Rather than messing around with a lukewarm Sprint qualifying format, a Race of Champions type format would be way more fun…
This year’s Race of Champions has come to an end, with Mattias Ekstrom taking home victory in the individual races final as he took on the challenge of the impressive Mick Schumacher.
It was another two days of stellar competition on the ice and snow of Sweden, with the format pitting some of the biggest and most illustrious names in motorsport against each other – ranging from World Rallycross, W Series, sportscars, IndyCar, Formula 1 , and even e-sports.
The format has proven to be a great leveler, with all drivers competing in a wide range of machines – the fast-paced nature of car swaps means drivers have to adapt to the very different characteristics of each machine with just one minimum acclimatization time.
For the F1 drivers in attendance, jumping into a rallycross car such as the FC1-X, capable of 0-100km/h in 1.5 seconds with over 1,000 horsepower, racing against drivers such as Ekstrom, Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb presents a serious racing challenge that is very different from the driving conditions on the perfectly smooth tarmac of a place like Yas Marina or Sakhir.
While the Race of Champions simply serves as a relaxed aperitif before the main course of the motorsport season, there is an obvious interest in seeing the talents of drivers from different disciplines compete against each other – it’s great fun to see confrontations between father and son. Petter and Oliver Solberg, or watching e-Sports racer Lucas Blakely beat F1 drivers like Valtteri Bottas or Sebastian Vettel.
F1 takes itself very seriously, as do the teams, meaning a Race of Champions-style race to put its 20 drivers in fairer competition is unlikely but, the only time a similar event has been staged , the cream still reached the top…
Ayrton Senna’s Race of Champions victory draws F1 attention
The 1984 Nurburgring Race of Champions (unrelated to the current Race of Champions) was organized by Mercedes to celebrate the return of the legendary circuit (albeit in a truncated form) to the Formula 1 calendar.
20 examples of their Mercedes 190E, with a 2.3 liter 16v engine, were supplied – all of which were identically modified to make them more suitable for racing.
The task of filling the 20 cars was left to Mercedes’ head of motorsport product placement, with Gerd Kremer deciding to invite as many former F1 world champions and Nurburgring race winners to participate.
Of all the world champions alive in 1984, only five of them chose not to participate for various reasons. Juan Manuel Fangio, 72, was present as a Mercedes ambassador but chose not to race. Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi were competing in the Indy 500 (good reason!), while Jackie Stewart declined due to his vow never to race again after retiring in 1973. Defending world champion Nelson Piquet declined opportunity, for undefined reasons.
Alongside the champions, race winners Elio de Angelis, Alain Prost, Carlos Reutemann, John Watson and Jacques Laffite took part, as well as Mercedes legends Hans Herrmann and Stirling Moss.
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Among such illustrious names as James Hunt, Keke Rosberg, Jack Brabham and Alan Jones, Ayrton Senna’s name, at the time, was utterly aberrant given that he was still an F1 rookie driving for Toleman . It was so early in his career that even his infamous Monaco Grand Prix in torrential rain had yet to happen.
Senna had been invited after meeting Kremer at the Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix in 1983, befriending the Mercedes man as he dominated the weekend in Asia – the Brazilian took over the car which had been reserved for Fittipaldi.
The race took place on Saturday between the San Marino and French Grands Prix, with Alain Prost taking pole position in the event ahead of Reutemann and Senna.
Not captured by television cameras, Senna took the lead on the first lap. Amusingly and indicative of what would happen between them in the following years, Prost claimed that Senna pushed him off the track on the first lap in order to take the lead. Even funnier, Senna had ferried Prost from Frankfurt airport to the track – Mercedes had asked the couple to share a car, as they only had one available to them as their flights were arriving less than a half -time from each other.
But, although the pair apparently get on well and Senna enjoys Prost’s company, the Brazilian showed no mercy as he fought his way into the lead.
It was a lead Senna would not relinquish over the 12 lap distance, although eventual 1984 F1 world champion Niki Lauda recovered from a 14th place on the grid to finish second and just 1.3 seconds behind the Brazilian.
As a relative unknown, Senna’s performance won him plenty of praise, particularly from John Watson, as the recently retired McLaren race winner praised his attacking style. John Surtees is also said to have spoken to Enzo Ferrari about hiring Senna at the Scuderia.
Although there were obvious question marks over how seriously all the drivers took the event (James Hunt apparently spent most of his race cutting corners just for fun), it was obvious that Senna had taken him very seriously: contemporary reports from the time Senna was very focused throughout and was determined to prove himself on the field as a top racing driver.
Why not experiment with a Race of Champions format during certain Grand Prix weekends?
Rather than experimenting more with the Sprint qualifying format, a lukewarm approach to qualifying that only extends the duration of a Grand Prix by a third before a 24-hour break, a much more fun idea for determining an order of qualifying for a Grand Prix would be to explore the idea of a Race of Champions style showdown.
This could take the form of any format imaginable: head-to-head knockouts being the format chosen by the ROC itself.
But why not explore the idea of maybe providing the 20 drivers with a car provided by a neutral third party, whether it’s a single seater, a rallycross machine or even a ridiculous go-kart (maybe -be on a smaller track), and send the 20 drivers for a half-hour race?
After all, what could be more fascinating than watching Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen having to face Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso or Oscar Piastri – all tied?
And then, the grid of the Grand Prix itself is determined by the order of arrival of this race. Imagine how shuffled the grid could be and the potential for drivers in normally uncompetitive F1 machines to show off their skills. We would finally find out if the best really are the best…
Additionally, since the machines are supplied and prepared by the F1/FIA, rather than the teams, there would be no need for any additional complicated budget cap adjustments or arguments, and no worries about damage. caused by accidents having an effect on the Grand Prix.
Of course, rolling out an ROC format as an official qualifying format would mean a lot of hurdles to jump through – there would be a lot of backlash from teams and drivers (especially those at the top). Ensuring fairness in terms of preparing the machines would be very difficult, especially since the teams would not be involved in preparing them for their own riders. And, if the pilots don’t like it… hard!
The likes of such an event, held in place of the occasional sprint qualifying race, would ensure skyrocketing interest in such races. Under Liberty Media the sport has become increasingly focused on improving the entertainment aspect of the show – what better than to put all 20 riders against each other in equal machines and that actually means something in terms of relevance for the Grand Prix?
Why didn’t the Race of Champions attract Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton?
The ROC is perhaps the best example to illustrate how truly talented all top drivers, regardless of discipline, are – the differentiation between them comes down to their chosen specialty, be it rally off-road, manic rallycross competition, high-speed tarmac ovals or putting on a 1000 hp single-seater around Spa-Francorchamps.
However, it’s worth pointing out that, despite being labeled as a fun event, the Race of Champions has yet to attract the participation of current Formula 1 superstars – Lewis Hamilton’s only appearance in 2008 was for a demonstration race , not for competition, while Max Verstappen’s hunger for all things racing has yet to extend to the relaxed camaraderie of the ROC.
Perhaps it’s for optical reasons that they opt against it: maintaining an image of driver talent well above their competitors would be difficult if an unknown e-Sports racer were to defeat them. In a sport where it’s best not to give your opponents or critics extra weapons, or the chance to make mocking headlines, an embarrassing loss could weigh on a driver of their stature, even in a so-called ” fun event”.
However, that hasn’t been a concern for Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Loeb over the years…