Is Formula One today merely a sad, bloated caricature of its once glorious past or have we, in fact, never had it so good? Shaun Campbell casts an impassive eye over the years and decides
Was there ever a golden time of Grand Prix racing and, if so, when was it? What gives it distinction? Are we experiencing one now, or the good old days finally gone forever? And they really that good? Is it even possible for any of valid comparison to be drawn between eras at all?
Let us not be sentimental about this, but let’s ignore the romance either. The record books statistics charts can fill your head with facts figures but they can’t give you the sound of a V16 or a Matra V12 at full chat, the addictive of doped fuels, racing oil and burning rubber. And they can’t give you the sight of Ronnie opposite-locking a Lotus 72 through yet for any era to classify as a Golden Age it surely satisfy certain criteria. The racing should close and competitive; the cars and circuits present a stem test of the drivers’ skills; it should technically innovative and diverse; and it be exciting to watch. There’s another factor that should be considered too, but well come to that later.
There are notable exceptions, but the early and mid-1950s, the first years of the World Drivers’ Championship, were not distinguished by the closeness of the racing. Let’s take an example. The 1951 British Grand Prix has gone down in the history of the sport as one of its most significant races. It was when the 4.5-litre unblown Ferraris 375s finally put an end to the post-war domination of the 1.5-litre supercharged Alfa Romeos. Significant certainly, but a great motor race?
There were 20 starters, but if today’s rule of having to qualify within 107 per cent of the pole position time had applied then, there would have been just six cars on the grid. Take away the first lap flurry and changes of position during the routine pit-stops and there would have been but two lead changes. Frolain Gonzalez started from pole, led 58 of the 90 laps and beat Juan Manuel Fangio’s Alfetta to the chequered flag by 51 seconds, having been a minute or more ahead for most of the second half of the race. Luigi Villoresi was third, two laps behind, and the sixth-placed finisher was six laps adrift. The race lasted nearly two and three-quarter hours. It must have seemed longer. . .
It’s wise not to over-generalise, though. Less than five seconds covered the first four finishers in the 1953 French GP and the racing had been wheel-to-wheel from the start. The Italian GP that year was equally tight, with three cars entering the final corner of the last lap practically side by side (only one of which came out unscathed). But, in this era these are the exceptions to what was, all too often, the rule of the one-horse race.
Grand Prix racing in the 1950s certainly had its compensations, though. The challenge posed by narrow-tyred front-engined cars on circuits such as the Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps or Bremgarten was formidable, and provided a spectacle to match. Even on film, the sight of Fangio and Maserati 250F in total four-wheel-drifting harmony through the downhill section at Rouen makes the heart beat faster. Fortunate indeed are those to have seen such things in flesh and metal.
So it was a romantic age, even an heroic one, but it’s harder to argue a convincing case for technical excellence. This was, let us not forget, the era of the supersonic jet fighter, with the space age only a few years away, but the cars scarcely reflected that level of post-war progress. Even disc brakes were pioneered by the aircraft industry and only found their way into Formula One via endurance sportscars.
As for diversity, well let’s have no more of this nonsense about how all cars today look the same. In the 1950s they often were the same. Of the 28 cars that raced in the 1956 British GP, for instance, no fewer than 11 were 250F Maseratis. At the same race three years later Cooper provided 12 of the 24 starters. Throughout the ’50s, Grand Prix racing was taken seriously by a mere handful of constructors, largely from Britain and Italy. The involvement of the Germans was brief, though successful, through Mercedes-Benz in 1954-55, and there was sporadic interest from France. But it can hardly be described as a global sport, fought over by the might of a rapidly growing worldwide motor industry.
John Cooper, who unwittingly probably did more than anyone to bring this era to a close, still looks back on with it affection. “I suppose in some ways it was the age of the amateur,” he says. “Much like historic racing is today.” But he also sees in it and particularly in some of the people involved an aura of ‘greatness’ that’s lacking today. We are all products of our time and though in retrospect there’s an air of inevitability about the decline of the factory-built front-engined cars towards the end of the 1950s, it didn’t seem like that at the time. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even now, 40 years later, Cooper can’t quite get over the fact that his “really quite simple” cars, assembled in humble Surbiton premises, could have won the prizes that until then had been the exclusive preserve of names likes Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Mercedes.
If Cooper was a revolutionary of the late 1950s, he was part of the -Establishment by the 1960s, when Grand Prix racing became an almost exclusive club for British competitors with intermittently effective opposition from Ferrari. The grid for the 1964 British GP at Brands Hatch, for example, was composed of seven Brabhams, six Lotuses, four BRMs, three Coopers, one BRP and two token Ferraris. With the exception of the Italian cars, the entire field was powered either by Coventry-Climax or BRM engines. But the effect of greater uniformity provided by the use of proprietary engines was much closer racing. Twenty-two of those 23 starters qualified within 107 per cent of the pole position time and the margin of victory was only 2.8 seconds. In the following year’s Italian GP, the lap chart revealed 42 changes of lead, which still stands as a record.
True, Monza in those pre-chicane days was always liable to throw up a great slipstreaming gaggle and some torrid action, and there were many occasions when Jimmy Clark’s Lotus simply disappeared into the distance, but the cars and drivers were generally more evenly matched than in the 1950s. Perhaps the biggest drawback was the cars themselves, which until the introduction of the 3.0-litre formula in 1966, were powered by 1.5-litre engines which delivered, at most, a paltry 200bhp. They were being raced by great drivers Clark, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jack Brabham among them and still largely on the classic circuits, but the racing needed to be close to make up for a relative lack of individual spectacle.
If the 1950s was the heroic age, then the early and mid-1960s might be termed as the democratic age. Budgets were small, but the machinery was cheap and widely available. “We sold our 1961 model to customers for around £4500,” says Cooper. “And the Climax engine cost £1200.” Allowing for inflation that adds up to the essentials to go Formula One racing for a little under £70,000 in today’s money. The year before, Cooper had dominated Grand Prix racing, winning six of the nine races on a budget of £50,000 (around £600,000 today). “Incredible really, when you think that a team like McLaren spends around £50 million now,” he says. “But you can’t compare it to today. We would turn up with two or at the most three mechanics, one of whom would have driven the transporter down to the circuit. I suppose we were lucky in that we had drivers like Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren who were not just drivers but terrific engineers too and could work on the cars.”
It’s no coincidence that some of the sport’s most successful constructors and the list includes Williams, McLaren, Brabham and Tyrrell laid their foundations in this period.
But what must be remembered about Grand Prix racing at this time is that it was a long way from being the ‘be-all and end-all’ that it is today. The most significant events of the mid-1960s were the attempts of the British manufacturers to beat the front-engined American roadsters at Indianapolis, and Ford’s assault on Le Mans. A reasonable case can be made for the 1960s as a Golden Age, but not if you look at F1 in isolation. By all accounts it was fun to be involved in, and it was often highly entertaining to watch, but it just wasn’t that important.
It was money that made it so, and that didn’t start to happen until the introduction of commercial sponsorship in 1968. In many respects, though, Grand Prix racing in the 1970s reflected the patterns of the previous decade British-built chassis using off-the-shelf engines, invariably the Cosworth DFV. The last Grand Prix win for a private entrant with a customer car was Jo Siffert’s victory in Rob Walker’s Lotus at Brands Hatch in 1968, but even as late as 1973, as James Hunt demonstrated with the Hesketh March 731, it was possible for a privateer to mix it with the works machinery.
John Watson, who gained his F1 break through another private entrant with a customer car, in this case Hexagon and a succession of secondhand Brabhams in the early 1970s, has certain misgivings about the disappearance of the privateers. “It’s now all about big corporations and massive spending and it’s simply not possible for a modern day Rob Walker or a Hexagon, or even a Hesketh to compete today. I’m not saying that’s wrong or right, that’s just the way it is. But it does seem to me that more of the people involved in F1 today are only involved because of the huge sums of money involved. The commercial interests are distorting the sport. Look at Renault: they’re pulling out of F1 at the end of this year, not for any reason related to motorsport, but, instead, because they cannot be seen to be spending that amount of money while France is going through a hard time economically and they’re closing car production factories.”
The big money didn’t start to feed into the sport until the end of the decade, by which time Formula One had earned the nickname of Formula Ford. The cars of the early and mid-’70s didn’t all look the same (compare the 1972 Lotus 72 to the Tyrrell 005) but they nearly all sounded the same. The racing became even closer (no fewer than 33 cars qualified within 107 per cent of pole position time for the 1974 British GP) but that did not mean it was necessarily as exciting to watch.
The main reason for this was that, quite suddenly, it had become much harder to overtake. Chassis technology had made considerable advances during the late 1950s and early ’60s, largely as a result of Cooper’s successes with the mid-engine layout, and Lotus’s brave leap into monocoque construction. In the late 1960s similarly large steps were made in tyre construction and the use of aerodynamic aids, elevating cornering speeds to a level undreamt of just a few years before. The cars were much wider, braking distances became massively reduced, and the line through any given corner was much more clearly defined.
Certain race circuits might still have provided passing opportunities, but these venues disappeared one by one through the 1970s. The last Grand Prix at the old Spa was in 1970; the Nürburgring went the same way in 1976. The great slipstreaming battles at Monza disappeared forever after the introduction of chicanes before the 1972 race. Even Silverstone’s glorious Woodcote corner was chopped up in 1975. There were still tracks where the great drivers could display their art and where cars might be seen to swap positions the best examples were Austria’s Österreichring and Holland’s Zandvoort but this was also the era of soulless autodromes like Nivelles in Belgium and Dijon in France, and long streams of Cosworth DFV-powered following each other nose to tail. Close, yes. Exciting, not always. Interesting, not very.
Peter Gethin, the last man to win a Monza slipstreamer, regrets the demise of some of the classic circuits and how the growing prominence of Grand Prix racing took the drivers out of other branches of the sport. “In my day, people like Jimmy Clark, who in my opinion was the best ever, were still able to drive just about anything they liked, whether it was F1, F2, sportscars or saloons. And they still found time to have a bit of fun and talk to people. Now a Grand Prix driver is just that, a Grand Prix driver.
“I don’t often go to Grands Prix nowadays, but when I do, I have to admit that the warm-up and the first lap is like nothing else in the world. It’s the most inspiring and exciting spectacle and sound, an incredible atmosphere. But after about four or five laps it gets into a rhythm and, after that, not much seems to change. It’s a rare occurrence for one F1 car to overtake another. In my day even apart from Monza with all the slipstreaming cars used to pass each other at every circuit. I would say it was a bloody sight more exciting then than it is today. It’s a pity they didn’t have the TV coverage that they have today. Can you imagine what one of those races at Monza would be like with all the in-car cameras and things they have now?”
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s two new technological progressions made themselves felt: ground-effect aerodynamics and turbocharged engines. If we’d thought we’d seen cornering on rails, it was nothing compared to what the Lotus 79 and the Williams FW07 served up. And even when ground-effect was outlawed, the huge power outputs of the turbo engines allowed the cars to nm sufficient wing to generate much the same downforce. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating period technically and a welcome relief after a decade or more of DFV domination. Renault became the first major motor manufacturer since Mercedes in the mid1950s to enter Grand Prix racing, and other giants of the industry followed, albeit only as suppliers, including BMW, Porsche and Honda. It was technically diverse and, to start with at least, made for extremely unpredictable racing. In 1982, no fewer than 11 drivers in seven makes of car with four different engines won Grands Prix.
Turbocharging also went some way to cure the overtaking problem, especially with the introduction of the cockpit-adjustable boost control. There was, though, another side to that coin as Gilles Villeneuve ably demonstrated in 1981 when the acceleration and straightline speed of his Ferrari 126C allowed him to keep ahead of a train of much faster cars for practically the entire length of the Spanish GP.
As a significant aside, one of the interesting aspects of this race was that the backside spectators were enthralled, biting their nails each lap as they waited to see if Villeneuve had hung on to the lead, while those watching on their TVs at home were bored out of their skulls.
Ultimately, though, the turbos divided the Grand Prix pack into the haves and have-nots in a way that the Climax and DFV users of the ’60s and 70s could not have foreseen. Without a works engine deal, and a budget running into millions, you were nowhere.
But before the McLaren-TAG and then Williams-Honda domination of the middle part of the decade, perhaps the only thing that prevented this from being a true Golden Age was internal strife the infamous FISA-FOCA war. Cars were outlawed like the Brabham BT46 fan car or the ‘twin chassis’ Lotus 88. Races were declared void, like the 1981 Spanish GP when certain teams withdrew. Sharp practice – some might call it cheating – was rife, with cars using hydro-pneumatic devices to raise the suspension in the pits to meet an ill-considered 6cm ground clearance rule, or carrying large water tanks, ostensibly to cool the brakes but, in truth, acting only as easily disposable ballast. There was some good, and certainly some interesting racing, but it was overshadowed by a bitter conflict between small-minded and petulant adversaries.
It’s hard to see anything that’s golden about the late 1980s or the early 1990s for that matter. The major manufacturers stayed with the sport after the banning of the turbos and the rule of the one-horse race prevailed once more. There were some who found fascinating the inter-team conflicts between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren, and then Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet at Williams, but a race that’s likely to be won by only one of two men in identical cars is not what Grand Prix racing is meant to be about.
Nor is supposed to be about the sort of ‘gizmos’ that Williams used to such great effect in its FW14 and FW15 cars that powered Mansell and Prost to world titles in 1992 and 1993. When even Mansell was complaining that the race to the first corner would be won by the car with the better computer software, you knew that Formula One had taken a step in the wrong direction.
Which brings us to today and the current state of Grand Prix play. How does it compare with past eras? As I write there are two races remaining, but already there have been five race winners (Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard and Gerhard Berger) in four different makes of car (Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton) using power from three different makes of engine (Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes). Others – notably Damon Hill and Mika Häkkinen – have come close. The racing has generally been close and competitive, not least because some of the unfancied runners have been able to make good use of Bridgestone tyres to upset the traditional form book. Overtaking remains one of the sport’s biggest problems, although it must be said that when Hill – a man not known for his Senna-like abilities in traffic – in an Arrows-Yamaha can pass Schumacher in a Ferrari to take the lead at the Hungaroring of all places, it can’t be as bad as it has been in the past.
Perhaps the one thing Grand Prix racing lacks today is the challenge of demanding circuits. Spa, even in its truncated form, is the exception. But it is time to return to that as yet unmentioned other criteria that any period of Grand Prix racing must satisfy to qualify as a Golden Age: safety.
The old Spa was a killer. So was the Nürburgring, so was Monza. This sport has always been dangerous; it always will be. But the days when it could shrug off the deaths of at least 15 spectators, when Giuseppe Farina’s Ferrari ploughed into the enclosures during the 1953 Argentine GP, or the 14 more who died along with Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961, are gone forever. And thank God for that
Look back through motor racing history and you won’t find an untarnished Golden Age. Some silver perhaps, a fair bit of bronze and an awful lot of pig-iron. What’s happening now stacks up pretty well to anything in the past. So throw down those rose-tinted spectacles and crush them underfoot. They don’t make for clear vision.