Confusing Matters: F1’s False History

The 1950 to 1980 championship vs 1981-Present

How should we view the transition between the World Championship for Drivers and the FIA Formula One World Driver’s Championship?

Eventual 1981 F1 WC races against 1980 WDC, with both in mildy updated forms of the cars used in the old championship. How confusing!

Superficially, very little changed between 1980 and 1981. Aside from the ban on sliding skirts, the cars basically looked the same. The tracks were the same, as were the drivers. Sure, the races were now all being organised by one body who also gained control over all rights to the championship, but these were behind-the-scenes changes.

Furthermore, World Championship Grand Prix exclusively became Formula One races, meaning that every car from now on would be a Formula 1 car. However, cars from other categories hadn’t shared the track with Formula 1 machinery for 12 years. The title Grande Épreuve was also lost in this transition, but the original criteria of one per country was scrubbed in 1976 anyway to allow two American Grand Prix onto the calendar.

One way to understand this is to treat every season from 1950 to the present as part of the World Driver’s Championship. Try to forget about it as a Formula 1 championship, because it hasn’t been that consistently from the beginning. However, this would implicate the Indy 500 races into the statistics and arguably, these should be excluded entirely. Another way is to view it as the Grand Prix World Driver’s Championship. All races aside from Indy have been Grand Prix. However, this is an unofficial title. The third point of view is to accept that when the championship officially and legally became Formula One™, it retrospectively renamed all preceding seasons. Technicalities aside, every season since 1950 is a direct continuation from the previous.

If taken factually, however, Nelson Piquet became the first ever FIA Formula One World Driver’s Champion in 1981. And while they may be blurred at the seams, the two championships of 1950-1980 and 1981-Present are very distinct. The looseness of the 1950-1980 rules brought out so many innovations, from rear-engined Grand Prix cars, to wings/aerodynamics, to alternative power trains like four-wheel-drive and gas turbine engines, to six-wheeled racers, ground effects and turbo engines. After 1981, the rules became more and more specific. No longer could anything other than a completely bespoke, purpose-built Formula 1 car be eligible to enter a Grand Prix.