A Short History of Formula 1, Using Lego Cars
If Grand Prix racing find its roots in legendary races from as early as the 1920s, Formula 1 itself didn't officially exist until a set of regulation that appeared in the few years after the end of World War II. Our story begins yet another couple of years after that, with the official introduction of the World Drivers' Championship in 1950.
Early beasts: the front-engined roots (1950-1958)
At that time, racing technology was still more or less inspired by what was done before WWII, with big, unruly front-engine machines. The early 1950s were dominated by Italian teams Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and of course Ferrari who joined the Championship at its second race ever, never leaving since then - despite regular threats.
The legends of Alberto Ascari, Moss, or Fangio, were forged in that era, and they still prevailed when in 1954 Formula 1 regulations changed to a new 2.5 liters engine. This change attracted more manufacturers, most notably Mercedes, returning to motorsport after having dominated pre-war Grand Prix racing along with fellow Germans Auto Union.
Mercedes arrived on the scene with impressively innovative cars, and promptly dominated the sport with Fangio and the legendary W196. But at the end of the 1955 season, Mercedes left racing altogether following the deadly race at Le Mans that year. Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari shared championships for the rest of the '50s.
The mid-engine revolution and the era of the "garagistes" (1959-1967)
The spark of the mid-engine revolution happened in 1958, when Moss won races on a small Cooper against the likes of Ferrari. By 1959, mid-engined cars dominated the sport, moved by the brand new Coventry-Climax engine. The Cooper-Climax of Brabham and Moss ruled these early days, while bigger teams like Ferrari lagged behind. Soon, Ferrari was the only factory team left to fight the hordes of small British teams, which Enzo nicknamed the "Garagistes" (the garage teams): Cooper, Lotus, BRM, Brabham, and later McLaren were all fighting for glory. Busy fighting Ford in Le Mans, Ferrari didn't shine much.
1967 saw the apparition of F1's most iconic engine, the Cosworth DFV V8, in the Lotus 49 (model above). Using its engine as a fully stressed member of the car proved inspired, as Lotus went on to take 4 titles before replacing it with the 72, powering Jim Clark to legendary status.
Flying wings: the early aerodynamics era (1968-1976)
By the end of the 1960s, F1 seemed touched by a curious sickness: appendages of all shapes were growing on the cars. Downforce had just begun its reign on motorsports.
The first winged cars were simple evolutions of the cigar-shaped cars designed before the discovery of the dark magic. But soon Lotus moved the sport years ahead in one go by introducing the striking 72. The 72 was the first car to have much of the features we still use to define F1 today: overhead air intake, sidepod-mounted radiators, and wings in both the front and the back.
Some garagistes started to disappear: Cooper was gone, Brabham on the decline, and BRM slowly faded away. At the front of the pack, Lotus, Ferrari, Matra/Tyrrell, and McLaren.
1976 will be remembered as one of F1's most iconic years, with Hunt and Lauda fighting it out in their respective McLaren and Ferrari. Meanwhile, Tyrrell (and others) where experimenting with six-wheeled cars, but Lotus lagged a bit behind by now. You can always count on them to come up with some revolutionary inventions, though...
F1 wears skirts (1977-1982)
The Brabham BT46 'Fan Car' tried to counter the ground effects with some great lateral thinking. But skirts (McLaren MP4/1) and turbos (Renault RS10) would prevail
And indeed, the genius of Lotus struck again: they came up with the rather radical idea to use the floor and sidepods of the car to create suction with what would be called ground effect. It produced massive amounts of downforce and didn't even create much drag.
But creative as it was, Lotus still got caught by the likes of Ferrari and Williams, who where using more traditionnal designs with success. Meanwhile, Renault was attempting to couple the power of the Ferrari engines with the compacity of the DFV by using the still unknown turbo technology. 1979 saw the first victory by a turbo car. Ferrari and Alfa Romeo soon followed, but because these engines still took too much crucial space under the car, they were left to face DFV-powered teams making full use of underbody aerodynamics and their skirts. This proved strenuous on F1, a political war led by a young(ish) Bernie Ecclestone resulting in the banning of the skirts and the conversion of most of the field to turbo engines.
In 1981 McLaren introduced the carbon-fiber monocoque to F1, and, led by a young Ron Dennis, entered its golden years.
1,400hp turbo monsters (1983-1988)
The explosive BMW turbo 4-pot that started it all in the Brabham BT56, and the last turbo monster, the McLaren MP4/4
By 1983, teams had clearly seen that to be competitive, you'd have to secure an expensive turbo engine. BMW, Renault, TAG-Porsche and Honda quickly destroyed the remains of the Cosworth DFV, and even Ferrari switched to forced induction.
In 1986, BMW estimated their four-cylinder engine, whose block was derived from a production engine, produced up to 1,400hp in quali guise. Of course, they didn't last long with that kind of pressure running through them; this was the era of quali engines and tires that lasted only a few explosive laps.
McLaren and Williams, both powered at some point by Honda, dominated the era, with the occasional Brabham-BMW flash of brilliance. The legends of Mansell, Piquet, Prost were forged in blow-off valve gasses. And of course, by 1988, the turbos' last season, a new face had made its mark on the sport: Ayrton Senna was now challenging Prost to titles, a rivalry that would exceed everything the sport had seen so far.
Senna, Prost, tobacco money and active suspensions (1989-1997)
The Leyton House CG901, the Ferrari 641, the Jordan 191 and the Williams FW15C could each be called the prettiest car of F1 history!
Turbocharged engines banned, F1 cars were now powered by 3.5L engines, in either V8, V10 or V12 configurations. Tobacco money was flowing, and TV audiences were growing. F1 had become a truly major sport on the world scene, and less of a niche occupation for rich Englishmen and Italians. The Senna/Prost rivalry was now in full swing, at first an intra-team battle at McLaren, then with Prost racing for Ferrari and Williams. When he retired in 1993, he had raked 4 titles, and Senna 3.
Some call the early '90s the most technologically advanced years in F1, with the top teams pushing for the developpement of electronically adjustable suspension, automatic gearboxes, ABS, traction and launch control, etc. This proved costly, and teams that couldn't afford it lobbyed to get it all banned.
The sport took a sad turn however, after the death of both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the 1994 Imola GP. This spurred a set of safety regulations that eventually gave us the grooved tires and narrow cars that ruled the '00s.
Grooved tires, Schumacher and Ferrari: the manufacturers era (1998-2008)
V10 engines were the norm then, and with light cars and ever-improving aerodynamics, track records fell every year until 2004, then mostly undisturbed before 2017.
With many famous names gone from the sport, new ones started to make their mark: Schumacher, Hakkinen, but also Brawn, Newey, Todt, Briatore. This era started with a true renaissance for both the Hakkinen-led McLaren and the Schumacher-led Ferrari. These two teams would define the era, with Schumacher famously becoming a seven-time world champion after a domination the sport had rarely seen in 2004.
Having dethroned Ferrari in 2005 and 2006, Renault promptly fell back in the mid-pack when Alonso left for McLaren, where he met a feisty rookie by the name of Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel, Newey, V8s and high wings (2009-2013)
By 2008, the cars had become alien-looking, with all sorts of weird aero devices growing everywhere. Heavy reliance on aero had also made overtaking on track difficult. This prompted the FIA to completely rewrite the technical regulations: no more weird appendages, narrower and higher rear-wings, and a larger front-wing and the return of fully slick tires as a form of compensation. By then, engines had been downgraded to 2.4 V8s, and refueling had been banned.
As always, such a radical change of regulation brought some surprises to the then established McLaren vs Ferrari status-quo: first Brawn, then Red Bull came out of pretty much nowhere and took the sport by storm, Vettel and Red Bull winning all titles between 2010 and 2013, despite vigorous opposition from Alonso, now at Ferrari and Hamilton at McLaren.
The hybrid era and Mercedes domination (2014-2016)
In 2014, turbos came back in F1, and they came with dizzying technology: MGU-H, MGU-K, "magic modes", monkey seat... This was truly the deepest technical revolution F1 had seen in a long time, most of it hidden from view, deep inside the cars. Gone were the high-revving 2.4 V8, now replaced by tiny turbo 1.8 V6s, boosted to almost 1,000hp thanks to hybridation. These changes clearly were better anticipated by Mercedes, because the grey cars dominated the sport like no one had done before. The 2015 W06 became F1's most dominant car ever, taking 16 wins out of 19 races, 32 podiums and 18 poles.
Behind Mercedes, things were dire. Ferrari and Red Bull crumbled, while McLaren was relegated to the back of the grid after gambling on a Honda switch. Indeed, the pack was split between cars powered by Mercedes engines, and the rest.
Thankfully, Hamilton wasn't alone at the front, as Rosberg kept challenging him with more or less success, finally taking the crown in 2016 before his shock retirement.
The new downforce monsters (2017-...)
Sadly Red Bull rarely joined the Mercedes/Ferrari party at the front, but it's safe to say that 2017 was a great season!
While engines stayed mostly the same, a complete overhaul of the aero and chassis regulations was put in place, with the goal to make 2017 the fastest season ever in F1. Wider tires and wings, a deeper diffuser and generaly more freedom that gave us things like the T-wings, shark fins and a lot of elements in front of the sidepods.
Mission accomplished though, as the 2017 cars shattered most track records, sometimes even during practice.
All these changes weren't enough to completely shake Mercedes out of the lead, although Vettel and Ferrari surprised everyone by being very serious challengers. Red Bull had a hard time keeping up, and the rest of the pack fell even farther behind.
2017 ended with two 4-times World Champions in Vettel and Hamilton, and an easy bet would be that one of them will join Fangio as a 5-time champion in 2018, unless maybe Red Bull pulls a Newey out of their hat and joins the battle.
So that's a short look through F1 history! Most of the cars I used to illustrate this article I have already shown on Square Cars, but you can expect more detailed posts and instructions for the ones I haven't yet. I also can't wait to see what the 2018 cars will look like so I can try to make them too!