Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yom Kippur and the Cosworth brigade

Many Formula 1 histories make the critical error of treating motorsport as if it is an activity hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. A far more interesting approach is to understand the coupled-evolution of Formula 1 with more general economic, technological, political, environmental, sociological and cultural trends.

As a case in point, consider Formula 1 in the 1970s (and early 1980s). This was an era in which the major manufacturers were largely absent from the sport, and consequently it was an era in which a small group of people could design a chassis, lease some Cosworth engines, and go racing. Ferrari were knocking about to disturb the Cosworth hegemony, but the racing was extremely competitive, with nine different drivers winning in the 1975 season, and four different drivers from four different teams winning the championship between 1978 and 1981.

But why were the manufacturers so manifestly absent from the sport during this decade? Why did the 1960s not culminate with the influx of manufacturer investment and television coverage ultimately seen in the early 1980s?

The one factor which dominates the explanation of all seventies phenomena was the economic stagnation. This clearly deterred manufacturers from involvement in glamorous forms of expenditure, and the slow rate of economic growth retarded the progress of all technology, including the telecommunications technology which Formula 1 would ultimately depend upon.

To be specific, one can attribute the competitiveness of Formula 1 in the late 1970s to the Yom Kippur war of 1973. This commenced on 6th October 1973, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Syria and Egypt jointly attacked Israel. It was only the support of the United States, which sent $2 billion of arms, that enabled Israel to repel its assailants. However, the support that the United States provided to Israel triggered OPEC, the Arab oil-production cartel, into raising oil prices and cutting oil production, and this caused the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-1974.

Prior to the crisis, the average rate of economic growth in the West had been around 5 percent; after the crisis, growth reduced to zero, and inflation rose to around 10 percent. The late 1970s, then, was an era of stagflation, and without this period of stagflation, the influx of major manufacturers, eventually seen from about 1982 onwards, may well have commenced circa 1976.

As a postscript, one might ask whether four different drivers from four different teams have won the World Championship over four consecutive years any time since. They have indeed, the years in question being 2006-2009...

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