A seminal event in racing came in 1900 when James Gordon Bennett, Jr (1841-1918), the owner of the New York Herald newspaper, established the Gordon Bennett Cup, a series of international races bearing his name. Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars. Influenced by these racing events, Louis Chevrolet (1878-1941), a Swiss-born employee of a French motor vehicle manufacturer would move to the United States and beginning in 1910 would become a major figure in American racing and the designer of a car for General Motors that bears his name.
Formalized Grand Prix motor racing, the precursor to Formula One, began in 1906 when the Automobile Club de France held the very first Grand Prix for automobiles at the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 103 km racetrack built near the city of Le Mans in the Sarthe département. From the 32 entries representing 12 different automobile manufacturers, the Hungarian-born Ferenc Szisz (1873-1944) won the two-day, 1239 km race. Names such as Renault, Fiat, and Mercedes, that still exist today, were on the list of entrants and tire development by firms such as Michelin soon proved key to success in auto racing along with improvements in every aspect of motor vehicle engineering and design.
The public's fascination with the automobile and racing grew rapidly but World War I halted all events. By the mid 1920s, there were many road racing circuits throughout Europe including the improved Brooklands in England, a new facility near Marseilles in France, the Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, a reconfigured Targa Florio in Sicily, one in Monza, Italy, the Lasarte course in Spain, as well as the AVUS and Nürburgring courses in Germany.
The A.I.A.C.R. (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus) founded in 1922, established uniform rules for international Grand Prix racing. The important national Grand Prix races established at the time in Europe were:
- Belgian Grand Prix
- British Grand Prix
- Czechoslovakian Grand Prix
- French Grand Prix
- German Grand Prix
- Italian Grand Prix
- Monaco Grand Prix
- Spanish Grand Prix
- Swiss Grand Prix
During the years between the wars, Bugatti was one of the dominant teams on the international racing scene winning everything from hill climbs to Grand Prix races. In 1926, Bugatti won 12 Grand Prix events, and in another string, Bugatti won five straight Targa Florios, the famous race around the island of Sicily.
In 1946, following World War II, there were only four races of Grand Prix caliber held. That year, a new governing body was organized called the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile or "FIA" for short. Headquartered in Paris, France, at the end of the 1949 season it announced that for 1950 they would be linking several national Grands Prix to create Formula One with a World Championship for drivers. A points system was established and a total of seven races were granted championship status including the Indianapolis 500.
Some of the great drivers of the Grand Prix motor racing era including a woman who competed equally with the men:
- Antonio Ascari - (Italy)
- Robert Benoist - (France)
- Georges Boillot - (France)
- Malcolm Campbell - (England)
- Rudolf Caracciola - (Germany)
- Louis Chiron - (Monaco)
- Giuseppe Farina - (Italy) : he would go on to become the first F1 champion
- Jules Goux - (France)
- Elizabeth Junek - (Czechoslovakia)
- Christian Lautenschlager - (Germany)
- Felice Nazzaro - (Italy)
- Tazio Nuvolari - (Italy)
- Bernd Rosemeyer - (Germany)
- Richard Seaman - (England)
- Henry Segrave - (England)
- Raymond Sommer - (France)
- Hans Stuck - (Switzerland)
- Achille Varzi - (Italy)
- William Grover-Williams - (France)
- Jean-Pierre Wimille - (France)