Formula One turns 70 at Silverstone this weekend. We take a look back at the last seven decades and a little look forward at what is yet to come.
Prior to 1950, there had been many race series around Europe. The beginning of Formula One happened in 1946 when the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’s was founded and a standardisation of the rules was created. 1950 was the first World Championship of Drivers which itself was followed in 1958 by the championship for constructors.
At first, the cars were defined by World-War II engine specifications. The regulations allowed non-supercharged 4.5 litre pre-war cars to race against 1.5 litre supercharged cars. 3.0 litre super-charged cars were banned. Races were to be run at six major Grand Prix in Europe plus the Indianapolis 500. This was merely formalising what had been happening across the Grand Prix landscape during the previous years.
Domination isn’t new
Domination within Formula One happened from the beginning. Alfa Romeo, through Nino Farina, took that first race win and continued to become the first Formula One drivers champion. In 1951, his team mate, a bus driver from Argentina by the name of Juan Manuel Fangio, took the championship in the Alfa Romeo 159. Ferrari were racing but they failed to be competitive, with their choice of the 1.5 litre engines requiring to run less fuel and therefore stop more often to top up.
Switching to the 4.5 litre, they began getting closer to the Alfa’s by the end of the 1951 season. Other makers, notably Maserati, Talbot from France and BRM from England, represented the different countries involved. The Italians were dominant fielding three manufacturers as they had been in the preceding Grand Prix years. Alfa Romeo were state funded, although their budget was surprisingly sparse. A new design was proposed but the cost deemed too large.
Easy come, easy go
Their funding was stopped and so was their Formula One progress. Having won the first two years running, they were a no-show in 1952. A support cast of privately entered Lago-Talbot and an unreliable BRM meant that the domination from Ferrari began. The FIA had announced planned rule changes to be introduced in 1954 but with teams looking at those changes, they didn’t plan to develop the existing cars. And so, in the 1952 and 1953 seasons, Alberto Ascari took the championship.
In 1954, with the new 2.5 litre naturally aspirated engine regulation in place, new entrants were brought to the sport. Lancia and Mercedes-Benz came to the formula and hired the best drivers. Ascari went to Lancia while the bus driver joined the Germans. The cars had exotic machined parts from alloys and the bodies were draped in streamlined designs. The first race of the season at Reims-Gueux saw Fangio beat his team-mate, Karl Kling for a one-two finish. Fangio continued his wins to take his second drivers championship that year.
As quickly as they arrived in 1954, Mercedes, teamed with Fangio and some chap called Stirling Moss, dominated the next two seasons and then left. The domination had proven their superior technology. They had suffered at Le Mans in 1955 with one of their cars crashing and killing 83 people. They would not return to Formula One for the next forty years. Following that crash, the season also had four Grand Prix cancelled due to safety concerns.
Safety was also questioned when at Monaco, Ascari launched his Lancia into the harbour after missing a chicane. He was pulled from the water but was killed in testing at Monza four days later. Lancia too subsequently left the sport and left their cars, technology and engines to Ferrari.
Fangio used that technology well in the 1956 season and took his fourth championship that year adding to his two previous titles with Mercedes. He followed it with his fifth at Maserati in 1957 cementing his place in Formula One history. His five championships would remain a record in the sport for the next 46 years.
Looking back at period footage, the lack of driver, team and crowd safety is all too clear. While it wasn’t until 1952 that hard-shell helmets became mandatory for the drivers, hay bales continued to be the crowds main protection barrier. As the cars began to change shape to those that represent the modern era, it was still to be a long time until spectator safety began to change.
During the 1960s, there was a fatality in Formula One in every eight crashes. Following the accident and death of Lorenzo Bandini at Monaco in 1967, hay bales become banned, yet it was not until 1970 that it became mandatory to have the crowd three meters back from a circuit. That year they also made it compulsory at each race to have a wall between the track and the pit lane. Fire was a major factor at this time.
In 1968, John Surtees condemned the RA032 of Honda as a potential death-trap. The car, driven by Jo Schlesser, crashed on his second lap at Rouen, France. He died in the resulting inferno and Honda withdrew from Formula One at the end of that season for more than 30 years.
While each accident ushered in new safety measures, the 70s era continued with the driver death toll. With lightness becoming a key component in successful race car design, magnesium alloys were widely used. They are also a key component in pyrotechnics. Hindsight will tell you that this was not a good mix. With no automotive fuel shut off systems in place, any rupture to the tank, if ignited, only had one result.
In June 1970, Piers Courage raced for Williams. He was running ninth in a De Tomaso when there was a component failure on the car. It happened flat out during a bend and he careered off the circuit, up an embankment and the car disintegrated. The resulting fire was so ferocious that it engulfed surrounding woodland making any rescue attempt impossible. It is believed that Courage would have died before the fire from injuries sustained beforehand. Formula One was still inherently dangerous.
With the advent of television coverage, the full horror of F1 safety failures unfolded with the horrific accident involving Roger Williamson in 1973. It took a full 8 minutes for a fire truck to get to the scene. The initial accident had left Williamson trapped but unharmed. The fire that then began wasn’t tackled by the marshals who had one fire extinguisher between them. This was due to them wearing casual clothing and the race still happening around them.
David Purley stopped to help his friend and the footage of him using the extinguisher is a fateful tragedy. The great Niki Lauda said that he was sick with shame that no other driver had stopped to help.
He himself was subject to his own disfiguring fire incident in 1976 at the Nurburgring. Even though a priest read his last rites, six weeks later he returned, seriously disfigured, to racing. Over the years we lost many others. Notable drivers such as Wolfgang von Trips, Jochen Rindt, Francois Cevert, Gilles Villeneuve, Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. It isn’t just the drivers that face the danger, it is the marshals too.
With the sad passing of Jules Bianchi in 2017, it was an emotional reminder that the sport is still dangerous. We can but hope that the counter for seasons without a fatality is not reset again.
With the heroes the sport has given us, the great names continue within the fan base. Fangio, Moss, Senna, Alonso, Schumacher, Hamilton. To have witnessed them at their finest is a joy we all share. The emotions, the camaraderie, the characters and their chariots have inspired many of us.
Losing them in their prime, doing what they do best is painful. Just as painful is having them leave later in life. Heroes all to us mere mortals who could never imagine or experience what they have. A perfect corner, a heroic drive, to be champion of the world. We have lived and continue to live vicariously through them.
Arguments will ensue as to who was the greatest. They continue about who is currently the best. Statistics can always be squeezed to fit a desired narrative but when all is said and done you cannot dispute the champion of that season.
The not so greats
With the highs, there are lows. The also rans. The list of greatest drivers in the sport may not stretch to a phone directory, yet many will have heard of the names. Some remain rooted solely in Formula One. Others, James Hunt for example, known for his antics off the track as much as on it.
Some would have made great champions were it not for that elusive ‘if only’. Right place, right time can be a judge sometimes while unfortunately, sometimes, it just isn’t meant to be.
In 1993, Marco Apicella had what is deemed to be the shortest career in F1. Driving for Jordan, he’d covered 800 metres when he was hit by the Sauber of JJ Lehto. At the next round in Portugal, he was replaced by Emanuele Naspetti and never raced in the formula again.
Taki Inoue is an F1 fan legend if only for his comedic accidents in 1995. He stalled his Footwork car in the first qualifying session at Monaco only to be hit by the Renault Clio course car. The resulting flipping of his car left him with a minor concussion. In Hungary, he retired with an engine failure, and while helping marshals by getting a fire extinguisher, he himself was hit by the course car and knocked off his feet. He retired from F1 at the end of that season. Who knows what his third time may have entailed.
And then we come to Al Pease. The Canadian racing driver had been successful in domestic competitions. He was even inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1998. But in 1969, at the Canadian Grand Prix, he became the only person in the sports history to be disqualified for driving too slowly.
The nearly men
It is strange to have a list of names that may seem very recognisable, that have not been world champion. Jacky Icxx has topped Le Mans podiums yet in a decade of trying, never made F1 champion. Didier Pironi in 1982 was set to become France’s first ever world champion had it not been for an accident that left him with career ending injuries. Other names such as Gilles Villeneuve, Tony Brooks and Clay Regazzioni are all great names that never made it. One of the closest, was Eddie Irvine.
The outspoken Ulster-man, was seen as nothing but a prop to Michael Schumacher, yet in the 1999 season, he went in to the final round leading the championship by four points. At the end of that race, he had been pipped to the post by two points by Mika Hakkinen.
Other names who we revere that didn’t take a championship are Wolfgang von Trips, Carlos Reutemann and Sir Stirling himself.
The closest, and most emotional, was in in Brazil in 2008. On home territory, Felipe Massa needed to win the race and have Lewis Hamilton finish sixth or lower to win the title. In ever changing conditions, it looked to us all that this had happened. Massa crossed the line and we watched as he took the win and sobbed along with his family in pit lane.
Moments later, those sobs became despair as Lewis Hamilton overtook Timo Glock in his struggling Toyota on the final bend of the final lap, to with the title by a single point.
The closest end to a Formula One championship in its history.
The modern world
Today, Mercedes-Benz have returned and with six successive titles as constructors and six times champion, Lewis Hamilton leading this years standings, the dominance of a team has continued. To many, it can seem dull, lifeless or stagnant, but I think it is to be admired. To have such command of a sport is always going to be seen as a negative. But to me, that is what you strive for. To be the best. To win.
We all love to see close racing, safe drama, heroics and new heroes, but do not let that detract from watching a team produce a perfect man and machine in harmony such as this. People moaned when Schumacher dominated the sport but the hindsight of time allows us to look back and admire just how good that team, car and driver package was. For now, Mercedes and Lewis have that. Fortune still favours the brave and all of the teams and drivers in Formula One today, to me at least, are brave still.
The FIA are still changing the regulations and new cars, tyres, engines and specifications will see that the future of Formula One continues to evolve. Whether we have a new list of champions or extend the reign of the existing ones, time will tell.
As 2020 continues to see us having to watch the season from a distance, it is difficult to imagine that we won’t all be back to a circuit soon to enjoy the racing, the camaraderie, the laughter and the entertainment that us fans continue to enjoy.
I hope to see you there just as soon as we can.