Two things happen every September in Singapore: The red-and-white national flag is taken down, and a checkered one is lifted. It’s time to burn rubber and fuel with the pinnacle of motor engineering at the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix, which is also celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The overall FIA Formula 1 World Championship, needless to say, has a much longer history, dating back to its inauguration 67 years ago.
(Featured Image: YTIMG )
Originated from Europe’s lively auto racing scene in the 1930s, Formula 1 officially began when racing regulations (the “formula”) for a world championship were standardised in 1950. In those days, there were non-championship races, which ceased in 1983 when they were no longer profitable, as well as more on-track fatalities, leading to tightened safety measures that consequently affected the build of the cars themselves. The first season of Formula 1 in 1950 saw seven races and 81 drivers. Today, the ratio has switched with 20 races among 22 drivers for the 2017 season. As for the vehicles, they’ve undergone a number of massive transformations as well. Here’s a timeline to mark some of history’s most iconic F1 race cars, as well as their changing features.
The defining features of the first F1 cars that emerged in 1950 were the narrow-tread tyres, and the front engines, which were either of the 1.5-litre supercharged or the 4.5-litre normally aspirated varieties. The Alfa Romeo 158 (pictured), nicknamed the Alfetta, was the pioneer champion, a classic crimson masterpiece of an automobile that got its name from its 1.5-litre supercharged eight-cylinder engine. Despite having been built in the late 1930s, it dominated the races in the first season. With a bulbous tail and a clean bullet-shaped body, the retro speedster was also a thing of beauty.
In 1954, F1 implemented a new rule that limited the engine size to 2.5 litres for the purposes of reducing the weight of the car and increasing speed. That was the year the Mercedes-Benz W196, or the Silver Arrow, debuted on the tracks. A sleek, silver car with a smooth, undulating silhouette oozing with 007 Bond vibes, it sported closed wheels and a flatter, more aerodynamically-driven design. Towards the end of the decade, the engines had started moving to the back of the cars, and even the fuel they used were switched from alcohol-based to gasoline.
As head-turning as the Silver Arrow’s car body design might’ve been, the vehicles of the 1960s went back to a more classic shape, adopting a longer, more capsule-like look. At the time, tubular steel-frame chassis (the base frame of a vehicle) were common. That is, until 1962 saw the Lotus 25 debuting the first monocoque chassis (where the chassis and body of the car are merged). It was also made of aluminium, which helped reduce the weight of the vehicle.
Another notable year that significantly changed the F1 game was 1968, and the racer under the spotlight is the Lotus 49B (pictured). In terms of design, it was the first car to fix aerodynamic wings (front wings attached to the nose, and rear wings mounted on the car’s suspension), allowing for better airflow and balance. It was also the first car to carry an advertisement on its body, even going so far as to swap its traditional green and yellow colours for the red, gold and white of its new sponsor, Gold Leaf. While the commercial sponsorships continued, the high rear wings, which everyone adopted in 1969 and often broke mid-race, caused a number of fatalities.
Because of the unsavoury death toll, stricter rules on the front and back wings were implemented when 1970 rolled around. Cars also started using racing slicks (tyres with smooth tread) in 1971. The Lotus 72 (pictured) came up with possibly the most gorgeous commercial-laden design, using a simple yet striking black-and-gold colour scheme. It kept its signature wings, but lowered the rear ones and made them sturdier. This was also the first of its kind to fix a cooling system on the sides of the vehicle, which brought about the introduction of sidepods. In 1974, more features such as an engine cover and an airbox were added to the race cars.
The innovation didn’t stop there. Tyrrell unveiled a six-wheeler during the 1976 F1 season, the Tyrrell P34. Its two large rear wheels and four smaller front wheels improved the airflow without compromising on the grip and cornering abilities of the car, thus carrying it all the way to the top that same year at the Swedish championship race.
The dawn of this new era brought with it electronic driving aids that allowed for better control of the cars, as well as a number of new regulations. For one, extreme ground effect, despite giving the speedsters more downforce and faster cornering capabilities, was a safety hazard. It was banned in 1983. 1983 was also the year with a disturbingly high frequency of fuel-related fires. As a result, refueling mid-race was prohibited the year after. By 1989, turbocharged engines were banned from the race as well. The F1 cars used naturally aspirated engines instead with a maximum volume of 3.5 litres.
McLaren seemed to dominate the 1980s, first with the 1981 McLaren MP4/1 and its pioneering carbon fibre composite monocoque. Then, it was the game-changing, record-breaking McLaren MP4/4 (pictured) that boasted 680 horsepower, a flat design that lowered the car’s centre of gravity, as well as a remarkably narrow nose. It cleaned up at the 1988 championships, winning an unprecedented 15 out of 16 races. To this day, not a single F1 racer has seen such glory.
The early part of this decade saw the rise in the use of traction control, launch control, and semi-automatic gearboxes. Larger rear-view mirrors and removable steering wheels were also required of the vehicles. In 1994, the ban on mid-race refueling was withdrawn. However, in that same year, electronic driving aids were barred, and it was the first time in a long time a driver had died on the F1 tracks. Following that tragedy, safety measures were cranked up. They established lateral crash tests in 1995, introduced accident data recorders in 1997, enlarged cockpits and shortened the car width in 1998, and brought in four medical cars in 1999.
The first five years of the noughties, otherwise known as the era of Michael Schumacher, had the legendary German driver at the top of the leaderboard. And it all started with the Ferrari F1-2000 (pictured), a red speed devil with 780 horsepower. It had a high nose cone, pushrod suspensions at the front and back, much smaller sidepods, and most significantly, a 3-litre V10 engine with a 90-degree configuration that boosted the car’s stability.
In the later part of the 2000s, changing regulations permitted adjustable wings (allowing drivers to manipulate them mid-race) and decreased the rev limit of the engines. They also made a transition in 2006 to stipulate 90-degree V8 engines with a maximum of 2.4 litres. This was also a time of unconventional winglet designs. The 2006 BMW Sauber racer featured two vertical planks above its suspension, while its 2008 iteration was fitted with all sorts of complex aerodynamic appendages, almost to the point of excess. Those additional features were then banned in the subsequent season in 2009, while slick tyres were reintroduced.
One of the most unpopular introductions of recent years was the stepped noses of 2012. They were so aesthetically loathed that FIA approved the option to hide them with panels in 2013. In 2014, turbochargers were brought back, though the engines themselves were much more compact, carrying a maximum of 1.6 litres with six cylinders. This year, the focus is on enhancing the car’s downforce and mechanical grip. Known to be the most physically challenging automobiles to drive, the 2017 races will see plenty of aerodynamic changes such as wider tyres, wider front wings, lower rear wings, and longer noses. Expect faster cornering, slower straights, and an all-around nail-biting fiesta this F1 season.