Celebrating 400 Formula 1 races: Pirelli’s highlights

When the 2021 season gets underway in Bahrain, Pirelli will celebrate its 400th Formula 1 world championship race. Nearly half of those races – 197 to be precise – will have taken place since the Italian company returned to Formula 1 as the exclusive supplier at the start of 2011. But the landmark also provides a chance to celebrate some of the highlights from Pirelli’s entire involvement in Formula 1 – which goes right back to the beginning of the world championship more than 70 years ago…

THERE FROM THE START

It all began at Silverstone on May 13, 1950, when Giuseppe Farina won the first ever world championship grand prix in his Alfa Romeo, fitted with Pirelli Stella Bianca tyres. Together, Alfa Romeo and Pirelli won all six of the grands prix that were part of the inaugural championship season. Farina took additional victories at the Bremgarten circuit in Switzerland and at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps on his way to becoming the first drivers’ world champion in history. His was the first name on a list that has since been joined by 32 others.

FANGIO SETS THE BENCHMARK

The legendary Argentinian missed out on that first championship by just three points to his team-mate Farina, but Juan Manuel Fangio was undoubtedly the standout driver of those early years of Formula 1. For many, he’s still the greatest of all time. His 1951 championship with Alfa Romeo and Pirelli was just the beginning for the Argentine, even though he then didn’t have a car with which to defend his crown, so he missed the 1952 season: also due to injury after he crashed in a non-championship race. His 1954 title came driving for two different teams, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz: a feat that has yet to be repeated. By 1957 he was reunited with the iconic Maserati 250F on Pirelli tyres and duly claimed his fifth world championship. A remarkable record that would stand for nearly 50 years, until Michael Schumacher scored his sixth title in 2003.

SENNA MAKES HIS DEBUT

After a hiatus of nearly a quarter of a century, Pirelli returned to Formula 1 in the 1980s. The technology had moved on considerably, with cars that were among the most evocative in the championship’s history and so many legendary names behind the wheel. Among them was Ayrton Senna, who actually made his Formula 1 debut with Pirelli tyres. Driving for the underdog Toleman team, Senna’s debut came at the start of the 1984 season in his native Brazil – but lasted just eight laps before the turbocharger failed on his Hart engine. It didn’t take long for Senna to make an impact though: he scored a point by finishing sixth in just his second race in South Africa, then repeated that result two weeks later in Belgium. The rest, as they say, is history.

MINARDI THE GIANTKILLER

During the second era of Pirelli’s participation in Formula 1, the company tasted victory with Nelson Piquet’s Brabham and Gerhard Berger’s Benetton, but it was also associated with some of the smaller teams on the grid. Plucky teams that did their best to battle against the giants of the time – McLaren, Ferrari and Williams – on far smaller budgets. Perhaps the most famous and popular of all the small teams was Minardi, which produced an incredible performance at the United States Grand Prix in 1990 when Pierluigi Martini qualified second on the grid alongside the McLaren of Berger. Martini and Minardi made the most of Pirelli’s special qualifying tyres, and missed out on what would have been an incredible pole position by just 0.067 seconds. But it wasn’t just in qualifying where Pirelli-equipped underdogs proved capable of an upset. During the race in Phoenix, Jean Alesi took the lead with the underfunded Tyrrell team and battled hard with Senna’s McLaren, ultimately finishing in second place.

THE 1000TH RACE

One of the big milestones during Pirelli’s most recent stint in Formula 1 was the 1000th race in the history of the world championship, at Shanghai in 2019. This was won by Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes: the combination which has generally had the edge on the competition since 2014, after the back-to-back titles won by Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Since then, Hamilton has joined Schumacher in surpassing Fangio’s benchmark of five titles. The British driver went on to have a particularly memorable 2020 season: breaking the record for the greatest number of grand prix victories with his 92nd win at the Portuguese Grand Prix and then, just two races later, claiming his seventh world title with an outstanding drive to victory in Turkey, making use of Pirelli’s wet and intermediate tyres in tricky conditions. In 2021, Hamilton has the chance to take a record-breaking eighth world title: a bid that will begin in Pirelli’s 400th race.

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