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Formula 1’s top nine game-changing cars

PHOTO: TopGear.com

1) First constructor champion: Vanwall VW5

Formula 1 records are weird. Despite the first official race taking place just a year after the end of World War II (the Turin GP in 1946), there wasn’t actually a championship for manufacturers and teams, as well as drivers themselves, until 1958. British marque Vanwall won the first-ever constructors’ title thanks to three wins each by Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, though Moss lost the drivers’ crown to Mike Hawthorn by a single point.

2) First F1 race winner: Alfa Romeo 158

Alfa Romeo 158

If you were paying close attention just now, you’ll have remembered the first recognized event in F1 race history was the 1946 Turin Grand Prix. Well done to you.

Except, that might not be true. Sorry. See, there’s a lot of argument over when exactly F1 officially started. There were prewar F1 cars, a defined set of rules postwar, but the FIA only introduced an official championship for drivers in 1950. In said year, Alfa Romeo’s 158—actually developed before WWII, but steadily improved with more power—won all six rounds of the season. And you thought Mercedes-AMG was boringly dominant...


3) First mid-engined winner: Cooper T43

The Cooper T43

The early F1 greats—like the Alfa 158, various Silver Arrow Mercedes and the iconic Maserati 250F—all stuck with the tried-and-tested principle of putting the horse before the cart, so to speak. Engine up front, driver behind, and somewhere sloshing about nearby, a hideously vulnerable fuel tank.

It wasn’t actually until 1958 that the diminutive Cooper T43 became the first F1 car with an engine behind the cockpit to reach the checkered flag first, proving that light weight and balanced handling could overcome raw power in the ultimate racing formula. 

4) First wings: Lotus 49

The Lotus 49

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It’s impossible to imagine modern F1 without weapons-grade aerodynamics. Indeed, back in 2011, then-Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo infamously complained that “Formula 1 is too much by the aerodynamics—we build more airplanes than cars” when protesting that the rules should change to put more emphasis on horsepower than wind-tunnel genius.

While there had been streamlined low-drag racers either side of WWII, the car that kick-started F1’s thirst for grip-happy aerodynamic performance was Colin Chapman’s Lotus 49, which sported winglets first at the 1968 Monaco GP—ironically one of the least downforce-relevant tracks on the calendar.

The Lotus 49 also introduced the idea of using the engine itself as a stressed part of the chassis, saving weight and adding strength all at once.

5) First paddle-shift gearbox: Ferrari 640

The Ferrari 640

Champion? Ha! Ferrari’s 1989 F1 car was hopeless. And brilliant. The shrieking V12-powered 640 was so unreliable that in the entire season, Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger never both finished the same race. Berger suffered 10 straight retirements, then took three podiums including a victory, followed by two more DNFs to complete a wretched season.


However, Ferrari was learning. And what it learned was that when its clever new semi-automatic flappy-paddle gearbox didn’t run out of electricity, it was quick. Every other F1 team quickly caught on and dropped manual gearboxes. Though Ferrari wasn’t the first constructor to win a championship with paddles, it certainly got the ball rolling. 

6) First carbon-fiber chassis: McLaren MP4/1

The McLaren MP4

Though the McLaren MP4/1 never won a world championship (it settled for runner-up in 1982), it revolutionized F1 car construction with its military-grade carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, built by Hercules Aerospace. The MP4/1 was stiffer, lighter, and safer than its rivals, and roundly copied by the rest of the paddock.  

7) First turbocharged engine: Renault RS01

The Renault RS01

When the F1 rules stated teams could use either a 3.0-liter naturally aspirated engine or an engine half that size if they fancied bolting on a turbo, everyone stuck with the safe option of bigger displacement. Everyone except Renault, which gave the world its first turbo’d F1 car in 1977. It was quickly nicknamed ‘the yellow teapot,’ an account of its cheerful sunshine livery and its habit of messily boiling itself.

Gradually, Renault troubleshot the teething problems, moving to twin-turbos to cut the monumental turbo lag, and by 1979, the car scored its first ever pole position, at the South African GP. Though the RS01s retired from the race (and quite a lot of others), this nightmarishly fickle oddity changed the course of F1, which went turbo crazy in the ’80s.

8) First sponsor livery: Team Gunston

Team Gunston


Nope, not Lotus. Not Gold Leaf. Though the Lotus 49 and its tobacco-sponsor paint job is the most famous early foray into daubing an F1 car in billboard adverts rather than national racing colors, it wasn’t the first car to wear a true sponsorship livery.

Enter privateer outfit Team Gunston, owned by wealthy Rhodesian John Love who fielded a sponsor-themed livery on a privateer Brabham at the 1968 South African GP. The rest is rather lucrative history.

9) First active suspension: Lotus 92

The Lotus 92

The last F1 Lotus designed in the lifetime of founder Colin Chapman, the 92 was a tricky beast that only scored a single point in its eight-race history. And yet it was supremely innovative and pointed to the future of F1, with its primitive active suspension that used computer-controlled hydraulics rather than springs to keep the car level in corners.

Given the computing power available in the early ’80s, it’s hardly surprising the system was hopeless, but just a decade later, active ride was so effective that it had to be banned from the sport entirely. Lotus, yet again, was ahead of its time. 

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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