Your questions: F1 car numbers

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Tom Bellingham wrote in with this question:

I was wondering why certain number were on cars back in the ’80s and ’90s. Ferrari famously had the number 27 with Giles Villeneuve, was this number carried on with Ferraris as a tribute to him?

Were teams allowed to choose numbers back then and how was it decided? Since I’ve been watching the sport the car numbers have been done on the championship orders.

It’s an interesting question – here’s the answer:

As Tom correctly points out it used to be common practice for F1 teams to stick with the same numbers. That lasted up until the start of the 1996 season which, coincidentally, is when Tom says he first started watching F1.

Since then the team for whom the drivers’ champion races gets number 1&2, and the rest of the numbers are given in order of where the teams finished in the constructors’ championship.

Some of these traditional team numbers included 3 & 4 (Tyrrell), 7 & 8 (McLaren), 11 & 12 (Lotus), 25 & 26 (Ligier) and 27 & 28 (Ferrari). The number 27 was kept by Ferrari after the late Gilles Villeneuve made it his own.

This led to some interesting situations. In 1989, Alain Prost won the world championship with McLaren but left to join Ferrari. So in 1990 Ferrari ran with numbers 1 & 2, and McLaren took over their numbers 27 & 28 – with Senna carrying Villeneuve’s old number.

The teams could pretty much pick the numbers as they chose, within reason. Early in F1 history there were some odd exceptions and the same driver or team would not necessarily have the same number from race to race – local rules often prevailed.

The highest ever seen on a car in a world championship event was 136 on Rudolf Krause’s BMW in the 1952 German Grand Prix. At that race, every car in the Grand Prix was numbered 101 or higher. This was because each car in each support race had its own unique number.

For 1996 the sport’s governing body decided it wanted a numbering system based on where the teams finished in the previous season’s championship.

And so the historic number 27 hasn’t been seen since Alesi drove with it at Adelaide in the last race of 1995. Some higher numbers have been used, as Friday test drivers in recent years have used numbers 31 and above.

But with Prodrive filling the final 12th slot on the Grand Prix grid next year, and presumably taking numbers 24 and 25, we aren’t likely to see number 27 again unless the grid expands to 13 cars.

And we won’t see it on a Ferrari unless the grid expands to 13 cars and the team finishes last in the constructors’ championship…

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Keith Collantine
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  • 37 comments on “Your questions: F1 car numbers”

    1. Ben Goldberg
      8th August 2007, 7:55

      My question is why does no one get #13? Is F1 superstitious like that?

    2. and tell me the story of number 38

      1. Since the introduction of permanent numbers in 1974, the number 38 has not been used very much.

        The private British team BS Fabrications ran with no. 38 for Frenchman Henri Pescarolo on their Surtees car at nine GPs.

        Another British privateer, British F1 Racing, used no. 38 for Bernard de Dryver, the Belgian, at his home Grand Prix. Their founder, Brian Henton, then used the no. 38 March at three further races.

        Henton also used no. 38 when he moved to Dutch team HB Bewaking, with their Boro car, later in the season.

        38 was next used in 1989, by the new Rial team. The no. 38 car was driven by German Christian Danner for the first 13 races. He was replaced by the Swiss driver Gregor Foitek at the Spanish GP and Belgian Bertrand Gachot at the last two races.

        38 has never reappeared in a race since 1989, but it re-emerged at a meeting in 2004, as Toyota used it on their third car during practice. Brazilian Ricardo Zonta drove for the first twelve races, but after he replaced countryman Cristiano da Matta in the full race team from the Hungarian GP, Australian Ryan Briscoe took over the practice car.

        Zonta used no. 38 again in 2005 with Toyota, as he was relegated back to the test team. He drove at every practice session, with the exception of the French GP, when Frenchman Olivier Panis was allowed to drive as it was his home GP.

        The no. 38 switched to the third BMW car for 2006, and was driven until the Hungarian GP by Polish driver Robert Kubica. Kubica then replaced Canadian former world champion Jacques Villeneuve in the race team, and so future world champion, German Sebastian Vettel, took over the test car.

        Williams had no. 38 on their test car in 2007, and it was used by Japanese driver Kazuki Nakajima at five GPs.

        The practice of having third drivers during GP practices was stopped for 2008, and as suched the no. 38 has not resurfaced since.

    3. I think number 13 has been used in the past. But amazingly, in the super-scientific world of F1, number 13 is not assigned out of superstitious reasons. What a load of rubbish!

    4. And didn’t Damon Hill run with a zero on his car when he was at Williams with Prost ?

      1. Yes – this was during 1993 and 1994. It was due to the fact that only the defending world champion is allowed to use no. 1. The 1992 world champion, Nigel Mansell, left to race in America before the 1993 season, and as such, his team, Williams, used numbers 0 & 2 instead of 1 & 2, with Damon being allocated 0 and Alain Prost 2.

        Prost won the world championship, but then retired, so Williams used 0 & 2 in 1994 as well, when Ayrton Senna used 2 until his death, with David Coulthard and Nigel Mansell sharing it for the rest of the season.

    5. He did – so did Jody Scheckter at two races in 1973.

    6. Nathan Jones
      8th August 2007, 9:00

      of the traditional #’s, McLaren only had 11&12 for season ’88.
      b4 then and before 1&2, they were more 7&8

    7. Nathan Jones
      8th August 2007, 9:01

      lotus were 11&12

    8. That’s correct I made a mistake there – fixed now.

    9. Solon Harrison
      8th August 2007, 10:19

      I’m not convinced that the answer to the original question paints the complete picture

      Back in the days when Ferrari were running with 27 and 28, the numbering system worked in such a way that the numbers on the cars only changed when a different team won the driver’s championship

      The Ferraris were 11 & 12 in 1979, the year Jody Scheketer won the drivers championship. Ferrari then became number 1 & 2 for the 1980 season and numbers 11 & 12 went to Lotus who were 1 & 2 in 1979 following Mario Andretti winning the championship in 1978

      In 1980 Alan Jones, in Williams No. 27 won the driver’s championship. Therefore, in 1981 Williams became 1 & 2 and Ferrari got Williams old numbers – 27 & 28

      Gilles Villeneuve had previously been 12 and 2 as Schekter had been allocated numbers 11 & 1 as he was perceived as team leader in 1979 and was the actual World Champion in 1980. Following Schekter’s retirement Villeneuve was seen as the team leader and so had the lower number – 27 and Pironi was allocated 28

      The only way Ferrari would no longer be No. 27 was if their driver won the championship or they hired the World Champion from the previous season. This happened in 1990 when Prost joined having won the championship with McLaren in 1989. Ferrari became 1 & 2 and Mclaren got 27 & 28 – the reason that Senna became 27

      Senna then won the World Championship in 1990 to get McLaren 1 & 2 again and hand 27 & 28 back to Ferrari which is how they stayed until the numbering system was changed to reflect the previous season’s results

      Finally, Damon Hill was 0 in 1993 as Mansell retired as World Champion in 1992 so it was deceided not to allocate No. 1 – from memory I think that Prost refused to drive with a 0 so he took No. 2 although he was the acknowledged team leader

      There is the reason that Ferrari came to become associated with No. 27!!

    10. Thanks for answering my question. I know Damon was 0 in 93 and 94 as the world champion left the team so no one was number 1. Do you think if Michael had won the championship this year we would have seen Massa in a number 0 ferrari!?!

    11. The thing about 13 is quite interesting. Is it not true that in Japanese culture, 4 is seen as an unlucky number? Unfortunately, Takuma Sato found himself racing with that number a couple of years back — and had a torrid season!

    12. doctorvee, that was in 2005 to be exact… He scored 4pts in San Marino, but that was disqualified. Other than that, he just scored 1 point.

      Tommy B, if Schumi retired as champ, I think Massa would’ve taken #2 (as he would’ve been if Schumi stayed on), while Kimi would be #0. It was already announced before that that assuming Schumi was champ, Alonso would’ve been #5 and Hamilton #6.

      While Solon is right, it had already been revealed by Enzo Ferrari before he died that he liked #27, if only because of Gilles’ mystique. I remember reading that Patrick Tambay cried when he won the 1983 San Marino GP driving the #27 Ferrari. Why? Because he was happy to do justice to car #27.

    13. Journeyer, you are correct about #0 and #2 being issued to the team which had a world champion leaving at the end of that season (as could have been the case at Ferrari last year). The only thing to add is that which of the two numbers is given to which driver in the team is a team decision. That said, I can’t see why Kimi would object to #0.

      As for #13, there is superstition connected, but it also explains why Britain’s national racing colour is green. In the Gordon Bennett Trophy in the early 1900s, the British entry had #13. It was the first time Britain had entered a car in an international race as a national team.

      To counteract the perceived unluckiness of #13, the French organisers allotted green to the British car, because they considered green to be lucky. This neutralised the bad luck in the eyes of the superstitious racers and resulted in Britain always racing with green.

      As someone who finds #13 lucky for her, I always find this story amusing.

      1. Presumably then, that would mean that Mercedes would hey #0 & #2 since Jenson has left the Brawn (now Mercedes) team?

        1. No, Jenson will carry the No.1 (and 2) over to McLaren and Mercedes will be Nos. 3&4.

      2. I thought the green originated because motorsports were illegal in the UK at the time, so British races were held in Ireland. Green is the Irish national colour, so we adopted that.

    14. That explains everything! So the French did it – the cunning swines!

      In motor racing, green cars are deemed to be unlucky. And those blighters, the French, must have figured on doubling our bad luck by alloting us the colour – at the same time telling us it was lucky. That we could have been fooled so easily – oh, the shame…!

    15. No, Clive, seriously, the French genuinely thought they were balancing luck out by awarding green to the British, for green really is lucky in France – or was in the early 1900s. Otherwise, the superstitious Charles Jarrott (the driver in the British entry) probably wouldn’t have started the race… It was in the Guinness Guide to Grand Prix Racing.

    16. I was joking, Alianora. :D Although green was regarded as an unlucky colour for racing cars by the fifties, it may well be the fact that Brit cars were that colour that caused the superstition; they didn’t win anything in those days and blaming the colour may have been quite convenient!

      Now that cars are painted in their sponsor’s colours, the idea seems to have faded away but I think there may be something in it, even so. After all, the most aggressively green cars in recent years have been the Jaguar and Eddie Jordan’s beautiful 7-Up sponsored cars…

    17. I must say Jaguar did have a beautiful livery. The best part, you could actually soak up its beauty because it was going to damn slow!


      Jody no.0 too. How was this the case?

    19. Still no one has answered correctly! The number 27 and 28 was usualy given 2 the runner up team because there was only 26 drivers allowed to race at a grand prix

    20. It was answered correctly. Most teams ran with traditional numbers, as previously stated Ferrari held on to #27 in Memory to Villeneuve etc. The 1 and 2 went to the team that the Drivers championship went to, and the outgoing champs would inherit the incoming Champs teams old numbers, hence why Ferrari went from 27/28 to 1/2 and back again.

    21. In the 1974 British GP Lella Lombardi used the number 208, but she didn’t qualify ;)

    22. Still nobody’s got this quite right.

      Up until the early 70s, it was common for race numbers to be assigned on a race-by-race basis by the local organiser (what number you actually got was determined either by random draw or at the request of the entrant/driver, depending on the individual race concerned).

      When full sponsor livery began to take off at the end of the 1960s, sponsors began to pressure teams to stick to the same number week in and week out, and more and more teams began requesting continuity. Halfway through 1973, the FIA started to assign permanent numbers to every entrant, and for 1974 they instituted the system full-time, based loosely on the finishing order of the teams the year before. The only alteration to that ranking was that the reigning world champion driver (not team) would be assigned #1 and his team-mate #2, regardless of where the team he now drove for had finished the year before.

      This being the FIA, nothing was simple – Jackie Stewart, who under the new system should have worn #1, had retired, and so there *was* no reigning champion to wear #1 in the new system. So the number was instead bestowed on the previous year’s constructors champion (Lotus), with Ronnie Peterson wearing #1 and Jacky Ickx wearing #2. The convention of only the champion wearing #1 – and in his absence, the driver who took his seat wearing #0 – didn’t come until much later.

      So, the first “permanent” numbers for full-time teams were as follows:
      Lotus 1, 2
      Tyrrell 3, 4
      McLaren 5, 6
      Brabham 7, 8
      March 9, 10
      Ferrari 11, 12
      BRM 14, 15
      Shadow 16, 17
      Surtees 18, 19
      Iso-Williams 20, 21
      Hill 26, 27

      From then on, the only changes to the numbering were meant to be if your team had the reigning world champion driver, in which case you got #1 and #2 automatically, and your old numbers then went to the team who had had the world champion driver the previous year.

      (Examples as already mentioned – Ferrari ended up with Williams’ 27 and 28 when Jones deposed Scheckter in 1980, and were then stuck with those numbers for a decade until champion Prost defected from McLaren for 1990, meaning Senna spent a year with car 27.)

      New teams were usually assigned the lowest available numbers (so Ligier ended up with 25 and 26, Williams got 27 and later 28), and then by and large stayed there. It was sometimes possible to take over a vacant number left by a defunct team elsewhere in the list (e.g. McLaren took over Brabham’s vacant 7 and 8 in 1993, or Toleman/Benetton slowly trading up from 35/36 to the mid-twenties to 19/20 to (eventually) 5/6), but for the most part, no matter how many points or even wins you got, your racing numbers didn’t change; Tyrrell were a shadow of themselves for decades and kept 3/4, Brabham were a non-qualifying joke and still kept 7 and 8, Ligier stayed at 25/26 for their entire run until 1996.

      The “permanent” system was only junked for 1996, when cars were instead assigned numbers based on the constructors’ standings the previous season. Again, the world champion driver gets #1 regardless, so for 1997 Arrows had #1 and #2 with Hill and Diniz, rather than 18 and 19 as they’d otherwise have had. However, teams no longer “swap” numbers – if Vettel had decided to sign for Marussia for this year, they’d have #1 and #2, and everyone else would had moved down a slot in order of their constructors’ rankings for 2012 (i.e. Red Bull wouldn’t “inherit” 20/21).

      So there you go.

      1. I didn’t say teams’ number choices had always been permanent before 1996.

      2. Best response, ever. I was looking the answer to Benetton taking the numbers 5 & 6 in 1993 forever.

        1. That was a weird one; McLaren (running 1/2 in 1992) should have swapped with Williams (5/6 in 1992, with Mansell winning the drivers’ crown).

          Then, Mansell decided not to take part in the ’93 season, and at the same time Brabham (holders of numbers 7/8 since 1985) pulled out, leaving a bit of a mess. The unprecedented situation led to new rules being made up on the fly: Williams would still inherit 1/2 for 1993, but the 1 was only to be worn by Mansell, and in the event he didn’t compete, they’d have to run cars 0 and 2 instead. If Mansell had somehow come back for a highly unlikely guest appearance for Williams in 1993 (as he did in 1994), the press at the time said he’d have driven car 1.

          Anyway. McLaren should have taken 5/6, but Brabham’s withdrawal meant 7/8 (the first numbers run by the team in the P4/Ron Dennis era in the early 80s) were available, and McLaren asked to run those instead. That left 5/6 vacant, and Benetton – who were already a rising force, with the priority Ford engine deal and Schumacher and probably their best line-up to date in Schumacher and Patrese – asked for them and got them.

          Oh, and Keith, I didn’t mean to imply you’d said any such thing, I was just trying to fill in gaps from other commenters.

          1. (Possibly interesting sidenote: when Mansell signed, briefly, to race for McLaren (7/8) in 1995, apparently the team formally requested to swap numbers with Williams (5/6) so that Nigel could have his famous Red 5 again. Either Williams or the FIA said no.)

    23. eddy lieuternant
      9th October 2013, 15:38

      number 99 ?
      i remember team tyrell entering a 3rd car at watkins glen sometimes in the seventies.
      did they use #99 or #OO ?
      the highest number i saw on an F1 : watkins glen 1978 – JP JARIER #55 team lotus.

    24. Who has used #18 over the years? is there a database of F1 number allocation per season, @keithcollantine?

    25. Antonio Silva
      17th March 2014, 15:30

      so why does benneton changed from usual 19 and 20 to 5 and 6 in 1993 and 1994 seasons?

    26. the highest wasn’t lella lombardi’s 208?

    Comments are closed.