Formula One (originally coined as Formula A by which it was known but for a brief period!) traces its roots to the earliest days of motor racing that were marked by the European Grand Prix championships of the 1920s and early 1930s, emerging to its fame during the inter-war years.
Since the late 1930s, the idea for a drivers’ championship had been in discussions, but the onset of WWII later in this period put the whole thing on the back-burner. However, 1946 saw the rekindling of the fire that this idea had ignited and the foundation of Formula One (The ‘Formula’ standing for the rules and protocols that were set for the participants and the race cars!) was laid by the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale) of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’s (FIA’s) (that preceded FISA) with the standardization of racing rules.
The following year saw the launch of a drivers’ championship in line with the new standardized rules. But it took as long as 1950 for the details to be rolled out and April 1950 witnessed the first F1 race in Pau followed by the first World Drivers’ Championship in May 1950 at Silverstone.
It was not an easy beginning.
F1 came up to become the premier single-seater racing championship in motorsports worldwide with its history paralleling the evolution of its technical regulations with time. Championships were not introduced immediately. For the most part of its beginning, up till 1983 when the rising costs of competition made them unprofitable, most of these twenty-odd races continued to be non-championship ones.
With a formula that was largely defined by engine capacity, in line with the pre-WWII regulations, the F1 gradually moves towards new regulations as late as in 1946, when the Turin Grand Prix held that year saw Achille Varzi winning the championship in an Alfa-Romeo158 Alfetta!
The early years of the sport marked the end of the racing careers of pre-war heroes such as Manfred Von Brauchitsch, Tazio Nuvolari, and Rudolf Carracciola, and the rise of drivers like Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari. While private cars also boomed, the formula was predominantly ruled by the major pre-war car manufactures like Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, and Mercedes Benz. However, of the 20 models that competed during the 1950s period, most were forced out by the exorbitant costs with only Ferrari continuing. In addition, the death toll was also gruesome, with the F1 losing 13 of the drivers in the very first decade.
1952 and 1953 saw a lull with no entrants for the sport and in 1954 F1 re-emerged with considerable technological advances in the cars that participated, especially Mercedes Benz, before it withdrew from all motor sports after the 1955 Le Mans disaster.
Juan Manuel Fangio ruled the circuits in the 1950s, winning the drivers’ championship with five different manufacturers in 1951and then consecutively from 1954-1957. Late 1950s also saw the introduction of Cooper’s rear-engined car that took the manufacturing spectrum by storm and in 1958 a constructors’ championship was introduced as a further incentive to teams.
The 1960s and 70s.
1958 also ushered in an era of British dominance in the sport with the win by Mike Hawthorn, followed by more British and Commonwealth drivers such as Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, and Denny Hulme winning the championships between 1962 and 1973 consecutively.
National championships became the norm and this period saw the emergence and dominance of the revolutionary and iconic British Racing Green Lotus. Advertisings began to appear on the race cars by 1968. With the advent of turbo-charged cars, speed and power became commonplace and the introduction of ground-effect aerodynamics made them slicker and faster with increased cornering speeds. Private entries took a complete knock-off with the approach of 1970s due to sky-rocketing expenses associated with the sport.
However, all through 1960s and 70s, safety continued to remain a concern. Death toll was high and the sport lost many champions. Lotus’ Jochen Rindt received the drivers’ championship title posthumously in 1970. Francois Cevert lost his life during a practice ahead of 1973 US Grand Prix with Stewart retiring on the eve of the championship after losing his close aide. 1975 brought more deaths with a car barging into the on-looking spectators killing four. In 1976, Niki Lauda suffered serious burns after a horrendous crash and 1978 saw the loss of Ronnie Peterson at Monza.
The phase of legendary Lotus team, that had been the innovator of ground-breaking technologies and supreme performances, slowly ended with the end of 1978, which was their last championship-winning year.
But the early 1970s also saw the growth of the sport into a billion-dollar global business with Bernie Ecclestone rearranging the management of F1’s commercial rights and introducing the Brabham team in 1971. By 1978, he became the president of the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA).
The F1of 1980s.
1979 saw the formation of the Fe’de’ration Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) and the ensuing clashes between the newly-formed FISA and FOCA over regulations and revenues that came to an uneasy truce with the 1981 Concorde Agreement.
On the technology front, the 1980s witnessed the emergence of the electronic drivers’ aids (again a Lotus innovation!) and several restrictions came into place to combat the phenomenal power of cars. Turbos continued to dominate the circuits.
While 1980 was the year of dominance by Alan Jones and the Williams team, 1981 brought a new champion in Nelson Piquet who took the U.S Grand Prix title by one point. 1982 set a wedge between Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi that ended with Villeneuve’d death at Zolder and Pironi’s fatal injuries that he sustained in practice for the German Grand Prix, two years later.
1984 became a start-point of a period of dominance by McLaren with Lauda’s half-point win that year, followed by Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna winning the drivers’ title in seven out of eight years right up to 1988.
1989 ended with an absolute ban on turbochargers and with it the relationship between the two drivers deteriorated rapidly bringing an end to their era of being on the zenith.
The 1990s usher a new era.
By the early 1990s, the technology had a natural progression with semi-automatic gearboxes and traction control coming in.
McLaren and Williams continued to rule the roost in the 1990s with the rivalry between their ace drivers, Prost and Senna continuing strong till 1993 when Prost retired and Senna died at Imola in 1994. Senna’s death marked a watershed year in the history of the sport with an increased consideration towards strengthening the safety standards and measures to slow the cars. The safety measure became so stringent that no driver has died at the wheel of an F1 car since then.
The 2000s face of F1.
While purists continued their “Technician & designers Vs Drivers” debates, teams like McLaren, Williams, Ferrari and Renault (formerly Benetton), continued to dominate the roost, winning every World Championship from 1984 right up to 2008.
The sky-rocketing costs of F1 races further widened the chasm between these “big fours” and the smaller, independent racers. Consequently, 1990 to 2008 saw the entry and exit of over 28 teams.
Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated the circuit between 1999 and 2004, and the sport witnessed unprecedented consecutive wins of five drivers’ and six constructors’ championships. However, this period witnessed a drop in the viewing figures dropped and the sport’s future began to look gloomy, with a lot of behind-the-scenes politics and scandals.
2002 witnessed a ban on team orders after several incidents of manipulation of race results came to light, that further garnered negative publicity. No doubt, this period witnessed constant changes in the championship rules by the FIA in an effort to improve the on-track action and cut back costs.
2000 onwards, manufacturer-owned teams such as Renault, Toyota, Honda, Ferrari and BMW, returned to dominate the scene and managed to negotiate a larger share and a greater say in the F1 management through the GPMA (Grand Prix Manufacturers Association).
Today, F1 continues its quest of expanding its reach with newer races in lucrative and emerging markets in the far and Middle East.