Even if it grows from year to year, the calendar of the Formula 1 World Championship respects very precise dates, the season starting in March and ending shortly before winter. But in the past, greater liberties were taken in the development of this calendar, in particular concerning the events disputed in the southern hemisphere. Thus, at the start of the televised transmission of the races, chilled European spectators could follow, between the months of January and February, Grands Prix disputed thousands of kilometers below in blazing heat.
A little flashback is in order. In the early 1950s, the World Championship was world only in name. All the Grands Prix were held in Europe, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500, an event shunned by F1 drivers since American single-seaters had nothing to do with European ones. In fact, it wasn’t until 1953 that a « real » extra-European round was added to the calendar, the first one located below the equator.
Argentina already had some experience with Formula 1 since the ACA, the Automobile Club of Argentina, with the support of President Juan Perón, had organized a series of Formula Libre races every year since 1947 (open to F1 therefore ) baptized « La Temporada ». And to attract the big names of the time, mostly European, these non-championship races took place when Europe was at a standstill, obviously in winter. Countries in the southern hemisphere had no snow or ice problem to deal with since, due to the planet’s tilt, they experience the highest temperatures of the year during the coldest periods of the northern hemisphere, and vice versa.
Satisfied by the success of its Temporada, Argentina moved up a gear by organizing its first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1953, still at the start of the year. F1 drivers had waited until May 18 to start the 1952 season.
From 1953 to 1960, never later than February 7, Argentina had the honor of opening the season. But with the retirement of Juan Manuel Fangio and the economic and political instability reigning in the country, the event was deprogrammed entering the new decade.
December 31, 1967: Colin Chapman, Jack Brabham and Jim Clark celebrate the New Year. A few hours later, Clark will win the South African Grand Prix
Once again, the United States found itself isolated on the calendar, but in 1962 a new extra-European event was added to an African circuit.
At the time, South Africa also held its own Temporada with a local championship straddling the months of December and January. But contrary to what was seen in Argentina in the previous decade, the F1 regulations were applied there and not the more permissive rules of Formula Libre. Consequently, the events in southern Africa were much more interesting for the Europeans, British manufacturers in the lead. The Cape Town, Rand and Natal Grands Prix quickly became major events before being eclipsed by the arrival of the South African Grand Prix on the World Championship calendar.
The race was truly a UFO, first of all because it was the only round in the southern hemisphere at that time, but also because it was completely isolated: more than 60 days passed between the Grand 1962 United States Awards and the season finale, in East London. Rebelote the following year, this time with the Mexican Grand Prix.
There was no South African Grand Prix in 1964 but that of 1965 was postponed to January… the 1st, to be more precise. Very bad news for John Surtees since the Ferrari driver had to put his title back into play only 68 days after having obtained it! And as surprising as it may seem, another F1 Grand Prix was held on January 1, still in South Africa: it was in 1968.
In the 1970s, the South African Grand Prix found a less exotic position on the calendar, at the start of March. However, the temperatures remained very hot despite the setback of the event. Thus, the Kyalami Ranch, the hotel where the pilots stayed, looked more like a holiday resort!
Ping-pong game between Jackie Stewart and François Cevert before the start of the 1971 South African Grand Prix
With the return of Argentina to the calendar – still in January – and the hatching of the talented Emerson Fittipaldi, Brazil also wanted its place in the premier category and ended up obtaining it, in 1973. Given the geographical proximity of the two countries, the Brazilian leg was hosted between the last week of January and the first of February. South Africa followed, five to six weeks later.
Some of the most significant moments of the seventies occurred in Brazil, such as the victory of Carlos Pace, regional of the stage, in 1975, or the resounding triumph of Jacques Laffite and Ligier in 1979, already winners in Argentina two weeks earlier. The Brazilian Grand Prix was especially very difficult for the drivers due to the overwhelming heat in São Paulo. If the spectators were refreshed by the fire hoses of the firefighters before the start, the pilots did not have this luxury. And the tortuous and bumpy nature of the Interlagos circuit didn’t help matters!
But in the early 1980s, the Interlagos setting and circuit came into conflict with Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1. Shortly before the cancellation of the Argentine Grand Prix because of the Falklands War, the Brazilian Grand Prix moved to Rio de Janeiro, about thirty kilometers from the famous Copacabana beach. A postcard landscape that gave satisfaction to television cameras and generous sponsors.
Ronnie Peterson, Patrick Tambay and Didier Pironi ride a motorbike near the beach in Rio
Finally, it would not be fair to conclude without mentioning the Tasmanian Formula, which made the heyday of motorsport in Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s. Just as was the case in South Africa, the best European drivers found themselves « down under » between January and February to show off their new machine or quite simply to satisfy their passion for racing. The flagship events were obviously the Grands Prix of New Zealand and Australia, which however did not count for the World Championship.
It’s been a long time since Argentina and South Africa left the calendar. But two rounds below the equator still exist today: the first in Australia, in Melbourne, the other in Brazil, in São Paulo. Yet neither takes place in January or February.
How to explain it? Perhaps by the arrival of the big car manufacturers with almost unlimited means, perhaps by Bernie Ecclestone’s takeover of the championship portfolio. The fact remains that, from the end of the 1970s, expenditure exploded. To succeed in F1, it was now necessary to concentrate on development and on the tedious private test sessions.
As a result, the teams had no more time and no more money to devote to non-championship events, whether they take place at the beginning, middle or end of the year. The calendar has been standardized, with a postponed kick-off to allow the teams to refine their new cars and Grands Prix separated by three to four weeks maximum.
January 23, 1982: Start of the South African GP, the last F1 race in winter