Then and Now – Early Starts and Late Finishes

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With next season promising to have the greatest number or races yet in the history of the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship with 21 races scheduled, I thought it may be appropriate to see how the coming seasons compares to those in the past.  The 2016 season is scheduled to start on 20 March in Australia and to continue through 21 races all the way until Abu Dhabi on 27 November.  The return of the German Grand Prix at the end of July and the European Grand Prix (at the new Baku street circuit) in mid June (clashing with the 24 hours of Le Mans) are the additions over the 19 race 2015 season.  It is however the US Grand Prix at Austin which currently seems the most uncertain on the calendar.  While in 2012 there were 20 races, these fitted in the same 36 week duration proposed for 2016 (starting on 18 March and finishing on 25 November).  To date this is the season with the largest number of races in the championship, however the 2015 season was longer by one week at 37 weeks.

Last decade (in the 2000s) the season was shorter in duration, varying between 31 and 33 weeks long and this was largely true in the 1990s as well, although in 1992 it did stretch out to 36 weeks even though there were only 16 races in the season.  The very first championship in 1950 was the shortest, being only a day over 16 weeks in length, starting on 13 May t Silverstone, and concluding on 3 September in Monza.  With only seven rounds, and all bar Indianapolis in Europe,  it wasn’t difficult to fit the championship into such a compressed timeframe.  While the 1951 season was longer at lust over 22 weeks (not all races were held on a Sunday back then), the off season was far longer than the championship season (38 weeks between 1950 and ’51).  The 1952 season has been the shortest so far at just 16 weeks (a whole day shorter than the inaugural championship), but the durations were soon extended.  Back then, there were many more Formula 1 races than were included in the World Drivers Championship, so it isn’t as if the drivers or teams were sat at home with their feet up relaxing waiting for the new season to start.

1953 saw the championship extend into the southern hemisphere, and this swathe season extend dramatically.  Partly to allow the races to be held in the summer months, and partly to allow the cars to be shipped around the world, as the championship began to extend beyond Europe for the first time.  Note that although Indianapolis was included in the World Championship for the first eleven years, the regulations were so different that no Formula 1 teams, cars or drivers entered until after the race had been dropped from the championship.  1953 was the first of twenty occasions when the championship season has started in January.  Initially this was to allow races in Argentina, but by the mid 1960s it was South Africa that opened the season, twice on New Year’s Day (1965 and 1968, with the 1967 race being held on the 2nd January).

Three times (1959, 1962 and 1963) the season has ended in December, and on the last two occasions that was between Christmas and the New Year.  The 1959 race was the US GP at Sebring, but the other two races were South African Grands Prix.  These early or late South African races really were a Jim Clark benefit, he dropped out while leading after 61 of the 82 laps in 1962, won in ’63, ’65 and ’68, with only 1967 being a poor showing, never getting higher than 5th place.

The longest single season of the World Championship was in 1968, which stretched from the South African opening race on New Year’s Day until the Mexican Grand Prix on 3 November, at nearly 44 weeks long, it makes the current season look very short. There were of course big gaps between races (as there were only 12 events that counted towards the championship) with the second race of the year being Monaco on 12 May, there were two races in May, June, July and September with single races in August, October and November.  It is unsurprising that most teams started the year with last season’s chassis, and introduced the new car when the series got going in Europe later in the year.

The shortest winter break was the 57 days (just a day over eight weeks) between the 1959 US Grand Prix held on 12 December and the following seasons opening race in Argentina 7 February 1960.  Once again there was then a big gap before the second race of the year in Monaco on 29 May. In recent years teams have had nearly double this time (112 days or 16 weeks) between the end of one season and the start of the next.  While not enough time to design and build a car (these things must be started months in advance), it does give some time for pre-season testing before the new season starts (if the teams have managed to finish the first chassis and get it through the mandatory crash tests).

In the 1950s, ‘60s and even ‘70s, F1 drivers were free to race in other categories, and so kept themselves busy (and earning money) by racing in other categories or non-championship F1 races.  These days their contracts bar them from such activities for fear of another ‘tennis’ related shoulder injury (Juan Pablo Montoya) or worse, a Rally accident (Robert Kubica).  So while the drivers may have a period of enforced ‘relaxation’, allowing them to concentrate on physical training helping to get down to the weight required to make the car competitive, the teams have a lot more to do in a very short off season.  There are only 12 occasions when the winter break has been shorter than 16 weeks, and these were initially followed by an opening race in January or February with the second race in May.  It isn’t until the 1973 season that the tradition of flyaway races starts (where there are three or four races in the southern hemisphere at the start of the season, before returning to Europe in late April or early May), once again highlighting why the previous year’s cars were shipped to these early races, while the new car made its debut once the teams returned to Europe.

With the only opportunity to test the new cars being in pre-season testing, there is a smaller benefit to the current teams in taking such an approach.  While Force India were forced to delay their 2015 car’s debut for financial reasons, the risk in introducing the new car without the opportunity to test it is possibly greater than the benefit of the potential extra development.  I am not really expecting many teams to hold off on introducing their new car until later in the year, those that do will have been forced into that situation through lack of funding.

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jakobusvdl

Thanks for the article Dave, I really enjoy the perspectives you bring in this series. You start by saying 2016 will be the longest season in the history of the F1 world drivers championship, but I think this highlights why I prefer to focus on it being the F1 world constructors championship. The logistics of building, homologating, and testing two cars ready for the first race is a phenomenal engineering challenge. Then to get those two cars to 21 different venues around the world for a four day race programme every one to two weeks, with the weight of expectations… Read more »

MIE

I referred to the drivers championship only because it is eight years older than the constructors championship. You are correct that the challenge would appear to be far more on the constructors side than the drivers. Not many championships are won in other than the best car ;-)

It isn’t just you who is interested in the engineering challenge.

jakobusvdl

Thanks Dave, there is always a well considered reason behind anything you write or post.
As you point out, the championship is seldom won in anything but the best car, that could lead into a couple of ‘then and now’ themes.
How about – ‘dominant Mercedes -then and now’, or ‘drivers who lucked into the right seat at the right time’, ‘drivers who out performed their cars’?
I’m sure you will have some other well considered ideas.
Happy New Year to you