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Cars: Gordon Bennett: Millionaire playboy and spiritual father of Formula 1 racing

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Cars: Gordon Bennett: Millionaire playboy and spiritual father of Formula 1 racing

16:32 /

XCAR traces the origins of British racing green and the racing series that led to Formula 1 through the eyes of Gordon Bennett, an American playboy with more money than sense.

[MUSIC] The story starts with a man called Gordon Bennett. Now if you're a Brit, you'll certainly have heard of that name. It's an old-fashioned exclamation of disbelief for when, in polite company, a four-letter word won't do. But you probably won't know who the man himself exactly was and why motorsport owes him such an enormous debt. Some might say, in fact, that he was the founding father of Formula One. The famous Gordon Bennett Jr. was a stinking rich American playboy, an heir to the New York Herald media empire. At the age of 26 he took over from his father's newspaper business. And set about improving the circulation of the paper while sponsoring a number of outlandish stunts. He sponsored the American Club Yacht Race, balloon racing, aircraft racing. He even funded trips to the Arctic and to Africa. So what are we doing here in Ireland? Well, we'll get to that in a minute. It's rumored that he spent the equivalent of $14 million in his lifetime funding a very lavish lifestyle. He was a bit of a rogue. And he didn't care what people thought of him, either. One of his favorite tricks was to go into New York's swankiest restaurants and try and rip the tablecloth from the unsuspecting diners. He wasn't very good at it. And he usually left to make. Wedge of dollars in compensation. [UNKNOWN] himself never actually owned a car, but he did like to get screaming drunk and take his horse and coaches out for midnight joy rides, usually naked apart from a pair of painted leather boots. Now that is a strong look. That's a good look. [LAUGH] However, his days as New York's leading socialite. [INAUDIBLE] When on New Year's Day 1876, the legless [INAUDIBLE] decided [INAUDIBLE] his beyond safe, swanky dinner party. He may have [INAUDIBLE] most of New York's [INAUDIBLE] for relieving himself in his [INAUDIBLE] grand piano. And then, for a finale. He threw up on a brother. [LAUGH] We've all been to parties like that. Well yeah. [LAUGH] At this point, it was unanimously decided, that he. He might be back if the rascal Bennett became the overseas representative over the [INAUDIBLE] in Paris. In France, Bennett thought the car manufacturers were proving their products through testing and competition. And he saw an opportunity to stir up an international rivalry. He decided to lay down the competition. And the newspaper declared manufacturers would have to fight to uphold their reputation. commissioned the 17-kilo solid silver trophy. The inaugural race took place in 1900. The firm would soon buy three cars from all of the nation's competing and paint them in the same color. So the spectators would have a better idea of who was in the lead. So France chose. Chose French blue, the Germans chose white and the Americans, red. Which meant that Britain's national colors, the red, white and blue had all been snatched up. So, they decided to stick with the, the standard livery of their Napier race cars, which was a sort of drab olive green. Well, the first race in France was absolute chaos. Spectators wandered onto the course, and livestock got in the way. And the French driver, Sharon, was driving at 60 miles an hour in his Panard, when a [UNKNOWN] dog wandered into the track, and got wedged. Be very still. He went all the way. He tried to hold his [INAUDIBLE] for the [INAUDIBLE] He won the race again in 1901 quite easily. And he was [INAUDIBLE] the British in 1902 for having a machine and a driver capable of taking on the mighty [INAUDIBLE]. A driver with [INAUDIBLE]. He ditched his heavy, 17 liter, 70-horsepower car and took a 50 horsepower [INAUDIBLE], which was a lot lighter and a lot more nimble. And of course his win in front meant that the 1903 race would actually come to the UK. It was a good job that the British did win because racing in France was subsequently banded after the carnage of 1903 Paris Madrid race. Which had left three spectators, five drivers dead and almost 100 people. Seriously injured. See the problem was, especially in rural [UNKNOWN] is that no one had seen a car move that quickly. And they couldn't anticipate how quickly they need to move out the way. There was only one problem with the [UNKNOWN] coming to the UK 1903, and that's the fact the speed limit It's a bit of a big problem. It is a big problem. The speed limit was just 12 miles per hour. Bennett's team campaigned for the race to be held in sparsely populated islands, which of course was part of Britain at the time. And it took a special act of Parliament to get the speed limit temporarily lifted before a date could be set. However, Gordon Bennett knew that his race had to run like clockwork without incident, if it was to have any future. For this race, the logistics involved were colossal. Seven thousand policemen were drafted in, plus 1,000 volunteers. They closed over hundreds of roads, farmers were ordered to fence in their livestock, and even vicars were told. To inform their congregation to abstain from drinking on race day so they wouldn't get sloshed and wander into the path of cars. Of course, racing drivers back in those days were all larger than life characters. Probably none more so than Jimeal Jennatsy who headed up the German team in their identical 9.3 liter Mercedes. He was nicknamed The Red Devil. Partly due to his firey temperament but partly because of his twin-pronged ginger beard. American team consisted of a single Peerless and two Wintons. One driven by the company founder Alexander Winton and the other by sales manager. The confident French team brough over a more. And she's very well prepared ten hours, and their leader, [UNKNOWN] was odds on favorite to actually bring the trophy home to France once again. The only racing driver in the world with a name that sounds like a sneeze. [LAUGH] Bless you. So with edge, led the British team. In a quest to retain their crown he led a trio of napiers. These are painted in shamrock green as a mark of respect to the Irish who were very kind in hosting the race, and that's where we get British racing green from. That's also the reason we brought this Morgan. Not because it's a fantastic car. Not because it's got a Mustang engine in it. Not because it converts when the sun is shining, no. We thought you might get- [LAUGH] Confused about the shade of green so. Yeah. We had to borrow this 300 horsepower, 50,000 Pound car direct from the factory. Because it's green. It's got some interesting parallels. I mean, it's probably the close. You see things you can get, when they just 13.7 Liter, naked, that you can actually buy today. It's got a [UNKNOWN] great 3.7 Liter Mustang engine up front. Strapped to a, a shaft that was designed in 1936. As recently as that? [LAUGH] [LAUGH] As recently as that. So it's a [UNKNOWN]. Mish mash of technologies really, but it's, but it works. It's a glorious piece of engineering isn't it. The worst [UNKNOWN] I suppose was a tool to get the job done. This is art. I don't think you buy a car like this for what it does on paper or even really what it can do on track. You buy it for how it makes you feel, and it makes you feel great. It makes everybody smile. it's very rare you drive a car that everybody smiles at. Everybody smiles at this. True. Talking about British racing green. strictly speaking there isn't one shade of green that's British racing green. It's been all sorts of shades. This car, technically is just Jaguar Brooklyn green. Fifty shades of green, you could say. Will hit 60 in 5.5 seconds and carry on to 140 and hour if you can stand the wind noise. And it makes a lovely, lovely sound. [MUSIC] [MUSIC]. Maybe spots in the [INAUDIBLE] crossroads on the 3rd of June, 1903. At 7 o'clock in the morning, the starting pistol was fired. And the number one car, a [INAUDIBLE] Edge, rode away from the line. And he had a riding mechanic with him to do his, his his cousin, [INAUDIBLE] Yeah. [LAUGH] It's amazing to think that they had a, a riding mechanic to fix problems along the way. You obviously don't get that now. No. Who was next? The dashing driver [INAUDIBLE] was next. And he took a far more relaxed approach to it and was waving to the crowd for much of the first lap. Next up was Percy [UNKNOWN] in a flimsy looking Winton and that was before the number four car of [UNKNOWN], The Red Devil put his big white Mercedes on the start line. [UNKNOWN] was the opposite of the jovial [INAUDIBLE] He was really competitive. And smoke and flames belch from the back of his white Mercedes. And the crowd absolutely loved it. And the story goes he actually cut grooves in the dirt road as he spun off. Also [UNKNOWN] was described as a green comet by one of the Irish reporters leaving a trail of dust in it's wake. Yeah so, quite an event. [NOISE] The 328 mile circuit was actually a large figure of eight that went out to Kilcullen, Kildare, [UNKNOWN] followed by a western loop that went out to Castledermot to somewhere else and back here again. [LAUGH] I'm glad you're driving and not navigating. On the very first lap, John Stocks Napier. Hit a hedge and ended up in a ditch. But [UNKNOWN] race was going a little bit better, and he was the hot favorite despite the fact that he stopped on the first lap to sponge cake and strawberries. Now that's, that's my kind of racing driver. [INAUDIBLE] [LAUGH] [INAUDIBLE] You don't get [UNKNOWN]. How's he doing that really? [LAUGH] [UNKNOWN] maybe. It was on the second lap when the real driving folded, however when Charles [UNKNOWN] [UNKNOWN] the steering completely failed and the car was out of control just as he v-maxed it to a heavy 70 mile an hour. The car hit an embankment. Flips over and sent Jared twenty yards down the road. His mechanic, Bianchi, was trapped underneath the vehicle, and got quite badly burned by the hot exhaust. The story goes that a priest turned up and declared both men dead. So the priest and some volunteers stretchered the bodies off to a local farm. And then of course Jared came to. When he awoke, he thought he was dead because all he could see was white. And that's because he was under a white sheet and he could hear Beanke next to him groaning. So Inedges race was about to take a turn for the worse however. When he lost two times in the next two laps, and he could hardly see anything. The steam spewing out of his damaged radiator. The Americans were having a bad day at the office as well with only Owen's [UNKNOWN] Winton trailing at the back of the pack. So now the race was turning into a two horse race. It was essentially between the laid back [UNKNOWN] and the [UNKNOWN] the white Mercedes. Then of course the weather took a turn for the worse. It started to hail. Can you imagine? They've got an open cockpit, and their doing 60 miles an hour, and they're being pelted by hail stones. The driver's faces were red raw. Do you not see? The Red Devil continues,. To stamp his authority on the race. But what few people knew is that Jenatzy had an added incentive. Mercedes, who were keen to showcase their new vehicles, had promised any Mercedes driver that lifted the trophy a 5 thousand pound bonus. Of course, back in 1903, that was serious cash. In the end, the white Mercedes of Jenatzy came home first, a clear 11 minutes ahead of de Knyff. Another, of course, that is the winning nationality, the Germans would take the race to Homburg to the 1904 race, where other Europeans joined the joined the fun. Eventually, the Gordon Bennett Trophy sent him to the 1906 French Grand Prix, which. She's the forerunner to Formula 1 as we know it today. Well, how do you compare the Gordon Bennett trophy of 1903 to today's Formula 1? It's still very much a rich man's game. I mean, back then, racing was essentially for aristocrats and playboys and the wealthy. And of course manufacturers cottoned onto this and really kept everybody sweet. And today you've got to be wealthy to go racing so I guess in that respect nothing much has changed. It's still of course a very international game. Mercedes are still in it. That's true. [UNKNOWN] finished off making engines for diesel locomotives the last thing they did. Not a very glamorous end is it? No. And what about the [UNKNOWN]. I thought it was, came from Persia didn't it? Yeah, they did, yeah, which is the kiss of death for any big rig. [LAUGH] [MUSIC] So Gordon Bennett got exactly what he wanted. A media storm which helped him flog a few more papers. But what he couldn't have foreseen was the huge impact that he was to have in motorin' in general. And because of him, motorsport was popularized across the entire world. And the trickle down technology from [UNKNOWN] race car has vastly improved the ordinary road car in terms of performance and reliability. I think the British and Irish people proved that Motorsports can be well organized, could be competitive, and could appeal to the masses, and of course it was the forerunner to [UNKNOWN] prix racing Formula 1 as we know it today, which is fantastic. The other thing, I think the British owe a gift of gratitude to the Irish for the British racing green because in truth it was born here. And tribute lives on with our glorious Morgan of course which is outside. But, when, [UNKNOWN] won the race in 1902 and Ginnati won here in Ireland in 1903 car sales went through the roof. They tripled in Britain. For some of the spectators this is the first time they've even seen a car but it proves to the masses that there was a viable alternative to the, to the horse and car. But it was the ago of exciting characters and aristocrats and playboys and, if theres any credible curium or passion in the racing that you dont see today. There's no [UNKNOWN] for sure the team did good energy drink bollocks, it's [LAUGH] I think we can say that on camera. [UNKNOWN] Gordon Bennet, the hard drinking international playboy who had left the United States in disgrace after desecrating a perfectly good grand piano. Who is not a role model in any way. Had in fact kick started the [INAUDIBLE]. And for that, we would like to thank you. So, Yeah! Cheers Gordon. [MUSIC]

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