Amid news that Formula 1 teams are pushing to adopt American-style permanent car numbering systems, here’s an explanation of how the current F1 system came to be.
F1 did not adopt a regular numbering system until early in 1973, when car numbers were awarded based roughly on the constructors’ standings. Those numbers became ‘permanent’, with only the team running the champion driver changing for the following year and assuming No. 1 and No. 2 for its cars. The team previously holding No. 1 then took the numbers left vacant by the new No. 1 runner.
This system was maintained until 1996, when the present numbering method based on annual constructors’ championship positions took effect.
The first F1 number to earn iconic status was the No. 27 that Gilles Villeneuve carried in 1981/2. Although he only spent 20 of his 67 grands prix with that number (compared to 30 races running No. 12), the peaks of heroism he achieved during his 1981 campaign in the uncompetitive Ferrari and the fact that he carried No. 27 when he died in ’82 meant it would always be associated with Villeneuve.
As Ferrari then failed to win any titles over the next two decades, it kept No. 27 for almost the entire remaining period of that numbering system, allowing the likes of Patrick Tambay, Michele Alboreto, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi to make their own additions to the No. 27 legend.
The only exception was when Ferrari signed reigning champion Alain Prost from McLaren in 1990, but with Ayrton Senna winning the next title for McLaren, Ferrari was soon back to No. 27 and No. 28
Nigel Mansell’s fans also adopted the “Red 5” tag from his championship-winning 1992 Williams. The Briton used that number for 93 of his 191 grands prix, including all his Williams appearances bar his late 1994 return. His departure for IndyCar after winning the 1992 crown and successor Alain Prost’s retirement following his ’93 championship win meant that F1 had no No. 1 in 1993/4, with Williams’s Damon Hill carrying No. 0 for both seasons.
The way championship victories swapped between teams — and teams came and went from the grid — meant that few squads carried their post-1973 system numbers for long periods. The exception was Tyrrell. As 1973’s crown for Jackie Stewart was the team’s last, its No. 3 and No. 4 remained right through to the end of the era in 1995. Ligier also maintained its original No. 26 from its 1976 debut until the ’96 change.