Continuing our Motorsports History Month, today we delve into the people, both on the track and off it, who changed motor racing and serve as inspiration for those around today. From Ayrton Senna to Sid Watkins, here are the people who changed the game.
If you missed our previous story about the evolution of the way Formula 1 works, you can find it here. It details the evolution of the cars, tracks, and the way the team works in motorsport. You may find a few names in there which are mentioned a lot. Alfred Neubauer, Bernie Ecclestone, Colin Chapman, and more. In this article, we take a deeper look into why some of these people are so entrenched in the history of motorsport.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1891, Alfred Neubauer was the man who essentially created the modern racing team. Neubauer was always good with cars, he repaired them in the first world war. This caught the eye of Ferdinand Porsche, who appointed him as a driver-engineer and tester for the Austro-Daimler brand. He quickly found out driving was not his strong suit, but engineering and managing a team most certainly was.
Having been a racer for a few years and being talented with a spanner and having a good brain, Neubauer literally created the position of “team manager”. He would oversee the operation, employ staff, and train drivers to meet their potential. He pitched his idea to Porsche, now working for the newly founded Daimler-Benz team, and he entrusted him with the position.
Beginning in late 1926, Neubauer began to build the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team, employing drivers such as Rudolf Caracciola, and directing the design of the Mercedes SS, the team entered Grand Prix racing in 1928, winning the German Grand Prix, which was run for sports cars. More restructuring and development meant that by 1929 the new SSK Mercedes was winning many prestigious races such as the 1929 500 miles of Argentina and Ulster Trophy, 1930 Irish Grand Prix, the 1931 Argentine Grand Prix, and the 1931 Mille Miglia.
Why Neubauer was so good lay not in the skill of the drivers and engineers, though that was a significant factor, but his cunning and incredible tactical ability. He was a perfectionist and did everything right off-track to ensure success on it. One of his biggest inventions was the use of pit-to-driver communications. Drivers at that time had no contact with the outside world throughout the race, most didn’t know where they finished until they were told after the race, sometimes winning by surprise. Neubauer came up with a clever system to circumvent that, by using boards and flags to notify the driver of a position change, retirement, crash, and more.
This system proved incredibly successful at both winning races and angering track marshals. It catapulted Mercedes into dominance in the 1930s, with its famous rivalry against Auto Union. Neubauer was famous for training his staff vigorously, ensuring the pit personnel and drivers were fit enough to last the epic-length races there were back then, setting the trend for driver fitness until today.
Neubauer continued to manage the Mercedes team until 1955, when he retired after the Le Mans Disaster.
Sir Jackie Stewart
Sir Jackie Stewart is known for many reasons in Formula 1, and in motorsport outside of it. He was known to be brilliant behind the wheel and good at feedback and strategical calls. Outside the cockpit though, he was known for his work on improving driver safety. Indeed, Formula 1 would not be what it is today thanks to Stewart.
Born into a successful car dealer family in 1939, Stewart was obviously introduced to racing at an early age, as his father raced motorbikes and his older brother Jimmy drove in the 1953 British Grand Prix for Cooper. Stewart showed his competence as a sportsman early on, initially participating in shooting, almost making it to the 1960 Olympics for Great Britain, but coming third in the selection process. He switched to car racing in 1961, and was very successful, winning numerous races right off the bat.
Stewart made his mark in the wet at Snetterton in 1964. Driving for Ken Tyrrell’s Formula 3 team, he was ten seconds faster than anyone else on track, and easily won the race by “coasting”, still being the fastest car on it. He immediately got an F1 offer from Cooper, but declined, remaining in the stable of Ken Tyrrell, with whom he would work closely for his whole career.
He eventually did move to F1 with BRM in 1965, winning the Italian Grand Prix on his way to third in the title with 34 points. He won the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix, but the unreliable and unusual H16 BRM engine meant he only finished 5 races in 1966-67. Fed up with this, he moved to the Tyrrell-managed Matra outfit. Narrowly missing out on the title in 1968, he took it in 1969. In 1970 Tyrrell used March chassis as a transitional year before building their own in 1971. Stewart took the title two more times, in 1971 and 1973. He took 27 wins, a record that stood for 14 years, and was knighted for his services to motorsport.
It was off track though, where Stewart made his biggest mark. In the soaking 1966 Belgian Grand Prix, he fell off the track and had a massive crash. He was pinned inside the car, with burst fuel tanks leaving him in a pool of petrol. He needed to be helped out of the car by Graham Hill, Bob Bondurant, and a spectator armed with a spanner. He then lay in the bed of a pickup truck for hours until the ambulance got there. This ambulance then got lost on the way to Liege, and he ended up calling a private jet to take him to the UK for treatment.
Stewart was understandably livid at this, and he began his quest to ensure safety at racing venues. In conjunction with Jo Bonnier and Jochen Rindt (both of whom would die in racing crashes), he pressured organizers to make racing safer. This culminated in boycotts of 1969 Belgian, 1970 German, and 1972 Dutch Grands Prix. In 1973, after seeing the sad and completely avoidable death of Roger Williamson in the Dutch Grand Prix, he decided to retire at the end of the year. However, after his teammate Francois Cevert died in the US Grand Prix, he quit on the spot. The safety strikes continued until racing finally took safety seriously in the late 1970s.
Niki Lauda, Alessandro Zanardi and Juan Manuel Correa
Once in a blue moon, a racing crash is so frightening that everyone expects the worst. Sometimes, the worst occurs, but other times, drivers come fighting back from the brink to re-enter motorsport and do very well.
The most famous of these stories is Niki Lauda. Born in Austria in 1949, Lauda took out a bank loan to buy his way into the March outfit in 1971. He did very well with March in F2, and for 1972 he was promoted to their F1 team full-time. After a disappointing season, Lauda moved to BRM, and then to Ferrari in 1974. He took the world championship in 1975 and looked set to do so again, until the German Grand Prix. Lauda had a massive crash on the second lap, losing control out of a fast left-hander and smashing into an embankment. His car burst into flames and was hit by Brett Lunger’s Surtees before coming to a rest.
Lauda was seriously injured, with burns on his face and smoke damage in his lungs. He was given his last rites when he arrived in hospital but miraculously recovered enough to participate in the Italian Grand Prix only six weeks later. It was in that season he continued an incredible battle with James Hunt, with Hunt taking the title at the last race in Japan. Lauda took the 1977 and 1984 world titles and was an integral part of Mercedes’ success in the 2010s.
Alex Zanardi is another high-profile racer who came back from the brink. After an unsuccessful career in F1, Zanardi went to CART and was very successful. In 2001 though, things weren’t looking his way, he was out of title contention leading into the Lausitzring round. He was quick all weekend and was leading when he made his final pit stop of the day. Unfortunately, some form of driver error on the pit exit sent him spinning into the path of Patrick Carpentier. He missed Zanardi, but Alex Tagliani made heavy contact with the side of his car.
Zanardi’s legs were ripped off in the incident, and he lost 75% of his blood volume. He nearly died, but prompt medical intervention undoubtedly saved his life. During rehabilitation, he designed his own prosthetic legs, with racing in mind, and by 2003 had recovered enough to re-debut in motorsport. He came seventh in the European Touring Car race at Monza that year and returned full-time to touring car racing in 2004. He won four races between 2005-09 and won Paralympic medals in the 2012 Olympic Games. He continued racing until a handcycling crash in 2020 caused brain injuries which he is now recovering from.
The most recent example of this brave level of the driver is Ecuadors’ Juan Manuel Correa. After racing in GP3 with modest success, Correa made the jump to F2 for 2019. He took two-second places and 36 points coming into the Belgian round. On the second lap of the feature race, a driver in front of him, Giuliano Alesi, lost control at Eau Rouge. The resulting accident sent Correa spearing into the side of Anthoine Hubert at huge speed.
Hubert lost his life, and Correa was critically injured. He almost died on the Tuesday after the crash thanks to respiratory failure, but pulled through and began a lengthy recovery. After 15 months of rehabilitation, Correa came back from the brink of death to stage a successful comeback at the first round of the FIA Formula 3 championship, taking three top 15 finishes and one championship point. It is a story not yet over, and the former Alfa Romeo reserve could yet make his way up the ranks again to do what only a few have managed, come back from death to win car races.
If there was ever anyone to shape the look of cars in all motorsport, it’s Lotus founder Colin Chapman. He was a genius when it came to finding performance, and his principles are all over motorsport and road cars in general.
Chapman always had a love of cars, and after graduating from university, began to tinker with an Austin 7. The resulting Lotus Mk1 was Chapman’s first car and began his iconic style of making cars at light as possible. His first major invention was using struts as a suspension device. The Chapman Strut was pioneered on the Lotus 12 F1 car, which evolved into the multi-link wishbone and spring, making Lotus’ 1960s cars so distinctively bouncy over bumps.
That was nothing compared to how he would revolutionize racing in the 1960s. The Lotus 21 was the first hint of Chapman’s genius. For this car, Chapman saw that putting the springs and other suspension elements inside the car’s bodywork and putting the wheels out to the sides almost like a spider would help decrease drag to make his underpowered cars slip through the air better. The car only weighed about 450kg, making it the lightest car on the grid by some margin.
Chapman then engineered the lotus 25, and this stunned the racing world. Cars before 1962 were made with steel tubes as a chassis. Chapman instead, used aluminum sheets bolted together to make a tub for the driver to sit in. This monocoque car was revolutionary, it consistently destroyed the opposition, and every team except Ferrari scrambled to design their own monocoque cars. The Lotus 25 remained in F1 until 1967, coming seventh in its final Grand Prix.
1968 saw Chapman change the look of motorsport forever. For the Spanish Grand Prix, Lotus rolled up to the track in red and gold colors, not the Green of England. He had made a sponsorship deal with Imperial Tobacco so the Lotus was in the livery of the Gold Leaf brand. This was Formula 1’s first-ever sponsorship, and those sponsorships are obviously still around today. He also introduced aerodynamics in the very next race at Monaco, which changed the look of motorsport forever.
Chapman invented some of the other things that include the stressed engine idea in 1966, the sidepod radiators in 1970, and ground effect in 1978. All of which are either still in F1 or will be introduced into it soon. Chapman died prematurely while working on another revolution, active suspension, and one can only wonder what he would’ve done had he not died at just 54.
Bernie Ecclestone and Professor Sid Watkins
Not all of Formula 1’s greatest people come from on the track or in the garages. Bernie Ecclestone and Professor Sid Watkins transformed Formula 1 from a deadly pastime for rich people, to one of the safest and most popular sports in the world. Through listening to the thoughts of drivers and teams, and smart business decisions, Ecclestone made Formula 1 what it is today.
Ecclestone was an owner of the Connaught team in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, his investment came too late to save the team and it collapsed in 1957. He then managed Stuart Lewis-Evans, who died in 1958 after his engine exploded at the Moroccan Grand Prix. Ecclestone was distraught over Lewis-Evans’ death and spent a few years away from motorsport, but returned to manage Jochen Rindt in 1965. In 1971, he bought Brabham and began advocating for increased control of F1 by the teams.
He became head of the Formula One Constructors Association in 1978 and appointed Watkins as the chief medical officer. After Ronnie Peterson’s fatal crash, Watkins demanded better resources for the medical team, which were provided by the next race in the USA. After 1978, deaths in Formula 1 plummeted, with there having only been seven driver deaths since 1978, compared to eight between 1970-77. Drivers like Mika Hakkinen, Rubens Barrichello, and Martin Donnelly are among the lives saved by medical intervention from Watkins and his team.
In 1979, Ecclestone began selling TV contracts to broadcasters, and Formula 1 began growing exponentially. It is he we have to thank for the popularity and safety of Formula 1 in the modern day.
Of course, there are many other racing legends than the few we have mentioned above, but there are a few that spring to mind when one hears “racing legend”. If you’ve been enjoying our “motorsport history month” series so far, the great news is there are still six articles that will be released between now and the end of May.