Who else was hoping that Ferrari would get kicked out of the Constructors’ Championship over the team orders scandal, just so that in 2011 they’d be at the back of a 13-team grid and we’d see a Ferrari with a 27 on it? Having only really followed Formula 1 since 1996, numbers above 23 have always had an exotic quality for me. Before 1996, these “exotic” numbers were commonplace, and I’ve recently found myself wondering what the 2010 numbers would be if the pre-1996 numbering system had remained.
Since 1996, F1 car numbers have been decided by the previous year’s constructors’ championship. Making allowances for 1 and 13, drop-outs and disqualifications, this means that if a team comes third in the 2010 constructors’ championship, its 2011 team numbers will be 5 & 6, and so on. Many fans, however, still prefer the pre-1996 system, citing evocative numbers such as “red 5”, Tyrrell’s 3 & 4, or Ferrari’s 27 & 28. This system can be described in principle as “each team keeps the same numbers year-on-year unless it signs the world champion, in which case it swaps numbers with the world champion’s old team”.
However, it wasn’t quite that simple in practice.
The FIA seemed to like numbers 1-15 to be filled, but didn’t seem to mind if there were spare numbers after that. When lower numbers became available through championships and/or a team going out of business, a good team with high numbers could be “promoted” to the lower numbers – so in 1993 Williams got 0 and 2, but as McLaren had taken the defunct Brabham team’s 7 and 8 rather than the 5 and 6 vacated by Williams, those numbers went to Benetton – promoted from 18 and 19 – instead.
New teams usually started at the back, even if there were spare numbers, hence the big gaps between 15 and 23 in 1993 and 1994. For some reason, however, Forti got 21 and 22 in 1995 – perhaps because the FIA was trying to have a complete set of numbers (although even if Larrousse had turned up, 18 would still have been missing). Maybe this was the first sign of the change to the post-1995 system – or perhaps Brazilian sponsors just like the number 21 that was given to Diniz (see also Senna in 2010).
Although new teams were generally required to start lower down the order, after their first season they were given the opportunity to improve their numbers if there were spaces ahead of them, often even jumping ahead of established teams. This would explain Simtek’s massive leap from 31/32 to 11/12 in 1995 – although in order to make a similar jump from 32/33 (1991-92) to 14/15 (1993-95), Jordan had had to wait an extra year for the Fondmetal team to collapse. Meanwhile, if a new team took over another’s entry rather than starting from scratch then they kept the old team’s numbers.
Nevertheless, some high-numbered teams seemed to have “favourite” numbers that they kept even when there was a chance for promotion. These were:
Minardi (23 & 24)
Ligier (25 & 26)
Ferrari (27 & 28)
Minardi, for example, could have taken 7 and 8 when Brabham missed the 1988 season, or 16 and 17 when March folded after 1992 – but stuck with their numbers right up until the change of system.
After taking this into account, here is what the 2010 car numbers would have been under the pre-1996 system, with their actual 2010 numbers in brackets (and also a listing of which team occupied that spot back in 1995):
|SAUBER||29||de la Rosa||(22)|
|(1995: n/a)||32||di Grassi||(25)|
This is by no means set in stone, and there was a lot of guesswork and assumption (such as assuming the new team numbers were in real life assigned alphabetically, with Campos being swapped with Lotus in order to get 21 for Embratel). I spotted a few interesting quirks, although no doubt there are tonnes more:
Nostalgia for Ferrari’s 27 & 28 is probably the main reason people pine for the old system; and after working all this out I think I prefer the post-1995 system, as it’s nice to watch a team like Red Bull “rise up the numbers”, or see Minardi ahead of BAR after out-scoring them in 1999.