In 2014 Lewis Hamilton won his second WDC and decided not to exchange his #44 for the sacred #1. I doubt he’ll change his mind next year after his triumphal 2015 campaign.
The absence of #1 on the grid is not unusual in other motor sport series (e.g. MotoGP, IndyCar) where drivers/teams also have their own personal numbers. But it’s still something new for Formula 1.
Lewis Hamilton (? ©)
Last time with no #1 on the grid was back in 1993 and 1994. And in both cases there was the same explanation: there was no defending champion on the grid. Nigel Mansell, the 1992 world champion, moved to IndyCar, Alain Prost retired from racing after winning his 4th WDC in 1993. Both drivers won their titles driving for Williams, that’s why the team used #0 and #2 in 1993-1994. Damon Hill was always allocated #0 in both seasons, while several drivers used #2 (Alain Prost (1993)*, Ayrton Senna, David Coulthard and Nigel Mansell (all three in 1994)).
Have there been any other exceptions in Formula 1 history when there was no #1 on the grid? Or has Lewis created a precedent for the future generations?
Imagine this: until 1974 pretty much any driver could drive a car with #1 on it and the owner of this magic number sometimes would change not even from season to season but from one race to another. And sometimes there was simply no #1 on the grid and it was OK. The cause of such anarchy was that race numbers were assigned on a race-to-race basis by the local organizers.
When full sponsor liveries came on stage at the 1960s, sponsors began to pressure teams to stick to the same race numbers throughout the season, so the teams started to request the same numbers from different organizers.
In 1973 the sport’s governing body decided to control this number assignment issue. First permanent numbers showed up in mid-1973 (starting from the Belgium Grand Prix). And starting from 1974 the reigning champion would get #1 while his teammate got #2. Following numbers should be assigned to the teams (not the drivers) according to WCC’73 standings.
Well, it didn’t go smoothly. Sir Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell) won the title in 1973 and… retired from motor racing. Lotus won the Constructor’s Championship that year, Tyrrell was second in the standings. So who should have gotten #1/#2 in 1974? It was decided Lotus got these numbers (#1 for Ronnie Peterson, #2 for Jacky Ickx), then Tyrrell got #3/#4, McLaren – #5/#6, and so on.
Ronnie Peterson /#1, Lotus/, Emerson Fittipaldi /#5, McLaren/, 1974 (? ©)
New teams were usually assigned the lowest available numbers. If a team left the championship, its numbers became vacant. For example, Toleman made its debut in 1981 and got #35/#36. In 1983 the team took over vacant #19/#20. Then in 1986 the team changed its name to Benetton but still got #19/#20. Finally in 1993 when McLaren took over vacant #7/#8 (ex-Brabham numbers and the first numbers run by the team in the MP4/Ron Dennis era in the early 80s), Benetton got #5/#6 (ex-Mclaren numbers).
In 1996 the FIA decided to create a numbering system based on WCC’s standings in the previous season. The defending champion driver and his teammate still would get #1/#2. But all other teams would change their numbers from season to season (see example in the table below):
Finally in 2014 the numbering system has changed yet again. From now on every driver (rather than team) picks the number which he will use throughout his entire F1 career***. And the defending champion can choose whether he wants to use #1 or prefers his personal number. Sebastian Vettel decided to race with #1 in 2014, while Lewis Hamilton likes his #44 and doesn’t want to swipe it for #1.
But Lewis can always do something like this:
*A unique achievement belongs to Alain Prost. He’s the only driver who has won the F1 championship driving the car #2.
*** If the driver doesn’t compete in the championship for more than 2 years his personal number becomes vacant.