I like a lot of different things, but nothing more than cool cars. I’ve been paying attention to Formula 1 racing since I was a kid. I remember being in the ninth grade and hearing that Jim Clark had just been killed in a Formula 2 accident. He was a three-time world champion and the best of the bunch for a while, so it was a shock when he was killed in an insignificant race that he entered just for the heck of it. Thankfully, it’s a lot safer than it used to be and it’s become rare for someone to even be hurt badly.
When my daughter Amanda was three years old, I made her memorize the first few world drivers’ champions. I would ask her, “Who was the first world drivers’ champion?” and she would answer, “Giuseppe Farina”. Then I would ask her who was next, and she’d say, “Juan Manuel Fangio”. Next? “Albert Ascari”. She could get through Mike Hawthorn in 1958 and then I’d leave her alone. It drove her mom crazy, but my friends and I thought it was fun.
The first race of the season was canceled and the next six are listed as postponed. We’ll see… After the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournament, this was very sad news to me. While I was thinking about this, I started to think about how the cars have changed over the years. I also came up with a list of my favorite Formula 1 cars. Some of these were more successful than others, but I happen to love these particular cars. I haven’t included modern cars as I think they’ve all started to look alike, but I still enjoy watching the races.
This was developed just before the war and won the first Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 1950 driven by (who else?) Giuseppe Farina. Fangio won the following year in the same car.
Fangio won the 1955 championship in this car. It was designed and built by Lancia for the 1954 season, but they ran out of money. Ferrari bought the car from them, made some modifications, and Fangio won his third championship in it. It’s a unique, beautiful car with the fuel tanks on the sides between the front and rear wheels. I’m not sure that was the safest arrangement, but it was a well-engineered, effective, and a stunning machine.
To me, this is the quintessential front-engine grand prix car. Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth and last world drivers’ championship in it in 1957. Stirling Moss, the best driver never to win a world championship, said it was the best handling front-engine car he ever drove, controllable, predictable and fast.
This is the last front-engine car to win a world drivers’ championship. Stirling Moss had four race wins and Tony Brooks had three, both driving for Vanwall. Despite winning only one race, Mike Hawthorn accumulated a lot of points for second and third place finishes along with one point each for having the fastest lap in five races. As a result, he took the championship in the Dino.
This is the first mid-engine Ferrari Formula 1 car. Phil Hill, one of only two Americans to win the drivers’ championship, took the title in this car in 1961. It had distinctive twin intakes in the nose, which earned it the nickname “Sharknose”.
This car was designed in 1967. Jim Clark, who had already won championships for Lotus in 1963 and 1965, drove the car in ’67 and ’68 until he was killed. His teammate, Graham Hill, won his second championship in this car in 1968. Three-liter engines replaced the anemic one and a half liter engines of the previous five seasons, so the cars were light, powerful and blisteringly fast.
Dan Gurney was considered one of the most talented American Formula 1 drivers along with Mario Andretti and Phil Hill. The car he built is unquestionably one of the prettiest cars ever to race. It wasn’t terribly successful, but it won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967 making it the only US built car to ever win a Grand Prix. I used to see Dan around some of the California vintage races long after he’d retired. He was too tall to race today’s cars, but he was a friendly, handsome guy and usually wore a blue and white Bengal striped shirt and light khaki pants. He also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 with A J Foyt in the same year and won the Riverside 500 Nascar race five times. Hard to find a cooler guy than Dan Gurney.
Niki Lauda won the first of his three championships in this car in 1975. In 1976, at the Nurburgring in Germany, he crashed and was severely burned. A priest gave him his last rites while he was in a coma. Six weeks later, he was back in the car racing. He won the championship again in 1977 in the same car and Jody Sheckter won it in 1979 in an updated version.
This was a very innovative and nearly unbeatable car. Mario Andretti, the second American to win the Formula 1 championship, did it in this car in 1978. It and its predecessor, the 78, had an innovative “ground effects” system that gave the car massive downforce and cornering ability. The team won half of the races that season. Sadly, Andretti’s teammate, Ronnie Peterson, died at Monza that season.
This is the most dominant Formula 1 car in history. In 1988, they won 15 of 16 races and should have won them all. Ayrton Senna won his first championship by winning eight races. His teammate, Alain Prost, won seven. These bitter rivals ended up with eight world championships between them. The MP4/4 had perfectly balanced handling and a high-revving Honda turbo V6 engine.
This may seem like a silly obsession, but I’ve been to a lot of Formula 1 races and it’s hard to describe the excitement of watching and listening to these events in person. Standing next to the track is a thing of the past, but it was almost violent to be close to the cars when they went by at top speed. I could only do it for a moment and then I had to get out of there. It’s a fascinating mix of sophisticated engineering and human skill, coordination and bravery. The top teams spend around $300 million per year and employ 7-800 people just to field two cars in about twenty races. The owner of McLaren once said that they could absolutely put a man on the moon if given the budget. Quite something.
I hope they end up running some of the races later in the season. It’s like everything else right now. If these guys can’t do what they do, a lot of them won’t last until next season. That will be a sad day for me.
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