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. rob from inverness said on 23rd April 2010, 17:17

    The first GP I watched was at Aintree in 1957, the Monza in 1958. Is anyone old enough to beat that. The 1.5 litre formula from 1961 was pathetic – like formula ford cars, really, and I lost interest for a while. In my time, there have been three Great Eras (1) when Clark, Stewart, Rindt and Hill were sharing tarmac. The the 1970s were a lost decade – I mean, Jody Schecter as WDC……But the late 80s with Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Senna was the best – turbo engines, quali specials etc. The Scumaker era was a bore – apart from Damon and Hakkinen, no good drivers to compete. Plus MS was helped to his records by Ferrari Int. Assistance. Thank goodness, we have now moved into another Era of Greats – Hamilton, Alonso, Button ( the new Prost )Kubica. Hopefully, this era will mature well for five years or so.But I’d give anything once again to see Jean Behra oversteering the V 12 Maserati through the Parabolica, a mesmerised little boy amid a crowd of fanatical Italians………

    • David A said on 27th April 2010, 19:53

      Schumacher was helped to his records by his determination and hard work. Aside from Hakkinen and Alonso, he had to fight against drivers like Alonso, Raikkonen, Villeneuve, Coulthard and Montoya for his wins, so don’t start taking out your hate on Schumacher (not Scumaker, as you put it) just becuase he beat whatever your favourite teams and drivers were.

      And in the 70’s, Lauda, Fittipaldi and Stewart each took 2 titles, and you can’t call Mario Andretti a poor driver, can you?

  2. matt90 said on 23rd April 2010, 17:17

    I’d love to see some track variation. Obviously the chances of getting really long tracks back are slim, as there aren’t really any long ones which are up to safety standards. I’d like to see the Bahrain outer circuit used for a ‘short’ track (short in time, not especially short in distance I guess). Pescara sounds like an incredible challenege. Shame it wouldn’t be practical. Same for the Nurburgring. I also wish the original Hockenheim was in use.

  3. Icthyes said on 23rd April 2010, 17:20

    There have been several golden ages, I feel. The early days with Moss, Fangio, Farina, etc; Jackie Stewart’s era; the times of Villeneuve, Pironi, Lauda; the monumental Piquet-Mansell-Senna-Prost saga; and, I sincerely believe, the current one, starting from 2007.

    F1 has learned one thing from its past, and applied it to the present to make it better: big rule changes. In 1998, we saw McLaren come back to the front, Ferrari establish itself as a top team, and Williams decline. In 2009 the effects were even more dramatic, so much so that I wish new teams could have come in then.

    I definitely think we need more variety in the tracks; minute-long laps would be brilliant for close qualifying and mixed-up grids, whereas long circuits could test the drivers and cars over a whole range of areas. And personally, I would love to see a race like the very old days before even F1, going from A to B with no laps (though it would be difficult to reconcile this with F1’s current format)

    I don’t see the need to bring back multiple races per country, and we should cancel one of Spain’s. But we could have extra non-championship races in countries that already have races; instead of testing at Catalunya, it could be the first race of the season, but not of the championship.

    Above all though, the biggest lesson to be learned is the cars. Sure, teams can’t unlearn what they know, but the components can be banned or heavily restricted. At least F1 seems to be getting it right step-by-step, if the banning of refuelling is indeed the first of many steps, but it needs to stop mitigating the changes with gimmicks like the qualifying tyre and two-compounds rule (which I feel could have been managed in much better ways, if they were that necessary, and out of all the possible combinations we’ve ended up with the weakest). The next step is to reduce downforce overall by chopping at the wings.

    In short, F1 needs to look back at all eras, ask “what was the best thing about it?” and see if they can fit into the current F1, or build the future F1 around it. Some of them will be contradictory and choices will have to be made. But when you look at the constant success of football, whose rules have changed so comparatively little over 100 years, you have to wonder why F1 sometimes goes down these paths of change for change’s sake, under the banner of bringing the sport into the future.

    The sport could be improved so much more if we just looked at the past at what worked, what hasn’t, and what isn’t. Regardless of which was the most golden of ages.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 23rd April 2010, 18:46

      There have been several golden ages, I feel. The early days with Moss, Fangio, Farina, etc; Jackie Stewart’s era; the times of Villeneuve, Pironi, Lauda; the monumental Piquet-Mansell-Senna-Prost saga; and, I sincerely believe, the current one, starting from 2007.

      So here’s a thought – are ‘golden eras’ in F1 defined not by cars and technology but by personalities?

      And is personality in short supply in F1 today? Given that we respond to F1 press conferences by counting the number of ‘for sures’ perhaps it is…

      • Gilles said on 23rd April 2010, 19:09

        I would say that the people element draws the crowds and technology second. When you think of why you watch F1, what is the answer: ‘I want to see how Jenson drubs Lewis’ or ‘I’m wondering how that RB suspension will work’ ? I can’t imagine the second one, all the pre-season talk has been about Lewis vs Jenson, Schumi back, Alonso vs Lewis, etc – not about Ferrari versus Mclaren …
        That said, from a personality perspective you get a mirror of the times we live in: everyhting is pc now, nobody is going to publically call his team members ‘idiots’ and expect to get with it … I can’t even imagine a driver’s strike nowadays. They would be fired on the spot. They do their talking on the track: ALonso is never going to ackowledge he put Massa in his place with his pit entry overtake,even if it was obvious for all to see.
        Sign of the times, I guess.
        But I concur with other posters in that the current field has all the making of a new golden era: alonso-button-hamilton-kubica-rosberg. There’s no hiding on the track !

      • Gilles said on 23rd April 2010, 19:11

        One more thought: why don’t they broadcast the driver’s briefings: would have loved to see Lewis being grilled and his reaction ..
        Next one will probably be interesting as well.

      • Icthyes said on 23rd April 2010, 19:52

        Not necessarily personalities but the abilities of the drivers themselves. I haven’t put 1997-2000 down because there were only three top drivers competing for the world championship, and one of them in only one of those years.

        But I do think personalities are purposefully kept under tighter wraps. Mind you, Webber seems to get away with a lot of what he says!

  4. Like Keith, I started watching a couple of races in 1989 on TV with my Dad. However, 1990 was my first proper season that I followed slavishly (I was 11 so beer, music and girls didn’t figure into my weekends at that point!). Without putting the rose tinted spectacles on, I can say that several things were markedly different to how things are now.
    1) Cars conked out on a very regular basis! Nigel Mansell seemed to spend a lot of his time walking back to the pits that season. The reliability of cars was nowhere near as accomplished as they are now, but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing?
    2) We now have much better coverage of the weekend. The BBC have really outdone themselves since taking over from ITV. Yet back in 1990, there was no coverage of qualifying and sometimes live broadcasts were interrupted to cover the 3:30 at Chepstow.
    3) There was a greater variety of circuits. Quite frankly most of the new tracks are utterly dire. Picking up on what Robert McKay said, why do we need chicanes in new tracks??? Abu Dhabi had one leading into a hairpin for Christ’s sakes!
    Back to 1990, you had slow tracks like Monaco and at the other end of the spectrum, blindingly quick circuits like Hockenheim and Monza. For a world championship, I believe a good mixture of different challenges to the driver and engineer is essential. Unfortunately, this is not happening at the moment.

    P.S. How Hungary had stayed in the championship for 24 years beggars belief!

  5. Nixon said on 23rd April 2010, 17:28

    I began from 2004, but i have some information on some old races. 2005 was my best season.

  6. Chris said on 23rd April 2010, 17:32

    I started watching in the mid 60’s as a kid. Hard to say which was a favourite season from all those! I doI remember things like James Hunt at Silverstone losing his airbox and having it basically tied back on,, Jackie Stewart driving through corn higher than his car trying to regain the track, mechanics in tweed jackets smokin a fag trying to borrow a wheel from another team and photographers standing on the track on the
    inside of coppice at the start jumping out of the way of the cars! Things have changed a bit eh?

  7. Jim N said on 23rd April 2010, 17:42

    I’ve been watching F1 since the early 70’s, but I can’t say there was a golden age in my experience. Yes good years and good races, but scattered reasonably evenly. Great drivers help, I always enjoyed watching races with Mansel or Senna in them… even better in the same race! But there were still boring races even then. Hamilton is very much in that mould and it’s great watching him.

    In my opinion they have already made two great steps in improving the current racing. Banning refuelling and more lenient Stewarding. The first means that drivers have finally realised that they have to pass on the track, and the second means that they will be allowed to try it without being penalised. I’m sure we will have some more boring races this year, but I also sure we will have some more entertaining ones, even in the dry! I think this season could be great.

    You don’t even need overtaking for great racing, but you need the possibility of overtaking… Gilles Villeneuve’s win at Jarama in 81 where he kept the pack inches behind him for the whole race, was unbelievable racing, and is one of the greatest races ever.

    Finally you asked “what made F1 great” the answer is simple… Bernie Ecclestone ! …. that should raise some hackles but it’s true!

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 23rd April 2010, 18:02

      You don’t even need overtaking for great racing, but you need the possibility of overtaking… Gilles Villeneuve’s win at Jarama in 81 where he kept the pack inches behind him for the whole race, was unbelievable racing, and is one of the greatest races ever.

      Very true. I think it’s important that the debate be about more than just “how can we create more overtaking” – it’s about much more than just cars going past each other.

      Finally you asked “what made F1 great” the answer is simple… Bernie Ecclestone ! …. that should raise some hackles but it’s true!

      Ooh, nice and controversial…

      • Gilles said on 23rd April 2010, 19:15

        Indeed – my thought exactly, even about Bernie: he has made F1 into the global tv-friendly money-making motorsport it is today.

    • Icthyes said on 23rd April 2010, 23:37

      Bernie has indeed done a lot for the sport and no-one can take that away from him. It’s the direction it’s been going in over the last half-decade that’s a little worrying for fans.

  8. Jay M said on 23rd April 2010, 17:45

    The Question we should all be asking ourselves is what form of Motor sport offers 100% excitement? And how does it do that?

    I am Not joking around when I say that you should seriously consider Professional RC Racing.
    The Lap times are almost always under 20 seconds for every track. This keeps you glued to your seat as it makes every corner so critical, and one mistake will provoke an overtake.
    The Grip generated by these machines is all chassis and fine tuning to 0.1mm on roll centre adjustments and the lot. With very restricting rules on aero. The Sedan Body only allowed one rear wing to a certain dimension. This allows the cars to travel close to each other and maintain grip whilst getting the slightest draft.

    Take a look at this video of the 2008/09 World Championships at one of the best RC Tracks in the world. (until it recently got demolished for a new facility)

    So by making the Formula 1 Cars have more mechanical grip freedom (like ride height adjusters) and less downforce, and shorter tracks we could potentially see some very exciting races.

  9. Paulipedia said on 23rd April 2010, 17:46

    I went to my first GP in 1980 at the grand old age of 2 at Brands Hatch. I can’t remember too much of that day but what was to follow was a love affair that has never wained.

    My first memories come from the European GP in 1985, also at Brands. I sat with my parents in the little triangular infield at the end of the pits exit. What would health and safety say about that now?! After the race we somehow managed to get into the awning of the Williams team and celebrated Mansell’s first ever win, I have some great photos of my brother and myself sat between our Nige and Rosberg. Also that year I went to the British GP at Siverstone, was also memorable as I met my hero Alian Prost, sneekily navigating my way into his transporter.

    Other highlights include Mansell’s win in 1992 at Siverstone. Never has the Silverstone crowd been so vociferous. Unfortunately it was the last time I was to run down hangar straight to the podium in celebration.

    The Mid 80’s to Early 90’s were definitely a highllight of the past 25 years I have been watching but in my honest opinion I don’t believe I have ever been so excited for F1 races as the last few seasons. A new legendary era has begun.

  10. Realist said on 23rd April 2010, 17:52

    I raised those same points yesterday commenting on the other post about making F1 better. It’s inevitable that each person will have a different favorite era in F1. I loved the 80s, even though the fuel restriction rules were awful.

    The lack of reliability gave GPs a shadow of unpredictability until the closing moments. Even during the much more predictable 90s, you had races like Canada 91 when Mansell lost a race at the last lap. It didn’t matter if a car was much faster than the others. It could still abandon at the last moment. Of course, that’s something we can’t expect to come back to F1. Reliability is only improving in the future.

    Of course there weren’t millions of overtakings or anything like that in the 80s. Some teams dominated and they were the ones that led the pack. I guess the difference was still in the fact that some cars adapted better to some circuits than others. Nowadays a good car is good doesn’t matter the circuit, with very few exceptions.

    All this post notwithstanding, I’ll paraphrase what a Brazilian F1 journalist has written some time ago, I don’t remember in which blog: “maybe the problem isn’t F1’s, but ours”.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 24th April 2010, 11:22

      I had forgotten that. You used to watch the end of a race wondering if any of the cars would break down. That suspense is completely gone now and I don’t even know if you can bring it back.

  11. sato113 said on 23rd April 2010, 17:55

    this may be biased, but I think this new era of f1 from 2007 has been pretty golden.

  12. Stuart said on 23rd April 2010, 18:04

    I attended my first F1 GP live in 1955.That was the British GP at Aintree.Stirling Moss won and Fangio was second.
    Since that time, I have watched by whatever means,races from every season.TV coverage was rare, and in some instances the only coverage was on the old Pathe news at the local cinema.
    There was never a “golden age” as such.Probably the sixties with Colin Chapman and Lotus, the Tyrrell with their P34,INNOVATION is what made the racing exciting.The downside, was the truly appalling casualties.
    Today, the regulations are so restrictive,aerodynamics make it almost impossible for the cars to “slipstream” so consequently overtaking suffers, and we end up with boring proccessions.
    But I would never wish to return to days of the drivers risking their lives at each race, just to “improve the show”

  13. Jay M said on 23rd April 2010, 18:05

    @Keith – Was it lewis Hamilton?

    I guess your right about the safety bit.

    With more mechanical grip the driver has more control over the car in all conditions, low speed and high, yes? With aero grip which is the alternative, the driver has more control at high speeds only. In that regards it is safer.

    Shorter tracks could be more dangerous on the other hand, but with the high and increasing level of safety innovations and designs for marshalling and removing cars and designing crash areas I’m sure it will not be much of a problem.

  14. GektorS said on 23rd April 2010, 18:14

    I´ve been watching F1 since 1984 and I always wanted to watch every race from then on.

    I had always the same complaint with my parents and nowadays with my wife (just one TV at home always) regarding how boring those races are (on their opinion) and how much difficulties I had to get my sit in front of the TV.

    But you know I love this sport, it doesn´t matter if races are dull, exciting, drama or whatever just love F1 and why?

    Pilots risking their lives, racing to the edge, high technology, brutal sliding, horse power everywhere, big wheels, big wings, helmet designs, strategies, retirements, press conference, envy between the drivers, their faces, their happinness, their frustation, pole positions, penalties, checkered flag, and so on…

    I love F1 and there is no sense on complaining about the show we have nowadays compared to past years, because for me the show is the same. Love it or hate it, this is what F1 is so special.

    And on these days we are so lucky to have websites like this so we can comment and be more up to date with all F1 issues, in the 80´s and 90´s and specially living in a country with no home drivers it was just watch the race and nothing else.

  15. Vishy said on 23rd April 2010, 18:18

    Man wish my memory was better. But the seasons I enjoyed the most were the closely fought ones.

    I remember the Hill/Villenue fight where Villenue lost his wheel in the final race.

    The schumi Villenue season where our hero schumi became a villian in front of everyone’s eyes by trying to take out Villenue.

    The year of the return of silver arrows. How they were so much quicker (they pretty much or acutally lapped all other cars.) in the first race and to see Schum fight back and make a season out of it.

    Couple of years down when Ferrari finally got it right and Mika made a fight of it. I still remember one race where Mika was catching Schumi and lost it and his car was travelling backwards. I remember Berger’s observation “see how mika is looking at his mirrors and driving the car while going backwards” and he flips the car round and starts chasing schumi again.

    And then the 2008 season was defenitely the best I have ever watched. Last race, last corner is stuff of dreams.

    Don’t know what we will get dished out this year or in future but I for sure will continue to watch F1. It is so totally in my blood now.

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