Atlas F1   Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

The Nature of Grand Prix
and Formula One Racing
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

The recent Atlas F1 look at the history of F1 set me to pondering some aspects of the sport, spectacle, or whatever it should be called today. Not that I ever really need much prompting to do that, you understand. It was as a result of looking at the timelines, the races from the decades, the trivia quiz, the Hall of Fame, the postings on the fora, and it just being That Time Of The Year. Relax; there will not be a Rear View Mirror List of the Best Drivers, Races, Excuses, Lame-brained Utterances, or Best Moves of the Millenium, Century, Decade, Year, Month, Hour, or Nanosecond. There are at least several gazillion of those out there right now, and I will spare you yet another.

What I did find myself pondering is that "F1" has come to almost completely replace "Grand Prix" as the term for, well, Grand Prix racing. While it is true that 1999 was the 50th season for the FIA's World Driver's Championship, it was actually the 53rd season for "Formula One", which originally was called "Formula A." Today, all races run to F1 are part of the World Championship. Therefore, when the statistics, reviews, and general discussion of the history of F1 or Grand Prix racing is centered only on the rounds that counted for the Championship. Since 1984 this hasn't been a problem since all the F1 races have been Championship rounds. So what?

Well, there used to be number - sometimes a lot and sometimes not - of races run to the GP Formula (the precursor to F1) or F1 each year. As mentioned previously here some months ago, there was an European Championship run from 1935 to 1939. Even in those years there were races run outside the Championship: of seven Grand Prix events run in 1939, only four were Championship events. Interestingly enough, in 1935, there were 37 (!) races run to the GP Formula of which five were Championship events.

In 1950, there were, including Indianapolis, seven events in the World Championship. There were 22 GP (F1) races in Europe plus the Indianapolis 500 for a total of 23 events. Some were honest to goodness GP races lasting over three hours or on demanding courses and with all the Usual Suspects present - Pau, San Remo, Geneva, Pescara; or races that were considered definitely premier events for the all the right reasons - Bari, Albi, Zandvoort, the International Trophy at Silverstone, the Penya Rhin at Barcelona; or, some were minor events that just happened to be run to the GP Formula so those with GP machinery could run them in races such as the Richmond Trophy at Goodwood, the Prix de Paris at Montlhery, the British Empire Trophy at Douglas on the Isle of Man, the Nottingham Trophy at Gamston (over 10,000 spectators at a Club meeting!), and Goodwood.

There was a distinct lack of regimentation in those days about the entry lists, the formats, the rules, and the circuits. The first "F1" race of 1950 was the GP de Pau. It was run over 110 laps the 2.769km circuit and it took Juan Fangio three hours and 14 minutes to complete the race in the Scuderia Achille Varzi-entered Maserati 4CLT/48 that he was driving. As a contrast, David Hampshire needed only 25 minutes and 21 seconds to run the race at Gamston, and he lapped the third place car of Geoff Richardson in the RRA-ERA; and, it only took Reg Parnell a tick under 21 minutes to win the Goodwood Trophy in the supercharged vee-16 BRM. And even SA Alfa-Romeo entered Giuseppe Farina and Juan Fangio for the International Trophy at Silverstone, which had heats of about 70km, and the final was run over a distance of about 160km.

Yes, it was hopelessly chaotic back then, but not that different: the object of the exercise was to win the race.

Racing in the Grand Manner has always been equal parts skill, daring, technology, hype, smoke and mirrors, and circus spectacle. It is seriously difficult to envision The Best 43, 33, 27, 22, or even dozen drivers in The World sharing the same track at the same time. These drivers - Racers, actually - are very, very, very few of The Best at any given moment and they tend to be spread pretty thin even in the best of times. And they do tend to stick out wherever they wind up. I always have to laugh when a series does The Usual Hype about the grid containing the best - pick a number! - drivers in the world.

While I tend to focus on the drivers, there is also a fascination to a large extent on my part with the machines - hence my longtime fascination with chassis numbers. Although I genuinely have minimal interest in all the mind-boggling technologies that now fill the current generation of cars on virtually any grid, it was always of interest to me about what happened to those cars as well as where and when they raced. It never ceases to be of interest to me about the comings and goings of many of these machines on the grid. Especially when it became clear that two machines assembled by the same crew with the same materials and almost simultaneously could be so different from each other. Or that highly skilled drivers could switch machines and either immediately improve their performance or barely be able to cope. Or how sometimes the Man and the Machine just clicked, like Bernd Rosemeyer in the Auto Unions or Clark in the various Lotus machines.

Racing is cyclic and sometimes the cycles are great for the fans and sometimes not so good. And then there are forces that shape the face of racing and how it is perceived by the spectators, fans, and the public at large. Today, there are really just a few series that truly dominate the racing scene, F1 and CART and the NASCAR Winston Cup championships being those that generally get the most attention with several others trailing in their wake, such as the IRL (the Indy 500) and the World Rally Championship, with various other national touring car and single-seater championships well arrears of the others.

The very existence of the Internet and the World Wide Web has altered the nature of racing. The creation of a virtual weekly magazine such as Atlas F1 is a remarkable concept when weighed against the chances of a print version of Atlas surviving and gaining the readership that it has if it had been launched in print form. This has nothing to do with the excellence - or the lack thereof - of the product, but rather the massive up-front costs of launching and then sustaining a periodical in this day and time. This new virtual format and the expansion of television coverage of motor racing, is changing the very essence of how racing is discussed.

Any one of the races during the 1999 F1 series was watched by many more people than the number of people who watched the entire series just several decades previously. The television coverage is now pretty much homogenized as are the races themselves. Each start is virtually identical to every other start. The circuits are very similar with little to tell one from another. There are always exceptions, but F1 is akin to fast food now: thoroughly predictable as to the format, the players, the machines, and quite often the results. In a word: bland as a fast food cheeseburger. To be honest, if it weren't for the color schemes I would be completely incapable of picking out a Ferrari from a Minardi from a McLaren from a Prost. But, that seems to be what the customer wants because that is the supplier is providing.

We have still have men of steel, but in composite machines. The machines are (thankfully!) remarkably safe, unbelievably complicated, regulated to the nth degree, quick as a thought, and make any comparison with what came before almost meaningless. The skills demanded of the drivers are different. The tasks facing the mechanics - or do we call them technicians now? - are similar in some ways yet incomprehensible in other ways. Yet, the object of the exercise remains the same: win the race.

It is a moot point to discuss the path that F1 is now on. It seems to be one that many of the readership of Atlas are more or less comfortable with and one that is unlikely to be altered in the near future: the movement of events into areas not traditionally part of the mainstream of F1 racing in an effort to achieve higher and higher numbers of viewers and spectators for sponsors to peddle their wares - especially the tobacco companies. In this respect, F1 is the perfect exercise for those focused on the most sacred of modern totems, The Bottom Line, as well as on the god of Conspicuous Consumption. Whenever I see the numbers flashed around concerning the costs of F1, I reminded of the concept that a million or even a billion is quite what it used to be.

Well, before you know it the season will be underway and the usual carping will take place and the usual whining and backstabbing as well. The technology of F1 will be extolled to the point where the Apollo Program will be reduced to a mere backyard effort by a bunch of American amateurs. The supremacy of F1 above all other forms of Human Endeavor will become the new mantra of all Civilization. But, I digress.

Racing as a cycle of cycles means that the "Sport of the Seventies" grew up to the "Spectacle of the Nineties." More power to Ecclestone if his sacrifices for The Sport warrant compensation in the billions. More power to Mosley if the most sincere form flattery is imitation - Balestre certainly seems to have wielded considerable influence over dear ol' Max.

Sometimes the price of progress and modernity seems to be the forsaking of the past - or at least heavily revising it. We shall see what we shall see. If we're lucky, perhaps Minardi will end up on a few podiums and scare a few people to death while they're at it. However, I take it that sort of true excitement isn't in the script.

Oh yeah, I keep looking for the barge boards on my car and can't seem to locate them. I assume that they must be only on F1 cars and Ford Excursions and Expeditions, Lincoln Navigators, and Chevy Suburbans. Even the mechanics at where my cars are worked on were a bit mystified - one of them suggested it must something on the SUV class of cars.

Miscellaneous Mutterings...

Last column I commented on the revolution thrust upon the USAC National Championship series in the 1950's. The loss of the series in its traditional form was probably simply a matter of time whether Brabham, Gurney, Chapman, or Ford ever turned a wheel at the Brickyard. However, my problem was the way many (read the Europeans and the SCCA types) were so, well, nasty about it. In the matter of a few short years, that entire world turned upside down.

There was one unexpected positive result of this however: a remarkable collection of races of varying lengths on various surfaces in a wide range of racing machines spread over a large area and it was only a National Championship. That the drivers had to adapt to a large range of challenges resulted in the cream floating to the top: Mario Andretti was simply amazing and there were others just behind him, A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Lloyd Ruby, and Dan Gurney.

Oh, I inadvertently left out a USAC road race: the Fuji 200 Miles won by Jackie Stewart in a Lola-Ford. Yep, THAT Jackie Stewart. In fifth was Graham Hill in another Lola-Ford. THAT Graham Hill.

Racing fiction is usually either an oxymoron or if you place the qualifier "good" in front of it, mutually exclusive terms. However, there is an exception: Over on the Nostalgia Forum we have a thread called the Last Open Road. That is also the name of a wonderful book by - the appropriately named - B. S. Levy. He also has a follow-up book out, Montezuma's Ferrari. Both are wonderful books and if you get some cash for Christmas, send it BS's way. The books are easily the best racing fiction I have yet encountered and believe me, I've been looking!

Anyhow, keep the cards and letters coming. Ciao!

Don Capps© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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