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)

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  1. Nick said on 25th April 2010, 15:58

    F1 was never better than the last three laps of the 1979 French GP at Dijon.

  2. Monosodico said on 25th April 2010, 16:20

    1984 was my first full season and 1988 my favourite one, yes I know but being a McLaren/Senna/Prost fan what would you expect?

  3. Chaz said on 25th April 2010, 21:48

    I particularly remember watching Senna and Mansell who always had me glued to the TV. That’s also about the time when I began to increasingly feel incredible admiration (and envy lol) for Ron Dennis and Frank Williams…

  4. The Limit said on 26th April 2010, 2:58

    The biggest draw for me is the fact that you never know what you are going to get with F1, whether the race is going to be boring or fantastic. One thing is for sure, I do my level best not to miss one because if I were the odds are that it will be a classic and then I will be pissed off!
    I started watching F1 at a very early age, probably in 1984 or 1985. I remember seeing Senna’s 1984 Monaco performance and that one driver I always remembered was Keke Rosberg. My two favourite drivers have always been Aryton Senna and Mika Hakkinen, so I guess that makes me a McLaren fan although I do respect Ferrari for what they have achieved but not for always how they have achieved it.
    At the moment I am impartial. There is no one driver I root for, but plenty I admire. I think the current era is showing alot of promise and potential to return to a more favoured style of racing. One of my biggest bug bears in recent years has been the sports tendency to impose penalties on such benign things, which in my opinion stiffles good racing drivers from performing at my best. I certainly saw us lose Juan Montoya to NASCAR, something I thought was a great waste because the guy was obviously extremely talented and a man that speaks his mind.
    I was never a fan of the corporate side of F1, which has always existed in F1 like many other sports, but certainly cloaked itself over F1 in the last decade or so. I think that era has waned a little, and I am happy it has.
    The biggest difference between now and the olden days is the engines. I would love it if they still ran V10’s or even the monstrous V12’s, even to the current rulings which limit the number of engines a team can use in a season. I think that years ago, with the cars producing so much horsepower, they were too fast for the circuits they were using.
    I am sure that that fact alone paid a huge part in many of the fatal and near fatal accidents we have witnessed over the past twenty or thirty years. The cars also are much stronger than they were, proven by Robert Kubica’s 2007 crash at Montreal. That really impressed me, that not only that Kubica was not killed, but that he sustained such light injuries.
    During the turbo era, inwhich drivers were practically disappearing up their own backsides, the circuits were far more hemmed in and dangerous. I think the modern, Tilkedrome circuits could safely handle F1 cars with as much power as they had running turbos, and I think the drivers would love it too. The run off areas now are huge, with better barriers and just better alround facilities.
    My favourite era was always the 1980’s, with so many champions racing in F1, drivers who had won or were destined to win multiple championships.

  5. Juxuan said on 26th April 2010, 5:57

    First season watched was 1997 when Jacques Villeneuve won in only his second season. However the most memorable years were the subsequent few during which Mika Hakkinen had great battles with Michael Schumacher with my all time favourite being Spa’00 when Hakkinen pulled out that outrages overtaking move on Schumacher out of Eau Rouge down the Kemmel Straight! Best overtaking move ever!

  6. PeterG said on 26th April 2010, 9:52

    I started watching in 1974. But not all races were on TV back then. Most of the time I foolowed in newspapers and car magazines. I bought German magazines for that because they had the best pictures.

    I always find that F1 is about Ferrari against the rest of the world. It still is. What I enjoyed about the earliy days is that is was possible to come up with something and make it. Like turbo, six-wheels, skirts. Looking back I think the teams were so unprofessional and naieve.

    F1 will be OK as long as we don’t fiddle too much with it. Simple rules should do the trick and prevent everybody to jump to the stewards to decide a race.

    Funny enough I did not care for Senna or Prost much. But every year in F1 is fascinating on its own.

  7. A Singh said on 26th April 2010, 10:48

    Three things that would improve the spectacle for free:

    – Allow doughnuts after the race
    – Allow the drivers to carry flags after winning
    – Allow them to go nuts and chuck their gloves into the crowd or whatever.

    • BasCB said on 26th April 2010, 14:47

      And make them use their tyres to the extreme on friday and saturday after qualifying to give the visitors something to watch.

    • DaveW said on 27th April 2010, 15:14

      Since the gloves likely would be filled with tungsten ballast (with the weigh-in in mind) your last suggestion might prove unreasonably dangerous.

  8. BasCB said on 26th April 2010, 14:39

    I actually starded watching open wheel racing with CART on Eurosport in 1993. After seeing some races and hearing comments about Mansell jumping from F1 into CART and mixing in with the best for racewins and the championship i tried Formula 1.

    I really liked seeing thes beautiful cars just hugging the tarmac with their active suspension.
    It got me interested in the technical side of the sport as well, you could see the difference between raw power of these robust CART cars in comparison with the ulitmate finesse of the fragile F1 cars speed in corners and their acceleration and braking all the time being only mm above the track.
    And i started being a fan of this German guy, some Micheal Schumacher in the Benneton. I loved seeing him beating Senna and Prost and I think he would have won in 1994 even without the sport losing Senna.
    After some of his tactics i starded getting behind Villeneuve, whom i had seen as an increadibly good rookie in CART before. Schumacher lost my support due to his rude behaviour on track.
    After that i must say i got a liking of following the back markers, as up front there was not a lot to do with only Schumi in the mix.

  9. David C said on 26th April 2010, 14:43

    Some very interesting comments…
    I have been following since the late ’70’s. I say following because the races were not on regular TV and the magazines covered races two months past!

    My favorite drivers are Lauda & Prost and after many years disliking Schuey….now I’m a great fan! This guy just LOVES the sport. also a big fan of Vettel.

    If I could change F1 I’d mandate Steel brake rotors, a true manual gearbox/clutch and unlimited engine modifications. I’d vary the tracks to be different in length, and type. However, I think despite all it’s splendor the Monaco parade would have to go.

    Drivers should actually DRIVE the car. A manual gearshift and clutch not only leaves some doubt under pressure it also tells which man looks after his equipment…much like using steel brake rotors. Of course that sets up the smooth drivers versus the “point and stab” style of driving…great to watch.

    I heard it sugggested that front and rear wing design could be made “spec” for all teams, and all the wee “stick on” bits (except mirrors) should be removed from the chassis…..schools out on that IMHO as I agree it is a technology game, but it’s a thought.

    Reverse grids will not work as etiquette would have the back markers getting out of the way as the hot shoes pass…current qualifying sometimes holds as much drama as a race itself, so I’m not a fan of grid by point standings. I like the current qualifying system.

    With all the interest in new teams I would like to see a “feeder” or qualifying series aka F1(B) at the same tracks on the same weekends with the same rules. must be totally independent teams. Bottom two finishing teams each season would be relegated down and top two teams promoted. This gets more rubber on the road and better prepares teams entering “the F1 show” to hit the road running. AND…more racing for the fans!

    • BasCB said on 26th April 2010, 14:51

      The idea of GP2 was, that it would be as close to F1 as you can get without the extra cost for each team having to build their onw car.

      But precisely because of that the jump from GP2 to F1 is enormous for each organisation.

      I like the idea of it though.

      You are right about Schumacher, kudos to him for mixing it with the young hot shoes like Vettel and Hamilton as well as having another try at beating Alonso.

  10. Tango said on 27th April 2010, 10:20

    I am a bit late to join in the conversation (holidays in the Caribbean, and even if I did miss F1 Fanatics, I had other things to do really).

    I have been watching Formula 1 since 1993. Formula one was the sunday morning ritual with my father (I grew up in Guadeloupe, French West Indies and as such, European races were in the morning) and now that I live in Paris I carry on by watching mostly the morning and early morning races and mostly Highlights of European races as sunday afternoons are not moments to spend in front of the TV, even if it is F1. As such, I’d like them to stop pushing for European times at all races as, frankly, I would rather have them run in the morning or at night.

    My favorite years were 1998, 2007,2008 and 2009. I enjoyed the Alonso years too but as I am a McLaren fan (i liked the white and orange design at the time and stuck with them for no really thought about reason)suddenly seeing them win was most enjoyable.
    I think my love of F1 as grown thanks to GP2 game on PC so Geoff Crammond is to thank much more than Bernie. And since 2007 I am constantly amazed by Hamilton and as races are becoming tighter, the better it becomes to follow.

    As for the previous debate high up in the comments about droping the three worst results (for instance) to reduce the impact of DNF, it is usually the case in all around boeys boat races.It cost me a podium in Hobie Cat world championships but hey, it was the rules. Generally, it is not any more difficult to follow than football league tables with teams who are one or two matchs behind and so have a potential of being higher up the standings. I don’t think it would be a good idea though. It’s just that it is possible and quite simple. (If all football fans in the world can understand a similar reading of tables, I believe F1 fans can to).

  11. tombo said on 28th April 2010, 19:14

    1995 was my first full season watching it. i think it was one of the best years for many reasons – tense title battle, a fair amount of overtaking, popular wins (alesi) and so on.
    but of course, all that applies to practically every season since. 1997 or 1998 was just about the best title fight, in terms of tension in the air (the races tended to be a bit predictable though).
    i think the last weak season was 2005, but that produced some great races. every year since then has been nothing short of enthralling.
    does the show really need improving??

  12. sze wei eng said on 25th August 2010, 7:28

    i only started watching F1 full season in 2000 after watching the 1st ever malaysian GP in 1999 n i still want 2 thank dr mahathir 4 bringing this F1 spectacle 2 south east asia 4 the 1st time ever. if not, i dont think i ever have the chance 2 even know about the F1 glory in the 80s n early 90s. after watching all the highlight reel of the past, i personally think the 80s (minus season 80 n 87) is the best racing season ever from piquet 2 prost with the mix of mansell n senna plus other unknowns that won a race or 2 b4). s 4 the 90s, 90-91 n 98-99 is my personal favorite. s 4 2000s, love 00, 03, 05, 06. i dont like racing from 07 onwards despite close finish because of no more overtaking n the beginning of politics ruining the sport 2 shambles. damm!

  13. Very interesting how many people have a different favourite era/season, often the time they first started watching. And your first Grand Prix ‘live’ will always be special. And people don’t always remember too accurately. Rose tinted indeed!

    The races these days are well intense and the drivers fight like never before. Senna/Mansell side by side down the straight at Barcelona in ’91? Yeah? Button and Hamilton did that, as close BUT THROUGH CORNERS in Turkey this year (2010)! Button/Brawn winning all the first half season races in 2009? Almost identical to Mansell’s 1992 early dominance. All those ‘pay’ drivers bulking out the fields in the mid-nineties would make the likes of Di Grassi, Bruno Senna and Yamamoto today seem like world title material!

    Unpredictable results in the 1980s? Don’t make me laugh, the Mclaren ‘steamroller’ diminance in 1984? Prost’s inevitable 1985 championship win of 1985 against the unreliable Ferrari car? The supreme 86 and 87 seasons had many of the same winner of each Grand Prix one year to the next! 1988, with Prost/Senna Mclarens winning every race but one, and only then because Senna made a mistake lapping a backmarker when holding a massive lead? And I remember James Hunt commentating that we’re finally going to see a head-to-head battle between the two McLaren’s which for one reason or another we’ve been denied so far. How long had Senna and Prost been together at McLaren at this point? Only a year and a half…. (1989)

    No, F1’s as good as ever. Maybe it depends on ourselves watching, how we are.

    I started watching F1 properly in 1980, so images and memories of Laffite in the Ligier, Jones/Williams and Piquet/Brabham do it for me. But I’ll not pretend they were always wheel to wheel and characters all. Though they were seriously inspiring and 1986 would be my personal favourite season. Yes, those were the times that F1 saw me through difficult school years! Yet letters in Autosport slagged it off even then, just as today. For me 2002 was one of the most dull seasons ever, yet someone earlier in this thread cites it as their favourite, which kind of proves my point about it being personal to ourselves.

    There are a loud number of F1 ‘fans’ who are nothing more than ignorant ‘I didn’t get what I wanted’ whinging gits! Its as good as ever! Just enjoy it for what it is!

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