Looking back over the history of Formula 1 ten years at a time can reveal some interesting points in the evolution of the sport. Part one of this series focused on 1958 through 1988 and now we look at 1998 through 2018 here. This article examines the size and competitiveness of the field and notes some of the changes that have taken place which have shaped Formula 1 over the decades.
1998 – Again a sixteen race season, stretching from 8th March in Australia until 1st November in Japan, the races very evenly spread though the year. Eleven teams entered the season all of two cars (Williams, Ferrari, Benetton, McLaren, Jordan, Prost, Sauber, Arrows, Stewart, Tyrrell and Minardi). Only two of those teams (Prost and Arrows) don’t exist in some form today:
Benetton became the Renault team before crash-gate forced them to withdraw, eventually becoming Lotus before reverting to Renault;
Jordan are now Force India, having had periods as Midland and Spyker;
Stewart were sold to Ford to be run as Jaguar before being bought by Red Bull;
Tyrrell sold their entry to BAR who became Honda before being rescued by Brawn when they pulled out, who sold the team to Mercedes;
Minardi were bought by Toro Rosso.
Race numbers were now determined by the teams position in the constructors championship the previous year (once 1, and 2 were allocated to the current drivers champion and his team mate). Engines were mandated to be 3.0 litre V10 normally aspirated units. Three teams (Stewart, Tyrrell and Minardi) used Ford Zetec engines, two used old Renault engines although these were badged Mecachrome (Williams) and Playlife (Benetton) while the others all had deals with their own engine suppliers or built their own engines. Six teams used Bridgestone tyres and five Goodyear.
In qualifying the McLaren Mercedes showed their dominance, Mika Häkkinen setting a time of 1’30.010” just 0.043” quicker than David Coulthard (and three quarters of a second faster than anyone else). Tenth place was taken by Damon Hill in the Jordan Mugen-Honda with a 1’32.399” lap. So while the margin for pole position was only 0.05%, the spread to tenth place was 2.65%. McLaren were also fastest in the race, Häkkinen setting a fastest lap of 1’31.649” which was 0,707” quicker than his team mate. Jarno Trulli set the tenth fastest race lap in his Prost Peugeot in 1’34.885”. Without the constraints of fuel saving, the fastest race lap was 1.82% of the pole time, the spread in the race was slightly greater than in qualifying, a 0.77% gap to second and 3.53% covering the top ten. At the finish Häkkinen won by just 0.702” from Coulthard, these two being the only drivers on the lead lap with just nine finishers. Points were now 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 for first through to sixth place, an extra point for the win was introduced in 1991 to encourage drivers to go for the race win rather than settle for second.
2008 – The season had grown to 18 races by this stage, although the duration wasn’t increased. It started on 16th March in Australia and concluded on 2nd November in Brazil. There was now a three week break in August to allow the travelling members of the teams to have a short break. Eleven teams entered two cars (Ferrari, BMW Sauber, Renault, Williams, Red Bull, Toyota, Toro Rosso, Honda, Super Aguri, Force India and McLaren). The engines were all 2.4 litre V8s and all supplied by major manufacturers, no specialist engine tuning firms. Ferrari supplied Force India and Toro Rosso, Renault supplied Red Bull, Toyota supplied Williams and Honda supplied Super Aguri leaving BMW and Mercedes with exclusive deals with Sauber and McLaren respectively. Since 2004 the engines were required to last a whole race meeting, with any change resulting in a ten place grid penalty. This was done as an attempt to cut costs, and effectively ban qualifying engines. Tyres were once again common with Bridgestone supplying the whole field.
Qualifying went Lewis Hamilton’s way with a best time of 1’25.187” in his McLaren, although this was set in Q2 as inconsistent weather meant times were slower in Q3. Second fastest was Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber 0.128” slower also in Q2, while the tenth fastest time was Jarno Trulli in his Toyota with a 1’26.101” lap (good enough for 9th in Q2, but Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari had gone faster in Q1 so it was only the tenth fastest time of the weekend. This meant a 0.11% gap to second and the top ten in qualifying covered by a mere 1.07% (the closest of the races analysed here).
A McLaren was fastest in the race as well, although this went to Heikki Kovalainen with a 1’27.418”, just 0.034” faster than Hamilton. The tenth fastest driver in the race was David Couthard, who lapped his Red Bull in 1’29.502”. The race pace was 2.62% slower than qualifying, and while the McLaren’s were only 0.04% apart, the top ten were covered by 2.38% (over twice the spread in qualifying). Hamilton wo the race by 5.478 seconds from Nick Heidfeld in his BMW Sauber. There were five drivers on the lead lap and only eight classified finishers (although two of these weren’t running at the end). Three safety car periods may have helped the field remain close, although five cars being eliminated on the opening lap didn’t help the finishing rate, and Rubens Barrichello’s Honda was disqualified from sixth place for exiting the pits under a red light. Since 2003 points had been awarded down to 8th place (10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) as the increased reliability of the cars made it harder for the smaller teams to score any points.
2018 – The season now stands at a record equalling 21 races, stretching from 25th March in Australia until 25th November in Abu Dhabi. So it is still only eight months, but now with five more races than in 1988. There are now just ten teams, each of two cars from (McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari, Haas, Sauber, Toro Rosso, Force India, Williams, Renault and Mercedes). Drivers have been able to choose a permanent number since 2014, and so teams no longer have cars that are consecutively numbered. It is the World Champion’s choice whether they carry their own number or the number 1 for the season. Since this systems introduction there have been only two drivers who have had to make that choice, Sebastian Vettel chose to run with number 1, while Lewis Hamilton chose to stick with 44. All the teams are still constructors (owning the Intellectual Property Rights of the listed parts of their own car), although some of the smaller teams buy components form the bigger teams. Most commonly these are the gearboxes to go with the engines or Power Units, although Haas have chosen to buy as much of the car as possible from Ferrari, a strategy that has enabled them to reach competitiveness faster than any other recent team to join the sport. All the engines are 1.6 litre turbo charged units, with a complex energy recovery system which make up a Power Unit. Strict limits exist on the number of Power Units that a driver can use during the season without incurring a grid penalty. For this season the limit is three Internal Combustion Engines, Turbo Chargers and Motor Generator Units – Heat, while only two Motor Generator Units – Kinetic, Control Electronics and Energy Stores may be used. The Power Units are supplied by four manufacturers (Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault each supply three teams, while Honda have an exclusive deal with Toro Rosso). Gearboxes are also limited, each being required to last for five race weekends if a penalty is not to be given (a change introduced in 2011). Tyres are now exclusively supplied by Pirelli.
In qualifying, Lewis Hamilton beat Kimi Räikkönen to pole position, his Mercedes lapping in 1’21.164” some 0.664” faster than the Ferrari. Tenth place on the grid went to Fernando Alonso who managed a 1’23.692” lap in his McLaren Renault. The pole margin was an impressive 0.75%, although this is still some way from Clark’s 1.23% advantage some fifty years earlier. The top ten on the grid were covered by 2.68%, which compares well to other races analysed here. The front of the grid is more competitive than average for the races analysed here. In the race, Daniel Ricciardo was fastest in his Red Bull with a 1’25.945”, which was 0.428” faster than Räikkönen’s Ferrari. The tenth fastest driver in the race was Esteban Ocon who lapped his Force India in 1’27.600”. The limitation on fuel use has once again driven the race pace to be 5.89% slower than qualifying (very similar to 1988), and again the race is more competitive than qualifying with Räikkönen being 0.50% slower than Ricciardo and the top ten fastest drivers being covered by 1.93% (nearly as close as 1978, no wonder overtaking is so rare). Sebastian Vettel won in his Ferrari by 5.036 seconds from Hamilton and fourteen of the fifteen finishers were on the lead lap. This latter statistic was no doubt helped by the safety car halfway through the race. The points system now goes down to tenth place (25, 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1) introduced in 2010 to counter the increasing reliability and to encourage drivers to try and win rather than settle for second.
So looking back over the decades, perhaps F1 isn’t as bad as we think it is. Grid sizes have been much smaller in the past, drivers and teams have been much more dominant in the past, and the field has been much less competitive in the past. Yet most of these earlier years are looked back upon with some fondness by fans as the ‘golden age’ of F1. I suppose it depends when you personally started following the sport, the things that attracted you are what you remember fondly. F1 is always changing and no doubt it will continue to do so, but in ten or twenty years’ time I am sure some fans will be calling this the ‘golden age’ of F1, with a pair of four time world champions fighting off the next generation of drivers, and multiple teams looking like they can be competitive.