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A look at the history of numbers in Formula 1

It all started with a tweet last Monday:

The replies, from fellow number-nerds, indicated that there was potential in an article on Formula 1’s numbering history. We’d never be so bold as to do it ourselves though – it had to be done by Seb Patrick, who runs the F1 Colours site and who has in the past done a piece on every single number which has appeared on the grid. We asked him to do a condensed version to explain things to those who may not have been familiar with how things evolved. Take it away, Seb.

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Now that Lewis Hamilton has been confirmed as the 2017 Formula One World Champion, it’s also confirmed that 2018 will be the fourth successive year that the F1 grid does not feature a number 1 car.

This is due to the “permanent number” system that was introduced to the sport at the beginning of the 2014 season. Each driver, upon entering the sport, chooses a permanent number to be assigned to them from whichever are left available between 2 and 99. This stays with that driver for their entire career, no matter who they drive for – and is then made available for reuse two years after said driver’s final race.

It’s customary in F1 that the reigning World Champion has the #1 on their car – however, when the new system was introduced, it also included an allowance for the champion to retain their existing number if they so chose. In that first season, Sebastian Vettel – whose permanent number is #5 – elected to race with the #1. But then Hamilton won back-to-back titles, and chose to still carry his #44 after doing so.

“Forty-four is my family number,” explained Hamilton. “It’s the number I had when I first started racing. I won my first [karting] championship with 44. It means something to me. The number one, Vettel’s had it, Schumacher’s had it, all the champions have had it. None of them had 44. Forty-four is mine.”

Purists may disagree, but this was a pretty reasonable justification, especially in such a marketing-driven age. But even when Hamilton’s team-mate Nico Rosberg won the title in 2016, the fabled #1 didn’t make a comeback – because Rosberg promptly retired. So we’ll have to wait until Vettel, or somebody else who wants it, wins the title to see the number return.

But is #1 the most important number in F1? Is it, even, the luckiest? Over on my dedicated liveries blog F1 Colours I’ve written a pretty comprehensive summary of every number in the sport – how often they’ve been used, notable drivers to carry them, and how successful they’ve been. But if you’re not in the mood to sift through that in its entirety, then here are a few of the more interesting things I’ve spotted in my time obsessing over race numbers.

The rules

It’s helpful to give you a bit of explanation first, if you’re not familiar with how F1 numbers are assigned. There have been three distinct periods of car number rules since the idea of teams having the same numbers race-to-race was first introduced in 1974 (following a trial in 1973). For that first season, the numbers were handed out based on the previous year’s constructor’s championship – so Lotus’ Ronnie Peterson was in car #1 despite not being world champion.

Every team would then hold the number pairing it was assigned in 1974 for as long as it was in the sport – but if a team had the reigning driver’s champion, they would be given #1 and #2 and the previous team to hold them would take their vacated numbers. There were also a few instances of teams lower down the order being allowed to move upwards as other teams folded, but this was done on a very ad hoc basis and some teams elected never to.

After 1995, the decision was made to change to a new system whereby the numbers would be moved around every year, again based on the previous year’s championship. The driver’s champion’s team would still take #1 and #2, with the constructor’s champions (if not one and the same) taking #3 and #4 and then working downwards. This system persisted for just under two decades, before the “permanent driver number” system – the first time numbers would not be assigned based on teams – came in as an attempt to create an identifiable piece of driver-by-driver marketing on each car.

It is still possible for a driver to race under two different numbers, however – drivers that are only filling in temporarily are given temporary numbers (that are assigned on a team-by-team basis). But this year, Brendon Hartley initially raced for Toro Rosso as a substitute with their temporary #39, before then being given a permanent contract and thus being allowed to choose #28 as his fixed number.

Ferrari’s legendary 27

Arguably the most famous and iconic driver/team/number combination is that of Gilles Villeneuve and his #27 Ferrari. Despite being F1’s longest-serving team, Ferrari spent almost the entirety of the 1980s, and half of the 1990s, with numbers high up the order – but it wasn’t because they themselves had finished in a lowly place.

What actually happened was that having had the 1979 champion in Jody Scheckter, Ferrari had the #1 and #2 the following year, as they had done in 1976 thanks to Niki Lauda. But in 1980, Alan Jones won the title for the relatively recently-established Williams team – meaning that their #27 and #28 were the numbers Ferrari picked up for 1981.

Villeneuve had actually been at Ferrari for several years at this point – he raced under #12 in 1978 and 1979, and #2 in 1980 – but 1981 was the year he became a truly iconic figure with his breathtakingly daring driving style, and so the #27 became synonymous with his name. This was only enhanced when he was tragically killed in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, Scheckter’s 1979 title was the last championship Ferrari would win until Michael Schumacher in 2000, so having picked up the #27 and #28 they were pretty much stuck with them for the next decade and a half. The only exception was in 1990, when they hired reigning world champion Alain Prost from McLaren. Ironically, however, the 1990 title was then won by Ayrton Senna with #27 on his McLaren – so when that team took the number back for 1991, Ferrari ended up with their old numbers again.

Despite the number’s indelible association with Villeneuve, the Ferrari driver to hold it for the longest was actually Michele Alboreto, between 1984 and 1988. Jean Alesi was the last driver to use it, from 1992-95 – and with the change in regulations the number was then out of the sport altogether until being selected by Nico Hulkenberg as his new permanent number in 2014.

Divide by zero

So why did Damon Hill have the number 0 on his car in 1993 and 1994? Well, the answer is quite simple: because in both those cases, the previous year’s champion immediately retired (Nigel Mansell at the end of 1992, and Alain Prost in 1993) – and so rather than leaving out both 1 and 2, or shuffling all of the numbers to start with 2, the solution was to give Williams 0 and 2.

What’s not clear is whether Williams were given those numbers because they had been the team the champion was driving for, or because they were constructors’ champions – because both these things were true, so it could have been for either reason!

(It’s also worth noting that 1993 wasn’t the first time there would be no champion on the grid: in the first season of fixed numbers, Jackie Stewart had retired after winning in 1973, so the aforementioned Ronnie Peterson was given #1 for constructor’s champions Lotus. And in 1985, John Watson substituted for an injured Niki Lauda at the European Grand Prix, taking the McLaren #1 in the process.)

Interestingly, although the ‘lower’ number, 0 wasn’t the number one car in either instance – Hill was a clear number two to Alain Prost in ’93 and Ayrton Senna in ’94 (although he assumed team leadership when Senna was killed at Imola). Again, we’re not certain of the reasons behind assigning Prost the #2, but it may have been personal preference on the Frenchman’s part: he’s the only driver ever to win a world title with that number, having done so twice in the 1980s with McLaren. He promptly did it again in ’93, meaning that three out of his four championships were with a number traditionally associated with, well, being second.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Hill will remain for a long time as the only driver ever to race in F1 with #0, as the current rules don’t allow for it to be used as a permanent number. Hill is also, incidentally, the only driver to have raced with #1 for a team that has themselves never won a world title, when he switched to Arrows in 1997.

Longest-serving 

The ‘permanent team number’ era meant that if a team stuck around in the sport for a good long while without producing (or hiring!) a World Champion, there was a good chance they’d keep the same pair of numbers for a long time.

Minardi came to the sport relatively late in this era – in 1986 – but had numbers #23 and #24 for all ten years up until the system was changed. They also get bonus points for having #23 (alongside #22) twice in the post-1996 era, by virtue of finishing bottom of the pile of an 11-team grid. And as mentioned earlier, Ferrari had #27 and #28 for fourteen seasons in total.

But the kings of the long-running number combo were undoubtedly Ligier: arriving in F1 in 1976, they initially ran a single car under #26. They would keep this number for every single season from then on, a whopping twenty years. They also expanded to a second car in 1979, keeping #25 on it from then on.

Even more remarkably, Jacques Lafitte drove the #26 Ligier for nine seasons – a run that was only broken by a two-season stint with Williams in 1983-4.

Retired numbers

Retiring numbers from the sport has never really been a tradition in F1 – certainly not to the extent that it is in football. When numbers were assigned to teams, even if a driver died in the car (as happened with alarming regularity in 1970s, and thankfully less so in the 1980s and 1990s) the number was never considered to be ‘theirs’, and another driver would eventually occupy the same seat.

One exception was the number #13, which was deliberately kept out of the team numbering system – presumably to avoid any potential superstition among drivers or team members. When driver numbers became permanent, however, it was allowed to be used – and Pastor Maldonado, clearly not caring if any of his Lotus team mechanics were triskaidecaphobic, chose to use it in 2014.

And since the 2014 system came in, there has unfortunately been one instance of a retired number: Jules Bianchi had chosen #17 (his initial three preferences of #7, #27 and #77 all being taken by others) in that first year but was fatally injured later that season at the Japanese Grand Prix. After he succumbed to his injuries the following year, his number was permanently retired from the sport.

(It’s also worth noting that the number of one of the two previous drivers to be killed – Roland Ratzenberger’s #32 – hasn’t been on the grid since the end of the 1994 season in which he died; firstly as there weren’t enough teams to require it pre-2014, and then as nobody has chosen it as their permanent number. This is likely coincidence rather than a deliberate effort.)

The luckiest number?

So which number is the best to have on your car if you want to be a World Champion? Well, the most successful in terms of number of titles won is, perhaps unsurprisingly, #1 itself – with 12 titles in total. But that’s only the case due to the back-to-back successes of Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel in recent times – prior to Schumacher in 1995, the only drivers to win the title with #1 on their car were Alain Prost (1986) and Ayrton Senna (1991). But between Mika Hakkinen’s win in 1999 and Vettel’s in 2013, an astonishing nine titles were won by reigning champions, with Fernando Alonso also doing it in 2006.

Discounting the notion that success begets success, then, the number that’s most likely to make you a champion is actually #5: eight different drivers (including Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill) have won the title with it on their car, more than for any other number. But it may yet prove unlucky for Sebastian Vettel, who won with it in 2010 and has it as his permanent number now: of those eight, only Nelson Piquet won more than one title with it.

Doubling up

Another good way to boost your chances is to pick a number that’s the same digit doubled. Due to a couple of quirks of circumstance, the only numbers ever to adorn two different title-winning drivers back-to-back (aside from 1) are #11 and #22.

Ferrari had had #11 and #12 at the start of the post-1974 system, and McLaren took them over when Niki Lauda (driving #12) won the 1975 title. Then James Hunt’s #11 McLaren won in 1976, sending the numbers back to Ferrari – where Lauda promptly won the 1977 title, now driving – you guessed it – #11.

The Austrian then seemingly broke the cycle by taking his #1 to Brabham the next year (leaving #11 and #12 at Ferrari) – but as luck would have it, Jody Scheckter would then win in car #11 in 1979.

#22’s lucky streak is even stranger, but happened because of the infamous “Spygate” scandal, which saw McLaren disqualified from the results of the 2007 World Championsip. As a result, for 2008 they were assigned the highest available numbers (having not technically placed the year before): #22 and #23. And Lewis Hamilton won his first title in the leading car.

The following year, Jenson Button was driving for the Brawn team, which was newly-formed out of the ashes of the Honda operation. Although Honda had finished ninth in the 2008 season, the late formation of Brawn in their place meant they were considered a “new” team for the numbering – so Button drove his way to a historic title with the same #22.

With Hamilton now also having won three titles with his #44, you’d have to say that all in all it’s a good omen for any or all of Sergio Perez (#11), Max Verstappen (#33), Carlos Sainz (#55) and Valtteri Bottas (#77)…

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1 Comment

  1. Richard
    November 7, 2017 at 23:45 — Reply

    Thanks for the ‘side step’ and an interesting article on another of my favourite sports.

    A couple of comments:

    * 0 was also used by Jody Scheckter, albeit in the pre-permanent number era in 1973 (Jody and Damon Hill, I believe, are the only two drivers to carry the number in F1 history)
    * Minardi made their F1 debut in 1985 with a single car entry carrying the number 29. They became a two-car team in 1986, adopting numbers 23 and 24 at the same time.

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A look at the history of numbers in Formula 1