The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (or, to thee and me, the FIA) has issued its official Formula 1 entry list.
"Er, so what?", you’re probably wondering.
Well, usually, the official Formula 1 entry list is no more than a ‘rubber stamp’, merely confirming what everyone already knows (ie, who’ll be driving for whom).
This year, however, there’s a twist: the official Formula 1 entry list contains all the drivers’ numbers, selected by them to be used this year and in forthcoming years, to be cherished by them and perhaps even fetishised by their fans for years to come, in the way that Nascar fans still worship at the hypothetical altars of ‘3’ (Dale Earnhardt Snr) and ‘43’ (Richard Petty), arguably the two greatest Nascar drivers in history (although, personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for David Pearson).
Formula 1 drivers have in recent years been far less wedded to their numbers than have Nascar men, for two simple reasons: (a) the number that all Formula 1 aces hanker after is ‘1’, which is invariably awarded to the world champion and carried with pride on his car the following season; and (b) the other numbers have in recent years always been allotted to the teams, according to their positions in the previous year’s constructors’ world championship, their two drivers running consecutive numbers doled out according to the team principal’s whim (eg, Jenson Button ‘5’ and Checo Perez ‘6’ last season).
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Years ago, things were different. In his heyday Stirling Moss made no secret of his preference for ‘7’, which he regarded as something of a talisman – and, indeed, to this day, if Sir Stirl signs an important contract or agreement, he prefers to do it on a date that includes a ‘7’ in it.
One of the less widely adopted numbers is, of course, ‘0’. Rarer still is ‘00’. But the Hills, father and son, Graham and Damon, both drove cars so numbered, and thereby hang two tales. The experimental gas-turbine Rover-BRM Le Mans racer was entered for the legendary French endurance classic in 1963, and it was driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. They were allocated ‘00’ in bizarre homage to the experimental nature of their car, which was the only one in its class.
Similarly – and also differently – when Williams’ 1992 test driver Damon Hill was promoted to the race team proper alongside Alain Prost for the 1993 Formula 1 season, he was allocated ‘0’ – not because he had a sentimental attachment to his father’s flirtation with experimental racing zeroes at Le Mans, and not because the 1993 Williams was unique in any way (although it was uniquely rapid that year, to be fair), but because Formula 1 was in 1993 devoid of an active world champion after its newly crowned title holder, Nigel Mansell, had decided to turn his back on the series and turn his hand to the US-based Indycar championship instead. That he won, incidentally, carrying ‘5’, coloured red, which he’d also sported victoriously the year before in Formula 1, and he’s retained a sentimental attachment to ‘red 5’ ever since.
In the 1970s and 1980s some teams – and some fans – had a proprietorial attitude towards their numbers. For example, if you were a fan of Ferrari's legendary hot-shoe Gilles Villeneuve, ‘27’ will be for ever linked in your mind with the doughty French-Canadian ragging the wheels off an evil-handling scarlet dog-of-a-car. But if you’re a Williams devotee, then, like as not, you’ll identify ‘27’ with the gutsy Alan Jones, who first ran it on the Williams FW06 of 1978, won four grands prix with it on the Williams FW07 of 1979, and won five grands prix and the world championship with it on the Williams FW07B of 1980.
This season, focusing on McLaren, as is my (loose) brief in this series of mclaren.com/formula1 blogs, I should point out that Jenson Button has chosen ‘22’ and Kevin Magnussen ‘20’ – for similar reasons. Jenson ran ‘22’ during his Formula 1 world championship year for Brawn in 2009, and Kevin ran ‘20’ during his World Series by Renault 3.5 championship year for DAMS in 2013.
For me, however, those two numbers will always be associated with Patrick Depailler (‘22’) and Jody Scheckter (‘20’).
Ironically, Patrick and Jody drove together for Tyrrell for three consecutive seasons – 1974, 1975 and 1976 – running ‘3’ (Jody) and ‘4’ (Patrick). For 1977, Jody joined the brand-new Wolf team, owned and run by the Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf, and the beautiful blue-and-gold Wolf WR1 in which he won the team’s first ever grand prix, in Argentina, carried ‘20’. Jody would win twice more that year, at Monaco and Mosport, taking that pretty ‘20’-liveried nose-cone to within millimetres of apex kerbs and exit guardrails everywhere from Buenos Aires to Fuji, and would finish a mighty impressive second in the world championship to Ferrari’s Niki Lauda. Bluntly, Jody was brilliant that year.
Jody ran ‘20’ again in 1978, but his boxy Wolf WR5 wasn’t up to the task and he left for Ferrari at the end of the year, becoming world champion in 1979, running ‘11’.
Patrick left Tyrrell at the end of the 1978 season, joining Ligier for 1979 alongside Jacques Laffite (‘26’) and ruffling his fellow Frenchman’s feathers by asking for the lower (and therefore arguably the more prestigious) ‘25’ as his number. His request was granted by team owner Guy Ligier, and Patrick and Jacques won three grands prix in short order between them (Argentina, Brazil and Spain). Things were looking good as the season progressed into its second half, both of them championship contenders, when Patrick, always a dare-devil, had a hang-gliding accident and broke both his legs. He was out for the rest of the season. Thereafter, the team lost direction, and Jacques remained winless for the rest of the year.
Some feared Patrick would never race again. But he did, joining the newly re-formed Alfa Romeo team for 1980, running, yes, you’ve guessed it, ‘22’.
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He'd always been brave and quick, especially on street circuits, and so he remained. I liked him a lot. His legs were still very painful in 1980, but he nonetheless comprehensively outclassed his younger and fitter team-mate Bruno Giacomelli (‘23’), and, after each practice session, qualifying hour or race, would make light of his derring-do, dragging on an unfiltred Gauloise as he muttered that his performance, achieved in the face of considerable pain, had been “rien”, nothing.
Sadly, the 1980 Alfa Romeo was hopelessly unreliable, if occasionally quick-ish, and Patrick and Bruno suffered retirement after retirement. Nonetheless, Patrick sometimes qualified it breathtakingly well – especially at Long Beach (P3) and Monaco (P7), street circuits both, on whose tricky bumps and cambers he was always superb.
Patrick was a diligent development driver too, despite his apparent laissez-faire nonchalance, and undoubtedly the Alfa Romeo was about to come good by the time the Formula 1 circus travelled to Hockenheim for the 1980 German Grand Prix.
But it wasn’t to be. In testing for the Hockenheim race, Patrick’s Alfa Romeo suffered a suspension failure at the super-fast Ostkurve, and he had absolutely no chance of gathering up his out-of-control car. It duly flew into the guardrail at very high speed, and Patrick was killed instantly.
In my book, in their different ways, Jody (‘20’) and Patrick (‘22’) are both heroes, made of the right stuff, legends in their own lap-times. They were good guys too - Jody still is, which is why I try to eat Laverstoke Park sausages and burgers as often as I can. That’s right: in his ‘retirement’ Jody owns and runs Laverstoke Park farm in Hampshire (UK), which supplies healthy and tasty meat produce to superior British supermarkets.
Inheriting Jody’s and Patrick’s numbers, respectively, Kevin and Jenson have a lot to live up to; but I’m confident that both of them will honour the previous bearers of ‘20’ and ‘22’ with pride, with courage, and with success.
Go for it, ‘20’ and ‘22’!