A thrilling triple-team battle for the championship; an established team with a pair of evenly-matched drivers, winning several early Grands Prix, but then falling away in the development race; a young team with the fastest car, struggling for early-season reliability, but then mounting a late charge with a string of consecutive victories; and a Ferrari team scoring consistently with a car suitable on all types of circuit, but rarely possessing ultimate speed. The best-ever season of Formula 1? Yes, quite possibly 1979 had it all.
In the modern age, the World Drivers' Championship provides Formula 1 with an overall narrative which ties the individual Grands Prix into a coherent story, and imbues individual races with a significance they might not otherwise possess. Thus, by virtue of the fact that the 2010 season featured a five-way battle for the Drivers' Championship, many are already suggesting that 2010 was the best season in F1 history.
However, quick on the draw, Mark Hughes points out in his mini 2010 season-review, that for those who preferred the "rawness" of previous eras, "the greatest seasons have already been set."
Moreover, one can argue the case for 1979, not merely on the basis of its rawness, but on the quality of the individual races. 1979 featured great drivers, in fabulous cars, engaging in genuine racing on challenging circuits. Fortunes swung back and forth through the year, with the Ligier team of Laffite and Depailler initially dominating, before Ferrari won some races, and before the young Williams team eventually nailed their reliability problems, and began to dominate. For McLaren in 2010 read Ligier in 1979, for Red Bull in 2010 read Williams in 1979, and for Ferrari in 2010 read Ferrari in 1979. And remember, Williams in 1979 were only denied the opportunity to emulate Red Bull's late 2010 championship victory by an idiosyncratic scoring system which limited the number of points which could be scored in each half of the season.
In contrast, what were the truly great racing moments of the 2010 season? Certainly, there was a tremendous battle between the Red Bulls and McLarens at Istanbul, and the wet early-season races conspired to produce plenty of overtaking, (from Lewis Hamilton at least). However, are you really going to sit your grandchildren down and reminisce about how the old petrol-driven F1 cars struggled with their tyre degradation at Canada in 2010, or how Ferrari failed to cover both Red Bulls strategically at the season finale in Abu Dhabi?
Perhaps, instead, you might reminisce about Villeneuve and Arnoux banging wheels with expressionistic freedom at Dijon in 1979, or the exciting battles between Jones and Villeneuve at Zandvoort, Canada and Watkins Glen that same year. Or perhaps you'll just smile, and gently shake your head as you replay for the umpteenth time your holographic video of Villenueve, lapping at close to racing speed on three wheels at Zandvoort.