Numbers Nostalgia

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):

McLAREN 1 Button (1)
(1995: Benetton) 2 Hamilton (2)
MERCEDES 3 Schumacher (3)
(1995: Tyrrell) 4 Rosberg (4)
RED BULL 5 Vettel (5)
(1995: Williams) 6 Webber (6)
WILLIAMS 7 Barrichello (9)
(1995: McLaren) 8 Hulkenberg (10)
RENAULT 9 Kubica (11)
(1995: Footwork) 10 Petrov (12)
FERRARI 11 Massa (7)
(1995: Simtek) 12 Alonso (8)
FORCE INDIA 14 Sutil (14)
(1995: Jordan) 15 Liuzzi (15)
TORO ROSSO 23 Buemi (16)
(1995: Minardi) 24 Alguersuari (17)
HRT 25 Chandhok (20)
(1995: Ligier) 26 Senna (21)
LOTUS 27 Trulli (18)
(1995: Ferrari) 28 Kovalainen (19)
SAUBER 29 de la Rosa (22)
(1995: Sauber) 30 Kobayashi (23)
VIRGIN 31 Glock (24)
(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:

  • With Tyrrell and Arrows gone, by 2010 the big teams would have the lowest numbers anyway.
  • Four entries would have the same numbers as in 1995: Minardi/Toro Rosso (23/24), Jordan/Midland/Spyker/Force India (14/15), Sauber (29/30 – the team would have been first in line to be promoted to 5/6 in 2003, but are considered to have left the sport when BMW pulled out; their 2010 numbers are based on being given USF1’s intended slot), and – most complicated – The Tyrrell/BAR/Honda/Brawn/Mercedes entry kept 3 & 4 until 2009, when Honda withdrew and Brawn was put to the back on re-entry. Toyota would have been promoted to 3 & 4 for their last season, leaving the way open for Mercedes to re-take the numbers when Toyota withdrew.
  • Ligier/Prost would have kept 25 & 26 until it went bust at the end of 2001. Amazingly, this means that the team would have had 26 on one of its cars for every season of its existence – 25 years in all (the number 25 had first appeared later, in 1979).
  • In 1998, not only would Tyrrell have been 3 & 4, but Arrows would have been 5 & 6. 5 & 6 would have stayed with Arrows until 2002, and so wouldn’t have been on the grid for the last half of that year.
  • Stewart/Jaguar/Red Bull would have held 16 & 17 from 1998 until 2009, before getting promoted to BMW Sauber’s 5 & 6.
  • Williams would have been the new Brabham, keeping numbers 7 & 8 while slowly sliding down the grid.
  • Six drivers champions would have won with a different number from the one they did in reality. Villeneuve would have taken the 1997 championship in car 5 (or maybe 6) instead of car 3 and Schumacher would have won 2000 in car 9, also instead of car 3. Alonso would have taken car 11 to the 2005 championship instead of car 5, and Raikkonen would have won 2007 in car 12 not 6. Hamilton would also have taken 11 to the 2008 championship because under this system McLaren wouldn’t have been demoted to numbers 22 & 23. Finally, Button would have won 2009 in car 25, so not only would number 22 have lost both its world championships, it wouldn’t even have been on the grid since 1996 (on Montermini’s Forti), and it would remain unused unless Toro Rosso went bust/got promoted/signed the champion, or the FIA allowed one- or three-car teams.
  • The highest number post-1994 would have been 34, taken by Rosset’s Lola in 1997, albeit briefly. The highest number to start a race would have been 32, with McNish’s Toyota in 2002 and di Grassi’s Virgin in 2010.
  • Perhaps the most important point is that even under the old system Ferrari would not have had the famous numbers 27 & 28 since 1995. After taking 1 & 2 for 1996, they would have swapped with Footwork/Arrows for 1997, getting 9 & 10. After re-gaining 1 & 2 in 2001 they would have switched with Renault in 2006 and got 11 & 12, before swapping with McLaren for 2008, and then back again in 2009. Lotus would be the only other team to have 27 & 28, in 2010.

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.

(Ollie Judkins)


    Seb Patrick

    November 13, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Another little point about numbers not mentioned here but that I’ve always found interesting is the use of zero when the reigning champion retires. If there’s one thing influencing my hopes for this weekend (aside from desperately not wanting Alonso to win) it’s that if Webber wins it, there’s a chance he might decie to retire on a high – so Red Bull would have 0 and 2 next year. Probably wouldn’t happen, but it’s the same reason I was rooting heavily for Schumacher in 2006, as if he’d won we definitely would have had Massa and Raikkonen with 0 and 2.


    November 13, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Wow how long did that take to work out??

    I think there is a better system than either pre or post 1995. Why not simply let each driver choose their own number, no matter what it is, and stick with it throughout their career so that it becomes synonymous with them. It works just fine in Moto GP


    November 16, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Really good and interesting article!

    Rather than a driver picking a number through his career, I’d rather a team got to choose their own lucky numbers to stick with.


    November 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I like the current system as it’s easy to understand – the lower the number the better the team generally.

    I am a fan though of the idea of driver specific numbers though – it works a treat in MotoGP as Ned says.

    V8 Supercars here is Oz uses a combo of everything – the reigning champ carries number 1, some teams always have the same numbers (DJR is always #17 & #18, HRT #2 & #22) and some drivers keep their numbers no matter who they drive for (Murphy #51 for example).

    For merchandise and marketing etc. retaining a number makes a lot of sense.

    In F1, would driver’s retaining their own number detract from the teams granduer? Would it matter?


    November 17, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Rather than use “0” if the current WDC has retired, the current WCC should get the numbers “1” and “2”. This was done in 1974- after Stewart retired Lotus got 1 for Peterson and 2 for Ickx. Alternatively, don’t use the number “1” at all…start with “2”.

    Seb Patrick

    November 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    I dunno, maybe it’s just that I was a Hill fan, but I love seeing a big zero on a car…


    November 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    The most evocative numbers are 5 and 12.

    Number 5 – Mansell (Williams-Renault 1992) and before
    Alonso (Renault 2005)
    Vettel (RedBull-Renault 2010)

    Number 12 – Most of the JPS Lotuses had that number &
    ofcourse when Senna drove for them.

    As I recall,both McLaren and Ferrari swapped the numbers 27 & 28 when they didn’t have the current driver champion in their team.

    I do prefer the current system since 1996 onwards of car numbers being based on previous year results,
    if only for the purpose of clear transparency.


    November 19, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Correction,Ferrari always had 27 & 28.

    Probably got McLaren/Ferrari mixed up with the identical 2007/2008 seasons they had !


      November 26, 2010 at 9:36 am

      McLaren ran Seena and Berger with 27 & 28 in 1990 when Prost went to Ferrari after winning the 1989 championship for McLaren.


        November 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

        Thanks for that confirmation Aly.

        Quite an obscure fact as it was the only season that McLaren had those numbers.


    November 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks for the feedback. It didn’t take too long too do, especially as there were so few new teams between 2000-2009!

    I didn’t know Lotus got 1 & 2 in 1974, although to be fair Peterson is one of the few non-champions to deserve a number 1.


      November 24, 2010 at 8:27 am

      Ronnie did justice to the number “1” by winning races in what was by 1974 an outdated car.

      You may recall in the days when numbers were doled out at each race (I believe this was done to counter unauthorized race programs) that Argentina allowed only even numbers. I don’t know why they did that.


    November 26, 2010 at 9:39 am

    There are merits for lots of systems, the top ten numbers being the top team drivers with their team mates having the mating number (1 & 11, 2 & 22 etc) like the BTCC used to be or drivers keeping thier own number like NASCAR, but they then don’t take the #1 when they win the title, which seams odd lol. I like the current system as it gives the teams something to aim for as it is normally about the drivers championship.

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