Non-championship F1 races have been largely forgotten. But they played their own part in the history of the sport
I’ve just invested in the latest weighty edition of the Grand Prix Data Book. It’s a 744-page statistical labour of love by David Hayhoe and David Holland: clearly laid out, easy to use, and guaranteed to answer just about any F1 question from 1950 to 2005. Race by race and car by car, driver by driver and circuit by circuit, it’s all there, together with absorbing lists of oddities and trivia (shared drives, moved startlines, anniversaries, races where the winner led only on the final lap). If you need this sort of information in totally comprehensive form, it’s a godsend — and cheap at £40.
Reference works like this are most fun when it comes to the obscurities. Every driver who turned up for a World Championship grand prix is listed — and nowadays this has to cover Friday test drivers too. If you want to check the GP starts of Tommy Bridger (Morocco, 1958), Xavier Perrot (Anderstorp, 1975) or Theo Fitzau (Nürburgring 1953) it’s all here. So are details of every marque that ever started a championship GP, from Connew to ENB, Shannon to Stebro.
Of course, once Bernie got things running his way, F1 was the World Championship. There weren’t any other F1 races except the title rounds, which by 2005 had risen to 19. But since F1 began in the 1940s there have been scores of them, from Goodwood to Chimay, from Pau to Snetterton. Some were a bit low-key: did you know that a Vanwall won a race at Castle Combe? But some of these, particularly in the early days, attracted strong entries.
Time was when the real start of the European season would be the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Ferrari wasn’t always tempted to make the trip, but in its better years the field was pretty representative. Traditionally, it was followed by Silverstone’s International Trophy. Across Europe lots of races were called ‘Grand Prix’ which weren’t always for F1 but, when they were, they often produced fine racing from top drivers and teams.
Yet, because it’s hard to summarise them statistically, these races have been almost ignored by the historians. Chris Ellard’s book Forgotten Races does a fine job for the 1966-1983 period, and he hopes to cover the 1.5-litre formula in a future volume. But back in 1950 only six races (plus the inappropriate Indy 500) counted towards the championship: yet, just like 2005, there were actually 19 proper international F1 dates on the calendar that year. As well as the Dutch and Spanish grands prix, there were races at Pau, Montlhéry and Albi in France, Pescara, San Remo and Bari in Italy, Geneva in Switzerland, and the Isle of Man and Dundrod — plus the International Trophy. Of course, not all the cars and drivers went to all the races, so comparisons are difficult. But if all 19 had earned points, Fangio would have been champion, not Farina.
As recently as 1971 there were eight non-championship F1 races: the Argentinian GP, the Questor GP at the Californian Ontario Motor Speedway, at Brands the Race of Champions and the October Victory Race (which cost the life of Jo Siffert), plus the usual International Trophy, two events at Oulton and one at Hockenheim.
At the final Race of Champions in 1983, 11 F1 teams were represented, most with single cars: Rosberg’s Williams, Jones’s Arrows, Arnoux’s Ferrari, Mansell’s Lotus, and Watson’s McLaren. Rosberg won over a 104-mile distance, but Danny Sullivan drove a brilliant race for Tyrrell, looking after his rubber and closing to within half a second of Keke as the Williams’s tyres wore out. The reference books show Sullivan’s F1 best as fifth place at Monaco that same year. But Danny won’t forget that day at Brands when the reigning World Champion only beat him by a matter of yards.
In every season over the long life of F1, there are similar forgotten stories of drama and fine racing in non-championship events. We all know about the 1955 Syracuse GP, when a Connaught driven by a young dental student called Tony Brooks beat the works Maseratis to score the first all-British win in a grand prix. But who remembers that the 1955 British GP at Aintree wasn’t the only time that Moss beat Fangio in a Mercedes W196 single-seater? In only his second outing for the German team, in the second half of the two-part Buenos Aires Grand Prix — actually a formule libre race, so the W196s were running 3-litre sportscar engines — Stirling led his mentor home by 3sec, although the canny Fangio won on aggregate.
The annual battle for the title of champion is what now interests the world, even if it sometimes distorts the actual racing. There are too many occasions these days when, late in the season, a title challenger will settle for a place when the man in front is not threatening him in the points table. (Some of us think it was better when you got four more points for winning a race than for finishing second, and that the change to 10 for a win and eight for second place was merely a quick fix to keep the championship unresolved for longer.) But when no points were at stake it was only the race that mattered. If you want some fresh insights into F1’s history, take a look at those non-championship races. There are some fascinating tales hidden in there.