Pit Stop: As Formula 1 celebrates its 70th anniversary, there is no stopping the race to continued success
How Formula 1 remains the pinnacle of motorsport, and has grown from small beginnings into a global sport worth billions.
Saturday, May 13, 1950, was a milestone in motor racing history. Finally, after years of formalizing rules and regulations, the first Formula 1 World Championship race took place at Silverstone Circuit, England. The British Grand Prix was the first of seven championship races in that inaugural season.
An estimated 150,000-strong crowd, including members of the British Royal Family, watched as 22 cars took their place on the starting grid. All four Alfa Romeo cars made up the front row, with Giuseppe Farina on pole. After 70 laps, Farina took the win. His teammates Luigi Fagioli and Reg Parnell finished second and third, respectively. Future five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio retired from the race on lap 62 following an oil leak.
Fast-forward 70 years to Silverstone, Sunday, August 9, 2020. This time, the two Alfa Romeo cars started at the back of the grid and, thanks to COVID-19, the expected 140,000-plus race-day crowd was missing. Mercedes locked out the front row. Valtteri Bottas was on pole, and six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was second. Tire strategy played a huge part in the race, and in the end it was the Red Bull of Max Verstappen who took the checkered flag, with Hamilton and Bottas second and third, respectively.
But how has Formula 1 changed in 70 years?
Motorsport is dangerous. Fact! Over the last 70 years, a total of 52 drivers have been killed. In 1950, there were no safety measures in place, nor any medical presence, Silverstone’s track was lined with hay bales and flower-topped oil drums, and drivers wore whatever they fancied – from overalls to shirt sleeves and trousers. Helmets were not compulsory, and the cars had no seat belts.
Since then the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has put safety at the very top of their priorities. This dedication to safety has seen the number of deaths reduce each decade.
Today, all the circuits on the Formula 1 calendar are equipped with hospital-grade medical facilities and spacious run-off areas, wherever possible. There is also a dedicated Formula 1 medical team that travels to each race. Drivers all wear flame-resistant clothing and boots, full-face, carbon-fiber helmets that incorporate a head and neck support called the HANS device, and are strapped into the car by a six-point racing harness. The cars themselves have a strong chassis structure and a halo feature around the cockpit.
From gentlemen drivers to world-class athletes
The drivers, too, have undergone a drastic transformation over the last 70 years – morphing from the gentlemen drivers of the 1950s and 1960s, who might have done the occasional run, to the superfit athletes that we see today.
F1 drivers experience severe G-forces every time they corner, accelerate or brake, which means they have to have very strong core and neck muscles to counter the effect. They also have to exert 80 kilograms of force every time they brake.
Being physically strong also helps them remain mentally alert and cognitively able for the duration of a race.
Michael Schumacher, a legend in his own time
Schumacher first tasted victory aged six, winning a karting championship in 1975. By 1987, he was both European and German Karting Champion. Following his 1990 German F3 Championship win, Mercedes signed him to their junior sportscars racing program.
In 1991, he made his Formula 1 debut for Jordan at the Belgian Grand Prix. He qualified in seventh place but retired with clutch failure on the first lap.
By the next Grand Prix in Italy, Schumacher had signed with Benetton-Ford and completed the season with them, scoring four points.
His maiden win came at Spa-Francorchamps in 1992, and in 1994 he became Germany’s first Formula 1 World Champion. A second title quickly followed in 1995, after which he moved to Ferrari.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Schumacher became Ferrari’s first world champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979. He then went on to win the next four years, becoming the first driver to secure seven world championships, including five consecutive titles.
In 2006, Schumacher retired, but was tempted back in 2010 to drive for the new Mercedes team, headed by Ross Brawn, who had been the technical director at both Benetton and Ferrari during his championship years.
He retired permanently at the end of the 2012 season, when Mercedes signed Lewis Hamilton.
While arguments will always continue about who is the greatest-ever Formula 1 driver, one thing is certain: With seven world championship titles and 91 race wins, Michael Schumacher is undoubtedly one of the most successful Formula 1 drivers ever.
Red Bull and Mercedes dominate the 2010s
The 2010s saw two teams and two drivers dominate the sport.
In 2010, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing won their first Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships. Red Bull won nine of the 19 races; their closest rivals, Ferrari and McLaren, won five races each.
The Drivers’ Championship, on the other hand, went down to the final race in Abu Dhabi. Four drivers were in contention: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. In the end, Vettel became the second German and youngest-ever driver to win the F1 World Championship. The Red Bull/Vettel ticket comfortably won the next three consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
It all changed in 2014, when significant rule amendments were introduced – most notably the introduction of a 1.6-liter, turbocharged, hybrid V6 engine that incorporated an energy recovery system.
Mercedes dominated the first race in Australia and went on to win 16 out of the 19 races, securing the Constructors’ Championship at the Russian Grand Prix. That domination continued, and 2019 saw Mercedes become the first team to win six consecutive Constructors’ Championships.
Lewis Hamilton claimed two Drivers’ titles in 2014 and 2015 against German driver Nico Rosberg, his nearest rival and teammate. Rosberg triumphed in 2016, sealing his maiden title at the final race, and then announced his retirement a few weeks later.
2020 – a record-breaking year
In October 2020, at the Eifel GP, Hamilton made F1 history twice. On October 11, he took his 91st race win, equaling Schumacher’s 14-year-old record. Then, on October 25, he triumphed again, taking the total to 92. From now on, every Hamilton F1 race win will represent a new world record.
In a touching ceremony after the 91st race win, Schumacher’s son Mick presented Hamilton with his dad’s red racing helmet.
On November 16, Hamilton attained yet another historic victory. He snatched a seventh world championship title, equalling Schumacher’s record and officially becoming the all-time most successful Formula 1 driver.
The future of Formula 1
As Formula 1 continues to evolve in an ever-changing world, and perhaps also in a bid to end periods of domination by one or two teams or drivers, big regulation changes have been agreed in principle.
Set to be introduced in 2022, they include changes to the car’s bodywork and overall design. This will, hopefully, allow cars to get closer than they can at present, leading to more chances for overtaking, and more race excitement.
A new budget cap is also being introduced. Its aim is to make the sport both fairer and more sustainable for the next 70 years. — Claire Millins
Published: December 2020
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