Formula One – A Modern Pursuit?

The idea of watching teams race around a track on a Sunday afternoon is not as modern as motorsport pundits would have us believe. For centuries, people have been drawn to the pursuit of speed, danger and celebrity. The excitement felt by every F1 supporter was an emotion understood and shared by our ancestors two thousand years ago.

Drawing a comparison with popular entertainment of Roman Times – Chariot Races are strikingly similar to today’s Grand Prix. Chariot Racing (ludi circences) was the most popular spectator sport in Rome, having been invented by the Ancient Greeks. Races would be held around a hippodrome, the layout of which would include a large oblong track with turning points at each end. Such venues, such as the Circus Maximus in Rome, were 550m (over 1800 ft) long and 180m (almost 600ft) wide and would hold up to 250,000 spectators.

As many as twenty-four races would take place in a single day, with up to twelve chariots from four different teams taking part. Colours, similar to present day racing car-advertising liveries, would identify different teams and their drivers. Each race was considerably shorter than those in modern-day F1, lasting for a mere seven laps.

Each lap was fraught with danger, with turns, like today, being the most dangerous part of the track, as chariots would jostle for the shortest route around the bend. The driver of the chariot would wrap the reins of the horses around him at the start of the race and would carry a knife to cut himself free should he be thrown from the chariot.

The term ‘horsepower’ took on a more literal sense to the Romans. Usually two or four horses pulled each chariot, but during special races up to six or eight horses were used. Unfortunately, the more horses pulling the chariot, the harder it was to control.

The Romans saw no need for pit stops, but they did have their own version of the paddock a set of stables and trainers. Fortunately the fans were an altogether different breed, with many violent riots recorded in history, especially following races with an unpopular result much like modern day football!