The History of Formula 1

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Podcast Transcript

As soon as automobiles were created, people began racing them. 

As with many sports, early efforts were often unorganized and disjointed. After world war II, however, an effort was made to provide an organized championship series for the world’s best drivers. 

Over the last 70 years, it has grown into the world’s foremost racing circuit and become a business worth billions of dollars. 

Learn more about Formula 1 and how it became such big business on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origin of Formula 1, aka F1, dates back to the earliest days of auto racing. While every country with cars had people who started racing them, this story starts with auto racing in France.

In the early 20th century, a type of auto racing known as Grand Prix racing developed. Some of the earliest races were sponsored by car manufacturers as a form of marketing for their vehicles.  Grand Prix is just French for “grand prize,” and the term is now used generically for many types of car races. 

These first races were literal road races where cars and drivers would race from one town to another. These races were more about endurance than speed. 

In 1904, the International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs, or AIACR as the acronym is in French, was formed. At this point, car ownership was still pretty rare, and many car owners were clubs. The AIACR, in addition to serving motorists, was also created to organize the new automotive racing scene. 

In 1922 the AIACR created the Commission for International Sports or CIS, again in French, which organized races and created rules for Grand Prix racing.

In 1925 they created the World Manufacturers’ Championship, which, as the name would imply, was for manufacturers, not drivers. For the first three seasons, there were four grand prix in the competition: The Indianapolis 500, the French Grand Prix, the Belgian Grand Prix, and the Italian Grand Prix. 

This competition only lasted for three years before most of the races pulled out, and it was gone completely by 1930. They also had a bizarre scoring system where you got more points for placing lower, and the winner had the fewest points.

This was eventually replaced with a European Championship, which was conducted in the 1930s up until the outbreak of WWII. 

For obvious reasons, auto racing was put on hold during the war.  

After the war, there was a desire to bring back Grand Prix racing. However, given the state of grand Prix racing before the war, the desire was also to reform it and make it better….and it really needed to be made better. 

First, the AIACR itself reformed and changed its name to the FIA, or the International Automobile Federation. 

In 1947, for professional racing, they developed a series of rules for different levels of racing which they called “formulas.”  A formula in this context refers to the set of rules that the races are conducted under and the specifications that the cars had to meet. 

When it was first established, the top level was known as both Formula A and Formula 1, and sometimes with the one written as a Roman number. 

Likewise, the second division was known as Formula B or Formula 2. In 1950 Formula 3 was also created. 

All of the formulas involved open-wheel, single-seat race cars, and that is still the case today.  Generally speaking, any open-wheeled, single-seat race car is known as a formula car, even if it isn’t technically under any of the formula rules. 

For example, the Indycar series in the United States isn’t part of any of the formula levels but is generally classified as formula cars. 

Initially, for the first few years, there were separate national circuits in each country that adopted the Formula 1 rules. 

The very first race run under Formula 1 rules was the 1946 Turin Grand Prix, which was actually run before the rules became official in 1947. 

However, the FIA announced that in 1950, they would link together many of the national Grand Prix races to create a world championship. 

The inaugural 1950 season consisted of seven races in seven countries: the British Grand Prix, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500, the Swiss Grand Prix, the Belgian Grand Prix, the French Grand Prix, and the Italian Grand Prix. 

The season was dominated by the Italian automaker Alfa Romero who won every race, save for the Indianapolis 500. 

The winning driver was Italian Giuseppe Farina and in a close second was his teammate, Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio. 

The 50s were dominated by Italian manufacturers, with Alfa Romero, Maserati, and Ferrari winning the manufacturer championship the first nine years. 

By far, the most accomplished driver was Juan Manuale Fangio, who won five titles and was runner-up twice. 

After 1960, the Indianapolis 500 was dropped from the Formula 1 calendar. It was originally included as far back as 1925 because it was the premier American motorsports race. 

However, during the first decade of Formula 1, it always stood out as an outlier.  Indianapolis was on an oval track, whereas all the other races were on road courses. 

The rules for cars were also a little bit different than standard Formula 1 rules. There was eventually a return of Formula 1 to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it wasn’t the Indianapolis 500. 

During this time, there were also Formula 1 races that were held that were not part of the championship series. This ended in 1983 for budget reasons as rising costs made it too expensive for teams to race if it wasn’t for the championship.

The Italian manufacturer’s domination of Formula 1 ended in 1958. After that, there began an extended period of dominance of British manufacturers.  A host of British auto companies won championships for the next forty years.

These four decades were dominated by the likes of Cooper, British Motor Racing, Brabham, Lotus, McLaren, Williams, Tyrrell, and Beneton, with only an occasional Ferrari interspersed amongst the British. 

Commonwealth drivers won every title from 1958 to 1969, including greats such as Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. 

The big change in cars in this period was a change in the location of the engine from the front to behind the driver but in front of the rear axle. The Cooper teams did this in 1958, won the championship, and soon every team had rear-mounted engines. 

In the 1970s, the manufacturers were still British, but the drivers became significantly more international. Great drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi from Brazil, Niki Lauda from Austria, Alain Prost of France, and Ayrton Senna of Brazil all won multiple drivers championship during this period. 

The 70s also saw Formula 1 turn into big business. Bernie Ecclestone was appointed as the chief executive of Formula 1, and he changed the management of the sport, which dramatically increased revenues, primarily by selling the television rights. He remained the chief executive until 2017 when he retired at the age of 87.

The British manufacturer’s domination of F1 ended in 2000. Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, and Red Bull have dominated the sport over the last two decades. 

This period has also seen some of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history, including the German driver Michael Schumacher, German Sebastian Vettel, and British Driver Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton has won more races, more championships, more podium finishes, and more pole positions than any other driver in the 70-year history of F1. 

Ultimately, Formula 1, like all motorsports, is a technology-driven competition. Much of the history of Formula 1 can be viewed through the lens of technical improvements. 

In theory, the reason why auto manufacturers even participate in Formula 1 is that the innovations they developed will trickle down to consumer automobiles. 

There have been several major technological innovations that have resulted in major changes to Formula 1. 

The first big innovation I previously mentioned was moving the engine behind the driver. This has never really caught on in commercial automobiles except for very high-end sports cars. 

The next big innovation was by Lotus in 1962, the monocoque chassis design. Instead of an internal metallic frame, the body pannes effectually bear the stresses of the car, similar to how an airplane is designed. This dramatically reduced the weight of the cars. This eventually moved to carbon fiber chassis for even greater weight reduction. 

Another innovation that was eventually banned because it was so powerful was ground effect cars. From 1978 to 1982, it was legal to use ground effect cars. The ground effect is when a low-pressure region is created under the body of the car, which applies a downward force on the car, allowing it to go faster.

It is like an inverted airplane wing. It was banned in 1983 but brought back in 2022.

There have been many rules changes over the years, like banning ground effect cars, which have been designed to slow cars down because they were simply getting too fast. 

At one point, F1 cars had 10 and 12-cylinder engines, but today they are all limited to 1.6-liter V6 engines. The current smaller engines can be turbocharged, which too was actually banned for years and only brought back when the engine size was reduced. 

I could literally spend hours talking about all of the technical changes and innovations in F1 over the years, and quite frankly, there are numerous small changes that occur every year. 

This is why the most successful teams really are a combination of the driver, the crew, and the manufacturer. It isn’t at all uncommon for multiple cars from the same team to all be at or near the top together because they are using the same technology. 

Likewise, when there is a major change in the technical rules, it is common for a new manufacturer to find themselves on top the next season. 

Formula 1, like all motorsports, is a dangerous activity. In the 72 years since the first F1 season, there have been 42 Formula 1 related deaths of drivers. The most famous of which was Ayrton Senna, the three-time world champion, who died in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix. 

One question which often comes up is which is better or faster: Formula 1, Indycar, or NASCAR?

The truth is, it is a silly question. Each series has rules regarding what sort of car and engine is allowed, so the cars are restricted to the rules. 

NASCARs are heavier and do not have open wheels, for example. Indycar rules do not allow for as many changes to cars though a season, whereas F1 allows for more changes. 

Formula 1 is pretty much all street races or road courses. NASCAR is mostly oval tracks, but they have also a few road courses, and a street race will be added in 2023. 

Indycar has a mix of road courses and ovals. 

Racing on an oval track means setting up a car totally different than you would for a road course. 

F1 races have much more breaking and acceleration than track racing does, but F1 cars almost never have to operate on steeply banked curves as NASCARs do. 

They are just different things. F1 and Indycar are the closest, but there are still major differences between the cars. 

One of the most interesting areas right now is the newly formed Formula E. This is racing for formula-style electric cars. It is interesting just because this is probably the one area of automotive technology which is evolving the fastest right now.  It is the only single-seat racing to have a world championship outside of Formula 1.

I got to attend a Formula E race once in Saudi Arabia, and it was a very different experience. For starters, you don’t need ear protection as the cars hardly make any noise. Also, there are a whole host of rules that you’ll never see in internal combustion engine cars, like the ability for fans to vote and provide power boosts. 

Many manufacturers are showing a greater interest in Formula E now just because that is where they see the automotive marketing going. 

I had the pleasure of getting VIP access to the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia, Spain, several years ago. I had access to the paddock area and was able to talk to the crews and see the cars up close. 

The amazing thing about seeing how a Formula 1 team works up close wasn’t the cars or the technology, it was the logistics.

Formula 1 is now a truly global competition, with races having taken place on six continents. In 2022, for example, there were four consecutive races that took place on different continents.

The Monaco Grand Prix was followed by the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which was followed by the Canadian Grand Prix, which was followed by the British Grand Prix. 

Hundreds of people, from the driver to mechanics, to publicists, to cooks, have to travel with trailers full of gear and temporary offices.  Within hours of a race’s conclusion, everything must be packed up and shipped to the next destination in time to start time trials. 

That is just one of the reasons why having a Formula 1 team is so expensive. Red Bull posted their F1 financials for 2018, and the numbers were staggering.

Their total costs were $181.1 million dollars with revenues of $183.6 million. That left them with a net profit after taxes of only $1.8 million dollars.

They could have made a better return on their investment if they just parked the money in a checking account. 

That is for one of the better F1 teams that actually earned significant prize money. For teams will barely break even or lose money. 

Just as a humblebrag aside, I actually got to ride in a real Formula 1 car when I attended the European Grand Prix. They had an actual race-used Formula 1 car outfitted with a special chassis that had passenger seats between each set of wheels.

I had to wear the full fire suit and helmet, and there are images of me wearing this online.

We hit a top speed of 180 miles per hour, but these cars really aren’t about the top speeds. You can achieve those speeds in street-legal cars like high-end BMWs or Mercedes. What makes Formula 1 cars unique is their ability to accelerate. It was like getting launched from a cannon.

The future of Formula 1 is anyone’s guess. Many high-ranking racing personalities predict that Formula 1 might just merge with Formula E at some point.

The FIA signed a 25-year license with Formula E that expires in 2039. As the performance of Formula E cars gets better and better, and manufacturer interest shifts more to electronic vehicles, despite the protests of diehard F1 fans, it is something that could happen within the next 20 years. 

A big step before that might be running Formula 1 and Formula E events on the same weekend on the same track. 

Regardless of what the future of Formula 1 is, its 72-year history, and the races it holds around the globe, have made it the most popular and profitable motorsports series in the world today. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ??ohnothankyou, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes:


Love the show, Gary. Listen to it every day in Arkansas. Impossible to pick a favorite. One that comes to mind is the history of coal. Wish you continued success.

Thank you, ??ohnothankyou!  Nice to see some Razerbacks in the audience. If you enjoyed the coal episode, you might like the other episodes I did on energy, and I still have several more of them on the way. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.