By Stefan Kristensen
February 2, 2022

Why Is It Called "Formula 1"?

Formula 1 has existed since 1946, and while the cars have changed considerably in that time, the name has managed to stick around. If you've been following the sport for a while, you may be wondering what exactly "Formula 1" refers to.

Simply put, Formula 1 refers to the rules and restrictions that all of the participating cars have to conform to. These rules dictate what engines, chassis designs, and aerodynamic components can be used by each car, among other things.

Today, we'll be talking all about the term Formula 1 and explaining the origins behind it, and we'll be sharing with you a brief history of the sport as a whole.

What Does "Formula 1" Mean?

After World War II ended, the organizers of the European Driver's Championship decided that there needed to be a new set of regulations in place that modern race cars could conform to. Thus, Formula 1 was born.

As for why it was called Formula 1, the organizers felt that the word "formula" best represented the fact that this was a particular division of racing with its own set of regulations. The "1" part of Formula 1 is meant to denote that Formula 1 is the top class in all forms of open-wheel racing.

There was initially some debate over what exactly they should call this new class of racing. The organizers agreed on the "Formula" part of the name, but there were a few variations of the term that were bounced around before organizers settled on Formula 1.

Names like "Formula A" and "Formula Internationale" were considered, but ultimately the organizers decided that Formula 1 was the most fitting title and that's what they went with. In addition, with the emergence of lower-tier racing categories that would become Formula 2 and Formula 3, it made all the more sense to title Formula 1 as such.

A Brief History of Formula 1

So, we now know the origins of the term Formula 1 and what exactly it means, but what about the origins of the sport itself? Let's take a dive into the history of Formula 1 and explain how exactly it came to be.

Pre-History of Formula 1

While Formula 1 itself didn't really exist until 1946 with the introduction of the Formula 1 regulations and the first non-championship races, there had been plenty of open-wheeled racing going on before that point. The precursor to Formula 1 was the European Championship, which was governed by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR).

Aside from the fact that Formula 1 rules weren't in place, the European Championship also differed greatly from future Formula 1 championships in terms of how scoring worked.

For one, points weren't awarded for what place you came in; instead, they were awarded based on how much of the race you were able to complete. Being that it was a lot more common back then for cars to break down before they could finish a race, this might have made a lot more sense at the time.

In addition, the drivers who were able to complete more of the race scored fewer points than those who completed less. A driver who completed more than 75% of a race would be given four points, while a driver who only completed 25% or less would be given seven points. In these old championships, the winner was the driver who scored the fewest points.

With the start of World War II, however, open-wheeled racing was put on the back burner, and the European Championship was no more.

Formula 1: The Early Years

Shortly after the war ended, it was decided that racing needed to make a comeback. To start with, the AIACR renamed itself as the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), which is the name they've had ever since then. 

The FIA then drafted the rules for the first group of Formula 1 cars. Compared to today, the first set of rules was pretty unrestrictive; it basically only dictated what size engine your car could have based on whether it was naturally aspirated or not (forced induction engines could be no larger than 1.5 liters, while naturally aspirated engines could be up to 4.5 liters in displacement).

There was no weight limit at this time for any cars, however, and there were also basically no rules in place to make the cars or the circuits safer. Helmets weren't even mandatory for drivers to wear until 1952, two years after the first World Championship was held; it was commonly accepted that death was just an inherent risk of being a race car driver.

For the first few years, the championship consisted of seven races, held in Britain, Monaco, the United States, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and France. The American race was actually the Indianapolis 500, and the inclusion of it in the Formula 1 World Championship was intended to give the World Championship some more international prestige.

However, for the first decade of the World Championship, the European drivers declined to participate in the Indy 500, and the American drivers declined to participate in any of the European events. It wasn't until Jack Brabham took part in the Indy 500 in 1961 that Formula 1 became a truly international affair.

Formula 1: The Later Years

As the years went on, the cars kept getting faster and faster, but not necessarily all that much safer. Deaths were still fairly common, and while some safety features had been added to the cars and circuits, Formula 1 was without question a dangerous sport.

It wasn't until 1994 that driver safety really became the FIA's main concern. It was during this year at the San Marino Grand Prix that two drivers passed away on two consecutive days. Those drivers were Roland and Ayrton Senna, the latter of who was considered to be one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time.

These deaths prompted the FIA to make numerous changes to the cars, circuits, and overall safety practices used during races. As a result, since 1994, only one driver and two race marshalls have died during a race. Formula 1 will always be a somewhat dangerous sport, but it's nonetheless the safest it's ever been. 

(Cover photo: The Alfa Romeo Alfetta 159 which won the first two F1 world championships, Bergfalke2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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