The rise and fall of F1 driver numbers, 1980-2009 (F1 in numbers)

F1 season driver entries, 1980-2009 (click to enlarge)

F1 season driver entries, 1980-2009 (click to enlarge)

With The Team Formerly Known As Honda looking increasingly unlikely to appear at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix, the 2009 F1 season could begin with the fewest starters in more than three decades.

The graph above shows how many drivers were entered for the first race of each F1 season from 1980 to 2009. Drivers who were entered only to participate in Friday practice (from 2004-2006) are not included.

Quantity over quality

From an average of 25 in the mid-eighties entry numbers rocketed up in the late ’80s/early ’90s. These were the days when anyone who could afford a Cosworth engine and find a pay driver with some Marlboro backing could get a team together.

The recession of 1991-1993 drove some of these teams to the wall, and Max Mosley’s insistence that teams lodged a $40m bond with the FIA in order to compete acted to prevent small teams from joining. This was part of a drive for quality rather than quantity among F1 entries. Another rule with a similar intention prevented drivers from competing if they did not qualify within 107% of the pole sitter’s time.

Looking at the 39-car entries of 1989 (a record), one-third of which would not make it to the 26-car grid, refining entry numbers was the correct thing to do. But it clearly went too far and by 1996 grids had slumped to a pitiful 22 cars – four fewer than were able to make up the grid. But even in the mid-90s to mid-00s, when new teams might have been found more easily than they could be today, the few new teams that did arrive tended to replace old ones, often by buying what was left of them.

A further fall

At the beginning of 2008, with Honda and Super Aguri still on the grid and Prodrive planning to join using customer cars, the grid was supposed to increase to 24 cars. That would have been its highest level since 1997 (and even in that year there were only 24 cars at the first round before the Lola team went bust).

But when the FIA failed to gain support for its plans to allow teams to use customer cars the Prodrive entry was withdrawn. The loss of Super Aguri and potentially now Honda as well leaves F1 faced with a tiny 18-car entry. Even the beleaguered Indy Racing League looks likely to have more than 20 cars this year.

Mosley expects team numbers to recover in 2010 and claims that if the teams support his radical cost-cutting measures we will see 24 cars on the grid next year. It seems to me the moment to start trying to increase team numbers was in 1996, when they first fell below the maximum number of cars on the grid. Given the state of the car industry today it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see entry numbers fall even further before they start to recover.

Mosley may well be doing the right thing now in pushing for huge cost reductions to bring more teams into the sport, but his policies are at least partly to blame for the state F1 is in to begin with.

You can get the original data for the chart from the F1 Fanatic drop.io.

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9 comments on The rise and fall of F1 driver numbers, 1980-2009 (F1 in numbers)

  1. One of the things I like most about the Indy 500 is qualifying (except in recent years). There is always a lot of drama to see who fail to make the field. It would make Saturday qualifying so much more interesting if there was not only a fight for the pole, but also a fight for last place.

  2. Damon said on 6th February 2009, 11:25

    @ DC
    I second that. I love Indy qualifying.
    Abother thing which is great about Indy is that – somewhat contrary to what Keith’s said – “everybody” can join in and compete. But it is all the greats that come and not the losers. It was very exciting when e.g. ChampCar teams bought an IRL car just to compete in Indy.
    The Chip Ganassi Team, with Montoya, who fought in ChampCar competed like that in Indy in 1999, and Montoya won the race [sic!].
    And this is why Indy500 always felt like the race of champions, and not like an F1-like two-strongest-manufacturers competition.
    ______________________________
    They should let teams buy their chassis and engines.
    If a reach team like McLaren or Ferrari want to build their own car, so be it. But there should also be a Reynard or Lola chassis to buy, as well as an engine that teams who don’t have the technologicial and financial resources could afford.
    I’m sure that if there was a long term development of the “standard” cars/engines (with their manufactures having good financial status thanks to selling their product to several teams) – they would be more competetive than cars of the teams who waste 2 years to build their own car and then can’t afford to pay their bills and hence make no progress and trail behind until they’re bankrupt.

  3. I take it this $40m bond is still in effect. I’d really like to know more about this. Does Honda stand to loose this and what happens to this money now that they have pulled out so suddenly…

    • Honda won’t lose anything as it wasn’t a new team – unlike, say, Toyota. Honda used to be BAR which used to be Tyrrell, which had been an entrant since the late 1960s so was never required to pay the bond.

      One reason that buying an existing team is more attractive than starting from scratch is because you avoid having to pay the FIA bond. The bond is held by the FIA and paid back when the new team meets certain milestones – basically it gets some back at the end of its first year and the rest after the second year. So the likes of Toyota will have already had their cash back.

      The idea behind the bond was to ensure high quality entries by requiring a substanial deposit of cash which would be repaid by the FIA over the team’s first two seasons. The thinking was that if a team wasn’t serious enough to be able to raise the cash in the first place or last long enough to reclaim it then it wasn’t a worthy entrant.

      The problem is that it is a huge amount of money to raise at the same time as the team is trying to pull together an initial operating budget. It’s not a big problem for a team like Toyota but it presents a huge hurdle to the likes of Prodrive, ART or Carlin.

  4. Steven Roy said on 6th February 2009, 19:50

    I thought the bond had been done away with due to the need to get more teams in. I am sure Alianora will know.

    We need to get F1 back to a situation where anyone with a car that meets the tech regs and a driver with the appropriate license can enter. The franchise system is counter to the ethos of F1.

  5. Dave Smith said on 7th February 2009, 6:47

    One thing that is easy to spot is that fewer cars on the grid will equal less overtaking – how good is the action going to be with 18 cars as opposed to say 24-30!!F1 will always have its front running team who will run off at the front-its normally the midfield which provides the action-problem is there is now no midfield. The championship should have been split into manufacturers and private entries so it was easy for private teams to bag a point or two in their championship – rather than fight with the big boys for a point, also I think if private teams want to enter 1 car then they should be able to.
    Problem is I think mid 1990′s f1 got too big and powerful and lost touch with reality – we (the fans) are paying the price now!

  6. Sasquatsch said on 9th February 2009, 10:40

    Funny, I made the same observation in a dutch F1 forum before I read this article.

    The past has showed that in good (economic) years the number of teams will rise and in bad years the number of teams will fall.

    Since the introduction of the bond and later the limit to twelve teams the number of teams have not really risen (at least not enough, since only Toyota and Super Aguri where really new teams), but just dropped to the 9 teams now.

  7. Yeah. I heard that Richards earlier spoke of F1’s need to severely cut costs and since then the FIA has confirmed.

  8. alexf1man said on 29th January 2011, 18:26

    Funny that Honda turned into Brawn GP and then won the titles :-)

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