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  • Writer's pictureAdéla Pavlovská

Chariot racing - predecessor of F1


It is a well-known fact that the first F1 race occurred in 1950. But let's take a trip back in time to the real beginning. What is the predecessor of the modern motorsport?
 

The history of chariot races - ludi circenses - goes back in the times of Ancient Greece, where it was a part of seasonal games as well as the Olympic Games. The Ancient Romans, as it was their habit, made this sport their own. It soon became one of the most popular forms of entertainment, watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators - mainly Roman masses as the social elites were not too fond of such events (if we don't count emperors Nero, Caligula, and Domitian). It was less violent than gladiator fights, yet it was an extremely dangerous sport where many young men found death.


In Rome specifically, chariot races took place in a huge oval-shaped stadium called Circus Maximus, which could take around 200 000 spectators seated all around. The stables were located about 2 kilometers away in the Campus Martius. There could be up to 24 races in a day with each one lasting for 7 laps. One lap of 600 meters made the race around 5 kilometers long. The speed on the straights could go up to 70 km/h. To keep the spectator informed, there were statues in the shape of dolphins and eggs to visualise how far in the race they were. In each race, as many as 12 chariots could participate.

Before the race, a sacred procession - pompa circensis - paraded through the city. To know who to root for, placards with the names of the charioteers and their horses were carried. A draw was held to determine who would start from which gate.

Circus Maximus is located between the Aventine and Palatine hills

The races started when the person on a platform just above the starting line dropped a white cloth called mappa onto the track, and the gates opened. Racers were required to stay within their lane for two laps. After that, they were free to fight for track positions. It wasn't unusual for teammates to work together during races to make sure the favored driver won. Several strategy calls could be applied, such as occupavit et vicit (taking the lead at the beginning and winning), or praemisit et vicit (intentional allowance of the opponent to seize the lead and then coming back to win)


Chariot racing was a perilous sport with frequent crashes. In these situations, a team of attendants - something like ancient marshalls - rushed on track to clear away the wrecked chariots and injured drivers or horses. All of this without pausing the race. A victorious driver was announced by the trumpets as the winner marched to the judges' box to receive a palm branch, a wreath, and prize money. Afterward, it was a time for a victory lap.

Mozaic of a chariotee from a Blue team in his victory lap

Drivers usually came from a low status - just like gladiators, they were slaves, freedmen, or foreigners. However, they could become celebrities if they had a long-lasting, successful career. Two types of racers existed, depending on which type of chariot they drove - auriga was less-experienced and in charge of two-horse chariots; agitator, a more accomplished driver, ran four-horse chariots. The horses used for this particular type of discipline resembled a modern large pony. They were stallions specially bred on private farms in North Africa, Sicily, Spain, and Thessaly. These horses were known for being strong, muscular creatures with a volatile character, offering a great challenge to the drivers, who had to control them.

"Successful charioteering required a combination of physical strength and endurance, skill in implementing various racing strategies, and superb horsemanship." - David Matz, a professor and chair of classics at St. Bonaventure University

There were four main teams the drivers could race for. It was usual for them to switch teams throughout their careers as they got pulled to the other side by team managers. Those teams, called factions, were Red (Russata), White (Albata), Blue (Venata), and Green (Prasina). There were two more teams in the reign of Domitian - Purple and Gold - but they did not last long. The Blues and Greens were the biggest factions, with the fiercest rivalry not only between the riders but also their fans. Sometimes, it even resulted in violent brawls outside the circus. It was common to make curse tablets to throw misfortune at the opposing team. Betting was also very popular in those times, although not as sophisticated as it is in present times - a spectator would simply turn to the person next to them and make a proposition. Chariot racing was a professional industry just like modern motorsport is. They provided equipment and training in exchange for a share of a drivers' winnings. They also employed support personnel such as doctors, trainers, stable hands, and veterinarians. Each faction had scouts looking for talented riders and horses.

Mozaic of the four main factions

The charioteers wore thick leather tunics and helmets. The reins were wrapped around drivers' waists to free their whip hand, which increased the risk of serious, even fatal, injuries. If they fell from their standing position, they could be dragged by the chariot or stomped on by the horses. For these situations, they carried a knife to cut themselves loose if necessary. The chariots were small and light - weighing about 25 - 35 kg - made of thin wood slats and leather, so the sharp turning would cause no issues. The chariot steered by the drivers shifting their body weight, using only the left hand to correct their course on the track.


Far too many young boys hazarded with their lives for fame and glory, but only some of them avoided sudden and premature death. A few of those, who won and survived hand in hand with danger, carved their names in the history books of this sport. The most successful and well-paid charioteer of all time was Gaius Appuleius Diocles. Coming from Lusitania - Iberian Roman province - Diocles had a 24-year-long career, racing for the White, Green, and then Red faction. Compared to others, he started late - at the age of 18. The first win came about two years after his racing debut - his total number of victories was 1462. His fortune was about 35 000 000 sesterces, which is about 17 million dollars.

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