A Comparison: F1 in the 70s vs Now

In 1979, disco-style, The Knack’s “My Sharona”, and bell-bottoms were all the rage. Over in F1, motorsport legends such as Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi roamed the paddock.

A few months ago, my godmother sent me a programme from the 1979 British Grand Prix that she attended when she was just 19 years old. She gave it to me at roughly the same time I started my LiveJournal blog, and though I loved the programme, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

So, I’ve decided to note some of the differences I spotted between F1 now and F1 in 1979. I started this purely based on the programme, and then I fell into a deep, deep hole. Enjoy!

The 1979 Ferrari 312T4. Source: Wallpaper Up

Drivers and Teams

Current F1 fans know that there are ten teams in the sport with two drivers in each. However, at the 1979 British Grand Prix, there were fifteen different teams with twenty-six drivers competing. Some teams such as Fittipaldi-Ford, ATS-Ford, and Merzario-Ford only had one driver, while Lotus-Ford had three. Ford, as you may have noticed, was the prevailing constructor. Thirteen of the fifteen teams chose the American motor company’s engine, with just Ferrari and Renault opting to build their own.

It was also much cheaper to run a Formula 1 team back then, with Ken Tyrrell stating that in the 1970s, it cost £600,000 (even with inflation, that’s only £8.1m) to run his Tyrrell-Ford team. Compared to the £50-215m price tag of running an F1 team now, that’s a drastic difference.

As for the drivers in 1979, the first thing I assumed was that they were much older than they are now. However, that’s not true. It may surprise you to hear that the average age of a driver on the grid of the 1979 British Grand Prix was just over 27 years old. As of the 2021 Imola Grand Prix, that’s exactly the same age as the current F1 drivers.

Source: Mercedes

The 1979 British Grand Prix was Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni’s fifth and final career win. It was also the first win for the Williams F1 team, who won their first Drivers Championship a year later with Australian driver Alan Jones.

As a reminder of the dangers F1 drivers face, Regazzoni became paralyzed from the waist down after an awful incident at the 1980 United States West Grand Prix just one season later. He was driving at 280km/h on a long straight when his brake pedal failed to work, and as a result, he crashed into the retired car of Ricardo Zunino. It’s sad to say he wasn’t alone, as many drivers on the grid of the 1979 British Grand Prix sustained severe injuries in their racing careers. More on this at the car section of this post.

Nigel Mansell and his very 70s mustache. Source: Autocar

Another notable mention is from an article in the programme entitled “Formula 3 – Nursery Ground of Talent” by Brendan Lynch. He comments on a rising young talent in the sport, a driver by the name of Nigel Mansell! Lynch describes the British driver, who would win the Formula 1 World Championship in 1992, as “quietly confident” in his ability to earn a good result for his Formula 3 team at Silverstone.

James Hunt began his commentating career at The 1979 British Grand Prix, joining the late Murray Walker on his Grand Prix TV broadcast. The pair commentated together for fourteen years until the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix, as Hunt passed away from a heart attack two days later.

Grands Prix (yep, that’s the plural of Grand Prix)

Throughout the 1979 Formula 1 season, fifteen races were held. That’s eight more than the inaugural season in 1950 and eight less than the current 23-race calendar. Of the fifteen races in 1979, nine of the tracks are no longer used for Formula 1. Examples of this include the Long Beach street circuit in the United States and the Spanish Jarama track. This year, Zandvoort returns to the F1 calendar, which hasn’t hosted an Grand Prix since 1983. It was added to the 2020 schedule but cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. It seems like an interesting track, and I’m looking forward to tuning into the race this September!

Sponsorships and Ads

James Hunt, 1976 F1 World Champion, smoking a cigarette. Source: James Hunt Marlboro Man – King of Fuel

The official title of the 1979 British Grand Prix was the 1979 Marlboro British Grand Prix. Not something that would be acceptable nowadays, but the best-selling cigarette company and Formula 1 were closely interlinked. From 1974 to 1996, the McLaren Formula 1 team was also sponsored by Marlboro. In fact, because of Marlboro, McLaren had a red and white livery for all twenty-two years of their partnership.

As for the rest of the ads in the Grand Prix programme, the advertising was much more simplistic than they are currently. The advertisements were mostly for cars, car tyres, and motor oil, all opting for basic phrases. For example, shown below is for Texaco Havoline All Temperature Motor Oil. The phrase below the picture is simply, “You can’t buy a better motor oil.”


I’m not going to get too techy when talking about the difference in cars, as it’s something I’m still learning. The main points I’ll be writing about for the car section of this post are the engines, the tyres, and the safety of the cars.

Up until 1977 all F1 cars were naturally aspirated, meaning that air flowed into the engine solely through atmospheric pressure, rather than being forced in through turbos or superchargers. Renault were the pioneers of turbocharging in F1 and although the technology was ridiculed at the time, they got their first win with a turbo engine at the French Grand Prix in 1979. Just a few years later, several teams (including Ferrari, Brabham, and Alfa Romeo) also decided to use a turbocharged engine. In 1989, turbocharged engines were banned from the sport and were only recently allowed again as of 2014. 

In the 1970s, the cars were made largely from aluminium monocoques. The much stronger and safer carbon fibre monocoques were only introduced in 1981, initially by the McLaren team.

The safety of Formula 1 cars in the 70s is something I’ve mentioned several times in this article due to its importance. F1 has been known for its rebellious drivers and massive crashes, and the danger is glamorized by many. However, while safety has improved significantly since the 70s, the risks that drivers take every day should not go unnoted. According to a BBC News article, a staggering 29 F1 drivers died in the 60s and 18 in the 70s. Due to many new safety rules, the most recent death in Formula 1’s was the late Jules Bianchi in 2014, a tragedy that hastened the introduction of the ‘halo’. However, in 2019, F2 driver Anthoine Hubert passed away from injuries sustained in the Belgian Grand Prix. Many drivers, such as Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost, have rallied for more safety in the sport. According to the FIA, “drastic improvements” have been made this year for safety measures.

As for tyres, there were two manufacturers to choose from in 1979; Goodyear and Michelin. Since 2011, Pirelli has been the only tyre manufacturer in F1. 


While Formula 1 and motorsport as a whole has launched several initiatives to make the sport more diverse, it’s still startling to see how male and white the industry is. In August 2020, Natalie Pinkham told The Telegraph that Formula 1 is 88% male and 91% white, seriously concerning figures.

In 1979 it was an incredibly rare sight to see a woman in the paddock or even someone of colour. In The Telegraph article mentioned above, “Natalie Pinkham: ‘Formula One is 88pc male and 91pc white – that’s not acceptable in 2020’“, author Guy Kelly writes that, “For decades, the most prominent women seen at F1 races were the grid girls – models employed to look beautiful and not much else.” After much consternation, principally from the old guard, they were consigned to history in 2018.”

Ending the tradition of grid girls is just the beginning, however, and there is still much work to do to achieve greater diversity in Formula 1. In 2020, Formula 1 launched the We Race As One campaign for equality and inclusion in the sport. Also, blogs and organizations such as Girls on Track UKFemales In Motorsport, and Driven By Diversity are actively encouraging people of colour and women to pursue careers in motorsport. Diversity is rising in Formula 1, and It’s about time too. It’s absolutely ridiculous that there has been just one Black F1 driver in the sport’s 70-year history. People can argue over the ‘greatest’ but statistically speaking, that one Black driver, Lewis Hamilton, is the most successful F1 driver of all time. If F1 becomes more inclusive and accessible, who knows how much talent will come as a result?

Cover Image Credit: Wikipedia (The image is of Jody Scheckter, 1979 F1 World Champion)

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