formula one history
Formula One is a global leviathan. In 2017, its global audience was 352.3 million people. The sponsorship income of the manufacturers is in the hundreds of millions of Euros per year. The top speed of the Formula One car is 231 miles per hour. Put simply, everything in Formula One is done to a huge scale. One of Formula One’s greatest strengths is the fact that – despite all of the engineering expertise and technology – it is a simple sport.
There is something inherently visceral about watching incredibly skilled drivers hurtle hugely quick cars around a race track. Despite the ever-growing speed, Formula One is a safer sport now than ever in its history. Indeed, throughout its nearly 80 year past, Formula One has, every year, become both faster and safer. This is the real engineering skill of the sport.
Early Grands Prix
Ever since there have been cars, there has been car racing. As technology improved, and cars became more numerous, European manufacturers began racing as a way of competing and marketing their products.
In the interwar years, a series of Grands Prix took place throughout Europe, designed to show off car and driver skills to a receptive European population.
Had World War II not intervened it is likely that Formula One would have begun much earlier. Certainly, in the interwar years, there was an increasing move towards codifying the sport from the ragtag one-off events.
With the rise of Nazism, and the focus of French and Belgian (and other European) engineers onto preparation for war, however, Formula One was put on hold until 1946.
Development of Formula One
The name ‘Formula One’ refers to a standardized set of rules with which drivers and engineers must comply. In 1946, the idea of a Formula One Championship began. From 1946-1950 the races were not part of an overall calendar and races tended to be ad hoc affairs.
Drivers’ World championship
The final details on the drivers’ world championship were not agreed upon until 1950, and the first World Championship Grand Prix took place in 1950 at Silverstone in the UK. Even then, only seven of the total Grands Prix counted towards the World Championship, although the fundamental structures were in place. Even as the championship grew, there remained non-championship races until 1983.
In the period since the emergence of the World Championship, there have been periods of dominance by one company or the other.
The British, for example, dominated the early 1960s and early 1970s, before Ferrari dominated the mid-1970s.
In the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s, Ferrari again enjoyed a period of dominance, although more recently Williams and Mercedes have been leading manufacturers.
Evolution of racing
After World War II, Formula One was an established sport, with a great deal of popularity.
Gradually, in the post-war years, F1 underwent a series of evolutionary changes. For example, in 1958, the Grands Prix were shortened from 300 miles to 200 miles, and the fuel used by drivers was standardized to Avgas.
1958 was also a landmark year as it was the first year that a car with an engine mounted behind the driver won the championship. Stirling Moss’s Cooper won the Argentine Grand Prix in his newly designed car, which soon became the standard across all manufacturers.
Previously each team had made their own fuel using methanol and other compounds. 1958 also saw the introduction of a constructors’ world championship.
In 1965, a Japanese team won the Mexican Grand Prix with a transverse engine. Unlike Stirling Moss’s car, however, no other manufacturers copied the design of the Japanese car, which remains the only car to have done so with an engine of that type.
This Grand Prix was also the last that saw the use of a 1.5-liter engine before the loads were increased to 3.0 liters. This naturally increased the speeds that cars are capable of achieving, and they now regularly top 200 mph – a speed more than double the top speed of the earliest racing cars.
Developments in Car Technology
Car technology in Formula One has been a result of each team constantly striving to gain a competitive advantage.
The two biggest developments that have taken place in the history of Formula One have been the placement of the engine and the material of the chassis. As mentioned above, in 1958 Stirling Moss’s car featured a behind-driver engine.
For the first time since the replacement of horses, cars were now pushed rather than pulled, giving greater control over the steering. Modern safety innovations have meant that the engine is now placed in the center of the car, although this is still behind the driver.
The most radical change that took place with the chassis was the development, in 1962, of the aluminum sheet monocoque, which effectively meant that the car was one long body panel.
This dramatically reduced weight and made the cars more rigid, meaning that even greater speeds were possible. In 1981 McLaren superseded this with the development of the carbon fiber chassis.
Concurrent with the development in speed and aerodynamics of Formula 1 cars has been innovation in safety. In the period 1963-1967, an estimated 256,000 kilometers were driven under race conditions, resulting in three driver fatalities.
Since 1997, there have been an estimated 348,000 kilometers driven under race conditions, with zero fatalities.
The first set of innovations that took place in the 1960s were centered on the danger caused by fires in the post-crash period. For example, in the period 1963-1965, cars were required to be fitted with fire protection, safer fuel tanks (and gas lines), and fireproof suits were made mandatory for all drivers.
Cockpits and safety belts began to be designed for easy release and exit in the case of a crash. In this period also were modern crash helmets (i.e. shatterproof) and roll bars fitted to prevent the initial danger of a crash.
In the 1970s spectator safety became increasingly important, and a number of regulations were introduced that were designed to protect those who attended these events. For example, in 1970 it became compulsory for circuits to have spectators three meters behind any fencing (and fencing was increasingly regulated).
In 1973 ‘catchfences’ were introduced to prevent cars from being able to endanger spectators. Where previously hay bales had been used as a crash barrier, this was now made illegal because of the fire hazard presented.
In the 1980s technology had advanced to the extent that it was now possible to protect the driver in all but the most serious crashes.
Knowledge of crumple zones and the introduction of a ‘survival cell’ around the driver meant that crashes themselves became increasingly less fatal. This ran concurrently with increasing innovation with regard to fire, and a growing presence of medical staff on hand at races.
In the 1990s, cars were increasingly modified to be faster, and safety innovations were increasingly based on more precise details.
For example, design specifications became even more rigorous. In 1993, the mandatory headrest area was increased to four meters, the front overhang was reduced from one meter to 90 centimeters, and additional regulations gave very specific details about the distance of the rear wing height, the distance of the front wing endplate, and the wheel width.
The safety changes that have taken place since 2000 have almost all been centered around increasing the different forces that cars are able to respond to, meaning that drivers are protected in an even larger array of cases.
For example, in 2000 the ‘survival cell panel outer skin laminates’ were fitted with added penetration resistance, and the static load side test in the driver’s leg areas increased by 20%. In 2001, the side impact test speed was increased to 10 m/s.
This suggests that the fundamental structures of the car are sound, and the primary innovations are involved in adjustments, rather than major radical change.
Formula One has become a global phenomenon, a long way from its roots in European racing in the interwar period.
The developments in technology, speed, and safety have all been noteworthy; fundamentally, however, the premise of Formula One is to take the world’s best drivers and the world’s best engineers and put them at the pinnacle of what a car is capable of. In this respect, the spirit of Formula One is the same as it always was.
Certainly, there is more money in the sport, and the cars now travel at speeds that drivers in the 1920s could not dream of. However, the glitz, the glamour, and the sheer bravado of the drivers all demonstrate a sport that still retains an innocent and wide-eyed view of the fundamental beauty of racing.
Throughout the history of Formula One there have been many developments, but at no stage has the average spectator ever looked at the vehicles, and the drivers, with anything less than awe. And that will never change.
Sources and Further Reading