F1 at Christmas and the New Year? It happened...
During the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, perhaps when enjoying your downtime, try to make the mental shift that the year's final F1 round is due to happen within that period. No really, suspend your disbelief. And then imagine a little further that it's a championship decider.
And if this doesn't even sound far-fetched enough then imagine yet more, that the penultimate round, setting up this showdown, was way back in early October (to provide some kind of anchor to actuality, roughly when the Russian Grand Prix was this year) and we'd all been waiting patiently since – thumbs twiddling no doubt – to discover who'd get the final world title honours.
It no doubt sounds extremely silly, almost like something from an insane parallel universe. But it happened.
In 1962 to be precise, when the debut South African Grand Prix at the scenic seaside Prince George circuit in East London hosted the crunch showdown on the 29 December of that year. In this Graham Hill clinched his first world championship as well as the constructors' title for his BRM team (it was to be BRM's only one of either), after his rival Jim Clark in his Lotus had led and then conked out.
And this was some time after the previous race at Watkins Glen which was on 7 October, giving all more than two-and-a-half months on tenterhooks not knowing who was to take that year's crown.
Remember this one next time someone or other claims that these days we end the season later in the year than ever. Indeed always be suspicious when you hear a confident assertion that it's the first time in F1 history that such-and-such has happened. F1 history is such a deep, wild and varied thing that the chances are that it's not actually all that new at all.
1962 was no one off either. Roughly the same thing happened the next year – the respective dates were 28 December for the final round, again at East London, and 27 October for the last-but-one race, that time in Mexico. Jim Clark at least though saved everyone the extended suspense that time around by wrapping up the title mathematically way back in the Monza race in early September…
Something not unlike it happened a few years previous too, when Jack Brabham pushed his fuel-less Cooper to his first world title in 1959 at the airfield track in Sebring, Florida it was on 12 December, while the round before, again at Monza, was only just short of three months earlier.
This odd scheduling wasn't confined to the year's end either. After the two season-closers mentioned there was no South African Grand Prix in 1964, and it returned as the season-opener in 1965. No biggie you might think, but it came about rather deliciously. The local organisers this time decided to put the race's date back by a week, moving it to…1 January. Meaning that rather than being the final race of the 1964 F1 season it became the first race of 1965's. Bernie would never stand for that sort of nonsense.
The tradition of season-openers in January indeed is much more of a prominent feature of F1 past. It not only stretches back much further – the 1953 Argentine Grand Prix held on 18 January started the trend – it was continued on and off with the Argentine and South African races variously and later joined by the Brazilian round which arrived in 1973. It also was last done perhaps surprisingly recently – in 1982 when Alain Prost won the South African Grand Prix, by now at Kyalami, it was on but 23 January. Imagine the F1 season start proper was less than a month away already…
Enough imagining though; more explaining. How did what appears an incredibly incoherent, perhaps madcap, annual F1 calendar come about, and routinely? Well it in large part reflects the genesis of the F1 world championship, wherein the Grand Prix pre-dated the world championship by several decades.
Therefore many Grands Prix existed, as non-championship events, before joining the actual F1 world championship as a points-paying round. In a reverse to what happens today the F1 calendar would go to them rather than the other way around. Furthermore these races were scheduled in their own terms, usually at the height of their summer, without much heed of where the other F1 rounds were and consequently them being scattered incongruously throughout the calendar year was common. Drivers more broadly barely got a weekend off in those days. In addition to the points-paying Grandes Epreuves, admittedly less numerous back then, we had the host of non-championship rounds. The latter were not to be dismissed lightly as their number could be stunning. Take 1954, where the legendary scribe Nigel Roebuck takes up the story:
"There may have been only eight World Championship Grands Prix (at Buenos Aires, Spa, Reims, Silverstone, the Nurburgring, Berne, Monza and Barcelona), but there were also non-championship F1 races at – deep breath – Syracuse, Pau, Bordeaux, Bari, Rome, Chimay, Rouen, Caen, Pescara, Cadours and Avus.
"And that's not counting the UK, either. If you were a British fan back then, you had the chance to see F1 cars racing at Goodwood (three meetings), Snetterton (2), Davidstow, Crystal Palace (2), Silverstone, Oulton Park, Castle Combe and Aintree. Makes the current British racing scene seem more than a little sad, doesn't it?"
Roebuck added another consideration when comparing then with now, and which helped this situation come about, that then "there was virtually no testing, beyond the occasional morning at Silverstone, or whatever."
In addition to and related to this F1 drivers would take part in several other motorsport series too, and this often would stretch on for most of the calendar's 12 months. As noted in a previous column for this site Jim Clark in his triumphant 1965 year not only took in championship and non-championship F1 but also among other things the Indy 500, F2 (in two different countries), saloon cars (the forerunner to the BTCC), sports cars and the Tasman Series in Australia and New Zealand for 2.5 litre cars that stretched through January and February. The next year he even took part in the RAC Rally… Therefore driving in December or January for the F1 world championship or not was no grand detour. Nor was going for months between the then for more sparsely distributed F1 world championship events.
The South African Grand Prix was long established indeed before it became a championship round, indeed its existence stretched back all the way to 1934. By 1962 it was firmly set in the week between Christmas and New Year – the height of South African summer as intimated – and the previous two years' events had been run at East London first as a Formula Libre then as a non-championship F1 event, attracting fine fields of top line drivers. Underlining this the respective winners were none other than Stirling Moss and Jim Clark. Turning it into a world championship event was therefore no great leap.
Indeed there was something of a mini stop-off in South Africa in those days. In the first South African Grande Epreuve in 1962 there were non-championship F1 races in the country in each of the previous two weekends as well, the Rand Grand Prix at the then-new Kyalami track and then the Natal Grand Prix at Westmead.
There was a similar tale with the other January round mentioned, the Argentine Grand Prix which debuted on the world championship calendar in 1953, as its fore-runner Buenos Aires Grand Prix stretched back to 1930.
Such events' popularity among F1 folk were aided by that most jumped at the chance to follow the sun for the peak of Argentine or South African summer rather than endure grim winter in Europe, as confirmed by South African journalist Roger McCleery. "Grand Prix days in the 1960s were magic: good weather and races run in front of huge crowds from all over South Africa. Some of the top drivers in the world arrived to enjoy the sunshine and their holidays – Stirling Moss, Jo Bonnier, Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, John Surtees to name just a few. It was a Who's Who of the racing world".
Roebuck concurs: "Yes, the drivers found it very agreeable to be somewhere hot during the European winter".
The heat of these places in December or January could be intense. Many reckon that the 1955 Argentine Grand Prix was the hottest in F1 history – some 51C on track and 36C in the shade – and the winner Juan Manuel Fangio recalled that it was so hot during the race that he thought his car had caught fire.
As for why this way of things fell away, well you can probably guess a few of the reasons as F1 moved towards its modern form. Roebuck talking in the year 2000 explains some of it: "Today we have 17 Grands Prix, spaced at fortnightly intervals, which takes up 34 weeks of the year. Such is the level of technology today, and such the consequent amount of testing, that the teams positively need the 18 remaining weeks to prepare for the coming season. No one likes the compression of the season - Ye Gods, next year's World Championship begins with Australia, weekend off, Malaysia, weekend off, and Brazil, which means a long-haul flight every week for six weeks – but really there's no way round it."
So a larger calendar in an age of greater professionalism and more advanced technology with more resultant testing and preparation gave less opportunity of holding isolated events in what are Europe's winter months. The greater commercial rewards from the new F1 meant they had less need to either (chasing prize money, then about the only source of revenue, was a big incentive for squeezing in so many races back in the day).
Technical changes between F1 seasons too used to be much less frequent, certainly such changes with the chassis were near unheard of prior to the early 1980s, meaning a potential stumbling block to January starts of the need to have a gleaming new car for the opening round, did not exist. Turning up to early rounds with the previous year's car was a frequent undertaking until the last couple of decades. Some cars, including classics like the Lotus 72 and McLaren M23, were raced for several years. With the two cars mentioned six and five seasons respectively, to be precise.
I'd imagine too that Bernie Ecclestone, by the 1980s realising the value in selling the entire F1 season as a coherent single package to TV, would also have seen the rather glaring sense in having the campaign's races clustered together as much as possible rather than having perhaps months between them, where any sort of narrative thread and interest can be lost.
Strange though it is to the modern perspective for a long time TV didn't really think of the sport in terms of a championship whole. In that regard it was not at all far removed from the individual isolated Grands Prix of the pre-world championship days. Anyone who has watched the 1: Life on the Limit film will recall Alexander Hesketh saying that it was only as the famous 1976 championship showdown in Fuji neared that Bernie's wheeze to acquire F1's broadcast rights made itself felt. Amusingly too BCE had offered each of the constructors an equal share of the rights in return for a token sum of $100,000 each, and each of the constructors thought 'just think how much testing we could do with that money', and thus turned the offer down… John Hogan also regaled that Bernie too only sold the broadcasters the rights for that Fuji race if they committed to show every other round also.
Indeed it was only in 1979 that the BBC set up a regular highlights programme showing all F1 rounds in Britain and at around the same point only the British and perhaps the Monaco Grand Prix would be shown live in that country.
The New Year races therefore were on borrowed time for a number of reasons, but their precise point of departure came about through circumstance. By 1981 the Brazilian and Argentine rounds had been moved from January to the European spring (and their autumn), which left South Africa placed alone at the year's immediate outset. The final January race there was in 1982 as mentioned, but there was supposed to be an early Kyalami round in 1983 also. But then the sport all of a sudden majored on chassis regulation changes. Finally the dread ground effect – with its associated massive downforce, rock hard suspension and plenty of breakages and accidents – was with the introduction of flat-bottomed cars outlawed by FISA citing force majeure in the name of safety late in 1982. And I mean very late as the fundamental change depriving the cars of over half of their downforce was announced on 14 October. And it was to come in for the start of the following season.
Perhaps even more remarkably in a sport which had in its immediately preceding years distinguished itself mainly in acrimony, and despite some grumbling that this was in flagrant breach of the Concorde Agreement (some things never change, eh?), everyone agreed to this, on the condition that they had more time to comply with the new regs by moving the South African season-opener scheduled for 12 February to the year's end. The South African organisers weren't too happy with this, but brightened up some time later when they discovered they'd be getting a three-way title showdown instead. By 1984 the South African race was moved back towards the start of the year, but now was later on 7 April. Not having two of the races too close to each other perhaps was part of it, but so were doubts about the race going ahead at all with a sponsor pulling out and FISA demanding safety improvements to the circuit.
The round was quickly gone anyway, the net of Apartheid controversy closed up even on F1 eventually and the notorious 1985 visit to South Africa was F1's last save for a brief return to a very different Kyalami track in 1992-93. March starts, somewhere like Brazil, became the norm. And that's how it is today.