Last Sunday I dragged myself out of bed at 5.30 in the morning to watch the Formula One season opener in Australia. Every year, I have high hopes that the racing will be exciting, that the gap between the top three teams and the others will have disappeared, that perhaps Mercedes will not be the best yet again. But it was the same old story and halfway through the procession, I turned the television off and went back to bed.
There is a simple solution. Give all the teams the same but simpler engines and skinny tires. But then Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault would back out. Perhaps not such a bad thing? Or have a handicap system whereby the field starts in the reverse order to where it finished in the previous race. That would make things interesting!
But of course, it was not always like that. Let’s take a look at history when Grand Prix was exciting when they drew huge crowds, and nearly every male was interested.
In the early days, there were many small events, but the first international Grand Prix was the Gordon Bennett Cup. James Gordon Bennet, a wealthy American, offered a prize to the winner. National teams were to be put together with three of them per country. This is when we first saw racing colours for a particular country, for example, British Racing Green and French Racing Blue. The first race was held in France in 1900, with the winning team holding next year’s race on its ground. It was the stuff of heroes, with the cars covering a distance of about 400 miles, over bad roads, and tire technology that ensured multiple punctures. The race was run five times over five years. The French won the first two years, but in 1902 the race was won by the Englishman, Henry Farman. The 1903 race was held in Ireland as no racing was allowed in England at that time. A Mercedes won that race, so the following year it was staged in Germany. The final event, in 1905, was back in France, and yet again won by a French team. Even if the first car was German, France was the cradle in the early years, dominating the rise of the automobile.
Whole books have been written on every era of racing, and we don’t have space here to dwell on even a ten year period, so let’s leap forward to the 1930s. The decade started in an eclectic fashion. The French cars had been relatively dominant until this time, but the arrival of the likes of Alfa Romeo and Maserati put a stop to that. The reign of the Bugatti 35 had come to an end. In a short period, the French had invented engines that still govern the principles of high-performance engines today, but then the Italians started doing it better. Maserati was a small family company that concentrated on making race cars, whereas Alfa was making money from their road cars, using racing to promote sales. Both companies were successful, but the might of Alfa Romeo made life very difficult for the smaller company. Bugatti was concentrating on road cars with the occasional foray at Le Mans. Enzo Ferrari ran the Alfa team, and this was the first time that the infamous ‘SF’ Scuderia Ferrari logo was seen. But then, something happened — the Germans. In 1933, Adolph Hitler, keen to show German engineering prowess, decided to sponsor Mercedes and Auto Union with almost unlimited funds. The Mercedes was of traditional front engine design while the Auto Union was mid-engined. The two cars went on to dominate Grand Prix racing in the second half of the thirties, much like Mercedes and Ferrari today. Other manufacturers could not compete. Almost the only times that the two German teams did not win was when they didn’t bother to turn up. Déjà vu. Only Alfa managed to upset the apple cart occasionally.
After the war, two things happened. The German teams had disappeared, and the regulations changed. Manufacturers could choose between 1.5 litre supercharged and 4.5 litre naturally aspirated. It played into Alfa’s hands, who had developed the 158 just before the war for the equivalent of formula two. The straight eight 1500cc that morphed into the 159 went on to dominate for years to come. But regular rule changes stirred things up, allowing the Maserati 250F to have numerous successes in the late fifties. It was a 2.5-litre six-cylinder and is considered to be the most beautiful GP car ever made. And then the Brits happened.
As the decade came to a close, Lotus and Cooper developed small, lightweight cars with rear engines, a concept that transformed Grand Prix racing forever. They were initially designed for formula 2, but turned into giant killers, beating the bigger engine cars. Where the Auto Union was hugely powerful and hugely challenging to drive, the nimble offerings from England were a delight. In 1961 the rules changed yet again, with a limit a 1.5 litre without blower. Almost immediately, all manufacturers were forced to switch to similar rear engine design.
In 1966 the rules changed again, with engine capacities of 3 litres, or 1.5 with forced admission. In 1967, Cosworth unveiled the DFV, and this engine went on to be dominant for many years. Except for Ferrari, only Matra developed an engine of its own, but its delightful V12 struggled, even though it dominated in sports car racing.
And then came Renault, exploiting the rules with a 1.5-litre turbocharged engine that was brutally powerful and unpredictable. But when it started winning, no-one else was anywhere close. It was banned after two years, and 3.5-litre non-turbocharged engines became the rule, with the Cosworth dominating again.
The engine formula remained much the same until the modern era of hybrids arrived in 2014. Ferrari and Renault made their own engines, but otherwise, it was the Cosworth. The teams were relatively evenly matched, which meant racing was generally unpredictable, with a few exceptions. The post-war years were the golden age of Grand Prix racing until the advent of the modern hybrid era, which seems to be dominated by how much money can be thrown at a car. Attempts have been made to put budget caps in place, but when made, Ferrari and Mercedes threaten to leave. In my mind, the sport would be better off without them.
What you have read is only intended as a guide, hopefully piquing your imagination. Space restrictions do not allow me to go into detail, and nor am I qualified to do so. So pick the era of your choice, and delve into it on your own.
And, if you haven’t yet watched it, the epic film from 1966, ‘Grand Prix’, is an absolute must