Fifty years have passed since the inception of the FIA World Drivers Championship. Much has changed in these five decades, but one thing remains distinctly the same: Formula1 is, was, and always will be the most prestigious and demanding auto racing series in the world.
The World Championship began as a way of uniting the top racing series of the various European nations in a series that spanned the continent. Administered by what is now the Federation Internationale de lAutomobile (FIA), the Championship used the new concept of a formula for participating cars; vehicles involved had to meet specific criteria to be considered eligible to compete. Prior to 1950, racecars were allowed to run in any possible configuration, the variations causing disparity amongst the teams involved. While the formula then determined only engine displacement, it now covers nearly every aspect of chassis dimensions, weight, and engine specifications.
The 1950 series consisted of seven races: the British, Swiss, Monaco, Belgian, French, and Italian Grands Prix and the Indianapolis 500. The latter was included to spark interest in Grand Prix racing in America but in reality the effectiveness was negligible. However, included in the 2000 calendar of seventeen races was the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, an event that was a huge success. Its almost poetic that on the 50th anniversary of the Championship, it should return to one of its original venues and achieve the success here that it failed to so times before.
The following year added races in Germany and Spain, but was otherwise insignificant. The same cannot be said for 1952 and 1953. Due to financial troubles within the competing teams, the championship was actually held using Formula2 specifications of smaller and accordingly more cost-efficient engines. As a result, the 1954 season marked the beginning of a new Formula1 specification and also the start of an era.
From 1954 to 1957, Juan Manuel Fangio, the 1951 Champion, dominated Formula1, taking all four championships. In doing so, he became the only driver to win more than two consecutive titles, an accomplishment that was only remotely challenged for the first time just this year. Fangio would retire in 1958
Since its inception in 1950, the FIA Formula One World Championship has permanently and definitively established itself as the pinnacle of motor racing. Every driver aspires to race in this most prestigious of series, yet few are talented enough to even be considered. Formula One drivers are the best in the world; their cars are at the peak of technological development. Racing at legendary tracks such as Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, and the streets of Monaco, these drivers are subject to physical and mental stresses unimaginable to most of us, and for what? Simple, they race to win.
The World Championship for Drivers was originally created by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile as a post-World War II effort to create the ultimate auto racing competition. Working with an engine formula, then 4,500 cc naturally aspirated or 1,500 cc supercharged, drivers and their teams developed cars to compete seven Grands Prix. The Champion would be decided based on points, with varying numbers of points scored for the top six finishers. He (there were not any female drivers) who had the most points at the end of the season was the winner. Winning three out of seven races (only six of which he competed in) and coming second in another, the first driver to be crowned World Champion was Giuseppe Nino Farina driving an Alfa Romeo. Strangely enough, as much money and effort as the teams put into their drivers title efforts, it would not be until 1958 that a Constructors Championship would be created.
Much has changed in the past fifty years. The number of races has gone from seven to seventeen, expanding into all corners of the globe. Races are now held on five of the seven continents, Antarctica and Africa the only two currently not participating, although Egypt is desperately trying to get back its right to hold an F1 event. This year marks the return of Formula One to the United States; last year was its debut in Malaysia. Designing these modern F1 circuits, as the racetracks are known, is no longer a pen and paper affair. Each is now carefully engineered, taking hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and construct. This is often the deciding factor in whether or not a particular country can host a Grand Prix.
The technology in Formula One has evolved greatly as well. As has always been, each car is a true technological marvel. Chassis are now of a monocoque (body-in-frame) design constructed entirely of carbon fibre. Todays engines are amazing feats of engineering, with their valve springs having been replaced by an elaborate pneumatic control system that allows the engines to rev to over 19,000 RPM! Thousands of hours goes into engineering these engines; just as much time goes into testing the cars in wind tunnels to ensure that they are highly aerodynamic. To create traction, modern F1 cars rely on downforce, an effect directly opposite what causes an airplane to fly. The key to performance is to be able to create downforce without creating drag, lest one decrease the efficiency of the car. Phenomenal aerodynamic efficiency coupled with a high power to weight ratio allows these cars to reach speeds in excess of 215 MPH. As a matter of fact, despite using downforce instead of lift, a Formula One car can actually out-accelerate a jet fighter!
All this technology does not come without cost. Formula One is the most expensive sport in the world with top teams spending nearly $150 million each year on development and competition. Nearly all of these funds come from sponsorship, a concept first introduced in 1968 and one that has forever changed the sport. Gone are the days of national colours, replaced instead with corporate livery. Tobacco companies are the single largest contributors to F1, with technology firms a distant second, both no doubt anxious to take advantage of the opportunity to advertise to a 100 million-viewer audience seventeen times a year. The former of the two is in question though, as the World Health Organization has proposed a worldwide ban on tobacco advertising. This would leave half the field looking for sponsors. Doubtless though, the World Championship would go on. Technology partners are gradually supplanting tobacco sponsors as the companies realise that there are few better places to showcase their innovations. Major auto manufacturers are investing in the sport as well, ensuring its future for many years to come. I know Ill be watching, will you?