Monday 13 January 2014

Return of number 13 in Formula One

One of the interesting aspects in most sports is the tradition of using numbers. The numbers become the identity of a person with time and motorsports is no different. What started as just a plain identity, the concept of numbering evolved and in 1996, FIA decided to make it official and more systematic. The numbers were given to teams in the order of their standings in the constructor's championships. Unless one team has a steady run of consecutive championships, the numbers would change each year. This year and hopefully for a longer duration, the drivers have been given the choice to choose their own numbers.

Personally, I like this concept as it creates a special bond between the athlete and his/her fan base. FIA's tryst with numbers has a long history, evolved over a period of time and now has a sense of logic moving forward. Most other popular sports have athletes bearing a particular number - a unique connection.

Formula One has seen a lot of changes with respect to the use of numbers as a means of one's identity. Going back in time - the numbers were allocated to cars on a race-by race basis either through lottery or by the order in which the entries were received.

In 1969, first noticeable change was seen with the world champion being given the 'Numero Uno'  while rest of the grid numbers were chosen on randomness. However, few teams did adopt a convention over a period of time, with the legendary number of 27 being associated with Ferrari for as long as 1996 before the rules were tweaked by the FIA.

We talk about superstitious being part of our daily lives, sports is no different. To me, use of superstitious practices in sports is an extension of personal lives. In Formula One, the curiosity and the myth surrounding around the number '13' is one such episode. Pastor Maldonado, the mercurial Venezuelan driver has opted the number '13' for the 2014 season on his Lotus livery. Looking at the history, this number was used sparingly in F1.

Since 1976, F1 has not seen the number '13' appearing on a car. Divina Galica, one of the five female F1 drivers used the supposedly 'unlucky' number for her maiden drive in F1 at the British Grand Prix in 1976. Blame it on bad omen or lack of pace on the car, she did not qualify. She did get a run for two more rounds in the 1978 season and both times she failed to qualify.

Only Solana Moises has the distinction of racing a Formula one race (Mexican GP, 1963) with the number '13' on his car. He did not have much success in the race, classified eleventh for completing 57 laps before his British Racing Motors (BRM) engine failed.

In general, we have many instances of deliberately avoiding the number '13' owing to an irrational belief called 'superstition'. Despite this popular notion, we have seen in the sporting world - number 13 being used by 'well-known' athletes.

The list goes this way - Wilt Chamberlain (famous basketball player and first to score 100 points in a game) and the most valuable player  (MVP) of NBA for 2005 and 2006, Steve Nash using the number 13. In football, we had German player Michael Ballack who wore the # 13 jersey for both Chelsea and his national team (of which latter he was the captain); the world record holder for highest number of matches appeared in the history of football, Kristine Lillie (352 matches for USA) worn the so-called dreaded #13.

Other notable mentions include - Alex Rodriguez, Billy Wagner, Omar Vizquel - the baseball players; Alessandro Nesta, the Italian footballer; Jake Scott, Dan Marino, Kurt Warner and Don Maynard the American football players; Mats Sundin and Pavel Datsyuk, the ice hockey players. However, they form a pool of exceptions in grander scheme of things and Formula One going by the history doesn't belong to this pool of exceptions.

The story surrounding the ill-fate associated with thirteen goes back a long way in motorsports. It all started in 1925 when a car bearing the number 13 met with an accident - and its driver Paul Torchy died at the site of Delange Grand Prix. The very next year, Count Giulo Masetti died of a car accident bearing the number '13'. It was then decided by the French Automobile club to eliminate the number '13' from the races.

In Formula One, Mauritz von Strachwitz tried his luck first in 1953 at the German Grand Prix, failed to qualify and as mentioned previously, when Galica Divina attempted to qualify her Surtees Cosworth bearing the number 13, she finished 28th out of 26 cars that could be part of the race. 

Thus Brands Hatch, the site of 1976 Great Britain Grand Prix happened to be the last time one saw a Formula One car to have the number '13' on it. Hence in the previous system of awarding numbers to teams - FIA never gave the number '13'. Instead the seventh placed constructor received the numbers 14 and 15 to their respective drivers as opposed to numbers 13 and 14.

Australia 2014 - season opener in Melbourne. What will Maldonado do? Will he be able to change the perception of many cynics? Not to discount the past, Maldonado surely has a much secured drive than his predecessors who used the number thirteen. In that sense, it nullifies most of the myth surrounding this number.

After thirty seven years there has been an attempt to 'eliminate' the fear of number '13', known scientifically as 'Triskaidekaphobia' thanks to Pastor Maldonado. 

For now - let's wait and watch as the action unfolds in less than sixty days time.

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