Motorsport has been around for many years. The first known race between two automobiles dates back to 1867. In the 150 years since, the innovation in motor racing has been incredible, with both cars, drivers, and events themselves. Here are just a few of those inventions.
In 1894, the first official motor race was held, the Paris-Rouen race. There had been illegal racing before, but this was the first time that a central organization oversaw a race meeting. At this early stage in motorsport history, the only combustion engine available was a 3bhp(!!) engine produced by Daimler. The rest of the cars were powered by steam, but it was soon found that steam engines were “fast”, yet unreliable, as the winner of the Paris-Rouen race was a steam-powered De-Dion, with all other finishers having Daimler engines.
Incredibly, the first invention in the car was the steering wheel. In this particular race, Alfred Vacheron took part with a wheel rather than a tiller to steer. He finished 11th, but his invention would become standard in years to come.
In the 19th century, races were generally only contested by the citizens of the country it was held in, with exceptions such as Emile Levassor, who ran in races across Europe until his death in 1897. This changed in 1900 when American millionaire James Gordon Bennett Jr. inaugurated the Gordon Bennett Cup. This was the first international competition in motorsport, seven drivers representing four countries entered, though only two drivers finished. The race, which was from Paris to Lyon was won by Frenchman Fernand Charron in a Panhard. By this stage, cars looked more like cars and less like weird square things, steering wheels were commonplace, and tires were made out of metal and rubber rather than wood.
In 1906, we began to get permanent racetracks. The Aspendale Racecourse in Australia was the first track built for racing, a 1-mile oval course with gravel as the road surface. The Milwaukee Mile and Knoxville speedway came into existence around this time too as horse racing venues, but the first paved racing circuit was to come in 1907.
The Brooklands circuit in England was the first paved circuit made specifically for motor racing. Construction began in 1903 and was finished in 1907. The track was about 3 miles long and egg-shaped. It was the first “oval” track in the world and was banked. In some places, the banking was up to 9 meters high. 287 000 people could pack into the spectator areas and get up close to the racing due to the distinct lack of walls on the high-speed circuit.
Through the late 1900s and early 1910s, evolution continued at a slower pace, as the basics had now been set. More purpose-built oval circuits such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were built, and historic events such as the Indy 500, Isle of Man TT, and United States Grand Prix began to emerge.
1908 was an important year, as it was the first where motor racing was run to a set of rules. The AIACR (precursor to the FIA) was founded in 1907 and set rules and regulations to combat speeds and increase the reliability of the cars, which were literally breaking in half in some races. Rules were set based on the diameter of each cylinder, and a minimum weight was set to ensure structural integrity. There was still no championship as there is now, but more teams began to make the trek from round to round.
By 1920, a recession and world war had been and gone, and motor racing was back in a resurgence. many of the cars looked the same, but technically there was plenty of innovation. Thanks to the war and the development of engine technology, the lightness of aluminum were found. This was used in engines to slash the weight, make them smaller, and thus give a better power to weight ratio. In the 20 years since 1900, engine power had skyrocketed to 150bhp from the mere 3 or 4bhp that cars in 1900 made.
1922 was another important year. Up to this point, all the purpose-built racing tracks were exclusively oval tracks. That changed in 1922, for the Monza circuit was constructed. It did have a banked oval section, but it also had a 5-turn road course. It would set the standard for all purpose-built racetracks to come. Something else which happened in 1922, was the debut of Mercedes in Grand Prix motor racing. This was significant because they were the first true innovators of the sport, and one innovation they made which is still around today, is supercharging.
The basic concept is to force more air into the engine, to create more power. Without the supercharger, Mercedes only had 54bhp to play with at first. Add it on though, they had 82bhp. Fiat used this idea in 1923 to become the first racing car to break the 200km/h barrier. The first Grand Prix d’Europe was held that year too, at Monza.
1925 saw the debut of the Bugatti Type 35. This was the first-ever car built specifically for racing. Most cars before it were simply racing variants of road cars. The suspension was completely rejigged, with parts of it connected through the front axle, and there were four-wheel drum brakes placed in a way that could allow for pitstops during a race. The car was revolutionary, cheap, and easy to drive. It became the mainstay of motor racing throughout the 1920s, winning over 1000 races in its time.
This proved crucial for 1925 was also the year the World Manufacturers Championship was first held. Grand Prix races would finally be organized, with the best marque winning the title. This inaugural title was won by Alfa Romeo, who won two of the four rounds.
Thanks to the Great Depression, everything ground to a halt by 1930. In the racetrack world, Pau, Nurburgring, and Spa Francorchamps had opened, but one team was founded that year, which was seemingly insignificant at the time, but that team is at the forefront of motor racing even today. Scuderia Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari founded the team in late 1929, but they wouldn’t run their own cars until the 1940s. 1929 also marked the first Monaco Grand Prix.
The next revolution in motor racing wasn’t related to cars at all. Legendary Mercedes team manager Alfred Neubauer, a former driver, knew how lonely a driver was when racing a car. Oftentimes, drivers wouldn’t know their positions until the end of the race and sometimes would win by surprise. To counteract that, Neubauer came up with a well-structured plan, using boards and flags, to relay information to the driver. It allowed the team to communicate with the driver during the races, something which is essential in modern-day motorsport. His idea of using boards to relay information is still in use, as it is the pit board we see in F1 today. In fact, Neubauer almost single-handedly invented the racing team we know today. He subjected Mercedes’ personnel to vigorous training and gave each person a role of expertise to each car.
By the 1930s, Mercedes and Auto Union were in a war of car development. Auto Union debuted the mid-engine car, while Mercedes introduced streamlined bodywork to decrease drag at high-speed venues. By this point though, work centered on perfecting what was known rather than making something new. By 1938, the light, supercharged, technically superior Mercedes W125 was making top speed Formula 1 wouldn’t see again until the 1980s, producing over 650bhp.
The trend of perfecting what was already there continued throughout and post-World War 2 until 1953. Jaguar was running in sportscars at this time, and to try and gain time at the fast Le Mans circuit, they tried to figure out how to stop quicker. The solution was disc brakes. Using friction of pads against a rotor disc, the car slows down much more efficiently and reliably than the conventional drum brakes. That helped Jaguar win Le Mans, and set the example for brakes up until today.
By the late 1950s, evolution in motorsports had slowed down considerably. Enter John Cooper and Colin Chapman. Both Chapman and Cooper were about to change the game with multiple inventions over a 12 year period.
F1 cars had been front-engined since Auto Union pulled out, in 1939. Cooper realized that mid-engine cars could stick to the road better than front-engine cars and began development on the T43. Through superior handling, Jack Brabham won two titles with the Cooper. The “rear engine revolution” began, and by 1961, all F1 cars had the engine behind the driver.
In 1962 came Chapmans’ first big invention, and this changed the game in motorsport unlike anything seen before or since. Chapman had an idea to minimize weight without compromising the structural integrity of the cars. He bolted sheets of aluminum together for his new Lotus 25 car, finding that this new monocoque chassis was not only lighter but safer, and made the car smaller. He positioned the cockpit in a reclined position which we still see today, and when he arrived at the season opener at Zandvoort, the racing world had the shock of their life. The Lotus 25 was vastly superior to any racing car at that time and took 14 race wins over its four-year life, including the 1963 world title.
After refining the design with the Lotus 33, Chapmans’ next masterstroke came in 1966. The new regulations for that era doubled engine size and increased power. This meant more load was going through the car, wider tires, and an overall meaner look to Grand Prix cars. Chapman designed the Lotus 43, which used the engine as a stress-bearing member of the car. This meant the engine took some of the load from the tires and suspension while the car was riding the track. BRM’s Tony Rudd had the same idea that year, and both cars proved to be structurally superior, but the BRM engine was for all intents and purposes, rubbish.
After experimenting with and failing to figure out four-wheel drive, the next big invention came in 1968. Inspired by the Chaparral sportscar, Lotus put aerofoils on the front and back of the Lotus 49. This wasn’t a new idea, as both Brabham and Cooper had used this to keep the nose of their cars on the ground over bumps, but it was the first time wings were used specifically to gain time by using downforce. By the middle of the season, the grid had all sprouted wings, and downforce is a crucial part of Formula 1, and all motorsport, today.
For the new Lotus 72, Chapman changed the look of Formula 1 for the second time in three years. Conventional racing cars at that stage had their radiators in front of the driver. Chapman found that moving the radiators to either side of the driver made for better weight distribution, and made driving an F1 car more pleasant. It is yet another invention that we still see in F1 today.
The Chapman monopoly was briefly broken up in 1977, by Renault. Until this time, all engines had been naturally aspirated since the banning of supercharging. Teams had gone to circumvent this by putting big air intake boxes over he engine, but that was banned too, so Renault entered Gran Prix racing with a turbocharged engine. After early teething problems, Renault quickly showed that the future of Formula 1 was turbocharged, and every team scrambled to make their own turbo engines. They were banned in 1989, but returned in 2014 as turbo hybrid engines.
1977 was also the year ground effect was introduced. Lotus found that by putting inverted wings very close to the ground they could generate downforce, massive amounts of downforce. The Lotus 78 “wing car” domninatd F1, and ground effect was essential to remain competitive until it was banned in 1982, but is set to be legalised again in 2022.
By this time in Formula 1, restrictions were making it harder to innovate, but there was still wiggle room. McLaren was the next to shake things up, with the MP4/1. Up until then, aluminum was still the metal used to make the monocoque. McLaren made their 1981 challenger out of carbon fiber. It was lighter and far more durable than aluminum and set the standard which F1 still abides by to this day.
In 1983, one of Chapman’s last inventions before his death was active suspension. In its early years, it wasn’t very effective, but by 1993 it had to be banned because Williams got the hang of it and dominated Formula 1. It hasn’t been seen since.
1989 saw the introduction of the semi-automatic gearbox, one of the only technical innovations Ferrari ever made. Instead of using a gear stick and clutch to shift gears, the new system allowed drivers to simply click a paddle on the steering wheel to shift through the gearbox.
The semi-automatic gearbox is the most recent lasting invention made by a team, but Formula 1 itself has introduced some game-changers over the years. The Drag Reduction System, Motor Generator Units, the life-saving halo, and HANS devices, and many other things. Firestone also put its name in the history books in 1971 as the first tire supplier to introduce a slick tire, which has become a mainstay in motorsport worldwide too.
There is the (very) brief history of some of the big inventions over the years in motor racing. The evolution from 3bhp steam powered cars with wooden wheels and no steering wheel, to the mega fast, super safe, highly technical machines we see today. It remains to be seen how motorsport will develop in the next 100 years, but in racing, the sky seems to be the limit.