That was exactly the question being posed at the Historic Racing Forum, hosted by the Credit Suisse Drives’ Club, ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix de Monaco Historique.
Gathered for a discussion session were former F1 drivers Jochen Mass (James Hunt’s McLaren teammate during 1976/77), Emmanuele Pirro (who drove for Benetton and Ferrari from 1989/91 and won Le Mans five times), long time racer and TV personality Alain DeCadenet and 10 times Monaco Historique winner Duncan Dayton.
For many of us who grew up watching Formula 1 in the 1970s and 1980s, today’s series seems a world far removed, somehow lacking many of aspects that once made the sport so captivating. It was something the assembled panel clearly agreed upon.
“Every car was different back then,” remarked Jochen Mass, “in how it behaved from the start of the race until the end. Today, coping with tire degradation has become a major part [of how a driver wins a race]. Back then it was changing from one lap to the next.”
Duncan Dayton also added that the cookie cutter nature of modern F1 cars is also partly to explain why the sport isn’t as visceral as it once was. “The romance has gone out of today’s F1 racing,” he said. “If you painted all the cars today the same color, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.”
Alain de Cadenet also mentioned that back in the “glory days,” a Formula 1 drive was actually more obtainable for most of us, whereas today it seems drivers are bred from almost birth. “I was able to buy a three-year-old car from one of my friends to drive in a Grand Prix. It wasn’t a multi-million-dollar operation then. You made what you could out of it. Now F1 is a huge business and in becoming so successful a lot of fun has been taken out of it.”
Perhaps that explains why historic racing has become so popular, because it so much more emotional than the cold, clinical world of modern day Formula 1. “To me, historic cars are tangible, living things. The car talks to you in a gentle way, it has personality. If it’s a Ferrari it speaks to me in Italian,” remarked Emanuele Pirro.
“Cars of that era get out of shape more easily,” said Dayton, ” which is fun for the spectators to watch.”
What’s also interesting is that unlike many other major professional sports, Grand Prix racing is about the only one that actually has a “historic” division. “You wouldn’t see Cassius Clay getting back in the ring, or Pele getting back on the field” remarked Pirro. He’s absolutely right.
However, given the enduring spirit of vintage Formula 1, spurred on by movies like the documentary Senna and the upcoming feature Rush, as well as through historic events like this weekend’s Monaco race, there is the temptation of becoming too professional. “If you start pushing the (historic) car beyond its natural inherent capabilities, disaster will follow.” said Dayton.
Nevertheless, as it stands, vintage Grand Prix racing makes for an exciting experience both for the spectators and also the drivers, with tracks like Monaco providing that extra rush of adrenalin. “I get much more satisfaction from taking a corner on the limit where there is no run-off area,” said Pirro. ”I don’t understand why [many of] today’s F1 tracks are so forgiving.”
Mass also added that when a sport becomes too “safe” priorities turn elsewhere, such as “making money.”
So then, is vintage Grand Prix racing better than Formula 1? Arguably it depends on your viewpoint, but there’s no denying there’s something very emotional about watching a gaggle of classic Grand Prix cars weave their way around the iconic Monaco circuit in a manner that isn’t quite the same compared with today’s F1 circus. Perhaps Jochen Mass summed it up best. “Vintage racing has sex appeal,” he said.