History of the Formula 1 World Championship (3/3)

Conservative and apathetic, the CSI does not adapt well to a discipline that is changing ever faster. It disappeared in 1978, the FIA ​​replacing it on this occasion by another body, called FISA (International Federation of Motorsport), and placed at its head a French, energetic Jean-Marie Balestre. The latter is well aware of the issues with which the sports authority is confronted, and will immediately launch a series of reforms with the aim of completing the professionalization of the discipline: ban on the use of the cars of a manufacturer already engaged (de facto condemning private stables to disappear), limitation of the number of cars per team to two, regulations common to all Grand Prix ...

Conflicts of interest and struggles for influence (1979-1984)

The end of the 1970s also saw the rise of Bernie Ecclestone. This former F2 driver, who became driver manager before taking over the Brabham team after the retirement of its founder in 1971, had the smart idea to acquire the television broadcasting rights for the F1 world championship. A juicy investment through which he would become multibillionaire, but also gain considerable influence over other teams, as well as the faltering sporting power of the declining CSI. Like Balestre, Ecclestone had strong ideas about the future of Formula One, and he was determined to impose them.

At the same time, the discipline was experiencing a series of technical revolutions. Lotus, once again, would break Ferrari's dominance and crush the 1978 season with an aerodynamic innovation, ground effect, which improved handling and allowed cars to reach unprecedented cornering speeds. The French manufacturer Michelin was soon to acquire a dominant position thanks to its radial tires. As for the Renault control room, it would embark on the unprecedented adventure of a turbo engine, used for the first time in 1977 and which would win its first victory in 1979.

These innovations would serve as catalysts for future conflicts. Balestre and FISA, which wanted to develop F1 by attracting the major car manufacturers and their immense technical and financial resources, benefited from the support of these: FIAT (through Ferrari), Renault, Alfa Romeo, plus a few others. "legalistic" stables. In front of them, the other teams, mainly British, had grouped around Ecclestone in the FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) to defend their interests.

The two camps clashed openly from 1980. FISA intended to keep control of F1 and multiplied the new rules, not hesitating to resort to sanctions to enforce them. This attitude aroused the indignation of FOCA, which organized strikes, boycotts and even a stillborn "counter-championship" in 1981. The first "Concorde agreements", signed soon after, did not ease tensions. On the pretext of the safety problems posed by ground-effect cars, FISA wanted to ban them, while FOCA members saw in them the only way to cope, with their status as "craftsmen", to turbo engines. more and more efficient from the big manufacturers.

Thus, the fight resumed in 1982: strike - ephemeral - of the pilots in South Africa, then of the stables of the FOCA during the Grand Prix of San Marino. But the season was particularly murderous, with the deaths of Riccardo Paletti and the popular and fiery Gilles Villeneuve, as well as the serious accident of his teammate, friend and rival Didier Pironi. FISA used these tragedies as a pretext to impose a ban on ground effect cars from 1983, thus winning its duel against FOCA.

The advent of spectacle sport (1985-1993)

The latter quickly put up with it: the audience drained by the generalization of television broadcasts and the spectacular nature of the powerful turbo-powered F1 cars, as well as the enormous sums injected into the discipline by the major car manufacturers, benefited everyone. . Balestre, who passed from the head of FISA to the presidency of the FIA ​​in 1985, continued his work of homogenization at a now well-regulated pace: 16 Grands Prix per season, 26 qualified per race, 2 cars per team painted identically , compulsory presence at each event under pain of a fine… Ecclestone, for his part, left his Brabham team in 1987 to devote himself exclusively to the management of television rights. That same year, the second part of the Concorde agreements confirmed this situation.

This is the reign of turbo engines. Renault, which introduced them, did not reap the benefits, Ferrari, Brabham-BMW and McLaren-TAG Porsche capping the French team at the post, before Honda installed its domination through Williams, then McLaren . Turbos, ever more powerful, grab all the victories from 1984. But their development costs take off, reducing the number of teams, while the spectacular increase in performance undermines safety. Turbo engines were first constrained indirectly by limiting the size of the fuel tank, then directly with the addition of special valves, before finally being banned from 1989.

The return to favor of naturally aspirated engines and favorable economic conditions led, at the end of the 1980s, to the arrival in F1 of a plethora of teams with very uneven performances - some of them hardly ever making it past the pre-stage. Friday morning qualifiers. However, this euphoria did not last and from 1992 a severe crisis hit F1. Many teams disappear, including prestigious ones like Brabham or Lotus, while McLaren, Ferrari and Williams continue to hold the upper hand.

This period will be remembered as that of the rivalry between Alain Prost, the first - and only to date - French world champion, and the Brazilian Ayrton "Magic" Senna. A clash that would mark the history of the discipline and go to the last extremes, clashes and controversies included. Despite their immense talent, their best contemporaries Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell did not leave such a lasting mark. A sign of an era under their complete domination, the four of them, Prost, Senna, Piquet and Mansell won 11 world titles in 13 years (1981-1993). As for Senna and Prost, they shared the entire Monaco Grand Prix, the most prestigious and difficult event of the season, contested between 1984 and 1993.

Safety first (1994-2004)

In 1993, Jean-Marie Balestre stepped down, ceding his place as head of the FIA ​​to Max Mosley, who was none other than the former lawyer and a close friend of Bernie Ecclestone. The latter thus strengthens his hold on F1, a new era begins. The FIA ​​is dissolving its sports branch to take over directly the management of Formula 1: FISA no longer has a raison d'être. Powerful but expensive cars with active suspension, dominant since 1992, were banned, again in an attempt to reduce costs and try to stem the crisis.

Several years of positive safety results - the last fatal accident was in 1986 - had blunted the vigilance of sports authorities in this area, despite several serious injuries and other serious alerts. The infamous 1994 San Marino Grand Prix would prove that the importance of luck had been underestimated in this flattering record. Barrichello injured on Friday, Ratzenberger killed on Saturday, a mechanic and some spectators swollen on Sunday and above all, the death during the race of the triple world champion Ayrton Senna.

Its sudden disappearance, like a thunderclap in a clear sky, left the world of F1 disoriented. It acts as an electric shock, bringing the issue of security to the fore when it had until then, despite all efforts in this area, been a secondary concern. After the first emergency measures (reduced performance of the cars, hasty modifications of the circuits), others were to follow, more lasting. More and more drastic safety standards will be imposed on single-seaters, and the construction or repair of circuits would henceforth always be undertaken with the safety of the pilots in mind, set up as a paradigm. The F1 gained in safety there but, in the eyes of many purists, it left a little of its soul there, arguing from now on on aseptic circuits and lacking cachet.

The next ten years were marked by fluctuating and increasingly omnipresent regulations. The FIA ​​pursues a dual objective, which smacks of schizophrenia: on the one hand, to raise the level of the peloton, to offer a quality show and therefore maintain the amount of television rights at high prices; and on the other hand, reduce costs to make discipline affordable. The first objective is reached, but the back-grid teams suffer and disappear. By the mid-1990s, the number of teams entered no longer exceeded 10 or 11.

The tragedies of 1994 made it easier for the Benetton stable and their colt Michael Schumacher to come to the fore. He moved to Ferrari in 1996, where he earned his nickname “Red Baron” and five world titles to add to the two acquired with his previous employer. The association Michael Schumacher (pilot) - Jean Todt (sporting director) - Ross Brawn (technical director) will end up becoming unbeatable and “Schumi”, the man of all records, will be without real rival - except perhaps Mika Hakkinen . McLaren and Williams’s efforts hardly dented Ferrari’s dominance, complete by 2000.

Present and future (2005-2010)

The trend that began in the mid-1990s was to become even more pronounced, with ever stricter regulations, both technical and sporting. There hasn't been a season that hasn't seen its fair share of rule changes, sometimes without real consistency despite a stated goal that remains the same: to reduce costs while improving the show. This management, sometimes more mercantile than sporting, of the Mosley-Ecclestone duo, aroused growing criticism from most of the teams involved. The dispute would culminate in 2009 with, once again, the threat of a dissident championship ... It will take the renegotiation of the Concorde agreements, and the departure of Max Mosley, replaced at the head of the FIA ​​by Jean Todt, to calm things down.

This period was also marked by the massive and increasingly direct commitment of the major car manufacturers: Renault, Toyota, BMW, Honda set up their own teams and were no longer satisfied with the role of engine manufacturer, or even of partners. . They thus come to compete with Ferrari and Mercedes, in close partnership with McLaren since 1995. The “craftsmen” of F1, meanwhile, almost all disappear, and see their teams taken over by billionaires whose interest in F1 is sometimes fleeting. .

However, the financial crisis of 2008 prompted automakers to withdraw as massively and quickly as they had started in Formula 1, leaving essentially only Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes. The latter will even go against the grain in 2010, by setting up its own team. This situation favors the emergence of new teams, like Red Bull or the ephemeral, but triumphant Brawn, and new talents, such as Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel.

While he does not appear threatened in the short term, the future of F1 is no less uncertain. The restrictive rules intended to save money for the entrants are shaping an increasingly “one-design” formula, with the switch to a single tire supplier in 2007, or the arrival in 2010 of a low-cost “generic” engine. designed by Cosworth. While it seems desirable from a financial point of view, this development is no less contrary to the spirit of competition which attracts the big car manufacturers.

In addition, the F1 of tomorrow will be dependent on the changes in a civilization which, if it is no longer based on cars as it could be sixty years ago, nonetheless remains closely dependent on that -this. Formula One will thus have to adapt to an era raising major environmental issues that are quite contradictory to the very concept of motor racing ... and which, therefore, also makes it resemble, in a certain way, a (yet very popular ) relic of the past.

Sources : The Fabulous History of Formula 1, from its origins to the present day, by Christian Moity, Gérard Flocon and Johnny Rives is a reference work. First published by Nathan in 1991, it was reissued and updated in 1999 by Éditions de la Martinière. It can be supplemented, on the Internet, by the excellent site, a veritable gold mine filled with all kinds of data, statistics, information, photographs, even if some texts are sometimes rough.

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