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Formula 1: A Short History of the Pinnacle of Racing

With the recent conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics and with the world now looking, more or less, towards the Beijing Olympics next year, it’s probably time to take a dive into the world of sports. When one thinks of the word sport, the thought that probably comes to mind is something physically demanding in the sense of running, lifting, jumping, et cetera. But the word “sport” can today include anything from chess, to shooting, to even video games, the least physical sport on the planet unless you count things like Dance Dance Revolution.

There’s another category that fits neatly into this group – motorsports, as in racecars. There are two well-known major competitions in the world of auto racing: America’s NASCAR, and Europe’s Formula One. Today, we’re going to be focusing on the latter, and drawing a line from its origins to what is today the fastest motorsport competition in the world. This is the story of Formula One racing.

Starting Lines

If you’re not at all familiar with motorsports, it may seem odd to call it a sport; the car’s doing most of the work. And, to an extent, you would be right. But the truth is more complex than that. Motorsport is a physically demanding competition in which athletes, in this case, the drivers, are pushed to their limits on the racetrack. And it is demanding – drivers need to exercise for hours a day to ensure their bodies can handle the stress, not to mention the mental aspect of handling a vehicle at such high speeds.

But that’s today’s motorsports, and obviously it wasn’t always like this. The very first recorded race between motorized vehicles occurred on August 30, 1867, when two Englishmen near the town of Manchester held a race with two motorized carriages over a distance of eight miles. Interestingly enough, the reports for this race don’t list who was driving the carriages at the time, probably because they would’ve been breaking the law. It would probably explain why the race took place at 4:30 in the morning, but I digress.

Georges Vuitton (1857-1936),
Georges Vuitton (1857-1936). By Eugène Pirou,
is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Despite its British and, to a mild extent, American origins, no country would more enthusiastically adopt the concept of auto racing than France. In 1894, the Paris-Rouen auto race was held, becoming the first of what we would recognize as an actual competitive auto race. Races before this competition were generally limited by a lack of drivers; in fact, there was one French race in 1887 where the man who won, Georges Bouton, was the only contestant. Congratulations to him, I suppose, but it’s rather difficult to describe that as a “race”.

That wasn’t the case with the Paris-Rouen. There were over a hundred entrants for the competition, and 21 drivers who qualified for the main event. It was won on a technicality by Albert Lemaître, whose 3 horsepower vehicle averaged a truly blistering pace of 19 km/hr. The technicality in question, by the way, was that the actual fastest car needed a second driver as a stoker for its steam engine, which was against the rules. Why do we mention that? Well, because it’s time to skip ahead to the 1940s, when the hot topic in racing was rules and regulations. Exciting stuff, for sure, but bear with us.

Here’s the context. World War 2 had just ended, and along with it, a hiatus on inter-European racing competitions. Panzer battalions tend to make racing tournaments difficult to organize, it turns out. But with the war’s conclusion, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA, was ready and rearing to get back to the racetrack. And so, in the year 1946, the group laid down new rules and regulations to determine the makeup of future races, mostly with the intention of standardizing the designs of racecars.

This new “International Formula” would be what gave the competition its name, Formula 1. Correspondingly, there is also the lesser known Formula 2 and Formula 3 racing series, also run by the FIA and differently named for having different sets of rules. This naming convention applies to other competitions in the same vein, including the so-called “Formula Libre” races, which are basically free-for-alls in terms of car types.

Now, with all of that explanation, you’re probably wondering what exactly these rules and regulations were. So are we. See, it’s surprisinglydifficult to find any sources on what this new “International Formula” actually formulized. From what we’ve gathered, the regulations mostly had to do with technical specifications, such as the weight of the car and the capacity of the engine. But in terms of actual details, the first Formula 1, well, formula, isn’t on the internet, as far as we can tell. So, the answer to the question, “What exactly was the original Formula 1?” is basically, “Who knows?”

One thing that was certainly not a part of these new rules was anything to do with safety. By this point, racecars had gone from averaging a few horsepower to a few hundred horsepower, and obviously, faster cars are more likely to kill you. Add in the facts that these first races went on for far longer than races today, causing more driver fatigue, and that race tracks themselves were not as well maintained, and the result is that early Formula 1 races were shockingly dangerous, where it wasn’t uncommon for crashes to result in the deaths of drivers.

To give you an idea of how far safety in motorsport has come, crash helmets were not mandatory until 1952, nor were seatbelts until 1972. If you’re still not shocked, before crash suits and overalls were made mandatory, drivers generally preferred wearing short-sleeve shirts to keep themselves cool while racing. Smart – until, of course, they’re sliding across the pavement following a crash.

And crashes were common. In the first decades of Formula 1, multiple drivers would die in accidents on the track every year. It’s a sobering list; 1952, two fatalities; 1953, three fatalities; 1955, five fatalities, and the list goes on until the mid-60s when the FIA finally decided that drivers needed protection and included safety features in the rules. It was just generally accepted back then that, when you stepped into the car, there was a solid chance that you weren’t getting out of it.

But drivers weren’t the only ones at risk. As this terrifying photo shows, spectators were often sat right next to the track, with nothing between them and the cars going hundreds of kilometers an hour; if something went wrong, they weren’t any safer than the drivers. The most notorious accident in this regard was the 1955 Le Mans disaster, where a crash on the track catapulted one of the racecars, going over 200 km/hr (120 mph) at the time, into a crowd of spectators. In total, 84 people were killed, including the driver. The disaster was so horrific that the car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz, whose driver was the one killed, withdrew from all motorsport competition for over thirty years.

Safety would be hammered out over time. Today, crashes, injuries, and deaths still occur, but not nearly at the same rate as early races. In addition, there would never be another track disaster as serious as Le Mans. Yet this event does lead us into another aspect of F1 racing, something that is today inseparable from the competition itself – the design companies.

Engineering Victory

Sports and businesses have been closely linked since the Industrial Revolution, and motorsport is no exception. From the very beginning, auto racing was seen by car manufacturers as a fantastic way to advertise their brands; the very first races held in France were sponsored by French automobile companies. So, when the FIA codified Formula 1, big-name businesses were all in. Some of the names are ones you probably recognize – Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes, Aston-Martin, and more besides. There are also some oddballs in the sport. McLaren, for example, worked backwards: they started out as a Formula 1 racing team, founded by New Zealander Bruce McLaren, and only later transitioned into manufacturing luxury sports cars.

bruce mclaren
Bruce Mclaren Oulton Park 1959. By Mike Cookson, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

These companies set aside special divisions, specifically for designing the best racecars they could compete with, the expectation being that a victory in Formula 1 would pay dividends for the rest of the business. This is the other side of the coin that is motorsports – where races test not only the skills of the drivers, but the engineers designing their cars, to the point where the cars being driven are just as, if not more famous than the person driving them.

Take, for example, the Alfa Romeo 158/9. This Italian-designed car is one of the most successful racecars ever made; out of the 54 Grand Prix races that it entered, it won 47 of them. Despite this impressive track record, the “Alfetta”, as it was known, was not actually the most powerful car of its time; the Mercedes-Benz W125, another exceptional model, exceeded it in raw power by a wide margin. While the Alfetta could push anywhere from 200 to 420 horsepower from its engine, the W125 could reach upwards of 600 horsepower.

But the rules at the time dictated that, in an F1 race, a racecar could not exceed 750kg in weight, which the W125 did, and the Alfetta did not. The FIA had also backed itself into a corner by publicly stating that they wouldn’t update the rules until 1954, and so nobody bothered to design a new car since it would only be viable for about three years until the rules changed and they’d have to design another car. Even in motorsport, teams play the rules as well as the game. This left the Alfetta in the position of being the best car, with no one willing to invest in beating it, and so the car won most every competition it took part in until updates to the rules and improved engineering by other teams ended its streak.

And this is, essentially, how Formula 1 has evolved ever since. Engineering superior cars often results in some innovative solutions in order to squeeze every last advantage out of the design as possible. This involved, and still involves, everything from using light, exotic metals such as magnesium in production, to moving the parts around the car chassis – like, for example, literally putting the extremely dangerous fuel tanks underneath the driver seats to save space. (They obviously don’t do that anymore.)

The design aspect of Formula 1 made its biggest difference in the 1990s. During this decade, the technology behind the racecars advanced more quickly than it had in the previous four. Because cutting-edge technology is, by definition, expensive, only the teams backed by the large manufacturers could afford to keep up. Prior to this development, Formula 1 had a healthy mix of manufacturer teams and so-called “privateers”, entrants into the events that were not directly supported by automobile manufacturers. However, the massive amounts of cash that those manufacturers started pouring into their cars resulted in these independent teams being unable to compete, and dozens of them were forced to withdraw from F1 permanently.

Manufacturers dominated for years until 2008, when the Great Recession happened. Suddenly, manufacturers were out of cash, too, and all but the most iconic started withdrawing. Faced with the prospect of not having many racers in their Formula 1 races, the FIA hastily accepted a few new privateer teams. Some of these included Lotus F1, which took its name from an earlier non-privateer team, rather defeating the point; Hispania Racing based out of, take a guess, Spain; and Virgin Racing, founded by Richard Branson, creator of airline Virgin Airways and spaceline Virgin Galactic. At least the branding’s consistent.

These teams would eventually be displaced as the recession abated and companies returned, and big manufacturers like Mercedes would go on to dominate the competition (they’ve won every championship since 2014). Yet privateering has left an indelible mark on Formula 1, kickstarting the careers of superstars like Michael Schumacher, and the well-known Williams F1 team, technically a privateer, is still going strong in the 2021 season.

With all of that being said, we’ve left out the other half of auto racing. A car, of course, is only as good as the person driving it, and there are some truly legendary drivers in the history of Formula 1. Let’s talk about their stories next.

Minds of Metal and Wheels

Comparing drivers across the decades of Formula 1 competitions is not easy, especially since not only the cars, but the rules have changed over that same period. Indeed, even the number of races held has gone up and down, making raw stats basically useless for comparisons. With that being said, we can point out a few superstars.

In the first ten years of F1, an Argentine driver gained fame for not only the power of his vehicles, but for his skill in handling them. Juan Manuel Fangio is today considered one of, if not the best Formula 1 driver in the history of the sport. He spent ten years racing in Formula 1, from 1948 to 1958, and won a full five championship titles, a record that would remain unbroken until 2003. What truly sets him apart from others, however, is that he won these championships with four separate teams – Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Maserati. The difference in quality between their respective cars was significant, yet Fangio won championships with them anyway, and that particular feat has not been repeated by any driver since. He was also briefly kidnapped by Fidel Castro before a race in Havana, Cuba, because his life wasn’t interesting enough already.

Georges Vuitton (1857-1936),
Alfa-Romeo-159-(1951). By Lennart Coopmans, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Of course, only so many legends can fit on a race track, and as F1 developed as a sport, some truly legendary rivalries emerged. For example, the Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, and the Briton, Nigel Mansell, were objectively driving the best cars on the track in the 1986 Grand Prix. However, even though they were on the same team, they kept depriving each other of points, causing the Frenchman Alain Prost to secure a narrow win for the championship. Prost himself had a bone to pick with Ayrton Senna, also a Brazilian, which led to a nasty spat in 1989 when Senna accused the French president of FIA of favoring Prost in a dispute over a race that year. Yikes.

In the more modern age of F1, i.e. after the 1990s, statisticians have argued that the impact of drivers has fallen in comparison to the impact of cars, which may be part of the reason that Fangio’s four-team record stands unbeaten. However, there are still some high profile star players, such as the German Michael Schumacher, who is credited with single-handedly popularizing Formula 1 in Germany. Countries like to root for their own, of course, but when he retired in 2006, three of the top ten F1 drivers that year were of German nationality, up from zero when he first entered the sport in 1991.

Schumacher was also the man who broke Fangio’s title record in 2003, and by 2013, his final career tally stood at seven championship titles and 93 total F1 victories. By contrast, the most any other active racer at the time had was 32. It seemed an unbeatable record, at the time. But in 2001, when Schumacher was in his prime, he gave an interview where he spoke about a 16 year old go-karting sensation in Britain, and tipped him for future success in Formula 1. “He’s a quality driver,” Schumacher said, “very strong and only 16. If he keeps this up I’m sure he will reach F1.”

That “quality driver” he was speaking of was a young man by the name of Lewis Hamilton, and Schumacher turned out to be absolutely right. Hamilton would go on to enter Formula 1, and would win his first championship in 2008, on the last lap of the last race of the season. At this point, Hamilton has broken Schumacher’s record for most wins, with a current tally of 99, and has equaled Schumacher’s title record of seven championship wins. Now, we won’t call him the best, because of the reasons stated earlier, but we can certainly call him the best, right now, and he shows no signs of slowing down. And neither, for that matter, does F1 itself.

The Future

The current trajectory of F1 is twofold. First, the sport itself has grown in popularity and now sees tournaments held all over the world, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. Second, the FIA is diversifying outwards into other formula races, including the relatively recent Formula E for electric vehicles. At the moment, its popularity lags behind F1 proper, due to the limitations of electric vehicles compared to gas powered ones, but given that electric vehicles are improving all the time, it may be sooner rather than later that this gap begins to close.

And then, of course, there’s the United States. America has its own giant high-speed motorsports market, which, as we’ve established, is currently filled by NASCAR. Yet even here, Formula 1 is making headway. Specifically, the release of the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive, according to Australian racer Daniel Ricciardo, helped put F1 on the map in the US, essentially doubling its fanbase in the country. This is despite the fact that for the first season of the show, the most competitive teams – Ferrari and Mercedes – refused to participate due to wanting to keep their car designs as close to their chests as possible. But after the good response the show received, the companies joined in, and the show has even managed the rare feat of becoming more popular as time goes on.

As it stands now, however, F1 is unquestionably one of Europe’s most successful sports leagues, and it looks poised to grow even more than it already has, especially since it’s now owned by an American company. Looks like we just can’t have any nice things to ourselves.

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