The first Grand Prix was held on public roads outside Le Mans on 26 – 27 June 1906. Run over two days, Renault participated with its Type AK, a lightweight chassis fitted with a 12.9-litre four-cylinder engine. Thirty-two cars started the two-day long race, but many failed in overwhelming temperatures. Szisz however came home 32 minutes ahead of the runner-up, reaching a sensational average speed of 100.9kph and covering 1,238.16km in total. The victory was facilitated by technical innovation of his 90 horsepower car and the Michelin brothers’ new tyres on easily replaceable wheels.
Ferenc Szisz was born in a small town in the Békes county of the Hungarian part of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Initially he trained as a copper caster before starting to work with mechanical parts in the early 1890s. Dissatisfied with his craft, he hit the road and headed for the grand capital cities of the time, Budapest and Vienna.
He found employment within the growing fields of automobiles and aviation before moving to Munich to work for Bosch, where he became familiar with electrical equipment for motor vehicles.
From Munich Szisz moved to Paris, working in a factory that produced turning machines. When Renault bought one of these turning machines, Szisz joined the company as an engineer to set up and calibrate. The relationship with Renault was to be a long and successful one. He started work in the machine tool division, but was transferred to the car manufacturing section where meticulous and refined work was needed for piston, main axes and bearing chiselling, all of which were hand finished at the turn of the century.
Szisz’ skills were quickly recognised and he became Marcel Renault’s race mechanic. Back in those days the mechanic sat next to the driver and also tested his cars to prepare for the gruelling city to city races. In 1902 he was also chosen to be Louis Renault’s mechanic and, following the tragic death of Marcel in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, Renault’s race driver. He was immediately successful, finishing fifth in the 1905 Gordon-Bennett Cup at the Circuit d’Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand.
In October of that same year, along with other French and Italian automobile manufacturers, Renault sent a team to the United States to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, New York. In a field that included many luminaries of the day such as Felice Nazzaro and Louis Chevrolet, Szisz finished fifth behind the winner, fellow Frenchman Victor Hémery driving a Darracq.
With the sport burgeoning, the first Grand Prix was organised in 1906 on the roads of Le Mans. Szisz’ victory ensured him 45,000 francs – a huge sum for the time – French citizenship and a state award in France.
However, his win also secured the Hungarian, and Renault, a place in the annals of motor racing history.