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Formula One: From humble beginnings to billion dollar business

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Formula One

Formula One: From humble beginnings to billion dollar business

Andrew Regan
February 20, 2008

The first Formula One world championship race took place at Silverstone race track in Britain in 1950 and was won by Italian Giuseppe Farina, who only just managed to defeat his Argentine team mate Juan Manual Fangio. However, Fangio won the championship five times over the next ten years, earning him the title of “grand master” of Formula One from many motor sport enthusiasts.

During this initial period, Formula One was almost entirely dominated by teams run by car manufacturers, including Ferrari and Mercedes Benz. However, over the next 20 years the sport of Formula One changed dramatically with the introduction of not only engineering innovations such as fuel injection and aluminium chassis but also instances of sponsorship in the sport - the first being when Lotus painted Imperial Tobacco livery on their cars in 1968. Lotus was also the first team to introduce ground effect aerodynamics that helped the cars increase their cornering speeds by providing tremendous down force.

Significant business decisions were made during the 1970s, when a man by the name of Bernie Ecclestone rearranged the way Formula One’s commercial rights were managed. Ecclestone gained a seat on the Formula One Constructors Association following his purchase of the Brabham team in 1971, before becoming the president of the association in 1978.

Ecclestone began offering Formula One as a package to circuit owners they could either take or leave, when previously the circuit owners negotiated with the teams individually and controlled the teams’ income. In return for this package, almost all circuit owners had to surrender trackside advertising, thus beginning the big money business of Formula One sponsorship that has seen tobacco companies, car credit and consumer finance companies and oil companies among numerous corporate sponsors all spending millions of pounds to have their names and logos on the cars and alongside the racetrack.

Technological advancements continued to be made throughout the late 70’s and 80’s including the introduction and subsequent banning of turbocharged engines. Perhaps one of the more significant developments were electronic driver aids, with the first active suspension system being used by Lotus in 1982, followed by a progression to semi-automatic gearboxes and traction control. Despite complaints that new technologies were determining the outcome of races more than the drivers’ skill, a move to ban the new electronic aids proved fruitless as it was discovered that a ban on such aids was hard to police.

The teams of McLaren and Williams dominated throughout the 80s and into the 90s, with the rivalry between F1 legends Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost capturing fans' attention all over the world until Prost’s retirement in 1993. Senna’s death during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 also made Formula One authorities look more closely at driver safety standards - a move which has ensured no further driver fatalities in the sport since that day.

The dawn of the new millennium was also a new dawn for Formula One as Michael Schumacher, a skilful German driver, began his dominance of the sport, eventually winning an unprecedented five consecutive driver championships with his team, Ferrari, picking up six constructers championships. During this time racing authorities made a number of changes to the rules regarding the qualifying format for races, the points scoring system and more besides. These changes were designed to increase safety and combat the spiralling cost of Formula One.

But, despite worryingly low viewing figures for racing seasons in the early 2000s, the future of the sport looks bright, with Bernie Ecclestone organising a number of races in new countries, expanding Formula One into new areas of the globe and attracting new teams and drivers, all looking to pit their wits against the big boys of the sport.

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