With the New Year festivities a fading memory and Christmas decorations packed away our attention is now fully focussed on the 2015 F1 season. However, fans and media alike have to be patient, because these days January is a quiet month, at least on the surface.
Behind the scenes it's anything but as McLaren and the other teams are working flat out to ready their new cars for testing, which will kick off at Jerez in February 1. A few cars will break cover before then, and some may even get in a few shakedown miles at what the FIA calls 'promotional events' (aka filming days) at the end of January. However, for the most part it's a month for waiting.
In times gone by it was very different. Indeed for many years we had a Grand Prix (or even two) in January, something that happened in no fewer than 19 World Championship seasons between 1953 and 1982. It was a tradition that gave those involved in the sport a welcome opportunity to get away from the European winter by heading to the Southern Hemisphere. There were few dissenters...
The race that most frequently filled a January slot over that three-decade period was Argentina. The international success of Juan Manuel Fangio and his portly countryman Jose Froilan Gonzalez led to a Grand Prix being held in Buenos Aires from 1953 to 1958, which was usually followed by a gap by three or four months before action recommenced in Europe. It was no co-incidence that the race disappeared from the schedule after Fangio retired.
The tradition of a winter holiday for F1 folk was subsequently revived with the addition of a Grand Prix in South Africa, where there had been a popular series of non-championship races. Initially the event ended the World Championship, with the first examples held on December 29 1962, and on December 28 of the following year.
With a little shuffling South Africa then became the season opener, with races taking place on January 1 1965, January 2 1967, and January 1 1968 – so in all three cases practice and qualifying actually took place the previous year! The missing link by the way was 1966, when the introduction of the new 3.0-litre engine formula meant that the first race was in Monaco in May – an event that saw the F1 debut of a certain McLaren team.
Given that much of the world now shuts down for up to two weeks it seems inconceivable that a Grand Prix could take place on New Year's Day, but times were different, and in the sixties it wasn't even a public holiday in the UK. Indeed The Beatles undertook their famously unsuccessful audition for Decca on January 1 1962!
Nevertheless by 1969 such an early start to the season was deemed impractical, and the South African GP was moved to March. However, just three years later the F1 schedule slipped back into the first month of the year when, after an exploratory non-championship event in 1971, Argentina returned to the official calendar with a race held on January 23 1972.
Aside from a temporary absence in 1976 Argentina would continue to run in January until 1980 – it was held as early as the 9th in 1977 – and from 1973 onwards the event was twinned with Brazil. Despite the proximity of the two countries there was always a two-week gap, and the members of the F1 circus had plenty of time to relax in sunny climes during the break.
The city of Buenos Aires had much to recommend it, and I have fond memories of great food, good wine, and friendly people. I very much enjoyed the original Interlagos track, although Sao Paulo was not everyone's cup of tea. The move to Rio in 1978 added another dimension, and while the brand new track was perhaps not the best, F1 folk had little trouble finding places to party in the city. The downside of the trip was always the flight there and back, which was the longest we undertook in those days, and especially stressful if you found yourself travelling with one of the South American airlines, whose staff didn't always grasp the concept of service...
In 1981, against the background of the controversial FISA/FOCA war, the South American races were moved to March/April, and thus the season had a late start for the first time since 1971. Then in 1982 South Africa was given a one-off late January date for a race which is perhaps best remembered for Niki Lauda's comeback with McLaren.
However, that was to be the last time that a World Championship event was held in the first two months of the year. Since 1983 the F1 season has always commenced in March, leaving January clear for testing – at least until the recent restrictions kicked in.
Before there were any limitations, teams could go pretty much anywhere they wanted and whenever they wanted, and mechanics were well used to spending their days in freezing, windswept pit lanes. In the eighties there was a welcome bonus in the form of regular testing in Rio, and as in the days of the twin South American races, team members, drivers and even media types were able to fit in some holiday time. I can assure you that there are worse places to be in January than on the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema – especially when you have logged as many grim winter test days at Silverstone as I have!
It may seem a little surprising that the teams would spend so much time away from Europe as they honed their new cars, especially as communication and transport links were not what they are now. However, teams were much smaller in those days, and the cost of sending personnel and equipment was correspondingly less. In addition the turnover of new development parts was not as intense as it is now, and thus the long distance from home was not such an issue.
Testing probably reached a peak during the Michael Schumacher era, fired in large part by Bridgestone's battle with Goodyear, and subsequently with Michelin. These days third drivers are grateful for any laps they get, but there was a time when McLaren had Alex Wurz and Pedro de la Rosa on testing contracts, and there was enough to work to ensure that both men logged a huge amount of mileage and made a significant contribution to the team's performance. In the pre-internet era it was difficult for the public and indeed the media to keep track of what was going on, especially if more than one circuit was in use on a given day, which was often the case.
In a rare display of consensus the teams eventually agreed that the cost was getting out of hand, and restricting the amount of running enabled them to disband the test teams that they had built up over the years. The number of official test days shrunk, and from 2010 onwards February 1 became established as the traditional start, although it was moved forward a little last year to give everyone a head start with the new power units.
The lack of running may be disappointing for fans who would like to see track action kick off a little earlier, but don't forget that the racing season finishes a lot later these days, so a January spent back at base is welcomed by the technical gurus.
It's also worth noting that restricting the teams to three four-day winter tests hasn't been detrimental to the racing that follows. As we eagerly await the arrival of the new McLaren-Honda don't forget that the legendary MP4/4 of 1988 did hardly any testing at all, and yet it was dominant from the off. But that's a story for next time...