The Welsh Gull

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The Top 10 Most Beautiful F1 Cars of the 1990s

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I don’t usually use a list format, and neither do I post about F1 very often. But with Welsh Grand Prix dormant, this might as well go here.

I could have done this as a “Top 10 Sexiest F1 Cars of All Time” article, but then gone for all 1990s cars and as a result be accused of bias and neglecting the beauties of the 50s, 60s, 80s, and 2000s (it is of course fact that no beautiful F1 cars were made in the 1970s). I grew up with 1990s F1 so I prefer the cars from that period. So instead of attracting pedantic whinges about a trivial subjective matter, I’ll just restrict my choices to The Official Best Decade of F1. To help with this, I’ve restricted to one entry per team. And liveries count – of course they count, they are a big part of what makes a car attractive.

So stick on some appropriate music and read on.

All image sources are unknown, with the images reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’

10. Andrea Moda-Judd S921 (1992)
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Yes, I’m starting with one of the worst cars to hit the track during the decade. Now, obscure or slow F1 cars aren’t always automatically attractive because of novelty value – the 1997 Lola T97/30 is a nice-looking chassis with a pretty ghastly livery that more people would complain about had it seen more than a couple of practice and qualifying sessions.

But the only ever Andrea Moda to officially participate in a race is a thing of beauty, with a complex background. It was originally designed by Nick Wirth’s Simtek firm (more on them shortly) for a provisional BMW entry for the 1990 season which was aborted. The designs were hurriedly bought by shoe magnate Andrea Sassetti in early 1992, the new owner of the former Coloni team, when it became clear that the 1991 Colonis were awful – the Andrea Moda team had been denied entry for the first race in South Africa for not having bought Coloni’s entry.

When the S921 eventually turned a wheel for the first time at Interlagos, the third venue of the season, it was pretty evident that it was a poor car. Well, not just poor – absolutely abysmal. After all, it was a design that was a good two or three years out of date, and now it was being prepared by a small team working on a shoestring. There were numerous technical issues – second driver Perry McCarthy, who made his first appearance in Spain, got as far as the end of the pit lane before breaking down, and later survived a steering seizure going through Eau Rouge at Spa, somehow avoiding a huge accident.

But before the inevitable end of the team, booted out after the Belgian Grand Prix for sheer incompetence and financial irregularities, they did at least manage to start one race. Somehow Roberto Moreno, lead driver of the team and a favourite of minnow teams, dragged the heap of junk through pre-qualifying and then to 26th in qualifying, enough to get him into the field. It lasted all of 11 laps before engine failure, but it was still a remarkable feat, a testament to the Brazilian’s under-appreciated abilities.

If you want to read more on the Andrea Moda saga, have a look at Scott Russell’s comprehensive article about the team at CFM.

9. Williams-Renault FW18 (1996)
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This one is a bit personal, because I was a massive Damon Hill fan and am currently in possession of a massive framed print of this car. But you can’t dispute that it is a great looking car.

It was of course bloody fast as well. Damon became the first driver in the modern era to qualify on the front row of every GP in a season, and the team won 12 out of the 16 races. It will go down as one of the most dominant cars in F1 history that no one really acknowledges as dominant, overshadowed by the earlier McLarens and Williamses and the later Ferraris, which is odd considering no one seems to rate Hill and Jacques Villeneuve that highly.

The Rothmans livery is a classic, regardless of which car it was on – the 1982 March, mid 80s Porsche and Metro rally cars, the early 90s Subaru Legacy and the four Williamses. The 1998 change to Winfield red was a travesty in my eyes – no Williams should have ever been red, and it still doesn’t look right today. Over a decade later, the team decided to paint the 2011 car in the style of the Rothmans colours, as a homage to a more successful period in the team’s history. However, if the intention was to bring back the good times, it didn’t work.

8. Simtek-Ford S941 (1994)
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This is a brilliant picture, of a beautiful car. It is, of course, tinged with regret, for this is Roland Ratzenberger blasting around Imola on That Weekend in 1994. It is for this that the Simtek team is generally remembered.

Nick Wirth’s outfit was a consultancy firm, backed by none other than future FIA generalissimo Max Mosley. As mentioned earlier, they designed what became the Andea Moda S921 (hence the similar name code), and also designed a car for the Bravo team, which was due to enter F1 in 1993 until the team owner, Jean-Francois Mosnier, died suddenly. Despite the fact that someone on high was clearly telling Wirth he shouldn’t be doing this, he made the decision for the company to enter F1 in its own right in 1994. The Bravo designs were updated, and he obtained backing from MTV Europe which was supposed to involved a TV show that never happened. Ratzenberger was hired alongside David Brabham, whose father Jack was a shareholder in the team.

After the Austrian’s death, the second seat became a revolving door of pay drivers – Andrea Montermini was injured in a crash in practice at Catalunya, while Jean-Marc Gounon was eventually superseded by the monied Domenico Schiattarella and future F1 clown Taki Inoue. The car did manage a couple of top 10s, but back then only the top 6 was rewarded with points, so it was academic. The successor, the S951, had a bit more potential, especially in the hands of Jos Verstappen who ran in the top 6 in Argentina before a heart-breaking gearbox failure. But the team soon ran out of money and was liquidated shortly after skipping the Canadian GP. Wirth later had a stint as designer for Benetton, and later founded Wirth Research, essentially Simtek Mk 2, designing cars for Acura and Virgin Racing.

Both Simteks were very attractive in their purple and black colours. Like the earlier Andrea Moda, the S941 was a very clean, simple design, which is always great F1 eye candy. It is a shame that the team is not remembered for this.

7. Prost-Peugeot AP02 (1999)

The 1999 Prost is one of only two cars from after 1997 on the list. The reason? For 1998, F1 cars changed forever, with rules restricting the width which led designers to new and increasingly ugly ways of finding downforce, leading us to today’s hideous lot. The grooved dry tyres were a bit of an issue as well. So it would have to take a pretty special car to get on the list.

And it was a pretty special car. But in looks only. The Prost Grand Prix story is one of failed promise. When Alain Prost bought the Ligier team, he inherited a team on the up, which had just designed one of the best cars of the year, with one of the best engines, on the new Bridgestone tyres which would prove surprisingly effective over the course of the season. Prost proved that his driving skills did not guarantee he was any good at running an F1 team by blowing most of this – he traded engines with Jordan, taking their Peugeot units in exchange for Prost’s Mugens, which proved to be disastrous, while the follow-up to the 1997 car was a sack of shit, scoring 1 point all year.

The one thing Prost GP did get right, though, was introducing metallic blue into their livery, moving away from the lighter shade of the last couple of Ligiers. The cars were great to look at but usually slow. The 1999 car was the best of the four cars designed after Prost’s takeover. Jarno Trulli picked up an unlikely 2nd place at the increadible European GP at the Nurburgring, thanks to not crashing, clever tyre changes and not crashing. Aside from that, there was nothing much to shout about – three 6 places, and that’s it. 9 points. But still, that’s 9 points more than they scored the following season.

The enigmatic ForzaMinardi wrote this on Prost for CFM which details their struggles further.

6. Tyrrell-Ford 019 (1990)

Any car Jean Alesi drove is beautiful. Regardless of his abilities as a driver (and he was the second most naturally-gifted driver of his generation, behind one M Schumacher of course), he had a knack for picking teams that built staggeringly awesome cars. Two of them will feature in this list.

Now the Tyrrell 019 is a bit before my team, as I wasn’t actually born until just under a year after it first appeared. But I didn’t restrict this to cars built in my lifetime, and it’s such a gorgeous car it would be wrong to not include it. It was also significant for launching the career of Jean Alesi – design veteran Harvey Postlethwaite designed a pretty damn good car, Tyrrell’s first for 7 years, and came up with a radical new nose in the process that was to reshape F1 cars forever. Alesi drove the wheels off it, picking up a couple of podiums and battling with Senna along the way. It was to be Tyrrell’s Indian summer, though, and unfortunately it would end without a final victory.

An honourable mention must go to the follow-up, the Honda-engined 020. It was very much the same in appearance but painted black and white instead – it’s nice, but to me, not very Tyrrell-ish. It was also not as good, and thus not as iconic as the 1990 car.

5. McLaren-Mercedes MP4/12 (1997)
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For McLaren, 1997 was, visually at least, a break from the past. Their long-running partnership with Marlboro ended after the 1996 season, and they agreed to replace one tobacco brand with another with West, who had previously sponsored the Zakspeed team. But while the Zakspeeds had a similar(-ish) red and white scheme to the Marlboro McLarens, when the covers came off at the huge, over-indulgent launch party at Alexandra Palace (which included performances from the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai), what was revealed was not another red and white McLaren, but something that looked more like…hmm, I don’t know, a Mercedes?

Which is rather convenient considering the German marque had strengthened its ties with the team over the winter. The choice of a German tobacco brand and a livery evoking the Silver Arrows of the 1930s and 1950s thus make sense. But corporate reasons aside, it was a brilliant livery, quite a shock to the system at first but an instant classic.

The livery would adorn McLarens until West ended their sponsorship of the team after the EU tobacco advertising ban in 2005, with McLaren choosing the current chrome silver colour scheme that their cars still carry today. This was by far the best of the cars to carry those colours, mainly because it was the first and thus had the biggest impact. But it’s still a great-looking car regardless – unconventional but it works. It was also the first McLaren to win an F1 GP for 3 and a half years when David Coulthard won the season-opening Australian GP. After this, McLaren were back as a competitive force.

4. Arrows A19 (1998)

Yeah, I’m a sucker for black cars. Who isn’t? But this one is the best of them all, even if it’s a post-97 car. What an absolutely stunning livery. What an absolutely stunning car. Especially when combined with Mika Salo’s distinctive helmet.

All-black cars are sexy because they are generally quite rare. BAR/Honda occasionally had a black testing livery, while A1 GP’s Team New Zealand had a similar scheme. But the A19 is the pinnacle, because it’s black and silver.

It wasn’t necessarily a brilliant car. Arrows never exactly made brilliant cars, anyway – even when John Barnard was designing them, as was the case with this one. The A19 came off the back of the enormously-disappointing 1997 season, where Damon Hill arrived, tried, crashed, nearly won and then disappeared in the space of a season. They also lost Yamaha backing at the end of the season, leading to the team badging their own engines for the season in the absence of Tom Walkinshaw’s deal with another manufacturer.

The car’s best result came, like the other black car on the list, at Monaco, where Salo finished an impressive 4th and Pedro Diniz followed him home in 6th. A 5th at Spa for Diniz gave the team a total of 6 points for the season – not exactly unexpected but not very good either. This would lead to the infamous deal with the Nigerian prince (yes, people got suckered in before the internet was popular), Tora Takagi and more failed promises before the team eventually went under in 2002.

3. Benetton-Ford B194

Benetton is known for two things – provocative ad campaigns involving AIDS victims, newborn babies and the like, and owning an F1 team. Quite a successful F1 team too. And one that made beautiful cars.

From 1989 on, Benetton became an increasingly powerful force in F1. Though the company’s name and colours had been on cars since it hooked up with Alfa Romeo in 1984, two years before buying out the Toleman team, it was when the team started edging towards the head of the field that people started taking notice, in much the same way that people didn’t really think much of Red Bull until Adrian Newey got involved. In Benetton’s case, the key was not one man but a number of them – genius designer Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds were later joined by Ross Brawn, with Flavio Briatore overseeing it all by 1990. The win total gradually crept up.

1994 was the big year. The new rules limiting technology shook up the order, lead driver Michael Schumacher was maturing, and Ayrton Senna…well, yeah, we know what happened to him. The B194 was the best car out there and was now being driven by the best driver. What could possibly go wrong?

1994 is a year of myth and legend, and I don’t think you need me to go into it for the nth time. What Benetton did or didn’t do is a matter of immense, tiresome debate in the pub (or an internet forum, as is more likely for 21st century F1 fans). The fact is the car was, err, officially legal. But regardless of what was going on inside (and I can say the same for the Toyota Celica GT-Four too), it’s a beautiful car. The combination of Mild Seven blue and Benetton green is an odd one at first glance – and some may prefer the earlier yellow and green Camel liveries – but for some reason, it works for me.

Also, I have a programme from the 1994 Australian GP, and it’s on the front cover (from above). So it’s a personal thing too. I appreciate it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s one of my favourite F1 cars ever. So there.

2. Jordan-Ford 191 (1991)

That picture is iconic. This is of course Michael Schumacher during his first F1 race weekend at Spa, his only race for Jordan which lasted all of a few hundred yards. Michael caused a stir when he turned up, at a track he had never driven (despite telling Eddie Jordan otherwise), and trounced his team mate Andrea de Cesaris, before burning up his clutch at the start.

But while that classic F1 story is usually the only mention the 191 gets (other than in beauty contests like this one), the background is quite interesting. This was Jordan’s first season in F1 after considerable success in junior formulae. Gary Anderson nailed the car design, and the team was competitive straight away. The competitive Ford engines helped, but you can’t fluke a consistent point-scoring machine in your first season – 5th in the constructors championship was a great achievement. Indeed, De Cesaris very nearly finished 2nd at Spa until his engine blew in the dying laps. But Jordan’s early success nearly proved the team’s downfall, as Ford pulled their engines leaving them with the dreadful Yamaha units, and the team ran into serious financial problems it was lucky to recover from.

It’s also special because 7-Up haven’t been seen on an F1 car since, having only made a brief appearance previously on the back of the 1989 Benetton. That’s a real shame, because the logo and colours had so much potential. Since then, they’ve stuffed up the logo anyway, and soft drinks aren’t really into F1 any more. Energy drinks is where it’s at, apparently. Pfft.

1. Ferrari 412T2 (1995)

Quite simply, the most beautiful F1 car ever, bar none. Everything is right about it – the livery, the lines, the drivers, and the incredible V12 engine, one of the greatest F1 engines of recent times simply because of the sound.

I don’t need to say anything. Just look at those pictures, watch these videos and listen to that engine.


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Written by James Bennett

September 16, 2012 at 02:23

Posted in F1

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