Thursday 29 January 2015

Non-championship F1 races - time to bring them back?

Recently for Grand Prix Times I wrote an article looking at the 1965 year of the late and very great Jim Clark (you can have a read of it here). Why that year in particular? Well, partly it was because we're now exactly 50 years on from it, but especially because without hyperbole it was likely the most astonishing calendar year of motorsport success undertaken by anyone ever.

To the modern eye his achievements read like something from fantasy - in addition to winning the F1 title in record time he also within those 12 months bagged the Indianapolis 500, two F2 championships as well as took a couple of race victories each in sports cars and in saloons.

Jim Clark's 1965 included as many as
12 non-championship F1 races.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via
Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.
Of course your initial response to hearing this might be to point out that back then the F1 championship calendar was much more sparse, which left far greater time for other things, and that is true. In 1965 the offical itinerary consisted of ten races, around half of what we have in the modern era. But factor in that on the other hand travel and logistics is much easier now than it was then. More pointedly factor in too that in addition to his championship schedule Clark - as many of his contemporaries did and in every year - took part in a number of non-championship F1 races.

You may be wondering at this point what the heck I'm on about - but time was that the F1 annual schedule on top of the points-paying stuff had a handful, and sometimes a big handful, of Grands Prix that didn't count towards the title scoring. The non-championship races that I mentioned.

Britain was especially well-served by them, with the International Trophy at Silverstone taking place as an F1 event almost every year between 1949 and 1978, the Race of Champions (not to be confused with its current namesake) at Brands Hatch which was first held in 1965 and last happened in 1983, and the Oulton Park Gold Cup which existed as an F1 race on and off from 1954 to 1972. Therefore British fans of a certain vintage could have seen F1 cars racing on three separate occasions - and not one of them the British Grand Prix - before even the spring was out.

In 1965 in addition to everything else Clark took part in four non-championship F1 races; 12 if you include the Tasman Series, a succession of races in Australia and New Zealand for old-spec F1 cars. And he won seven of them, natch.

And why did they exist? For a variety of reasons. Sponsors would get an additional airing (which is why a lot of them were in Britain, as at the time many of the sponsors were British). Additionally they would be treated as de facto test sessions and shakedowns by the teams before the business part of the season in European summer kicked off - it wasn't coincidence that the bulk of these races were held in springtime. The rest of us outsiders looking in meanwhile had welcome extra opportunities to see the cars up close, as well as to get a few hints at the year's lay of the competitive land. Their more relaxed atmosphere relative to a championship race also added to the attraction.

Occasionally too the non-championship rounds acted as a dry run for new venues before they got onto the championship schedule proper, as was the case for Mexico City, Imola and Interlagos among others. But even over and above all of these reasons there were a few of the weird and wonderful among them - such as in 1974 when the fraternity was invited to remain in Brazil for an extra week after the points-paying Grand Prix at Interlagos to attend a street race in Brasilia, put on for a variety of political reasons by the country's then-President. He named the race after himself in case anyone didn't get the message. As it was only half of the field took up the offer and the race reportedly was tepid. The locals did get the consolation of home hero Emerson Fittipaldi winning, but F1 machines never laid rubber on the place again.

The Race of Champions at Brands Hatch was a fixture for a
long while. This is James Hunt in the 1976 version.
"Jame Hunt RoC 77" by Gillfoto - Own work. Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.
Of course, the quality of these events could vary. Some had paltry turnouts among the competitors - pity anyone who turned up to Vallelunga in mid 1972 for the Grand Prix of the Republic of Italy to find only seven cars to entertain them. But that wasn't the norm. Many of the greats took part in non-championship races. Many of them indeed excelled. Some of the races were thrilling. Jochen Rindt's 1969 Silverstone International Trophy effort for one is the stuff of legend.

The end of the non-championship Grand Prix was however sudden. As late as in 1972 there were as many as six non-championship races (four in Britain), but come 1976 only the hardy Silverstone and Brands events lived on. And the former race met its watery grave (literally, as the race was held in near flooded conditions) in 1978 while the latter disappeared in 1979. It was back in 1983, but slightly inauspiciously, and it proved a final, isolated, dead cat bounce, and the final non-championship F1 race to date. The growing F1 title itinerary, and its growing commercial rewards, was proving supreme. The age of the non-championship race was over.

But have matters turned back in recent times? Or rather should they? As while in the age of 24/7 testing one can understand why the non-championship round became extinct, in the current age of severe testing restrictions what exactly is stopping the resurrection of the non-championship F1 race?

As veteran journalist Alan Henry put it: 'We loved 'em! And just imagine how much you would still love 'em now if, as you read this on the sunny Sunday of the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, instead you were en route to Brands Hatch or Silverstone or indeed even Oulton Park to watch a Non-Championship Formula 1 race involving Jenson Button, Checo Perez, Fernando Alonso...'

And indeed when I raised the subject of Clark's decorated and choc-a-bloc 1965 year on Twitter, and its non-championship F1 rounds, I got into a pleasant conversation therein in which we spoke about these sort of races being brought back, and the many potential advantages of doing so.

Could Imola return via a non-championship race?
"GP Imola2005 SchumiAlonso" by http://formula1photos.tn38.
net -
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
Just like back in the day sponsors could get an additional airing. Just like back in the day too the race meetings could become de facto test sessions and shakedowns, surely which would be welcomed by the teams in an age wherein such opportunities are strictly rationed. They could also provide desperately-needed opportunities for third drivers and others who pace around in the wings waiting perhaps in vain for their chance - potentially a rule of the non-championship races could be that at least one nominal reserve or rookie pilot has to be raced.

And while the testing restriction of course has been been brought in to save costs, the ticket sales from having a race to offer to fans (surely which would far outstrip the attendance for a test session) could well make up for the greater running costs.

Just like back in the day new venues wanting onto the championship proper could be tried out too. Mooted changes such as to the weekend's running - such as two-day race weekends, or Formula E-style squeezing everything into a single day - could be experimented with. So could shortened races, or running things in heats.

Best of all classic and popular venues could be brought back, with a reduced hosting fee. Having the calendar peppered with F1 rounds at Imola, France, Estoril and elsewhere - that famous long list priced out of the current inflated market - is rather enticing even if they didn't count towards the title.

But herein lies a stumbling block; probably an insurmountable one, at least for now. Surely, and sadly, Bernie would not welcome being undercut. Having the option for a cheaper Grand Prix would have a downward impact on the hosting fees that could be demanded everywhere, as the negotiating circuit suddenly has a fall back, rather than facing the choice of a Grand Prix at top dollar or nothing. So non-championship rounds in these terms would undermine what is central to F1's financial model right now.

Therefore, regrettably, that while the non-championship round seems a good idea it's also one that will likely have to wait for the post-Bernie age, or else a revision to the fundamental of modern F1's revenue-raising. More's the pity.

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