Formula One is meant to have an off-season. That’s why the FIA bans all track activity for a specified period during the winter. This year’s ban lasted just 43 days, from the chequered flag falling at Suzuka on October 12 until the sound of V10s rent the Spanish air on November 25. The Michelin-shod teams Williams, McLaren, Renault, Jaguar and Toyota – were pounding around Valencia, where David Coulthard set best time of the week with the new McLaren MP4-19. At Barcelona, meanwhile, Bridgestone-shod Ferrari and Sauber were reeling off the laps, along with BAR, which doesn’t really belong at a Bridgestone test any more now that it’s signed with Michelin. The two most impoverished teams, Minardi and Jordan, didn’t appear.
Needless to say, the six-week testing ban didn’t affect the frantic work going on in the factories to design, fabricate and develop cars and bits of cars for the new season. The testing grind will continue unabated, apart from a brief Christmas moratorium, until the day the transport planes leave for Australia. Then it’ll be 17 races in 33 breathless weeks – including rounds at new tracks in Bahrain and Shanghai – before the whole process regenerates itself once more for 2005. If F1 is your job, you don’t have room for anything else.
It wasn’t always like that. Back when the world championship season lasted from May to September, the F1 circus found plenty of ways of racing in warmer climes during the winter, and having a good holiday at the same time. The Tasman Series was always the favourite, at its height consisting of four rounds in Australia, four in New Zealand, and plenty of time for sun, sea and socialising in between. Things cost less then, and F1 folk didn’t insist on being so rich, so it made sense for many top teams to make the trip. When the 2500cc Tasman rules didn’t chime in with F1, several prepared special 2.5-litre cars.
It was during the Tasman Series, in 1968, that sponsorship as we know it first appeared. For the first two rounds the 2.5-litre Lotus 49Ts (flint Clark and Graham Hill were in the familiar green-and-yellow Team Lotus colours. Then Colin Chapman closed his deal with John Player, and special pots of red, white and gold paint were flown out to New Zealand. It was barely dry when, on Saturday January 20, Jim Clark won the Lady Wigram Trophy at Christchurch and that afternoon London’s Evening Standard carried a whole-page ad, paid for by Player’s, to announce that Gold Leaf Team Lotus had won its first race.
But when the cars arrived at Surfers Paradise for the first Australian round CAMS, the national sanctioning body, declared that advertising was not allowed on racing cars in Australia. Lotus retorted that it had merely painted the entrant’s name on the car, and produced an entrant’s licence in the name of ‘Gold Leaf Team Lotus with Ford of Australia’. Then CAMS found a rule that said that an entrant’s name could only appear in black letters on a white background. On race day, when Clark and Hill tried to drive onto the grid for the preliminary 10-lap heat, the paddock’s gate was slammed shut in front of them.
So that race was run without the Lotuses. But before the entire meeting descended into farce, the CAMS officials found a loophole in the rules that allowed them to climb down gracefully. Clark and Hill started the main race, and finished 1-2. Motor racing had changed for ever. South Africa had its Springbok
Series, usually for sportscars, and the organisers paid well to have a few good European cars and drivers to spice up their local grids. For the Nassau Speed Week in the Bahamas the parties were almost more important than the racing. More serious was the Argentine Temporada, when the country’s F1l heroes such as Fangio, Gonzalez and Marimon returned to race among their compatriots, and many of the top European drivers went too. At different times Argentina and South Africa got their own rounds of the world championship, although Australia only joined in when the great days of the Tasman Series were over.
During the heyday of the Argentine GP in the 1950s, there was a second race a week later called the Buenos Aires Grand Prix. The European F1 circus stayed on for it but, to give the local heroes a chance, it was a Formula Libre race, admitting such indigenous hybrids as Froilan Gonzalez’ Chevy V8-powered Ferrari. In 1955, Merc went to the trouble of flying out 3-litre straight-eights from its 300SLR sportscars and fitting them between races, and Ferrari followed suit with 3-litre four-bangers for the works 625s.
That year the BA GP was run in two heats, and Farina’s Ferrari beat the Mercedes pair of Fangio and Moss to win Heat One. In Heat Two, Fangio led Moss, as was to become the norm that season, but with two laps to go Stirling overtook Fangio, and pulled away to take the chequer 3sec ahead. Today, when most motor racing historians seem obsessed with the world championship to the exclusion of all else, this race has been forgotten. Much ink has been expended on whether Fangio ‘allowed’ Moss to pip him in the 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree, but the Buenos Aires race was only Moss’s second race for Mercedes, and he beat Fangio fair and square. However, perhaps the canny Fangio was focusing on the aggregate order, for when the results of the two heats were added together he was the winner, just, from Moss.
The indefatigable Stirling always wanted to keep driving, winter or summer. At the end of 1951, and with no winter racing on the cards, he decided to do the Monte Carlo Rally. He’d never done a rally before, so this was leaping in at the deep end. But he got a £50 fee for driving a works Sunbeam-Talbot and, in heavy snow, finished a remarkable second overall, a mere 4sec behind Sydney Allard’s Allard. Two weeks later he tried his hand at trialling and, against a 64strong championship field, finished seventh and first novice in a borrowed Ford 10 Special. Afterwards he declared that it required huge reserves of co-ordination, throttle control and quick reactions, and was “not nearly as easy as it looked”.
It’s intriguing to imagine Coulthard or Jenson Button trying their hand at mudplugging. But they’re too busy earning their keep in an F1 cockpit, grinding around just another anodyne Spanish circuit and evaluating tyre compounds and wing settings.
Even more intriguing, but equally impossible in today’s world, would be the sight of F1’s aces racing against younger, less-proven drivers in longdistance sportscar affairs, or perhaps in a subsidiary single-seater formula. When Ferrari, Maserati, or Mercedes went grand prix racing in the 1950s, there was never any question of not fielding a sports-racing team as well, and their contracted drivers signed up to race in both. If a top driver joined a team that didn’t have a sportscar programme – Vanwall, say, or BRM – he would make sure he was signed up with Jaguar or Aston Martin to keep busy on the other weekends. 7Formula Two played a vital role in most top drivers’ schedules in the 1960s. In ’67, the first season of the 1600cc F2, there were 24 F2 races in 10 countries. The top men of the day – Clark, Stewart, Surtees, McLaren, Hill, Brabham and the rest – did as many of them as they could Jochen Rindt first burst onto the scene when he arrived in F2 in 1964 and astonished the world by outdriving the established stars. Jochen on the limit in an F2 car, coming through traffic, was one of racing’s unforgettable sights. By ’67, grappling with the heavy and unreliable Cooper-Maserati, he had still yet to make his mark in F1, but with equal equipment in F2 he was almost unbeatable, winning nine of the 15 races he started. The other winners that year were Stewart (4), Clark (3), Ickx (3) and Surtees (2). Meanwhile, Brian Redman, Peter Gethin, David Hobbs, Frank Gardner, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jack Oliver and Chris Irwin were able to fight wheel to wheel with the established stars and show if they deserved an F1 seat.
You could say, perhaps, that testing is the new F2, a way for drivers on the brink of F1 (Franck Montagny) or whose careers are marking time (Alex Wurz) to stay in the F1 loop. And testing is a crucial, indivisible part of modem F1. If all that work can find a few more hundredths of a second come qualifying in Melbourne, it’s time – and money – well spent.