When is a World Championship Grand Prix not a World Championship Grand Prix? When it's a Non-Championship Grand Prix, that's when.
Time once was that the Formula 1 calendar was peppered with the things, although none now remain, very sadly (but more on that thought later).
In Britain, the greatest and last of them to bite the dust were the International Trophy and the Race of Champions.
The International Trophy was held at Silverstone as a Formula 1 race from 1949 to 1978. The first was won by Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari, the last by Keke Rosberg in a Theodore. In the years between, the race was won by such racing legends as Giuseppe Farina, Mike Hawthorn, Jose-Froilan Gonzales, Peter Collins, Stirling Moss, Jean Behra, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
"In Britain, the greatest and last of them to bite the dust were the International Trophy and the Race of Champions."
The Race of Champions was run at Brands Hatch between 1965 and 1983, and was also won by some of the greatest names in our sport: Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacky Ickx, James Hunt, Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg, who, as with the International Trophy, also won the very last one, in 1983, albeit in a Williams rather than in a Theodore.
(Note to self: a good pub quiz question would be "The last Non-Championship Formula 1 International Trophy and the last Non-Championship Formula 1 Race of Champions were both won by the same man: who is he?")
Parenthetically, also, the Race of Champions I am referring to here should not be confused with the modern stadium-based event that still takes place in various locations annually, and that has been won in recent years by such as Heikki Kovalainen, Sebastian Loeb, Matthias Ekstrom and Romain Grosjean. Neither should it be confused with the International Race of Champions, better known as IROC, which was an American invitational stock car race that ran between 1974 and 2006 and was invariably won by IndyCar and NASCAR aces, although Formula 1 drivers also had a go from time to time.
The locals made damn' sure the foreigners did not get a proper look-in, however. In 1990, for example, at Michigan Speedway, one of the visiting Formula 1 drivers was Martin Brundle, who brilliantly put his car on the pole. As they walked to their cars for the start of the race, NASCAR's legendary 'Intimidator', as he liked and deserved to be known, Dale Earnhardt, leant over to an astonished Brundle and drawled in his trademark low monotone, "Don't forget your kids." The man from North Carolina (USA) overtook the man from Norfolk (England) at the first turn, and was never headed thereafter. Brundle finished 10th.
Story of the marque
Anyway, enough parenthetical digressions already. Why am I talking about Non-Championship Formula 1 races? I am talking about Non-Championship Formula 1 races because, at around this time of year, they were customarily used by Formula 1 teams as a welcome opportunity to shake-down their new cars and conduct some much needed extra testing before the main rump of the World Championship Formula 1 battle, on mainland Europe, got seriously into its stride.
Although Bruce McLaren was an energetic and frequent competitor in Non-Championship Formula 1 races from 1959 to 1965, during his tenure as Formula 1 team leader for the factory Cooper squad, it was not until 1967 that his then one-year-old McLaren Formula 1 team made an official appearance in one of the UK's domestic non-championship events, the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.
The previous season had seen the FIA change the Formula 1 rules to expand engine size from 1.5 litres to 3.0 litres, an imaginative step that would result in a dramatic expansion in the number of teams willing to have a shot at the sport’s most senior category. Like several other teams, McLaren was not ready with a fully-fledged 3-0-litre contender at the very start of 1967, but Bruce nonetheless finished a very creditable fourth in that year's Race of Champions, driving a comparatively underpowered 2.0-litre BRM V8-engined M4B. It may not have been the fastest car on the track in a straight line, but, in terms of showcasing McLaren’s technology and engineering capability, it did an excellent job.
That M4B always acquitted itself respectably in Bruce’s hands, actually, taking fifth place at two other Non-Championship Formula 1 races that year: the International Trophy at Silverstone and the Spring Cup at Oulton Park.
But better was to come. Twelve months later, in 1968, Bruce and his team delivered on that early promise in epic style. With its dogged team principal at the wheel, and the glorious Cosworth DFV engine now behind his back, the M7A roared to victory in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, adding lustre to the achievement with pole position and the race's fastest lap. And then Denny Hulme won the International Trophy at Silverstone in the other M7A.
The two events proved to be a welcome trailblazer for the World Championship battle ahead, as Bruce scored a stupendous victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps that year - the team's first victory in World Championship Formula 1 racing.
One of the most outstanding drives of Emerson Fittipaldi’s spell as a McLaren driver came in the 1975 Silverstone International Trophy, at Silverstone, wherein his McLaren M23 was pitched into a wheel-to-wheel battle with Niki Lauda’s newly unveiled Ferrari 312T. With its gutsy 3.0-litre flat-12 engine and its radical transverse five-speed gearbox, the Ferrari was a powerful and fine-handling car, perhaps already demonstrating a slight edge over the McLaren at superfast racetracks such as Silverstone, but Emerson drove that day as though inspired, hounding the Ferrari the whole way to the chequered flag.
It was one of those days when we pressmen became truly gripped by the spectacle being played out in front of us. And as the two cars burst into sight under the Daily Express bridge and hurtled towards Woodcote corner for the last time, Emerson jinked to the left and drew level with Niki as they stormed through the corner. But Niki hung on to win by little more than half a wheel-width.
In both 1976 and 1977 James Hunt took wins in the Race of Champions at the wheel of his trusty McLaren M23. He won the International Trophy in the first of those years too (it wasn't held in 1977, but, had it been, he would probably have won that too). At around that time Lauda remarked admiringly, if perhaps a tad grudgingly, “For a few months towards the end of 1976, and throughout most of 1977, I think James was probably the best Formula 1 driver in the business."
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We didn't know it at the time, but we were witnessing the end of an era. Soon afterwards, Non-Championship Formula 1 races died away, it being felt by the powers-that-be that there was no real place for them. With the relentless expansion to all four corners of the globe of the World Championship proper, it was decided that they had become an anachronism.
Yet, even now, they leave an affectionate legacy in the minds of all British racing enthusiasts. They used to whet our appetite. Or, rather, as the long spring evenings began to lengthen and the fans’ focus began to home in on World Championship Formula 1 races at places like Monaco, Jarama, Zolder, Anderstorp, Paul Ricard, Nurburgring, Osterreichring, Zandvoort and Monza to come, those British Non-Championship Formula 1 races provided a bridge in the imagination.
We loved 'em! And just imagine how much you would still love 'em now if, as you read this on the sunny Sunday of the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, instead you were en route to Brands Hatch or Silverstone or indeed even Oulton Park to watch a Non-Championship Formula 1 race involving Jenson Button, Checo Perez, Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Seb Vettel, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes-Benz et al.!