When was F1 at its best? The rose-tinted spectacles problem (Making F1 better)

Did F1 really have a golden era?

Did F1 really have a golden era?

In the golden days of F1 every Grand Prix was a classic, with 20 changes of lead and a photo finish. Dashing drivers would climb from beautiful, sponsor-free cars, light a cigarette and regale the world’s press with quick-witted quips.

Nonsense, of course. It’s easy to write off modern F1 as a pale shadow of its former self, but all too often we are looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.

Still, there is much F1 can learn from its past. Which is why we should begin our discussion of how to make F1 better by asking what made F1 great, and what – if anything – is it missing now.

I started watching F1 in 1989 and I always think of those first three years as among the best ever seen in F1. These were the glory days of Prost-vs-Senna-vs-Mansell and I saw some spellbinding races – Hungary ’89, Suzuka ’89, Mexico ’90, Suzuka ’90, Spain ’91 and more.

But I suspect I’m falling victim to the ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ effect when I forget about the less exciting races – the ones where Senna or Prost led all race long and only saw a rival car when they lapped them.

Re-watching race highlights on Youtube makes things worst. A ten-minute race clip can make any race seem exciting – but what happened in the other 110 minutes?

Watch an unedited race from the seventies or eighties and a few things strike you.

First, there were so many retirements. Barely half the field made it to the chequered flag on a good day. Today a failure for one of the top teams is unusual, even at this early stage in the season.

Driver errors were not necessarily more common, but they were more likely to result in a retirement. Cars became stuck on kerbs, bogged down in gravel traps and smashed into walls.

Closer barriers contributed to a greater sense of speed and a more impressive spectacle – as did the showers of sparks from those low-running cars of the early nineties. Modern safety standards may make it impossible to recapture that kind of drama.

Above all, looking at past races you get the sense that everything was much less professional, even as little a 20 years ago. Teams were less well-prepared, more likely to make mistakes.

But they can’t un-learn what they already know any more than we can put a wall around the outside of Eau Rouge. Not all the lessons we learn from the past can be applied to the future.

Over to you

What do you think we can learn from past F1 seasons? Here’s some questions for you discuss in the comments.

When did you start watching F1? Which do you consider were the best seasons you ever saw – and why?

We never see slipstreaming races like those we had at Monza in the fifties and sixties any more. Races where a different leader every lap was common, and a driver knew if he led at the start of the final lap he wouldn’t win a race. Why is that? Would you like to see a return to that kind of racing at some tracks?

In the past F1 cars have lapped circuits in under a minute (at Dijon) and up to ten (at Pescara and the Nurburgring). Now they take a minute and a half, give or take 15 seconds, wherever they go. Why has that variety been lost, and should we bring it back?

The practice of multiple circuits sharing one Grand Prix, which was common in France and Britain for decades, has disappeared everywhere apart from Germany. Is this a good thing?

Why is the Circuit de Catalunya, a track that was lauded as an excellent venue for overtaking when it was added to the calendar in 1991, now condemned for producing boring races?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

This is part of “Making F1 better”, a series of articles looking at ways to improve Formula 1. Fore more information see the introduction: Making F1 better: a discussion series

Making F1 better

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218 comments on When was F1 at its best? The rose-tinted spectacles problem (Making F1 better)

  1. The first race I ever saw was Hungary 2002. From there on, I watched F1 every now and then. But now I’ve seen every race since Hungary 2007.

    My favourite season was 2006, I have seen most races from that season. I loved how Schumacher was playing catch up to Alonso, and how he actually caught him, only to lose out in Japan.

  2. I started watching f1 in 1999 and the first full season that I watched was 2000, when I was 10 years old. I remember the battles between schumacher and hakkinen. I remember when Hakkinen passed schumacher few laps remaining to race finish, but I can’t remember what gp it was. So the most fascinating years were 2000 and 2001. I was Hakkinen’s fan and I really enjoyed his battle with schuey.

  3. Craig said on 23rd April 2010, 16:38

    I think everybody should stop living in the past, F1 will never return to any era, it’s impossible, it is a sport which advances so quickly in technology, even the thought of it is stupid. My first season that I watched was 1997 in full, but, I don’t have a ‘favourite’ season, each one is different. 2007 saw possibly the closest season ever, 2008 saw a rise of the underdogs, and 2009 was just mayhem. They were all great seasons, but there is no favourite one. I think F1 should be able to be as technically advanced as possible, while keeping a high safety aspect of course.

  4. craig said on 23rd April 2010, 16:43

    I agree with R McKay, these Tilke circuits are so boring, there is no character to them what so ever. As long as the fastest cars start at the front and slowest at the back, well then they will always be somewhat predictable. Unless we take away computer designed cars, this is what we are left with, predictable races.

    Get rid of the massive areodynamics and let the drivers drive.

  5. Einar AI said on 23rd April 2010, 16:51

    My first full season was 1999, and the first race Spa 1998. Interestingly enough, these also almost qualify for my favourite season and race, respectively. Although Spa 1998 was a thriller of a race, it is clear that the rose-tinted glasses effect is still occurring. Having recently watched the reply of the race, I seriously think that Spa 2008 and Monza 2008 (a similar example, consider that Vettel, just like Hill ten years ago, won in a midfield car) were no worse races.

    Similarly, although 1999 season produced some breathtaking races, some of them were boring. I come to think of it, it is actually good for Formula 1 if we have a mix of more interesting and less interesting GP’s. Why am I in favour of so-called “boring” GP’s? Surely, an opening race in Bahrain this year went a little too far, but “boring” races bring a sense of consistency to the season. Obviously the races such as Albert Park and Shanghai this year were a pleasure to watch, but I believe that F1 wouldn’t do better if all the races in the calendar were of similar calibre. Why not? Because then the result of the race will be too unpredictable, and subsequently the emphasis on the car development and the “technological race” will be diminished. In the situation where every car from top 10 has a realistic shot at the win, lost tenths in the qualifying will lose their utmost significance. The sport will be too bogged in strategy/driver advantage and the technological development (which in my viewpoint, should contribute about 40% of “the show”) will fade in importance. Seriously, I think we will all get bored if we watch 19 Shanghai’s in the row. The championship will be too unpredictable, our discussions regarding the future of the season would be rendered useless, and we will eventually bill the races as essentially “tyre-strategy” dependent.

    That said, don’t get me wrong, I do not need repeats of Bahrain. Perhaps a more-or-less linear race throws a stabilising mix into the championship, but a processional race with virtually no overtaking must be a forgotten concept for Formula 1. We, the fans, do not need it. Below I will expand on my thoughts of which factors would make for closer racing.

    1. Overtaking is a problem for F1. And yet, crucially, I do not want to see drivers overtake all the time. As Jenson Button has recently said, we will all get bored if there’s too much overtaking. Sure enough, we all want to give the attacking guy a chance of an overtake, but we should not forget about the defending guy. What I really want in Formula 1 are race battles, and not people casually passing each other because they’re 5 tenths quicker a lap. Then we’d see an opposite example of processional races. The first few laps will be thrilling, and then, once everyone has put his car in a tidy sequence of drivers ranked from fastest to slowest, we will willingly turn off the TV. More overtaking helps F1, but there should not be too much of it. I think last season had a decent overtaking/lack-of-such balance. This season, especially in the dry, is painfully more tilted towards no overtaking.

    2. Now, the technology. In my previous post, I have defended aero’s significance in F1 and yet considered the easing of the technical regulations to boost design creativity. Another problem that is too pressing for me personally; however, is the endurance of the technology. Keith did well to remark that the previous seasons featured many more retirements that we are used to in recent years. And I am not even talking of eighties. Even the beginning of the “noughties” threw some remarkably non-durable cars onto the field. Personally, I would to see more of such retirements. Random retirements among the top teams especially, will raise marginal unpredictability in the sport, which would yet endanger the front-runners in the case they do build up a healthy points margin. How can we achieve that? Push up the speeds. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and its cars should be rockets compared to lower series. I do not see the point (other than safety, of course) of limiting speeds in F1. If designers can design faster cars, let them do it. We should not build faster cars at the expense of safety, but I’m sure some meaningless restrictions can be lifted.

    3. Circuits. I am really against venues that year-by-year throw up processional races. Sure enough, let some circuits retain their places in the calendar for 3-4 years just to test them. I’m all for keeping Valencia and Abu Dhabi just to see if they can produce anything exciting. But come on, if Montmelo has had one interesting race in the past 20! years, it has to go. Same goes for Hungaroring. If such places have any historic meaning for F1, redesign them.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. Overtaking is necessary, but shouldn’t necessarily be “easy”, although there is something to be said about the races in CART when the ground effect cars ruled. I also fully agree with technolgy being crucial for the following reasons:
      1) relagation forces a team to live with inherent weaknesses in a design for an entire year, which means by 1/4 into the season, they are stuck if they have a major problem with their car. It also requires teams to be more conservative in their approaches to avoid this so their designs won’t be as radical.
      2) Reliability sucks because no one retires. Some of the greatest races were created because someone retired. Lets be honest, Vettel retiring near the end of the Bahrain race was the only thing that made that race just “terrible” instead of “God awful”.
      3) Pushing technology to its limit creates exciting vehicles, exciting racing, and exciting retirements. Alot of the reason for the consistantly increasing budgets was teams having to invest in ridiculously awful ROI research projects to improve their pace by 0.1s/lap. It’s like what STR said about developing an F-duct: “If I have ten euros and am hungry, I would buy two sandwiches instead of three grams of caviar.” This is precisely what tighter regulations produce, HUGE costs to get the same performance that could be had at a cheaper price with more open regulations.

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 24th April 2010, 11:20

        Reliability sucks because no one retires. Some of the greatest races were created because someone retired. Lets be honest, Vettel retiring near the end of the Bahrain race was the only thing that made that race just “terrible” instead of “God awful”.

        But is there any way to encourage people to create less reliable cars?

        I wonder whether the points system could help here. The changes in 2003 and again this year have made finishing in the lower reaches of the top ten much more valuable.

        As a consequence, it’s now more important to make sure you finish a race, rather than make sure you win a race.

        Does this encourage teams to be more conservative when they design their cars? Better to have one that can be expected to finish every race in the points than one that will definitely win races but might not finish all of them?

        To illustrate my point, winning a race used to be worth the same as finishing second in one race and finishing third in another added together. Now a win is worth 75% of that.

        (See: Every F1 points system 1950-2010)

        • Dropped scores could be a possible solution. I used to think that not being allowed to count results from a certain number of races each season was tremendously silly, but now I can see the value of it.

          Basically if each team knew they had a certain number of “free passes,” they would be able to design cars and formulate strategies that carried greater risk, knowing that a DNF or failure to score wouldn’t be the end of the world.

          • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 24th April 2010, 11:38

            It’s such a pain when you’re trying to follow the championship at the end of the year though, and trying to remember how high up the field each driver has to finish for it to count.

  6. antonyob said on 23rd April 2010, 16:52

    the golden age or rather classic age for grand prix racing ended in 1959. the cars were beautiful, the racers gentlemen and the parties after a race were even better.

    but its no more f1’s fault that sport got more professional than it is the Wimbledon lawn tennis association.

    i’ve watched f1 racing since 1980 with my father who used to watch it trackside from the beginning (1950) and the kit car naffness of those years used to really annoy that generation. of course now we worry about dirty air, ride heights and 1 weave or 2 but its essentially the same. men moaning about something they know quite alot about to boys who know a bit less.

    its all good and this new era, in my opinion, is potentially a renaissance. enjoy it, and part of that, as always, is saying the past was better.

  7. Pingguest said on 23rd April 2010, 16:54

    What we can learn from the past is that standardizing and homologating parts, enforce a minimum life span and introducing rules to artificially spice up the racing, harm the close racing we used to have.

    • matt90 said on 23rd April 2010, 17:27

      Only because overtaking is difficult. Otherwise, in terms of difference in pace between teams isn’t current F1 among the closest its ever been?

      • DanThorn said on 23rd April 2010, 17:37

        Would overtaking be as difficult though if so many potential areas of development hadn’t been capped? Aero is all there really has been to develop for a while now, and as a result we have the issue of dirty air and limited overtaking.

  8. FLIG said on 23rd April 2010, 16:57

    I started watching F1 before I could speak – my father is a F1 fanatic since the 70’s, so our main father-son thing was sunday morning with pop corn and watching Piquet and Senna making us brazilians really proud. But I have memories and favorites since 1990, and I really think that since then, there is no “golden age”. I remember that the drivers offered more unexpected driving when Mansell, Piquet, Senna and Prost were winning, but I had lots of fun watching Schumacher win with his Benetton; Hill’s title was ‘ok’. Then Villeneuve x Schumacher was great, I really enjoyed that and Frentzen’s run with the big ones. Hakkinen x Schumacher was interesting also. A shame that Raikkonen had such a bad star to him; I really think that if he had more luck in his McLaren days, Schumacher would not be that big of a legend today.
    And thinking back… maybe this year is the most exciting I’ve seen so far. I mean, I loved it when Senna was winning, and I bet the british loved it when Mansell was winning but… from that period, I remember I was really impressed with how many races ended with the leader lapping the 4th place, sometimes even 2nd place would be a lap behind at the end of the race.

  9. I started watching F1 in 1991, but I can’t really say which was my favourite season.

    I think a key factor in making a season as a whole enjoyable is a good championship battle with good rivalries.

    If a season is dominated by one driver, if you are a fan of that driver you don’t mind, but otherwise it can get quite boring. Which is why I liked 1992 with Mansell and Williams but I didn’t enjoy the Schumacher/Ferrari domination of the early 2000s.

    I don’t know about anyone else but when I watch any sport on TV I always become much more involved if there is someone to cheer on.

    I defiantly think that F1 should visit a wide variety of circuits and as I don’t believe in one country permanently having two Grand Prix I think it is a good idea to alternate between circuits if one country has a few good tracks.

  10. rampante said on 23rd April 2010, 17:02

    I agree with the view that it was always better at some other time than the present. I have watched since 1970 and really not missed a race since then. There have been some good points about the coverage that was available at that time with many incidents only given only in commentary as there were not a 10th of the cameras they have now. I have also been to many races starting in the late 70’s and 80’s and spending 10 years working with one of the team sponsors through the 90’s let me see the changes not only to the track and facilities but also the vast sums of money that was being spent on the sport.
    In every era of F1 there has been competition and rivalry whether it was Stewart, Fitipaldi etc when I started to watch up to today with 4 WDC on the track. Apart from 2 or 3 seasons when 1 car has made a fool of the rest it has mostly always been tight with several drivers in with a good chance of winning. I think one of the main problems is full live coverage, I know this may sound strange but we are all on this site for one reason and that is our passion for the sport. Casual fans who make up vast viewing numbers only want to see 2 hours of non stop action without really knowing what is going on. This makes it difficult for F1 because it now has “improving the show” as key to going forward. Please don’t rubbish this idea and think that I’m saying the sport should be dull but think about it. A 1 hour TV slot with 30 min of racing and most “viewers” would not see the problems. We the true fans will go to the race if possible and watch otherwise. We will also have reason to moan afterwards for all the wrong reasons. We now have all practice covered, full quail and the race. With forums video clips and really all the info you could want in seconds. For me it has never been so good. Sorry for the long winded reply.

  11. Juan Pablo Heidfeld said on 23rd April 2010, 17:05

    I started watching f1 in 2001 and felt that in many ways the drivers have to try and make it interesting. For instance, the do or die style of Montoya hepled the sport throughout the ‘Schumi-Years’. I am very happy he is doing badly by the way :) . I think Hamilton and Alonso are the two best overtakers currently

  12. Intermeccanica Italia said on 23rd April 2010, 17:06

    To get f1 interesting, I think it would have been useful to have a limited amount of fuel. Drivers could decide when and where they would use it. You would likely see a lot of fuel saving and overtaking – tactics and strategy – through out the race.

  13. Gilles said on 23rd April 2010, 17:07

    I first started watching in 1982, and indeed: that spoilt me forever, because I still regard it as the best season ever. My other best seasons would be 83,87,97,01,09.
    I prefer that more than 2 teams can regularly win a race. That makes a season great, because it introduces unpredictability. That’s not the same as saying that all the other seasons were completely boring; as you indicate: a battle between two drivers can develop over a season and makes something interesting or a specific race can have a battle going on which you remember for some time. Not all races are great, but at the start you must not know who is going to win. If pole sitter wins 90% of the time, then the race can be cancelled.
    Over the years I’ve become to hate the idea that technology completely dominates the outcome: F1 is supposed to be where the best drivers are, but how to know which one is the best when they can’t show that on track because one car is 1-2 secs a lap faster. Off course, F1 is technological and therefor the car will determine the outcome and I can understand that a Ron Dennis would like it known that his cars are the best, I’m even interested in the technology behind it all, but at the end of the day when you watch the race that technology is invisible to the eye: we just see people in a procession – a very fast one indeed, but still a procession. This is why I personally favor the resource restrictions and standardization movement, in that it brings back the driver’s skill to the foreground.
    I loved Villeneuve when he came in because he was completely different and made things happen (the move on Schumi in Portugal), the same about Montoya and currently Lewis – pure racers who will make the difference because they take risks to overtake. I don’t want the pitstops back, because everybody waits for their team to win the race for them. Back to basics: cars should be racing on track, not obliged to make a pitstop – that should be the exception.
    I think they’ve gone a bit overboard with changing the tracks in the name of safety; I subscribe to Villeneuve’s point of view that a mistake should hurt, hence more daring tracks with smaller run-off area’s. The mighty Tamburello corner has been completely maimed now and even the new tracks are built with ‘safety’ in mind. I would say that the cars can currently take a lot, by the 90s standards Kubica would never have survived his crash, so I would use more daring tracks.
    But when you mention Brands hatch, Zandvoort, Nurnburgring, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen or even Le Mans and Bathurst first comment is always that the runoff area’s would be too small. Don’t go off the track then, lift off and let the spectators know who is the most daring and able… Tracks should make it possible for a driver to distinguish himself from the others, currently they’re all alike, there’s hardly any variety. I would love to see Dijon back – simple track, but the scene of the best close racing ever.
    The money also plays a part: Bernie wants organizers to pay for the race, when the track is part of the appeal it’s a definate no-go. For instance: a US GP on the oval at Indy is already not possible because revenues will need to be shared with the track. I was incredibly excited about F1 at Indy, untill I saw the layout with that pussy midfield section. The most gutsy drivers are not in F1 apparently …
    Not all races should have 100+ overtakings, but more close racing and actual possibility of overtaking would already solve a lot. Drivers not able to race each other because ‘the turbulent air from the guy in front’ is extremely disappointing to hear.
    I disagree with road-relevance and technology labs: this has more to do with giving arguments to the sponsors when they have to convice their boardrooms to spend the amounts on F1 they’re spending. F1 needs a correct level of technology, it’s a mechanical sport after all; but I would think the LM series would be more relevant to car manufacturers. Sidenote: they have moved F1 in the direction of endurance racing by limiting the number of engines that can be used during a season; I would favor one per weekend. Developping technology in F1: Williams has developped its hybrid drive for Porsche, but outside F1 (they didn’t use it in F1). So they don’t need F1 to develop something.
    If they would do so, then we would see something like Renault developping their turbo: they blow up for 2 years and get laughed at for doing so, untill it starts to resemble something. In the current climate, that experiment would have finished after one year. So they develop off track and only use it when it has a certain level of reliability, but if it has then it can be fitted directly to road cars as well without needing F1.
    A good car will be sold, whether its manufacturer is in F1 or not. I would never buy a Renault road car, even if they contributed a lot to the sport.
    Part of the F1 appeal is also that it’s the most conveniently televised motorsport: every 2 weeks there’s a race at more or less the same time, easy to follow in the papers because of all the glamour and it only takes 2 hours. Le Mans gets a lot less coverage on the public channels, nor do touring car championships. I think the reason here is that the FIA has successfully tried to lure all the manufacturers into F1 and making sure that no real competition arose. The only rival series are actually indycars, but they have US sponsors and are not globally oriented. If Indycars raced on F1 tracks and serve up a close racing fest, shown on TV every 2 weeks with a global mindset; it would not matter that they are racing custom cars. Bold statement I know, but try to picture it if you will.
    The people element will draw the crowd, not the technology.
    That said, open wheel-open cockpit racing is great because you can see the driver and the exposed wheels make it look fast and dangerous.
    I’ll stop ranting now – thanks for giving me a platform to vent my frustrations, my psychologist says I’m making progress …

  14. rikadyn said on 23rd April 2010, 17:08

    whatever seasons the movie “Grand Prix” is represenative of…

    basically the wingless years…

  15. Todfod said on 23rd April 2010, 17:08

    I started watching f1 in 1996, and i personally thought that 97 and 98 were pretty good seasons, but the so called ‘boring modern era’ produced the most exciting seasons in 2007 and 2008.

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