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The five greatest machines of F1 // A look at some of the strongest cars that have participated in Formula One

Published by Subhayan Mukerjee

With most of the teams having launched their challengers for the upcoming season, one wonders what path of evolution has resulted in the 700-odd bhp machines which shall line up at Melbourne come 17th March 2013.

In an attempt to answer that question, here’s a look back at five of the most prominent racing cars that the Formula 1 community has seen over the six decades of its existence. These were machines which, during their prime, created ripples in the sport. They turned the motorsport community upside down and etched their names in history books for future generations to admire. Quite unsurprisingly, they serve as inspiration to designers and engineers even today.

The Mercedes Benz W 196

Argentinean Grand Pri, Buenos Aires. Juan Manuel Fangio in the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R
Fangio in the W 196Credit: Daimler AG

Formula 1 started in 1950, and the first teams to taste sweet success were the Italians - the likes of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati. In 1954, however, the German stalwart Mercedes Benz announced a new racing car that would go on to make mincemeat of the opposition in two consecutive seasons. Thus the W196 was born.

It was a remarkable piece of engineering. It heralded in an era of fuel injected engines that was inspired by the German warplanes of World War 2. And in races, it made the mighty Italians looks jurassic. In the able hands of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, the W196 would go on to win 9 out of the 12 races it took part in, in the 1954-55 seasons.

This iconic car, besides being elegant to look at, belonged to a long legacy of Mercedes Benz racing cars which were left unpainted to reduce weight. Their metallic colour and their superior performance gave them the nickname “Silver Arrows” - a legacy that continues till this day in the form of Mercedes GP. So the next time you see a smiling Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg on the podium, you would know the great lineage that their cars pay tribute to.

The Lotus 79

Colin Chapman is often hailed as the greatest designer in all of F1 history. Besides founding the famous Lotus marque, he brought in a series of groundbreaking innovations which would change the way motorsports worked. He championed the fight against the Formula 1 rule setters and implemented several subtle and secret design ideas that would just bypass the regulations and yet, prove to be unbeatable on the track.

The Lotus 79 was the triumphant fruit of all his toil. To date, the car is respected owing to several design elements which made full use of the “ground effects” which its immediate predecessor, the Lotus 78 had pioneered. It is considered to be a race-car design classic. What were ground effects? They were merely some aerodynamic features of the car which maximised downforce and held the car down to the track surface better than.

This design element was so effective in fact, that it allowed the drivers to corner the car at thunderous speeds resulting in it winning 8 of the 16 races that it ran in, the 1978 season. Lotus emerged a clear winner in the constructors’ championship. For the next few seasons, “ground effects” had come to stay.

The McLaren MP4/4

McLaren MP4/4 on display
Credit: Matt Dwen / CC

To this day, the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 remains the most dominant racing car in Formula 1 history. Designed by Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols, two of these red and white beauties were put to battle at the hands of two legends, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna - in what would become the greatest Formula 1 rivalry of all time.

The MP4/4 was also the last of the great turbocharged machines to be used in Formula 1 in an era when power output (owing to turbos) had gone through the roof, peaking at over 1000 bhp. McLaren won 15 of the 16 grands prix in the 1988 season with this car, finishing 1-2 in a record breaking 10 races. Though Senna finally outshone by a 3 point lead over Prost, McLaren had systematically decimated the competition. At the end of the season, they were at 199 points; Ferrari, at a distant second, with a meagre 65.

The Williams FW15C

If ever there was a Formula 1 car that could stand up, look you in the eye, and lay claim to being the most technologically advanced car of all time, it would definitely be the Williams FW15C. It’s not hard to see why. Designed by Adrian Newey, the car boasted an umpteen number of driver aids - anti-lock brakes, traction control, active suspension. No car in the future would be able to incorporate these technologies, because the FIA categorically slammed down upon any sort of driver aid and banned them in the ‘94 season onwards.

The 1993 season, however, belonged to Renault, and they wrapped up the season with twice as many points as second placed McLaren (168 to 84). They won a whopping 10 out of the 16 grands prix with the FW15, and Alain Prost clinched the driver’s title that year, triumphing over arch nemesis Ayrton Senna. Damon Hill, in the other FW15 ended the season third.

Ferrari F2002

Ferrari F2002 on display
Credit: Ross Oslot / CC

The Ferrari F2002 was the car which was instrumental in cementing the historic partnership that Ferrari shared with Michael Schumacher. The early 2000s were an era when Ferrari were the de-facto winning team, and Schumacher was the de-facto winning driver, given any combination of track and weather. Today the F2002 is a good reminder of those good old days when the scarlet cars were unstoppable and unbeatable.

They always won. Everyone put their money on Schumacher on every race weekend. He set the fastest lap, took the pole and won the race. And in the process, broke almost every record that could be broken in Formula 1 - highest number of wins, highest number of championship victories, highest number of pole positions - it was uncanny. T

he F2002 shines as one of the most significant racing cars of the era, and it’s not hard to figure out why. It didn’t have the power of the contemporary Williams-BMW, but it was lightweight, fuel efficient and extremely driveable. It stole the season from arch rivals Williams and McLaren and won a staggering 15 of the 19 races in 2002-03 - at the hands of (mostly) Michael Schumacher and (at times) Rubens Barrichello.

Of course, this is a non-exhaustive list. We’ve seen even more recent examples of utter dominance when it has come to constructors’ (remember Brawn in 2009, and Red Bull in 2011?) But if you’re looking for “milestone” cars, then these five take the icing. Hands down.




  • The MP4-22 / F2007 was pretty damn dominant once you consider they were near enough the same damn car.

  • Good choices. I am sure you mean the FW15C rather than the unraced 15, and Williams-Renault. ;)

    You could've put any number of Chapman Lotuses (you know, the real ones) in the list and not been wrong. And then there were the many cars which although weren't dominant they changed everything anyway - e.g. McLaren MP4/1 (the first carbon-fibre F1 car).

  • This iconic car, besides being elegant to look at, belonged to a long legacy of Mercedes Benz racing cars which were left unpainted to reduce weight

    I had always believed the paint removal story until a few years ago. It is now clear that it is not true. As well as the example of cars running 2 years earlier in bare metal there are credible sources who claimed to have seen the car without paint in the Mercedes workshop earlier than the date that it supposedly failed the weight limit.

    en.wikipedia.org/…rows#Weight_story

    It is very difficult to choose only 5 cars and I think this is a fair selection. As Pat said there are any number of Lotuses that could have been chose - 25 the first monocoque, 49 the to use an engine as a stressed chassis member, 72 that raced competitively for 5 seasons. Then there was the twin chassis car that was banned.

    Ground effect refers to the way airflow interacts with the ground so is all about using the underside of the car to generate downforce. The cars had tunnels running the full length of the sidepods with a wing profile and skirts sealing the outside bottom corner of the sidepods to the road.. While the underbody aerodynamics were revolutionary in F1 in 1978 former Lotus driver Jim Hall had used them on his Chapparal 2J sportscar 8 years earlier.

  • While the underbody aerodynamics were revolutionary in F1 in 1978 former Lotus driver Jim Hall had used them on his Chapparal 2J sportscar 8 years earlier.

    http://sidepodcast.com/post/jim-who

  • The MP4-22 / F2007 was pretty damn dominant once you consider they were near enough the same damn car.

    :)

  • http://sidepodcast.com/post/jim-who

    I'm impressed that you remembered that

  • I had always believed the paint removal story until a few years ago. It is now clear that it is not true. As well as the example of cars running 2 years earlier in bare metal there are credible sources who claimed to have seen the car without paint in the Mercedes workshop earlier than the date that it supposedly failed the weight limit.

    Thanks for the information. I stand corrected. :-)

  • Chassis 03 of the R26, lead the most laps and won the most races in the 2006 season. Was also raced in every single race of the season.

    Possible the most successful chassis of the modern era.

  • Chassis 03 of the R26, lead the most laps and won the most races in the 2006 season. Was also raced in every single race of the season.

    ooh good call. it's only failing was some hopeless rear-wheel man who couldn't hold his gun straight.

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