at 45 degrees and were able to extract a useful 120 bhp from these 16-liter 180 x 160mm power units, even though the crankshaft speed was restricted to around 1100 rpm when flat out.

Ernest Henry added the refinement of a camshaft above each line of valves by 1912 and the fact that he was using four valves to a cylinder to combat exhaust-valve failure was also probably because he wanted to overcome the then-prevalent unreliability of valve springs, designing special tappets that relieved his valve springs of the necessity of closing the tappet mechanism.

The 1913 Coupe de L'Auto

His first 3-liter engine was not an extreme power producer, giving perhaps 90 bhp at 3000 rpm in its 1912 Coupe de L'Auto form, which was its first high-speed application and it was comparable to the side-valve Sunbeam cars which created a furore by finishing 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Grand Prix itself. Even though output was only around ten horsepower above that of the L-head Sunbeam's engine, and the Peugeots were hampered by not adopting the streamlining then in vogue thanks to the influence of track racing at Brooklands.

Henry still went on to develop his design much more effectively for the 1913 Coupe de L'Auto competition, He inclined his four valves at 60 degrees instead of at 45 degrees for that race and drove his 'upstairs' camshafts by a train of gears instead of by a vertical shaft. No more power was claimed but the engine was now the epitome of efficiency, producing its 90 bhp at 3000 rpm on a compression ratio of only 5.6 to 1.

The 1919 Targa Florio

For the still-born 1914 light-car race of the aforesaid title, Henry had a four-cylinder engine 75 x 140mm built to comply with the race limit of 2½ liters. This car did well after waiting for the war to finish, winning the 1919 Targa Florio race. The 1913 3-Iitre Peugeots were within 5 mph of the top speed of the far bigger 1912 full Grand Prix cars, and the 1914 version, giving 80 bhp at the customary 3000 rpm, was capable of some 92 mph. Thus, the most advanced racing engine design of this pre World War 1 period appeared, with great success, in 7.2-liter, 5.6-liter, 3-liter and 2.5-liter forms. It was to be widely copied by Sunbeam and Humber before the war, and set a fashion for the immediate post-Armistice era, until Henry advanced again, with his straight-eight-cylinder Ballot engines.

Lubrication Problems

At this formative period of racing-car development, ball and roller crank-shaft bearings were accepted as a way around lubrication problems that had been remained a difficult problem to solve, and castor-base lubricants instead of mineral oils were the norm. Valve gear was semi-exposed in many cases even though engine speeds were increasing. From driving on the ignition and governor controls, the racing driver for some years prior to the war had had to make full and proper use of his gearbox with no aids of the synchromesh kind.

Indeed, he had to be able to change gear without the clutch if need be and the practice of heeling and toeing was rife, whereby the accelerator was pressed to speed up the engine revs to accommodate the gearbox, at the same time as the foot brake was being applied to slow the car for a corner, round which it would be driven in the lower gears.

This need to change difficult gears constantly while braking with indifferent brakes, using outside hand-brake as well as prodding the brake pedal while changing gear, together with wrestling with insensitive steering and a cord-bound steering wheel that would kick and cut the hands, made driving these pre-I9I4 racing cars in the long engagements that were normal to them, a very tiring and tough proposition, suitable only for the very fit. But their worst feature in this respect was the hard springing, from leaf springs that scarcely 'gave', and which were further stiffened in later years by various forms of damper.

But despite the difficulty in driving these early racers, in the two seasons preceding World War 1, the road-racing cars, whether restricted by race rules or not, were very fast, not too unreliable, and generally pleasant vehicles, pointing the. way directly to a forthcoming generation of what were to be known as 'sports cars'. The W. O. Bentley-designed 3-liter Bentley of 1919 - 1921 is proof of this. In the field of the voiturette or lightweight racing cars, the general trends followed those of the bigger cars. The freakish twin-cylinder Peugeots with very long stroke engines gave place to the beautiful little four-cylinder Hispano Suiza of 1910, which had a 65 x 200 mm engine that gave something in the order of 52 bhp and was the forerunner of another pioneer sporting car, the 80 x 180mm Alfonso Hispano Suiza. From there, as we have seen, Ernest Henry of Peugeot went ahead, with immaculate twin-cam racing 3-liter motor cars.

Marc Birkigt

Down all these experimental and exciting years there were attempts to break away from the conventional progression of racing-car evolution. The two-stroke engine was tried, and discarded, Gobron-Brillie got further with engines in which the pistons moved in opposition and required two crankshafts, connected together. Marc Birkigt, who was responsible for the Alfonso Hispano Suiza and those magnificent post-war production models of this illustrious make, tried to perfect the supercharged engine but forced induction of the mixture was left to Mercedes after the war, and for Fiat to render practical on the race circuits.

Up to the war, multiple carburetors were far from being fully exploited and Henry was content with a single instrument. This is explained by the fact that valve overlap was little understood at this time and was at first applied only to late closing of the exhaust valves, because the idea of opening an inlet valve early to apply some ram filling was foreign to contemporary thinking. But over-large choke tubes in the carburetors were frequently found on racing engines, which were not expected to pull properly at much below 2500 rpm. These aids to an unobstructed gas flow contrasted oddly with the tortuous inlet manifolds through which the up-draught carburetors invariably fed the cylinders. Plain big-end bearings were possible, especially if dry-sump lubrication assisted the less refined oils of those times to remain decently cool.

Petrol would be fed by air pressure, usually from a drum or bolster-type fuel tank set across the back of the chassis; in those days, a riding mechanic was invariably carried and he had to operate a hand air-pump as well as watching the oil gauge casting glances astern for overtaking cars.


When Brooklands opened in the summer of 1907 in Surrey, it forced the pace of race-engine improvement, because on a banked course the throttle was open fully, or nearly so, for very long periods. Thus 'run' bearings, through over-hot oil, burnt-out exhaust valves and seized pistons, were more often the cause of defeat than in road racing and the track tuners were soon to learn the disasters that resulted from running the fuel mixture too weak, of not allowing sufficient cooling air to penetrate to the sump or oil tank, and of trying to obtain flat-out speed with piston and bearing clearances too tight. But sheer maximum speed was of the essence down at 'The Track', which is why it was not long before very advanced thinking was applied to reducing the wind drag inherent in chassis and bodywork.

Radiators were cowled in, leaving only a slit or hole through which cooling air could reach their tubes, thus, incidentally, sometimes improving their capacity in that important direction. Bodies with long tails of tapering or 'airship' shape were quick to appear, and to carry out this so-called 'streamlining' to its ultimate, a long under-shield would enclose the bottom of the chassis, as was done on road-going cars to exclude road dirt and dust.

The extremists even fared-in front axles and small protruding parts such as spring hangers and dumb-irons with carved wood and fabric, one droll sight being a certain 1912 Lorraine-Dietrich with a vast area of exposed flat-fronted radiator, beneath which was a carefully streamlined axle!

All this attention to reducing the drag of the wind undoubtedly paid off, enabling more speed to be realised for less power. From the first Brooklands racers which were virtually stripped chassis that had worn touring and even closed coachwork until their competition debuts, the trend swung away to these splendidly sleek specially bodied track cars. It was but a step from fully faired two-seaters to the genuine racing single-seater, because a riding mechanic was not so necessary on the wide expanses of the Weybridge concrete as on a narrow, dust-obscured road circuit. These monoposto or single-place racing and record-breaking cars were only wide enough at the cockpit to accommodate the driver, and further drag-reduction was achieved by putting discs over their wheels.

The Spyker 4 Wheel Drive System and Transverse-Engined American Christie Racer

An even more extreme idea, pioneered by the Sunbeam engineer who was so keen on racing his products to endorse their worth, namely. the great Louis Coatalen, was to isolate the radiator from the engine compartment, so that drag should not develop beneath the engine bonnet. It was Coatalen who had first thought of using a large aeroplane engine in a motor-car chassis and his 1913 V 12 aero-engined Sunbeam of 9 liters capacity, endowed with the typical slim single-seater long-tailed racing body of the period, was a successful experiment in this empirical age. Another experiment sometimes attributed to a much later period of automobile evolution was four-wheel-drive, tried out on the big Spyker racing car as early as 1903, and front-wheel-drive, as used a little later on the transverse-engined American Christie racing car.

The Twin-Overhead-Camshaft Engine

The real lesson of racing as it was up to the outbreak of World War 1 was that power from the petrol-burning internal-combustion engine could be efficiently raised by using the twin-overhead-camshaft engine, which was superior in making high crankshaft speeds possible, which the side-by-side 1 valve formation could not encompass. This is reflected in the fact that the 1912 Coupe de L'Auto Sunbeams were the last successful side-valve racing cars, apart from minor races, and the T -head valve layout, as used for the Alfonso Hispano-Suiza voiturettes (that is to say having the inlet valves on one side of the cylinder block and the exhaust valves along the opposite side, necessitating two separate camshafts in the crankcase), did not survive the war.

The racing-car engine had paved the way for the powerful overhead-valve aeroplane engines of the war years and those Mercedes which dominated the last Grand Prix to be held before hostilities broke out had engines significantly similar to those in the first German fighters to appear over the Western Front. So, racing was improving motor-car design, which in those earlier years was its purpose. Braking, roadholding, speed and streamlining being the main headings under which the fierce incentive of competition had forced the pace. By 1914, the then-current four-cylinder long-stroke twin-cam engines were good for 130 bhp in Grand Prix form, although this output of 30 horsepower per liter left room for great strides after the war; indeed, supercharging made such progress easily attainable.

In the emerging days, Panhard & Levassor had gradually been overtaken by Mors, which put up such a great performance in the Paris-Bordeaux portion of the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, although the Renault light cars of the time were almost a match for the Mors. After this, Napier made some inroads with big six-cylinder cars. But Fiat raced away with their overhead-valve (pushrod) racers, until Peugeot got ahead with the twin-cam sixteen-valve engine. During this pioneer period, Britain was out-classed, apart from Sunbeams making the simple design of side-valve power unit perform well, and developing the Brooklands type of pure track-racing car, a sphere where Sunbeam, Vauxhall and Talbot were to the fore, the last-named make being the first to cover over one hundred miles in one hour.

Racing at Indianapolis

Racing continued for a while in America at Indianapolis where these pre-1914 racers were able to hold their own. But it is to the post-war era that we have to look for the next stages of racing-car development. Better fuels and improved tyres aided the effective use of the higher speeds made possible by much higher rates of crankshaft rotation and by the use of forced induction, or supercharging, as it was termed. The motor-racing contests of that empirical period prior to the outbreak of the World War 1 in 1914, can be divided into two main parts, and its pattern divided again into three main sections. It was an exciting beginning to the greatest mechanical sport in the world and the lay-public regarded it with awe.

The Peugeot not only won the 1912 French Grand Prix with this new remarkably efficient engine of 7602cc (from a Fiat possessed with a vast engine of 14.1 liters) but in voiturette racing a 3-liter Peugeot to the refreshing new Henry formula was remarkably successful. The twin-cam Peugeot racing engines were the product of this brilliant Swiss engineer Henry and the Peugeot racing drivers Goux and Georges Boillot. They used a still-excessive piston stroke for their 7.2-liter GP cars of 200mm, in conjunction with a 100 mm cylinder bore, so that with these new high-speed engines running at a maximum of 2200 rpm and producing some 130 bhp, the piston speed was as high as 2900 feet per minute. But it all held together to give a race average speed of nearly 68 miles per hour for this gruelling two-day 956-mile race of 1912.

This Peugeot advance set the fashion for the future but was not immediately taken up universally. While shaft instead of chain final drive was now the vogue and detachable. wheels with centre-lock hubs had facilitated tire -changing, there were those who went cautiously towards twin overhead camshafts. Certainly, for the 1913 French Grand Prix at the Dieppe circuit, run again on a fuel-consumption basis, the 5.6-liter Peugeots ruled supreme. But in the dramatic race of 1914, over the Lyons course, five single-overhead-camshaft 4½-liter Mercedes racing cars dominated the scene. This was as much due to the Teutonic care taken to prepare for the race and the use of team tactics, or at least of having sufficient cars in the race to break up any opposition, as to the design of the winning engine, which was of modest capacity partly because efficiency could now be gained from a comparatively small, fast-revving engine; also, because the race rules limited engine size to 4500cc.

The 1914 French Grand Prix

The result of the 1914 French Grand Prix, on the eve of the war, was no proof that the single-overhead-camshaft engine was superior to the twin-cam power unit, nor was it conclusive over the matter ef racing-car brakes. The Mercedes team had rear-wheel brakes, of expanding shoes within rear-axle drums cooled by air fins, supplemented by a brake on the transmission, as was commonplace from around 1904; they won against cars with the latest front-wheel brakes, as used by Peugeot and Delage. That the Peugeot was able to out-brake the Mercedes in this event is indisputable, but this ability was no match for team tactics as employed very professionally by the Mercedes organisation. After the Armistice both twin-cam racing engines and four-wheel brakes ruled supreme; at first, servo assistance was used for the brakes, but it soon became unnecessary.

Although World War 1 stopped European and British motor racing, it did see some of the valuable lessons of competition converted into effective aeroplane engines, at first by Mercedes and then later by Rolls-Royce and others. Until America became involved in the hostilities, it was able to continue an indulgence for the world's fastest sport. There was, however, still a strong European flavour, even across the Atlantic, because many successful pre-war Grand Prix cars were shipped there to continue their track careers.

The Peugeot and Sunbeam 1914 Grand Prix cars appeared in the USA, and Ralph de Palma, the great American driver, secured one of the 1914 French GP-winning 4.5-liter Mercedes racers. With the Peugeot, Dario Resta won many titles in 1915 and 1916, but de Palma took the important 500-mile race on the oval Indianapolis track (a race which started in 1911) in 1915 at an average of 89.8 mph; he also set the fastest lap at 98.6mph. Four 1914 GP Delages arrived for the 1916 Indy 500, but this was won, in the absence of the Mercedes, by Resta's Peugeot which averaged 83.26 mph for 300 miles, at which point rain stopped play. The Mercedes/Peugeot rivalry, originating at Lyons in the eve-of-war Grand Prix, was continued at the Chicago board-track for the 300 Mile Chicago Derby which ended in a victory for Resta's Peugeot at 98.6 mph when, right at the end, after four hours of intense battling, a plug cut out on the Mercedes and the car was forced into the pits. The Peugeot proved able to lap at 100 mph.

These Henry-designed cars won many other American war-time triumphs, but de Palma also changed to the Mercedes, to win at Omaha, averaging 103.45 mph for fifty miles. Howdy Wilcox won the Indy in 1919 with a 1914 4.5-liter Peugeot, now privately entered, at 87.95 mph. One of M. Ballot's new Henry-designed straight-eight cars, built in remarkably quick time, was taken to Indy by Rene Thomas where he set fastest lap at 104 mph, which constituted a new record. A varied assortment of pre-war, Henry-engineered Peugeots turned up when the Targa Florio was run over Sicilian mountain roads late in November 1919, with the 2.5-liter car of Andre Boillot leading the team.

C'est pour la France

The Targa was a punishing race over atrocious road surfaces, but Andre triumphed, although he crossed the finish line backwards because spectators had run onto the course and caused him to spin under braking. It was M. Ballot, however, who advised him to drive back down the course, turn around and finish with his car facing the proper way in case of disqualification. After this, it is said, Boillot collapsed over the steering wheel and cried 'C'est pour la France'. His car had been off the road six times but he had averaged 34.19 mph for the 268 eventful miles.
Mercedes 1914 Grand Prix 1-2-3
The famous Mercedes Grand Prix cars of 1914, with their drivers Lautenschlager, Salzer and Wagner celebrating their 1-2-3 victory in the French Grand Prix.
Maurice Ballot stands between two 4.9 liter straight-eight Ballots of Albert Guyot (left) and Rene Thomas in Paris in 1919
Maurice Ballot stands between two 4.9 liter straight-eight Ballots of Albert Guyot (left) and Rene Thomas in Paris in 1919. Ballot had built engines prior to World War 1, and engaged the brilliant designer Ernest Henry to build Indianapolis cars for the 1919 race. Thomas made fastest lap at 104.2 mph and Guyot took fourth place.
Jimmy Murphys Dusenberg at Indianapolis in 1921
The 3-liter straight-eight Dusenbergs took second, third, fourth, sixth and eigth places at Indianapolis in 1921. This is the car in which Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French Grand Prix, and was the first American car to be equipped with hydraulic brakes all round.
Louis Wagner pictured in his Ballot at Indianapolis in 1921
Louis Wagner pictured in his Ballot at Indianapolis in 1921.
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