The 2020 Formula One season finally gets underway this weekend in Austria after months of delay due to the global coronavirus pandemic, and while fans have obviously been itching for the season to start, F1 has done an excellent job of entertaining its followers in the meantime. In the past, it’s been tricky for younger fans to educate themselves on the sport’s history, with F1 removing full races that get posted to video-sharing platforms. But when the pandemic postponed the season, F1’s Youtube channel stepped up by airing legendary races, often twice a week. While I’d witnessed the most famous moments in highlight reels, watching the full races, including pre- and post-race coverage, was an invaluable experience. Here’s what I discovered as I watched F1 classics.
1. T.V. Directing
The T.V. directing in 2019 drew plenty of criticism, such as when the director cut to a shot of the crowd as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc battled at Silverstone. But things were far worse a few decades ago. The camera often focused on the leader while battles raged behind—during the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, the camera followed Ayrton Senna for over four minutes while he built an 11 second lead over Gerhard Berger, who had Alain Prost right on his tail. Eventually, even announcer Murray Walker got exasperated, exclaiming “It would be very nice if we could have a look at some of the other runners instead of Ayrton Senna, good as he is.”
Additionally, replays of passes and incidents often took ages to be shown, and many scraps in the midfield never even got screen time. During the 2003 British Grand Prix, just as Ralf Schumacher dove down the inside of Jenson Button, the director cut to the Antônio Pizzonia’s beached Jaguar, and it took over two minutes for Schumacher’s pass to be shown in replay. The T.V. director also had far fewer camera angles to work with, especially when it came to onboards: at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix, Ralf Schumacher’s Williams carried the sole onboard camera.
Watching old races made me realize just how much I had taken modern graphics for granted. From 1994 until 2010, the lap number graphic counted down, requiring viewers to perform quick calculations to figure out what lap the race was on, and before 1994, there wasn’t even a graphic for the lap number. A key aspect that makes modern races easy to follow is the nearly constant presence of the timing tower along the left side of the screen, which didn’t arrive until 2004. Before then, the standings occasionally appeared at the bottom of the screen, and the whole field was never shown at once. With less information on the screen during the classic races, I had to keep a keen eye out and rely on the announcers to really follow the action.
Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash in 2014 prompted sweeping changes to F1’s safety standards, with the halo being introduced in 2015 and the race director relying more heavily on safety cars, virtual and real, when there are incidents on track. A few decades ago, however, the safety standards were atrocious.
For instance, the rainy 1994 Japanese Grand Prix saw Gianni Morbidelli crash on the 13th lap, producing a yellow flag in the area as marshals retrieved his car. Not long after, in a harrowingly similar way to Bianchi, Martin Brundle went careening across the grass towards the recovery vehicle, luckily missing it but sending a marshal spinning through the air. The marshal’s leg was broken and the red flag was thrown, but it shouldn’t have taken an injury to prompt a stoppage during such a torrential downpour, which saw nine cars crash out in just 15 laps.
Another strange safety incident occurred during the 1999 Australian Grand Prix, when Alex Zanardi’s crash brought out the safety car. While race control and the commentators knew the safety car had been deployed, the signal failed to reach the drivers and trackside marshals. With no yellow flags being waved, leaders Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen caught up to the safety car at racing speeds, nearly causing a catastrophic accident. These were just two of the more egregious lapses in safety I noticed—there were plenty of other instances of cranes or cars being left trackside that easily could have become tragedies.
F1 banned refueling after the 2009 season, aiming to reduce costs and improve safety, and while I’d seen plenty of IndyCar races with refueling, watching these classics on Youtube was my first time seeing it play out in F1. Refueling certainly added another element to race strategy, as teams had to not only decide on and manage their own fuel loads, but also attempt to work out the fuel levels of their rivals. However, I ultimately found that refueling limited the races’ excitement—drivers were more confined to a stop lap, since it’s harder to stretch fuel than it is to run an extra lap on worn tires. It also made it more confusing to keep track of the pit stop cycles, especially without a constant timing tower.
Before 2008, F1 teams could also bring a spare car to race weekends, allowing drivers to make a last minute switch if their car broke down on the grid or if the race was restarted after a destructive first lap. Having a backup may sound great, but it sometimes led to awkward moments, like during the 1999 Australian Grand Prix. Both Stewart cars suffered oil leaks on the starting grid, and as the marshals tried to remove the crippled cars, Rubens Barrichello and Johnny Herbert both hurried to get to the spare car. Barrichello made it first, making Herbert the race’s first retirement. While the 2008 ban on spare cars not only reduced the cost for teams, it also made things more fair between each team’s drivers.
5. Aggregate Races
Before I watched the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, I had never heard of aggregate racing. When the aforementioned incident involving Morbidelli, Brundle, and the marshal brought out the red flag, as per the rules of the time, the race was effectively split in half. This meant that the results at the end of the race would be decided by adding the drivers’ times from before the red flag to their times from after the red flag. Thus, when the cars returned to the track, the gaps between them were not indicative of the actual gaps in the standings, since the times prior to the red flag still had to be taken into account.
This quickly became confusing as the race progressed, especially with the limits of the period graphics, and it meant that some of the on-screen passes weren’t actually for position. I ultimately found that it detracted from the excitement of the race finish, and I’m relieved that F1 has changed its red flag rules, even if the viewing experience could be easier to follow with modern graphics.