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

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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

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

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

  2. 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”

  3. @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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Just a further thought, on slipstreaming.

    I’ve just finished watching a download of the first MotoGP race, where the differences in the Yamaha, Ducati, and Honda engines lay in the manufacturers fiddling with them, specifically lowering their power to give them better traction out of the corners.

    The point in mentioning this is that we’ve lost a lot of potential for overtaking (and in Monza, slipstream races) from the engine freeze. We might as well have one single engine, although Renault’s efficiency makes up for its power, so you can argue there’s some room there for difference – except that those things are frozen too. Renault’s efficiency is just a happy feature, not something they were allowed to do because they were down in power, in the name of equalising things.

    Of course, not being able to follow cars through corners has also spoiled slipstreaming, but that’s where reducing aero comes into things.

  7. South Carolina F1
    23rd April 2010, 18:21

    I think it’s easy to say any era is better than another. I began watching F1 in the mid-late 90’s, and it was just fascinating. It was historic, but at times boring, especially once you got into the new millennium with the domination of Ferrari. I wish I could go back and watch the old races from the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties with the same tension that I had while I watch every new F1 race. Unfortunately, I already know the outcome of many, so it takes a bit away from the excitement of watching a new GP.

  8. I think that the current regulations are largely to blame for the lack of overtaking we see today.
    Everyone can understand and appreciate the safety the new rules bring, but I’m concerned that the “cost saving” aspect of the regulations is hurting the sport more than it’s helping. Things like the proposed budget cap, the engine development freeze and the ban on testing were all conceived by the FIA in an effort to make the sport less costly and consequently more attractive to smaller teams, but I feel this goes against the spirit of F1.
    Another problem is that the FIA has frozen certain aspects of development, and not others (for cost savings and safety) without considering what effect it would have on racing. Even with all the aero restrictions, the teams are finding ways to get back to the downforce levels of 2008 but the engines have not seen the same level of improvement. It seems that the downforce/power ratio is climbing too quickly, which I think is a major contributor to the lack of overtaking.
    Perhaps the FIA needs to be more restrictive on aero side, and allow the teams to go back to using 3.0L V10 engines.

    On another note, if you look at the races we’ve had this year. The only exciting ones were affected by rain.
    Perhaps all our problems would be solved if they installed sprinkler systems around all the tracks that randomly turn on and off.

  9. The first Grand Prix I ever saw on tv was the German Grand Prix of 1994. To see all those cars taken out at the first corner then Verstappens pit stop fire caught my eye and I never looked back! The cars (I think) looked great – fat and wide with big slicks and hard to drive, V8’s V10’s and V12’s made the races sound great too. Rose tinted spectacles probably. Some races even back then were dull as they can be now!

  10. Started following F1 in 1982 loooong ago!

    Possibly the best Season in history, alas, one of the most infamous due to fatalities. Thankfully much has changed in terms of safety.

    Then came the turbos! Wow! 1100 hp in a 500 kg car… you’ll never beat that… but the racing was so, so. Most of victories were related to reliability… thus drivers that knew to keep the machinery alive excelled, Prost, Lauda, Piquet.

    By 1988 the racing part of F1 was almost non-existing, the first pass for the lead happened in Canada… the 6th round of the SEASON!!! not much of excitement in my memories from that year.

    We had to wait till 1990 for the racing to return, and what a season it was…

    After that the pitstops returned in the 94, Senna Died… all changed, The Schumi era… 97 was an epic season, 98 was good, 99 really good, from 2000 to 2006 all is a Red blur…

    I’ve followed one too many GP’s in my life ;) But I love it!!!

  11. Sorry… yes 2007,08,09 and 10 are in my reckoning much better than most seasons in the 80’s and 90’s.

    This will be remembered as a really good era of Formula 1.

    1. Why do you say that?

      2007 and 2008 had great championship conclusions, really exciting. But a lot of the races in those seasons – mainly when it didn’t rain – were awful. The same goes for last year.

      The race ratings on this site speak for themselves:

      Brazil voted best race of 2009, Turkey named worst of a bad bunch

      Valencia was least popular race of 2008

  12. The first magazine i bought was the grand prix of canada 1981. When i was a kid, i remember lauda’s accident somehow, and thinking that he was the bravest man on earth. Now i think, he talks to much, but still great.
    The best years that i saw, without any doubt, were the senna-prost years. The best drivers, in the best cars, hating each other’s guts.
    The things i miss most, are:
    the danger factor it’s gone
    lack of personalities,
    canibalization of the classic race tracks
    Huge run-off areas, where you don’t have speed sensation
    Team press girl, listening to everything the driver says
    I like better,
    the info trough the internet
    25 races in the near future?

  13. Hmm…much has been said about everything. I would like to highlight from a different approach and perspective.
    Is it the singer or the song?
    And then, is it the venue or the crowd?
    Most interestingly, is it the organizer/promoter or the judge?
    To cap it off, is it the equipment or the staff?
    Well it’s all up to you.

  14. I start to see Formula One in 1997 : my favourite F1 season is 1999 , but I have seen also some races of 90’s and 80’s and I see also MotoGp . I have seen the first races in 2010 , and ,yes, they are very exciting , including Bahrain ( that in my opinion is not so boring … ) but the difference between these races and 80’s and 90’s races is the fact that the overtakes are never for the first position : we have seen a lot of overtakes for second -third position , but are few the changes of leading position : in Bahrain vettel and alonso , in australia vettel and button , in malesia only vettel and in china rosberg and button (excluding alonso in the first lap ): WE HAVE NEVER SEEN A DUEL FOR THE LEADING POSITION ! This is in my opinion the radical difference between modern F1 and 80’s F1 !
    P.S. Excuse my mistakes , I’m not English_speaking

    1. Rob Gallagher
      23rd April 2010, 19:40

      We will be even less likely to see a duel for 1st position with new qualifying format now even more so, as the car on pole is now the fastest car on track.

      1. No races have been won from pole position this year.

  15. Rob Gallagher
    23rd April 2010, 19:38

    I’ve been watching F1 since the 2006 hungarian GP, and I’d have to say 2007 and 2008 have been the best years but I’m biased as a McLaren fan and also because I only have 3-4 years of watching F1. I suspect the current F1 is probably better than people make out in regards to the Senna/Mansell/Prost era and I don’t think people like me will ever be able to appreciate how good they really were. I believe the golden age of F1 is probably when you first start watching F1 and it’s a good season. For me the best races have either involved controversy or rain, in 2007 I loved to hate Alonso and was gutted that Hamilton missed out on the title. 2008 had the most exciting races for me with Spa and Brazil offering some real heart pumping stuff. However I found the 2009 races less exciting, most likely due to my favourite team not being at the front, and I think for races to be heart pumping your favourite driver/team needs to be involved in some action.

  16. my first race was the first Hungarian gp. I got addicted ever since. But it wasn’t easy living behind the iron curtain. We only got the random news and some short footage on the tv. Finding f1 stuff was a game :-)
    When whole seasons got broadcasted here it became another story – fans were gathering to watch together and argue. Then the rule changes began and we got the dramas of 07, 08 and 09 so it was all the way cool for me.

    The biggest problem of f1 today is the generation Y. Short attention span. 5 Minutes no action and the race is a bore.

    What can help? Maybe some crazy stuff like have the races restarted every 10 minutes to keep the Y minds buzzing with the start drama :-)

  17. My first weak memories about real F1 are about Senna’s fatal crash at Imola. I was 6 at the time and it really stuck me very hard, although i hadn’t ever seen a race before, because i had an old 8-bit F1 game where Senna was the title character (and the obvious winner of all races until i got some experience). For me he was a sort of hero, and it was so sad to see him pass away.
    By the way, i started watching f1 quite continously during ’95-’96 seasons thanks to my older cousins who were heavy f1 fans. In my opinion, the best seasons i’ve seen probably are 1997, 2003 (the only championship Ferrari fought till the end during their domination era) and 2008, but in this last case i’m probably too influenced by the battle in Interlagos, that was a totally heart-killing race.
    However, for the idea of “the golden era of F1” makes me think about the 80s and the early 90s, i really love those “showers of sparks”, as Keith said.

    1. the first death it’s always shocking. It gives a new perspective of the sport. You think, this guys risk more than i thought. It happened to me when villeneuve died at zolder in 1982. I was 15 at the time. And when a few races later, rene arnoux had a big crash at zandvort, at the tarzan corner, i was scared that he might end up like the canadian.
      I don’t want drivers to die, but i want the possibility to be there.

  18. Youtube as amplified the rose tinting. People can access the best moments of the best races from their first years of watching and find evidence that F1 has been in decline since.

    I began watching about 22 years ago. I remember the Senna-Prost battles, I remember the anticipation of seeing the novel, creative designs of Barnard and Newey appear every year—born as much of instinct as arithmetic. Seeing a F641 in person a couple years ago gave me chills I can’t get seeing the superior machines of today.

    I also remember the let down of getting up at 5 on a Sunday morning to see two cars put 4 seconds on the field in qualifying and then proceed to lap all but 2 other cars, or, rather, the half that did not retire first. I remember loads of rich-dad pay-drivers cluttering the track. These ills have been banished. The overall quality of cars and drivers has never been better.

    What makes the most exciting season is not the prevalence of passing, or the closenes of performance in the races. It is a clear evolution of relative performance over the year. The inflection point where one team overtakes another, vindicating the relentless work of the engineers back home, is a brilliant moment. The races before and after this point, where you have brilliant drivers transcending a lagging car to match a superior machine, or pushing a declining design against the tide, are what we know as the great performances. And the duels occuring at this point are the most rewarding because we experience a truly pitched battle joined on both sides by driver and engineer, the properly equal protagonists in F1.

  19. horsepower matters…. the cars were difficult to drive and exciting to watch…

    watch michael in 96 at monaco, its awesome..

    and now the plan is go down even further, to 670 hp…

    i wish beyond a star, they’d go back to 1000+ …

    nascar is at 840, indy at 800…. F1 is the pinnacle, and now teenagers can look good at it

    1. email FOTA at


      and ask for more HORSEPOWER and whatever else you want….



    2. i agree. these cars, everybody can drive them fast. I remember in the 80’s, only the best few drivers were able to get all out of them. I hope jean todt put some sense into the lack of power in f1.

    3. I agree, the engines should be open and the aero restricted, not the other way around. Speeds will be easier to keep under control because speed through engines takes a lot longer to gain, as more powerful engines tend to have a phase of blowing up a lot at first. Also, with less aero cornering speeds, the real danger in F1, will be reduced and take a lot longer to claw back.

      And then there’s always the option of adding drag-creating devices that give no aero advantage, if speeds are getting too high in a straight line.

  20. I have been interested in F1 since the 70’s when TV coverage was pretty grim and, while safety has rightly improved and the speeds are mind-blowing, there was something about the cars which made them more viewer-involving.
    Also in earlier times, drivers were often characters whose sense of humour and personality showed through, rather than the modern-day celebrity company men “earning” more than footballers.
    It’s all swung towards big business rather than smaller teams putting their brains together and building a car from engineering calculations and gut feelings rather than computers and wind tunnels and, of course, perhaps rather loose interpretation of the few rules that existed.

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