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Flashback: F1 racing in January and February

18 Feb 2014

Typically, these days the first two months of the year are reserved for launches and testing, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, since 1953 there have been 27 world championship races held in either January or February. We look back over those events…

Argentina (January races: 13; February races: one)

In 1953, Argentina became the first of three countries to host a world championship race in the first two months of the year. Formula One racing’s popularity in the South American country was sky high thanks to the success of both Jose Froilan Gonzalez - the first man to win a Grand Prix for Ferrari - and the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, who’d won the first of his five world titles in 1951.

Aside from the fact that the weather was generally pleasant in the southern hemisphere in January, there was no other real reason for hosting the inaugural race in Argentina so early in the year, but the date stuck and only one of the 15 races held between 1953 and 1980 at Buenos Aires’ Autodromo was staged later (the 1960 race was hosted in early February).

Much to the race organisers’ delight, local hero Fangio duly won four of the first five races in his homeland (all of which were season-openers), although after his retirement the race soon disappeared. When it was revived in 1972, coinciding with the rising fortunes of new home hero Carlos Reutemann, it returned to its January slot, giving the teams the chance to once again dodge the harsh European winter and top up their suntans.

South Africa (January races: four)

After the demise of the Argentine Grand Prix at the end of 1960, it would be five years before the world championship would once again start as early in the year as January. The destination this time? Sunny South Africa.

In 1962 and ‘63, South Africa’s East London circuit had hosted the final race of the season in late December. But if that seems unconventional by today’s standards, in 1965 the venue held its world championship round on an even more unusual date after becoming the season-opener - January 1, New Year’s Day. That meant that having won the 1964 world title in Mexico on October 25, John Surtees began the defence of his crown in South Africa just 67 days later. By comparison, there are 113 days between the final race of 2013 in Brazil in November and the first race of 2014 in Australia in March…

The teams and drivers enjoyed the sunshine and intense heat of South Africa in January twice more (in 1967 and 1968 with both races at Kyalami) before logistical reasons saw the Grand Prix move to March. The race was held in January again in 1982 (a year after the FISA-FOCA war meant that the 1981 February race was not recognised), but subsequent Grands Prix would be held later in the year.

Brazil (January races: six; February races: two)

The final country to have hosted a world championship race in either of the first two months of the year is Brazil. From 1973-75 and from 1977-80, the country was one half of a season-opening South American double-header with Argentina.

And just as their near neighbours had enjoyed home wins with Fangio in the Fifties, Brazilian drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Pace helped contribute to the carnival atmosphere in sweltering Sao Paulo by winning the first three events between them.

But the early season races in South America couldn’t last - the demands of an expanding schedule and the need to build new cars meant that the two races were moved to March from 1981 onwards. Brazil would hold its early season spot on the calendar until 2004 when the race was moved to October. It has remained at the end of the year ever since, and in stark contrast to its beginnings in the early Seventies, has become notable for hosting title-deciders - not to mention more than one end-of-season party!