The good ol’ days

Formula One came of age as the seventies turned into the eighties: team sponsorship was widespread, the governing body was beginning to get a handle on safety issues, and television coverage was booming. The sport has come a long way since then – but has it lost its way?

My knowledge of 1979 and 1980 had been pretty patchy and, as they preceded the era of Formula One Constructor’s Association (FOCA) official video reviews, material about them limited to books and annuals.

However with the release of the Brunswick Films video collection (see unofficial videos) and other footage I’ve come to know a great deal more about these years’ racing. I am not a nostalgia freak and am always more excited by the upcoming season that races past, and approach footage from earlier times as a current fan, keen to know more about a bygone era, rather than some jaded ?????ǣthe good old days were so much better?????? historian.

The 1979 season was famed for the closing laps of the French Grand Prix at Dijon Prenois when Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve famously banged wheels over the last laps. To be honest this was comfortably the highlight of what was otherwise actually quite a dull year of racing. Until the halfway point of the season Ferrari dominated and from Silverstone onwards Williams came to the fore. Clearly processional racing has always been a feature of F1.

1980 was a far better season and footage from that year is well worth investing in. The racing in the majority of the rounds was close with some excellent dices. The season was marred by two serious accidents: Patrick Depailler’s fatal testing accident at the Hockheimring and Clay Regazzoni’s career-ending crash at Long Beach.

In contrast the shambolic opening to the Monaco Grand Prix when Derek Daly tried to vault the field always raises a smile, as does Jacques Laffite’s seeming obliviousness to the fact his tyre was disintegrating at Brands Hatch. Furthermore the battle for the title is intriguing with Nelson Piquet mounting a late season charge to take the title to the wire.

A Grand Prix will always be a Grand Prix, but some key development since then stand out. Most notable is the advances in safety procedures. When Jean-Pierre Jabouille broke both his legs at the 1980 Canadian round, the race continued while he was extracted from the car, the rescue crews being ‘protected’ by a few yellow flags. Likewise, with the benefit of hindsight it is amazing that no-one at the time realised that catch fencing was no safer than the barriers behind it.

It was unusual for drivers to make mid-race pit stops and thus most position changes occurred on-track. Astonishingly drivers raced for their positions rather than hoping to leap those in front on pit strategy. As a result the majority of races, particularly in 1980, frequently had several laps of multi-car battles sometimes continuing for the whole race. Furthermore the pit stops that did occur were often poor, with 30-second stops upwards being the norm.

The cars of that era also exhibit fascinating differences. Ground effect aerodynamics mean that cars were held to the road by their floors rather than their wings. This meant that several cars could run in close company without losing a great deal of grip due to the disturbed air of those in front.

Furthermore the cars of ’79/’80 were not a homogenous bunch – throughout the field there were any number of unique design innovations. Stripped naked each car was instantly distinguishable from the next, unlike the current clone-like grid. Better still these cars ran on huge, fat slick tyres and slid about and twitched everywhere. They may not have been great to drive but they were immensely entertaining to watch.

A final great difference is evident in the drivers. It is fascinating looking back 25 to see how reputations have grown and fallen away. The best example is Gilles Villeneuve. Read any recent F1 book and you would get the impression that Villeneuve was the best of the best of the best. Watch any extensive footage of the ’79/’80 seasons and a different picture emerges, one of a talented, but massively erratic driver who quite probably threw away the 1979 title through a series of unforced errors.

In contrast someone like Bruno Giacomelli, who made a similar number of in race mistakes as Villeneuve and took the recalcitrant Alfa Romeo to the front of the grid, has been all but forgotten by F1 history. The charisma of most of the drivers is also a pleasant change to note. Alan Jones was fantastic, always good for a laconic, but honest, quote. Likewise Niki Lauda’s straight talking would have been unlikely to see him in a 2005 Ferrari or McLaren with all the attendant joy-sapping corporate obligations.

It bears noting, however, the one significant constant between the days past and present – the infernal political wranglings that dog the sport. The dangers of ground effect cars and the expense of the developing turbo engines split the ‘grandee’ teams and FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre from the poorer ‘garagistes’ allied to Bernie Ecclestone’s FOCA. As a results, races were struck from the calendar, such as the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix, won by Jones (who, justly, went on to become champion). Shades of 2005′s ‘Indygate’?

Though it is impossible to sum of the nature of two seasons F1 racing in a couple of hundred words (although for 2002 and 2004, one word does the trick – boring), it is hopefully possible to give a flavour of F1 racing from the pre-FOCA, pre global TV days. Make no mistake, by this time F1 was big business, but it still seemed to be an adventure, taking steps into the unknown.

If you’ve only ever watched 21st century F1 and feeling a bit jaded about it I strongly recommend turning back the clock and looking at these seasons: you will find whole new reasons to fall back in love with the sport.
The Istanbul circuit is yet another Hermann Tilke-designed track – the fifth consecutive new or substantially modified venue penned by the same architect, following Sepang (Malaysia, 2001), Hockeheimring (Germany, 2002), Bahrain (2004) and Shanghai (China, 2004). However, the new track appears markedly different to its predecessors.

Tilke has apparently conceived a more flowing circuit layout – there are far less of the tight corners separated by short straights that characterise his other venues. Also, it seems he has finally discovered gradient. While most of his other circuits are very flat, the Istanbul circuit has rises and dips, chamber changes and blind corners.

Whether the circuit will be a truly challenging one is impossible to say until the F1 cars are finally unleashed on it in anger. The promises that one particular bends will emulate Spa-Francorchamps mighty Eau Rouge remains to be seen.

It is also difficult to predict how well the circuit will encourage overtaking. The longest flat-out section is punctuated by a kink – romantically named ‘turn 12′ – which may serve to scupper any hopes of passing into the tight turn 13 as the aerodynamic grip needed to pass through the kink at speed may be too much for a closely following car. Plus, it gives the leading driver the option of legitimately changing their line ostensibly to navigate the kink, but actually to keep a pursuer at bay. The start and finish straight is surprisingly short.

Another point of the track is anti-clockwise, unlike the majority of Formula One circuits (the other two being Imola and Interlagos). This may provoke some neck strain in certain drivers, but only expect it to show up on those less than 100%-fit or possibly some of the rookies.

Finally, race day temperatures and humidity are expected to be very high – perhaps even rivalling the crushing highs of Sepang, at this time of year. This may work against the improving Ferrari-Bridgestone package which has struggled with tyre wear.

The race win should be Kimi Raikkonen’s to lose – he runs in the optimum qualifying slot and has the best car-engine-aero-tyre package in the business. Team mate Juan Pablo Montoya will run early in qualifying (one more a victim of the asinine 2005 regulations) and McLaren will surely radicalise Montoya’s strategy in an attempt to get him ahead of the Renaults.

The team to watch in Turkey, though, are Ferrari. They showed clear signs of being closer to the pace in Hungary and another three weeks’ testing while their rivals stick to the testing ban can only have improved the car. Can they leapfrog Renault, or McLaren, or both? This is what will decide the championship.

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