Much like IndyCar, Formula One has also threatened to split multiple times, but for one crucial moment - ahead of it American counterpart - it did go separate ways for a few races. This is the story of the F1 series that never was.
There are huge debates by experts and wish-to-be-experts about the era that can be considered as the Golden Age of Formula One. One discipline teaches it being Jim Clark’s reign with the mid-engine British cars running around Europe without wings or advertisements. Some might quote the Prost vs. Senna clashes, while I reside on two different ages of the sport.
One is when F1 was the fastest ever in the early 2000s, the other coincides with the age of Gilles Villeneuve, i.e. between 1977 and 1982. 1977 was the year when aerospace-like British engineering and big-time car manufacturers’ research clashed for the first time with Lotus bringing ground effects into play with its no. 78 chassis and Renault introducing turbocharging to F1 for the first time. The two disciplines (i.e. power vs. aero) went head to head along different interests and while they were also married in a lethal combination on some cars, it nearly caused Formula One to split along those lines - and actually it briefly did - forcing the FIA (or rather its then-sporting subsidiary, the FISA) to step in and imposing a two-phase end to the debate by regulations - a near-unprecedented decision.
To get a better insight to the story, we must turn the wheel of time back to 1967. ‘67 is considered to be one of the major cross-sections in Formula One history. It was the second year cars were stepping up from their formerly F2-homologated powerplants to sport three-litre engines for the first time in many years, but it was also just one year before the first title sponsor appeared on the Lotus - giving the industry a rocket fuel-powered boost -, but more importantly to our story it was a year before the first wings appeared and the year when the Cosworth DFV V8 was first bolted in a Formula One car.
For those unfamiliar with Formula One’s engineering past, the Cosworth DFV - and its derivatives - is the single most successful racing engine of all time. This engine was on the market for almost thirty years and powered F1, F3000, IndyCar and many other types of racing cars in various evolutions for decades. It was the go-to engine when you wanted to build a racing machine and needed a relatively powerful, but reliable power source.
Denny Hulme won its first year in the
Lotus with the Cosworth-Ford engine Brabham-Repco, and for 1968 Lotus lost the exclusive rights to the powerplant that spreaded like wildfire among the teams. Given the fact that it coincided with the discovery of aerodynamic downforce, the British teams were quick to experiment with the new phenomena that irreversibly changed motor racing for good. There was a lot more potential in creating cars that were faster and faster around corners - aided by wings - than trying to churn out even more power from the engine. The proven Cosworth powerplant thus became a de facto standard, so much so, that by the mid-70s, any car that virtually wasn’t a Ferrari or an oddball was powered by a Cosworth DFV.
During this short time, aerodynamics transformed Formula One cars from something that looked like a toy to something that resembled greatly a current, standard single-seater.
1977 thus truly turned out to be Star Wars on the race tracks - not just in the movie theatres - as the next phase in aerodynamics and engine development arrived in the sport at the same time. The “Rebels”, the British racing teams (or Lotus, precisely) came up with ground effects, which was essentially sculpting the side pods to a reversed wing profile on the bottom with rubber sealing on the sides, effectively turning the whole underside of the car into a giant wing, creating unbelievable amounts of downforce. The “Empire” i.e. the manufacturer teams (Renault, in this instance) dusted off a long-time not used regulation on the engines. By the then-current rules one could field a car with a three-litre normally aspirated engine (as most teams did with the Cosworth DFV) or one with a 1.5-litre forced-induction engine. Supercharging was not an uncommon feature in the earlier years of F1, but Renault - forced by upper management - went on to experiment with turbocharging as the company felt that the automobile industry would be having a role in applying the feature in road cars in the future and they wanted to lead the charge. A turbocharger uses the power of the exhaust gases to force more air in the combustion chamber, that enables burning even more fuel with it, thus it is possible to churn more power out of the same sized engine than its normally aspirated counterpart, which is why F1 regulations tried to create an equilibrium between the two schools by adjusting a maximum displacement for both to achieve the same power output.
There it was then: the stem of the war between the out-of-the-box thinking independent teams and the industrially dictating manufacturers. The competition of course - as usual - wasn’t just looming on the drawing boards and the race tracks, but behind the scenes, in meetings and offices. The main difference between the parties were economical and as such, political as well. The manufacturers of the time, Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo seemed to be able to spend unlimited amounts of money on the sport, while the smaller teams tried to keep up with the charge, using their engineering talent. The independent forces called the FISA for a fairer distribution of revenues, and they all lined up behind Bernie Ecclestone - who, at the time, was the head of Brabham, incidentally running Alfa Romeo engines and ground effects at the same time - and Max Mosley and created the Formula One Constructors’ Association, or FOCA for short.
If this scenario reminds you of happenings in F1 currently or a few years back, you are not wrong by any means.
The FOCA-FISA differences were largely ignored by the latter for the most part - being the actual regulating body - until they made a step towards the manufacturers. Under the contemporary minimum weight limit, the FOCA cars had an advantage due to their cars being lighter by the use of the Cosworth powerplants that would make up for much of the lack of power they suffered against the “FISA” teams’ engines. The FISA decided to raise the weight limit that would eliminate the parity deriving from it, leaving FOCA teams in a disadvantage.
By 1980, the war was on. Right in the middle of the championship, before arriving to Jarama, the scene of the 7th race of the year, the Spanish Grand Prix. Following a staged drivers’ boycott by FOCA drivers at the previous race in Monaco - exploiting a loophole in the rulebook - FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre issued fines with the threat of revoking their licences, which he did, right before the Spanish Grand Prix. The FOCA responded by threatening to leave F1 completely. King Juan Carlos and the Spanish autoclub had to intervene by paying FISA a deposit on behalf of the drivers and fearing a cancellation of the race, the autoclub circumvented the rules and went ahead staging the race under their own jurisdiction, cutting out the FISA completely. Thus, the race went on without FISA or its teams and without championship points.
Soon after the near-disaster, FOCA teams created their own governing body and - potentially - their very own racing series, titled The World Professional Drivers’ Championship under The World Federation of Motorsport banner, an alternative to the World Drivers’ Championship and the Formula One World Championship, and the two were set to go head to head the following year.
Following a near-settlement between FISA and FOCA teams during the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally - that would mitigate Balestre’s power over the sport in the governing body, resulting in him backing out of the deal - the WFoM went on with their bluff and staged a race in South Africa in early February. There was one small problem, though. Max Mosley describes an anecdote that saved the race from not happening in his recent autobiography. GoodYear pulled out of F1 at the end of 1980, only to be replaced by Michelin. Michelin had a contract with FISA and it seemed very unlikely that Balestre would allow the French tyre-manufacturer to supply the rival series with tyres. So - Bernie being Bernie - he cracked open one of his warehouses that was stuffed with Avon racing tyres from another series he had interest in, so the FOCA teams could start the first - and only - F1-rivalling race on a set of “barn-find” rubber. Eventually, the race was later classified as a Formula Libre (i.e. open-class) race, not even a non-championship F1 race - for good reasons.
More importantly for the story, though, Bernie - as the representative to the teams - managed to strike a deal with the FISA less than three weeks before the South African race that would leave the teams (i.e. Bernie) handle the commercial rights and the FISA (i.e. the FIA later on) being the regulatory body. This was the first Concorde agreement that has been governing the sport since, through various editions.
The FOCA-FISA war entered its last chapter in 1982 during the San Marino Grand Prix. As a direct consequence on the FISA’s raise of the minimum weight limit, the FOCA teams exploited a loophole in the regulations, citing liquids that can be topped at the end of races, before weight-measurement. Williams “invented” the water-cooled brakes that required a great amount of water to be included on board, which would count toward the overall weight of the car. However, the water was dropped quickly during the race - most likely on the first lap or the warm-up lap, enabling the cars running under the mandatory weight limit while still being legal as the tanks - by the rule - could be refilled before weighing. The FISA excluded Williams driver Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet of Brabham from the Brazilian Grand Prix, but the decision wasn’t made until before the season’s fourth round, the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola.
Following the decision, FOCA teams boycotted the race (except Tyrell, Osella, ATS and Toleman) and it was up to Ferrari to save the day for the Italian fans, running 1-2 the whole time, switching places. Apparently, Didier Pironi broke an unspoken agreement and went past Gilles Villeneuve in the last minute, finishing the race in such order, that enraged the Canadian so much, that went into revenge mode and wanted to destroy the French driver at the following race weekend in Belgium. Villeneuve drove way too fast in qualifying to set a faster time than his team-mate, which resulted in a crash that would claim his life.
For reasons as such and the dangers of ground effects involved - high downforce stuck the cars to the ground greatly, but an instant withdrawal of the effect, by e.g. running over a kerb or a bump, could make a car uncontrollable or indeed set it flying in the air - the FISA had to step in and impose an ultimate ban on ground effects from 1983, mandating a regulated flat underside to the cars. This was the first attempt in Formula One’s history that the regulatory body enforced changes to slow cars down. Although one can cite the ban on aerofoils in 1969 as being the first one, but the ban was restricted to the time until the design was changed as the high-in-the-air wings tended to collapse under pressure. From 1983, engine power became the main factor once more.
For 1986, normally aspirated engines were banned in Formula One. From 1987, normally aspirated engines were allowed once again with a turbo-boost restriction an forced induction engines. Turbocharged engines were banned at the end of 1988 with normally aspirated engines made compulsory, first in 3.5-litre form, followed by a 3-litre configuration (later restricted to a V10 layout), ending in a 2.4-litre V8 version up until 2013.
From 2014, 1.6-litre turbocharged hybrid engines have been mandated. From 2017, the FIA is planning a reintroduction of ground effects in F1.
There have been further attempts by various team’s associations to break away from F1, all of which were resolved in a short time. Bernie became the de facto owner of F1, Max became the successor of his once-enemy, Jean Marie Balsetre at the head of the FISA and the FIA. F1’s once main rival, IndyCar split and reunited in the meantime, losing most of its fanbase. Formula 1 is still the largest motorsport series in the world and the third most-watched TV programme, following the Summer Olympic Games and the Football World Cup.
It is unknown whether Bernie is hiding tyres, car parts or complete cars somewhere - just in case -, he does, however, own the rights to the title “GP1”.
[images are of Creative Commons licence; videos embedded are not mine]