Atlas F1   Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

The Way Things Were Yesterday
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

Although it has its moments from time to time, the modern Formula One circus is an extraordinarily well orchestrated show. Although some us - okay, me - tend to dwell on the very antiseptic nature of this phenomena, it must also be said that there is a positive side to all this: at least when you should up, whether it is to race or merely to spectate, you know what the rules are and the rules are the same at each race. In years past, this was definitely not the case.

The spectacle of qualifying often (alas!) is often the best of the weekend these days. When you tune in, there is no doubt in your mind that as long as a car turns a lap within a time of 107% of that of the pole position, it is in the race. So long as that number doesn't exceed 22 cars that is. Sure, there is the odd moment here and there where the organizers use the equivalent of the promoters option and lets a car in the field. It is also a given that the timing is a good as it can be. The timing gear is uniform at all the tracks as well as being installed and operated by the same crew from track to track, week to week. Rare is the problem with the timing.

Were that all this were so in The Past. It wasn't until 1933 at Monaco that the American innovation of using practice times to determine grid placement was introduced to Grand Prix racing. Few race organizers followed suite in the next few seasons, but eventually this became a general practice, replacing the ballot as the means to line up the grid.

And the timing today is remarkable. It is the norm to see a qualifying time expressed as 1:19.873. With the next time on the grid being turned in at 1:19.879, it is a precision that is impressive. Just try to time those two laps by hand. Now you begin to get the idea. For many years, the timing of laps during practice was pretty much a shambles. Not all thumbs are calibrated the same way. Getting it to 1:19.8 or 1:19.9 in the case of our two laps was about as good as you got. Eventually the timing at some tracks got it down to the 1:19.87 level. And from time to time (sorry, couldn't resist), the timing system simply broke down. It was not unheard of for the entrants to be quizzed by the organizers about their times which were then used to set the grid. Really!

Or, as in the case of many of the early British races, getting it to a fifth of a second was deemed close enough. And that is how, seemingly using hourglasses, the 1954 British Grand Prix ended up with seven drivers sharing the point for the fastest lap.

Indeed, the one significant reason for dropping the point for fastest lap was that there a few cases where it was clearly a matter of only the official clock being able to catch the lap that went into the books as the fastest lap. Some races were notorious for this sort of thing - I won't mention Zandvoort or Monte Carlo by name - and it was finally deemed better to move that point to reward the sixth place finisher starting in the 1960 season.

And, speaking of finishers, when the winner crosses the line, those behind cross the line and that is that. If a car quits on the last lap, it is given credit for being the first car among those a lap back. He could be third or 13th, but enters the record book classified as a finisher. Since 1966, it has been the rule that you needed to finish 90% of the race to be "classified" as a finisher. Since the rule also said only finishers could score points, being classified as a finisher was now pretty important. Naturally, the first two races under this rule saw only four (Monte Carlo) and five (Spa-Francorchamps) drivers classified as finishers!

Prior to this most organizers listed the finishers who actually crossed the line - on their own power or otherwise, such as Jack Brabham at Sebring in 1959 - and the rest were listed among those who retired from the race. One example of how this could ruin a great drive was the Belgian Grand Prix in 1960. The race was 36 laps and on the 35th lap, the engine in the BRM of Graham Hill conked out and Hill rolled across the line in third place, being the third car to cross the line on the 35th lap. Only Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren went the distance in their Coopers. By crossing the line before the winner crossed it, Hill was faced with doing another lap of the 14.1 kilometer course to be listed among the finishers. With a seriously deranged engine that was out of the question and so a fine third place turned into a retirement. Although Hill is usually listed in third with the notation that he retired and did not score any points, he should be corrected listed after Lucien Bianchi in his Cooper, who managed to complete 28 laps, as the first of those who retired. And Bianchi got a point for his finish even though he was way behind the leaders.

Prior to the 1966 rule, some organizers used the two-thirds mark as the cut off, from 1963 until the end of 1965 this was universal at the request of the FIA, while Monaco used 50% as its cut off point for many years which led to some unseemly scrambles among the formerly retired as they limped around in the hope of gaining a position or so and any rewards that went with it.

One thing today is much like it was back then, the actual numbers of dollars (or other currencies in Ancient Days) used to grease the palms of the teams is pretty much a matter between those who give and those who receive. In The Past, teams were paid some charmingly called appearance or starting money. This was an amount of money the organizer was willing to part with to get a team on the grid. It was generally in proportion to the ability of said team to put butts on the planks in the grandstands or some other mystical, magical formula dreamed up. Rest and be assured it was nothing approaching the megabucks waved about today. Most spectators plunk out more for a seat today to see an F1 race than most teams got in starting money until almost the 1970s. These figures were a highly guarded open secret. Scuderia Ferrari charged like the Light Brigade and generally got it. If not, there was always labor troubles or some other difficulty back at the factory to prevent the cars from appearing.

Usually the amount of the starting money was quite modest. And for a private entrant, very modest. In many cases, races had an entry fee that had to be forked over in advance with the entry - in the appropriate currency naturally. And, you only got your starting money if you started the race, naturally. The starting money was often just a little more than the entry fee for those in the rear of the grid! You had to be dedicated to The Cause. That is also why there were often so many races outside the Championship in The Past - you had to hustle to get the money to pay for the car.

Prize money was a completely local phenomena and even varied from year to year: in one year the organizers might be pretty generous paying decent money down to fifth or even seventh place; the next year it might be a pittance only down to third or fourth.

And some teams were kept afloat by monies sent their way as contingency money for using such and such a product and starting or finishing a race. The oil companies kept teams on a retainer as did various other makers of automotive products - Lodge or Champion or Bosch spark plugs as an example.

This only skims the surface of The Way Things Were. There is, as they say, more to come.

And now for the mail and the other bits that don't fit...

  • If you haven't dropped by the Nostalgia Forum, what's keeping you? If you enjoy reading or chatting about the history of our fine sport, please take the opportunity to spend some time with us. We have a fine - nay, Outstanding! - crew of regulars there. We chat, share information, laugh, and generally ponder The Past. We are always happy to welcome new folks to the Forum. I never cease to be amazed at the depth of knowledge among those on the Forum. And don't be shy if you're new to the sport and think it poor form to ask what seems to be a dumb question - we are only too happy to help provide you with an answer - or an opinion at any rate.

  • I am trying to keep up with my mail, but I will concede that I am not always successful in that endeavor. As a number of you know, I have a considerable recall of racing history and a nice library to lean on. However, I am now working a new Day Job and not always able to get right back with you. So, don't get discouraged if I don't zing a reply right back. And also don't be afraid to prod me if need be. As is evident, sometimes I get so interested in researching something I forget what it was I was supposed to look for! Bear with me!

  • And, a public congratulations to John Cross - the overall winner of the recent 8W quiz. John is simply a Master at his craft and I tip my hat to him. This was easily the most difficult 8W quiz yet, and John performed like the Champ that he is. Great job, John! Atlas F1's very own Marcel Schot put in a very good performance and a tip of the hat to my buddy Marcel as well.

    Well, time to close. Keep those cards and letters coming, folks. Until next time, See Y'all! (That is Charlestonian for Ciao!)

  • Don Capps© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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