Photo: Phil Hill at Zandvoort, 1961 copyright CahierArchiveFor some reason this morning, I was looking for a picture of the old sharknose Ferrari 156 from 1961. When I saw it, I recalled that during the 1950s, most race car numbers were "even" and thus there was no talk of a race car carrying the "coveted number one". But in 1961, here was Phil Hill, with "1" proudly adorning the pointed nose.
The current system, where cars carry numbers according to the previous year's championship positions, only started in 1996; previously, the numbers 1 and 2 had been granted to the championship winning team, with the outgoing champions receiving the old numbers from that year's winners. Thus, when Williams won the championship in 1980 with Alan Jones, Ferrari received 27 and 28, which then became forever associated with Villeneuve and Alesi, the numbers staying at Maranello until 1995.
When Schumacher moved to Italy in 1996, Ferrari automatically received the number one status, but the prospect of Alesi and Berger retaining the numbers 27 and 28, but in completely different cars (they had both shifted to Benetton from Ferrari) was prevented by a shake-up of the numbering system, so that Benetton raced as 3 and 4 - numbers for which Tyrrell had been the custodian since 1974, the year after Jackie Stewart last won the championship for the team.
It wasn't always so. If you'd gone to Spa Francorchamps for the 1956 Belgian Grand Prix, you'd have seen Fangio, the reigning champion (and as it's Spa, I feel obliged to slip in a "raining" pun; which, it being Spa, it was) in a Lancia-Ferrari D50 with number 2 painted on the side. His team mates, Castellotti, Frere, Collins and Pilette, carried 4, 6, 8 and 20 respectively (and here you can see why Luca di Montezemolo thinks he should be allowed to run more than two cars). Maserati, Ferrari's closest challengers, were carrying 30, 32, 34, 36 and 38 on the side of their cars in that race.
So, a question to finish: What was the first Formula 1 Grand Prix, held outside of Great Britain, to have cars with odd race numbers, and to make it just a little bit harder, let's restrict it to odd numbers lower than 50.
Answer tomorrow on Twitter. And no, I'm not counting Indianapolis as it wasn't an F1 race, it just counted towards the World Championship.