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Defining moments in Grand Prix history
The events that determined what F1 looks like today



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XVI Spanish GP (May 12, 1968)


Starting off the new year, we paused and mused over the milestones that shaped our sport. With a new era for Grand Prix racing dawning we wondered what decisive events gave rise to its current shape, whichever way you like it. Summing them up in five categories – legacy, talent, revolution, safety, politics – we give you the 15 we thought of first. But perhaps – indeed, most certainly so – yours will be different. Will you share them with us? We will be happy to publish your suggestions here.


Marcel and Louis Renault deciding to race their own creations

Being the respected motor racing connoisseurs that you are, you will have heard of names such as Mors, Brasier, CGV, De Dietrich, Panhard. Grand French names from the dawn of motor racing and indeed motoring that have long since vanished and are completely unknown to the large majority of today’s followers of Grand Prix racing. But they do know Renault. They might even drive one.

A large part of today’s single-seater racing would be non-existent if it wasn’t for Renault. They have an F1 team and support GP2, the World Series by Renault and the Formule Renault Eurocup. The French manufacturer is one of the biggest corks keeping this vulnerable line of motorsport alive today. They’ve been around at Le Mans, done their fair bit of rallying and since the seventies have been the staunchest promotor of one-make Cup racing series, adding to the original Renault Turbo 5 Cup with numerous national Clio Cups and the current Megane Eurocup. And talking of turbos, they pioneered them in a well-known category a bit further up the scale.

It all comes from Marcel and Louis Renault’s decision to race (and win with) their first creations, and Louis’ perseverance in the years thereafter, leading to a first great milestone in another deciding moment in Grand Prix history.

The ACF coming up with a novel idea

So many cars, so little opportunity to race them in a large competitive international field – that’s why the ACF invented their Grand Prix. It gave the numerous French manufacturers a chance to showcase their products in a way that the Gordon Bennett Trophy and its strict entry policy had never allowed to.

Of course it would still take a very long time before national colours would disappear from racing cars altogether, but the Grand Prix concept was the young sport’s very first step towards the teams and drivers being centre-stage instead of their nations. In that respect we had a fitting winning combination of French car and Hungarian driver.

The Grand Prix name was soon synonymous for the best teams racing the best cars and employing the best drivers in order to capture the biggest possible glory. Even though Grands Prix don’t last for two days anymore, and cars aren’t started with intervals, the name still evokes the very same emotion today.

Enzo Ferrari pulling himself free from the ghosts of his father and brother

It’s hard to imagine that the greatest man in motor racing – or indeed motoring – was said to be seen by his mother as the lesser of her two sons. But it’s probably this cold fact that made Enzo Ferrari persevere to first prove himself as a racing driver and then as a team boss and car constructor.

Ferrari was the son of a self-made metalshop owner who became big after securing a deal to supply the Italian railways with carriages, wheels and axles. Ferrari Sr soon became a man in bonis and was one of the first Modenese citizens to buy himself an automobile. While Enzo’s older brother Alfredo was an astute student and envisaged to be an engineer and follow in his father’s footsteps, young Enzo was a hands-on fellow, much keener on spending time in the workshop rather than doing his studies. The only avid reading he would do were the sports columns in the newspaper. First he saw a future for himself as a soccer reporter but then, even worse, the family car sparked dreams of becoming a racing driver.

He never let go of the dream, even when his father was suddenly taken away from him by a serious bout of pneumonia, followed only months later by Alfredo getting ill during the first clashes of World War I and succumbing to his mysterious disease. Enzo was 18 years old and called into service as well. The family factory had to close its doors. After the war, Enzo didn’t think twice. He managed his enrollment as CMN’s test driver and from then on never looked back.


Jackie Stewart impressing Ken Tyrrell in that Goodwood test

Someone was bound to give him a similar opportunity to shine, so it wasn’t the fact that he got it that made the occasion a memorable one. It was, however, that Ken gave it. Rejoining Tyrrell after his BRM years, having survived a possibly career-ending crash at Spa, JYS and his team boss became the epitomies of a new breed in Grand Prix racing.

As a driver, the wee Scot set new standards to professionalism, not least through the retainers he demanded – and got – and his glittering showbizz appearances, supported by the equally glamourous Mrs Stewart. In short, Jackie was F1’s first superstar driver. His safety crusade, in the face of glorious victories at the unsafest sorts of circuits, was another example of his efforts to help the sport become accepted by a wider audience.

Ken Tyrrell, meanwhile, grew into the ultimate garagiste, the thorniest thorn in the side of the grandees when the war over the sport’s income began to grow out of proportion. Unlike many other former privateers, he was able to grow into a serious constructor almost overnight, to no end helped by the talent of Jackie Stewart, who put him on the map and allowed him to stay there long after the triple World Champion’s decision to retire.

Niki Lauda taking a loan on his future success

The driver as a political animal – it’s been a trait of almost every World Champion since Niki Lauda celebrated his triumphs with a rejuvenated Scuderia Ferrari. The best driver being the driver with the biggest amount of self-belief instead of simply being the most talented – another change instigated by the Austrian who was a nobody even when he entered the highest echelon of the sport.

In his years at March and BRM, looking slightly average compared to team mates Ronnie Peterson and Clay Regazzoni, he wasn’t expected to challenge for the title just a couple of seasons later. But Niki didn’t just cling on to his dream in order to succeed. He didn’t just put his money where his mouth was. He put other people’s money where his heart was, utterly convicted as he was of his ultimate success. Apart from risking their lives no driver has ever taken the gamble Niki made by taking out a sizeable bank loan secured against his own life. And then doing it for a second time .

At Ferrari, ‘The Rat’ wasted no time in gelling with the team and new young boss Montezemolo to get the Scuderia back on top from a worse trough than the one Schumacher found when he joined the Italians. And he did it much quicker too! Today, Niki Lauda is still at the top of everyone’s mind when the original role models are discussed for the ‘most complete driver’ profile now commonly accepted as the benchmark for Grand Prix drivers striving to become F1 World Champion.

Michael Schumacher lying about his Spa experience

It’s easy to ignore Schumacher’s Grand Prix debut as a milestone of the sport. Niki Lauda had already paved the path for the complete driver while Ayrton Senna is usually seen as the driver moving the goalposts of modern-day driving standards, an example so eagerly profited upon by the Sprintmeister. Still Michael’s impact on motor racing has been huge. Not only did he obliterate almost every conceivable record, he continued at the top of his game for over a decade – far outlasting any other champion the sport has seen. This unparalleled longevity has caused the Schumacher way to seep through in all cracks and corners of motorsport today. Every young driver wants to be the new Schumi now – it’s as if Grand Prix racing’s old-school heroes have been blocked out of sight by the mighty German’s accomplishments.

The same phenomenon is seen in the sport’s fan base. On his own Michael has attracted more casual followers to the sport than any other driver before, helping it to become the multi-million dollar entertainment business it is trying to remain in the wake of his retirement. And fittingly, the man himself has shown an agonizing historical disinterest, which is best illustrated by his infamous query after his and Eddie Irvine’s one-two for Ferrari in the 1998 French GP, which proved that his memory didn’t go further back than eight years…

Would he have floated to the top all the same if he hadn’t lied to Eddie Jordan about his experience at Spa? Probably. But before he put that Jordan 7th on the grid he wasn’t the most obvious pick for a shining F1 career, having been outshined and outpaced by his F3 rivals Wendlinger and Frentzen. And if his planned career path had gone through, would a late-nineties McLaren-Mercedes team have been the right environment for this future multiple champion?


Jack Brabham getting the RAC to allow his Cooper Bobtail into the 1955 British GP

Charles and John Cooper had been building their rear-engined 500cc midgets for years. The solution had been born out of practicality, to keep the welding and plumbing as simple as possible. Easy meant cheap, which in turn meant happy customers – and a happy Charles Cooper, as ever sitting on his money. And easy also meant even more happy customers, since their cars were dead easy to service. For their F2 machine, however, the Coopers reverted to the traditional front-engined lay-out, never giving the 500cc car’s design much thought. 500cc was surely something very different to F2, let alone F1?

It had to take Jack Brabham’s genius to realise that the rear-engined lay-out was much more than just a lay-out. It was actually a concept – and one that could be useful in much more powerful cars. Such as Grand Prix cars. Again for practical reasons the Coopers chose the 500cc car – which already had had more powerful engines installed, like in the case of Harry Schell entering the Monaco GP with one – as the basis for the new 1100cc sportscar category. The fact that Cooper had already built a couple of streamlined 500cc cars for record attempts also helped swing the pendulum towards an enclosed centre-seat 500cc chassis. It was this car that Brabham improved for his historic entry in the 1955 British GP. He hardly took the world by storm in this particular race but he’d proved to himself that it could be done and reaffirmed his faith in his new approach by taking the car home during the winter and driving off into the distance to win the Australian GP. But what if Dean Delamont had said ‘Come on Jack, you know that’s not a 2.2-litre engine…’

Would someone have latched on to the idea later on? We’ll never know. But going on the American evidence the rear-engined revolution would have taken place quite a while later. The racing community only reluctantly abandoned their front-engined roadsters after having been shown the way by the rear-engined pioneers from Europe. It was very obvious, however, that they would have been happy to continue in the same mould if Brabham and Chapman hadn’t come over. Would the same have applied to Ferrari and Maserati?

Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren all experimenting with wings in the 1968 Belgian GP

Arguably it was Swiss racer-cum-engineer Michael May who was responsible for introducing the world of motor racing to the aerodynamic virtues of the wing – or aerofoil, as it was still called in the sixties – but Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren still had to try it in an actual Grand Prix. It just so happens that the very same Herr May had long since his initial invention which upset the paddock at the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 kms enrolled into the service of a certain Maranello company.

At Spa, where McLaren dabbled with two very tiny front winglets while Ron Tauranac proved that he wasn’t conservative at all by employing a rudimentary aerofoil on his Brabhams, Ferrari came out with what looked like a true rear wing. This first iteration of the Grand Prix car wing was meant to work as a stabiliser on high-speed tracks in the fashion that Jim Hall had pioneered on his Chaparral 2E sportscar. Indeed, John Surtees was flying in the early stages of the 1968 Belgian GP. May’s original line of thinking became apparent when the Ferraris also appeared with wings on slower circuits to use them in the way we know now – creating downforce to improve grip and thereby increasing cornering speeds. It’s exacly why May wanted to try out his wing device through the many sweeps and curves of the old Nürburgring. It let the cat well and truly out of the bag.

Since 1968, the technology race in Formula 1 has been about a constant fight between the constructors getting on top of their aero wizardry to add to the mechanical grip of their cars, with the organising body clamping down time and again on the biggest gains made in the name of speed. Today, aero grip is as important – if not more important – as mechanical grip, and it has totally reshaped the face of the sport. And very literally so. Today’s awkward-looking cars are the result of that continuing fight between the constructors and the authorities, who in their latest round of changes have also introduced Joe Public as a party in their rule-making process. So because of the need for more overtaking we now have cars that look pretty only between the axles…

Colin Chapman coming up with his Gold Leaf sponsorship

Grand Prix racing absolutely transformed in the late sixties. The ‘Return to Power’ proved to be a catalyst in numerous changes that rendered an early-seventies GP car virtually unrecognizable in the eyes of the late-1965 aficionado. However, wider slick tyres, front and rear wings, a move from cigar shape to wedge shape added to the advent of sidepods and airboxes weren’t the only changes massively affecting the appearance of the Grand Prix car.

For over a decade national colours weren’t strictly adhered to, with private teams ranging from BRP to Centro Sud confirming their own identity by choosing colours of their own, but the switch from Lotus green and yellow to Gold Leaf red and white still came as a bit of shock, to put it mildly. It wasn’t a first per se, since the names of sponsoring companies were found in the names of Grand Prix teams from the late fifties – think of Yeoman Credit or Bowmaker. Dutch privateer Carel Godin de Beaufort, always quick on his feet commercially, went one further by not only renaming his team Ecurie Pan American but also boldly putting the name of the airline on the side of his orange Porsche. Furthermore, track-side advertisement hoardings had been seen since the dawn of motor racing. Driver retainers were often paid by the big oil companies involved in racing.

But apart from that, Europe was virgin territory compared to the US’s common practice, naming the cars after their sponsors, with garish liveries telling the fact out loud. Surely the Old Continent wasn’t going in the same direction? But it did, just as it did in so many other areas, always following suit. Today, the emphasis on the commercial side of sport – and thus importance of the spectacle – is as big in Europe and the rest of the world as it in the US. In almost all of today’s racing categories rules are bent in order to improve The Show. With all the unreconcilable differences between Europe and the US on a sporting level, the commercial parallels are bigger than ever before.


Roger Williamson getting killed live on television

The phlegmatic voice of the Dutch commentator – the now long deceased Frans Henrichs – will always be hard to match with the scenes he was commentating upon in the early stages of the 1973 Dutch GP. In fact, he unknowingly mimicked the dreadfully inadequate reaction shown by everyone bar David Purley, who valiantly tried to rescue Roger Williamson from the burning wreck of an upside-down March 731.

The problem was, they all didn’t know. Race control didn’t know since no-one told them – there was a communication breakdown with the marshals’ post shortly before the start of the race – and didn’t have TV in their control tower. With the PA announcing that a driver – Purley – was standing by the side of his vehicle they thought everything was alright. The drivers didn’t know and guessed that everyone was fine since the race wasn’t stopped. The fire crew didn’t know so they took the long way around. Ah yes, the marshals did know. But they weren’t given any fire-protective clothing and were instructed before the race to take care of their own safety when it really mattered.

In the paddock, the memory of Piers Courage and Jo Siffert’s similar deaths was still lingering, but these hadn’t been televised. This time, TV made everyone – especially those outside of the very self-protective motor racing community – painfully aware of the dangers of Grand Prix racing. And it wasn’t just Williamson’s cruel ordeal of being burned to death that stuck with the millions watching. It was the sheer innecessity of it that really hit home hard, so clinically registered by a single camera at the back of the circuit. It helped GPDA president Jo Bonnier in his quest for more rigourous safety measures.

Niki Lauda’s fiery ‘Ring accident

Television played a significant role once again when the Nürburgring was banned from hosting a German Grand Prix ever again, in the aftermath of Niki Lauda’s fiery accident in the early stages of the 1976 race. The Austrian wasn’t even killed, but it was the sheer violence of the crash depicted in thousands of bright white, yellow and orange colours that shocked the world. What one moment had been a seriously quick and voluptuous Ferrari 312T in the lead of the race was transformed into a flaming fireball in the blink of an eye.

The Bergwerk section where the accident occurred is at the back of the circuit, far away from spectators’ eyes, so in the early days this would have been a few lines in the paper of the morning after. Now, the camera put paid to that option. Mind you, the crash wasn’t even televised live – the footage was released only weeks later. But after that, there was no stopping them. They were shown time and again, making them the most (in)famous Grand Prix images of the decade.

There is no doubt that the heroics performed by Lauda’s fellow drivers helped form the public opinion that racing these cars at the ‘Ring was madness. The most pressing fact of the matter, however, was that it had happened to Niki Lauda, the world’s most famous racing driver who, by surviving the ordeal and continuing his career with his very visible war injuries, caused the impact of these images to go far beyond the world of motor racing, in a way the Williamson drama had never managed to. Now, the sport had questions to answer from the entire world. It had to take very visible measures – axing old-school track such as the ‘Ring fitted the bill perfectly.

Ayrton Senna’s death in the 1994 San Marino GP

As with Lauda in 1976, Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident at Imola sent shockwaves through the masses. The last time one of the sport’s great heroes – Gilles Villeneuve – was killed in action it was during practice. But this happened when tens of millions of people were watching, only a few laps after the lights went green, in an era when Bernie Ecclestone’s vision of F1’s future as a global media event was on the brink of materialising.

Only a handful of years before, GP entry lists boasted up to 40 cars including a long list of no-hopers. But by the mid-nineties the 107% rule was enforced which, combined by an extortionate entry threshold of 40 million dollars not to be returned when a team quit halfway into a season, forced out the last of the happy-go-lucky racers. Out went Forti, Simtek, Pacific – F1 was serious business now, and ready to accept more manufacturers.

In this brave new scenario, death could no longer have a place at F1’s table. It just didn’t fit into Bernie’s business plan. Senna’s death also quickened the demise of ‘unsafe’ circuits and when these were allowed to stay on the calendar, their best corners were usually emasculated. The same would eventually happen to the cars: the V12 went out of the window, the cars’ track was narrowed, slicks were replaced by grooved tyres. Of course F1 cars remained the fastest things on wheels but their uniformity was increasingly demoralising: they looked the same (apart from the colour schemes), they drove at places looking the same, their drivers celebrating on podiums that looked the same. And what did we hear at the press conferences?


Bernie’s first triumph over the powers-that-be

Today’s uniformity didn’t start in the mid-nineties. Its first seeds were sown in the early seventies when a new man introduced himself to the Formula One Constructors Association. Bernie Ecclestone had just taken over the Brabham team from Ron Tauranac and was soon interested in the arrangements the FOCA had bargained for with the mighty Grand Prix organisers and the weak CSI. He found these woefully inadequate and quickly targeted the overseas travel deal arranged by FOCA secretary Andrew Ferguson. Of course Bernie could do better!

Once he’d proved so and had effectively taken control of the FOCA, sidelining Lotus employee Ferguson, he wasted no time in asserting his power. His method? Confrontation. He immediately set his sights on the ACM, the powerful organising association of the blue-ribbon Monaco GP. This had just dared to step back from an agreement allowing 25 cars on the grids of all 1972 Grands Prix instead of individual organisers applying their own quaint entry rulebooks. The ACM’s president Michel Boeri claimed he had been exempted by the CSI but that was after the ACM’s verbal agreement – and the CSI’s telexed confirmation – that they would allow 25 starters.

Bernie painted it out as a CSI provocation and sure enough he persuaded his fellow FOCA members to take a stand: they wouldn’t practice unless the ACM upped the number of starters back to 25. Teaming up with March owner Max Mosley, who used his francophone skills to do the actual negotiating with Boeri and FFSA president Blanchet, it was Bernie who behind the scenes was calling the shots. So he didn’t budge when Boeri promised that the issue would be resolved during practice. No 25 starters? No race. Bernie’s bluff paid off. Boeri and Blanchet gave in and signed to increase the grid. This first victory against the powers-that-be put Ecclestone firmly on the map. From that moment on, he would beat the organisers into submission and totally marginalise the governing body. Until another new man – Blanchet’s successor at the FFSA, Jean-Marie Balestre – took up the challenge and created the FISA out of the ashes of the CSI.

Enzo Ferrari inviting everyone to Maranello

It’s hard to imagine that today’s F1 isn’t governed by the Concorde Agreement anymore. It lapsed over a year ago, leaving the sport in some kind of political limbo, a void that FIA president Max Mosley and the newly united Formula One teams are desperately trying to fill with as much of themselves as possible. Still, the Concorde Agreement has been both cornerstone and pillar for the foundation of the modern version of Grand Prix racing, stonewalled from any outside influence by the new-for-1981 FIA F1 World Championship.

At the end of 1980 the F1 world gazed at a political battefield strewn with dead bodies. There was hardly a man left standing. Would there even be a 1981 championship? Would there be two championships? Would each championship be strong enough to survive on its own? Was there any way out of this deadlock? There simply had to be. Which meant that the grandees and garagistes started talking again – they had nothing left to lose.

The man dragging the conflict out of the mud was both the most unlikely as well as the most likely to do so. Enzo Ferrari could be operatic in the way he looked down on the mere spannermen forming the FOCA. In drama-queen mode he was always oozing with principle. At the same time he was as pragmatic as any FOCA team boss – even his random rants and endlessly recurring pull-out threats were simply instruments to get what he wanted. Even when slamming the FOCA in the newspapers he was happy to simultaneously tag along in their travel arrangements. Now he saw a future with two very much weakened championships, which could only do harm to the Prancing Horse. So he invited everyone – except Balestre and the Grand Prix organisers – to Maranello, where no time was lost to strike a deal that was later renamed to the Concorde Agreement in order to prevent the FISA president from appearing the loser. Every party present at the table at Maranello stood to gain from the agreement and some of them went on to make ludicrous amounts of money because of it. The GP organisers pulled the shortest straw, opening the way for the uniform televised format that is today’s FIA F1 World Championship.

Ferrari taking 80 million dollars from Bernie to break the GPMA ranks

To the world of F1, the Ferrari name is worth its symbolic weight in gold. That is probably why the team bearing that name played such an ironic part in Grand Prix racing’s two great powerplays – both the FISA/FOCA war of the early eighties and the GPMA rebellion in the early 21st century. In 1981, the Old Man put pragmatism before principle and in 2005 his successors did that all over again.

For years, Ferrari had been a prominent player in the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association, a body representing the big car companies involved in F1. Over a period of less than ten years these had morphed from engine suppliers into all-out constructors, following Ferrari’s profitable example. This sudden influx of corporate money and brand value lifted F1’s media image to the next level, probably precisely at the point where Bernie Ecclestone and new FIA president Max Mosley had envisaged it in the run-up to the new millennium. Soon, however, trouble started brewing as the manufacturers began to realise they were pumping huge amounts of marketing dollars into a sport run according to an agreement ensuring that three quarters of the value raised by their investment went straight into the pockets of one man – and then the banks he sold out to.

The manufacturers united themselves in the GPMA and demanded a fairer share. Or else they would take their powerful brand names and star drivers and go it alone. Now where had we heard that one before? The manufacturer influx was starting to look like some sort of Trojan horse – and this time Bernie and Max were the Trojans instead of the horse. Fortunately for the continuity of F1 racing, the outcome was totally predictable. First, Max Mosley executed his usual bargaining tactics with consummate flair, asking for the world and getting what he wanted all along. And then Bernie banked on Ferrari’s selfish pragmatism and offered them a huge sum in cash to side with the FIA. They accepted, and the GPMA was dead and buried. Just like Bernie, having been a rebel himself, had buried WCR and GPI, two seventies initiatives by the CSI to counter the FOCA’s prowess. It set the scene for a new showdown which is playing out as we speak. With the Concorde Agreement now long past its sell-by date and new F1 owners CVC having put considerable debt into their investment vehicle we seem to have reached another deadlock situation. As in the eighties, the governing body and the teams seem to know the way forward. So will CVC lose out in the same way the GP organisers did thirty years ago?