Real F1 cars, Real Racing Drivers and Real Race Tracks
By: Tony Hall
I was asked recently “what was Formula One like back in the 70s and 80s?” That started me thinking. Back then racing was mainly on race tracks, yes I mean proper race tracks. Men and machine raced, pushed the cars and themselves to the limit.
The FIA president at that time was Jean-Marie Balestre. Like today the FIA played politics with F1 but at least the technical and sporting regulation rule books were somewhat thinner.
Would you believe in 1978 there were around 26 teams and 50 drivers all wanting to race. Sometimes over 30 cars would try to qualify for one of the 26 grid positions. Failure to qualify meant packing up the trucks and heading home.
You had the likes of Brabham, Tyrrell, Surtees, Ligier, ATS, Shadows, Ensign, Lotus, Wolf plus, of course, Ferrari, Williams and McLaren.
Drivers of that era included Gilles Villeneuve, Carlos Reutemann, Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, to mention just a few.
Most of the engines were Ford Cosworth 3,000cc, V8 DFV with about 490 bhp. The exception, of course, were Ferrari with a flat 12 cylinder 3,000cc, Alfa Romeo and Ligier.
Most Formula One tracks were in Europe with the exception of Argentina, USA, South Africa, Brazil and Canada.
The racing was fast and furious. Off track the drivers were mates, but on the track not so. Cars would overtake, drivers took risks, pushed the tyres to the limit and were not worried so much about saving fuel.
In the pits the cars were worked on by real mechanics that got their hands dirty – and not a computer in sight. The cars were made of aluminum sheeting riveted together – the drivers’ legs were so far forward that any frontal impact would likely result in broken feet or legs, which happened quite often.
In the paddock there were no big luxurious hospitality areas but rather awnings stretched out from the side of a truck. Various brands of cigarettes were handed out to anyone who wanted to smoke. Drivers relaxed or walked around the paddock area, some still suffering a headache from the night before!
I recall being at Brands Hatch for the 1985 European Grand Prix. To watch the race I had access to the grandstand roof. Fantastic view. The Royal Air Force had a little cabin on the roof with an air traffic controller overseeing the spectacular air display by the Red Arrows and other historic aircraft.
I walked the track and at various points there were straw bales, low fencing and easy, somewhat dangerous viewing for spectators but everyone loved it. The racing was pure racing, no holding back.
Nigel Mansell won his first Formula One race, Ayrton Senna came in second and Keke Rosberg third. Other drivers of that time were Nelson Piquet, Elio de Angelis, Teo Fabi, John Watson, Alan Jones and Alain Prost.
Teams included Zakspeed, Osella, Toleman Hart, Minadi, March, Arrows and Haas (yes, there was a Team Haas in 1985). Engine suppliers included Renault, BMW, Honda, Alfa Romeo, Hart, Porsche and Ferrari.
You had to be there to experience it. The sound of those great engines, the smell of burning oil and tyre rubber. As a fan of whichever driver or team you left the track having been thrilled by the extremes you had just witnessed.
When I look at today’s Formula One it does not compare. The youngest drivers were probably in their mid-twenties and the oldest in their late forties. No seventeen year-old drivers or other youngsters coming along from driver academies run by teams. Drivers came up from karting to Formula Ford, Formula 2 or 3 or maybe Formula 3000. They had proved themselves worthy of a race seat.
Today what we witness at most tracks on the Formula One Calendar is a very expensive procession of cars driving fast but you can hardly call it racing. Drivers being advised via radio from the pit wall button to push or dial to turn, how to look after their tyres, watch out for debris, cool the engine. Most are not what I call racing drivers but more like team celebrities.
Now it is pit kids, models throwing out the chequered flag, people posing around the hospitality area as if they owned the bloody thing.
Formula One has lost its roots and its way and sadly I get more critical as nobody seems to understand that it is supposed to be a very competitive sport and that people like me want to see honest men do honest racing and not be ‘lemmings’ to their team, sponsors, Liberty or the FIA.
How those true racers of bygone years must be saddened to see their sport so brutally disfigured.