Williams, Ferrari, and the numbers 1 & 27

Being both bored and of a boring disposition, I thought I’d add a new page to the site, one that addresses a couple of curiosities surrounding the two most coveted race numbers in Formula One, 1 and 27. Eventually it might even become a source of interest for people who derive pleasure from such obscurities. It isn’t in the usual style – it’s not funny (or at least it doesn’t attempt to be). It actually contains some genuine information. Ye gods!

Williams won the drivers’ title 7 times and yet the number 1 only appeared on its cars three times. During their most dominant phase, the years with Renault power from 1989 to 1997, the Oxfordshire team won 64 races, 4 drivers’ titles and 5 constructors’ crowns yet amazingly never carried the number 1.

The reasons for this? Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost both retired from F1 after winning their titles, for similar reasons (neither approved of the team’s driver choice for the next year) and so took the number 1 with them out of the sport. This meant that Damon Hill, driving in their stead, carried the number 0 for the 1993 and 1994 seasons.

Ayrton Senna was apparently offered it upon joining the team since it was the higher number, but didn’t like it. When Hill won his title he also parted ways with the team (Williams were very bad at holding on to their champions), giving us the odd spectacle of an Arrows with the most coveted numeral on the grid on its bodywork.

Williams had a number 1 on their car for the first time in 15 years when they persuaded ’97 champ Jacques Villeneuve to stay for ’98, but by that time they had lost their works Renault engine deal and the car looked like a badly-repainted Ferrari. Before this, Nelson Piquet had also departed the team after winning his third title in 1987, taking his #1 to Lotus.

The driver most perhaps most mystifyingly associated with the famous number 27 is Gilles Villeneuve, who carried it in 1981 and until he was killed in May 1982. However, he only took it to two victories. He actually won twice as many races with the number 12, which he also carried before he was given number 27 and used for longer.

Alan Jones, conversely, took #27 to nine wins and the 1980 world title before Villeneuve ever got it. When he took the 1980 title, Jones took the number 1 to Williams for 1981, swapping his #27 with Ferrari, the employer of the current champ Jody Scheckter. Ten years later Ayrton Senna, in the one year McLaren carried it, raced with #27 very successfully, taking it to its second title (although he erroneously believed it was its first) and six race wins, the number’s best season.

Other famous holders of the number are all Ferrari drivers: Patrick Tambay, who also recorded two wins with it in ’82 and ’83, Michele Alboreto, who took three wins in ’84 and ’85, Nigel Mansell’s two barnstormers in 1989, including his stunning against-the-odds victory in Hungary and Jean Alesi, who took it to its most recent, and his only, in Montreal in 1995. 27 is now no longer used a race number as there are not enough cars racing in the championship – the highest race number in 2011 was Jerome D’Ambrosio’s Marussia Virgin with 25.

Although Ferrari raced on and off with number 27 for fourteen seasons as opposed to Williams’ four, Williams both had it first and were more successful with it, with nine wins and a championship as opposed to eight wins and no championships.

The reason that Ferrari held the number for so long was that, quite simply, they weren’t good enough. Under the old rules, race numbers only changed for the team that employed the drivers’ champion, which would swap the numbers 1 and 2 with the outgoing champion’s team. So when Ferrari were given #27 and #28 for 1981, it was because they had to give #1 and #2 to Williams. Since they didn’t employ the reigning champion again until 1990, they were never required to relinquish their race numbers. They gave them to McLaren for one season in 1990 when ‘89 champ Alain Prost joined, but immediately relinquished them to McLaren again at the end of that year, getting #27 and #28 straight back. Had a Williams driver (numbers 5 and 6) won the 1990 title and stayed at the team the next year, then Ferrari would have raced in 1991 with #5 and #6, and so on.

This explains why Tyrrell always raced with numbers 3 and 4: they were given them in 1974 when the numbering rules were set, based on their 2nd position in the 1973 constructors’ championship. Because (sadly) they never employed the drivers’ champion again, they were never required to swap them with anybody, and so had them until the rules were changed again, 22 seasons later.

Had US F1 raced in 2010 as planned, they would have got their hands on the hallowed digits, although it is doubtful they would have thrusted them back into the winners’ circle.

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