Since the end of the 1974 season only one man has driven a Formula 1 car with the number 1, without being the World Champion. Who was it? And how did it happen? In the early years of the FIA Formula One World Championship, there was no such thing as a numbering system. The race organisers would give out numbers based on whatever they wanted to do. This was why, for example, the highest number ever seen in F1 was 136, which was given to East Germany’s Rudolf Krause, who raced a Reif-BMW at the German GP in 1952. That race saw all the Grand Prix cars numbered above 100, a system which meant that each car in every race had a unique number. People may write in if I do not say that there was a Formula 1 car that carried the number 208 in 1974 when Lella Lombardi tried to qualify a Brabham BT42 in Radio Luxembourg colours (208 being the radio station’s wavelength). She failed to make the field.
The number 13 was never used because of racing tradition, dating back to the 1920s, although cars with that number did appear in Mexico in 1963 with Moises Solana using it for his BRM P57 and in 1976 when Divina Galica used the number for her Surtees TS16, but failed to qualify for the race.
The lowest Formula 1 number used was 0, which has only been used twice – when a World Champion moved from the team with which he won the title. This happened in 1993 and 1994 with Williams as Nigel Mansell and then Alain Prost both left Williams as World Champions. As a result, Williams had the right to use numbers 1-2 because it had won the Constructors title in the previous year, but the lead driver did not have the right to use number 1, because he was not the World Champion. Thus in 1993 Prost used number 2, while Damon Hill was given 0, and in 1994 Ayrton Senna (and his successors) used number 2, while Hill continued to use 0.
The lack of numbering system lasted only until 1973 when it was decided that it might be an idea to keep the same numbers. This began to happen in the second half of the season and the numbers were then set in stone from 1974 onwards, with the only change each year being the number 1 and 2 being given to the World Champion and his team-mate in the season after he won the title. It began in 1974 with Ronnie Peterson running with #1 and Jacky Ickx with #2 for Team Lotus as a result of the team having won the Constructors’ Championship in 1973. The 1973 World Champion Jackie Stewart had retired at the end of the season.
After that the previous World Champion would get the new World Champion’s old number. Thus, for example, Alain Jones switched from 27 to 1 in 1981, while Gilles Villeneuve went from 2 to 27 because Ferrari took over the Williams numbers (27 and 28) and Villeneuve stepped up to be team leader after Jody Scheckter (previously #1) retired at the end of a very disappointing season. This system remained unchanged until the end of 1995 when the FIA decided it needed to clean up the system as there were fewer teams and the new operations had not taken over the numbers that had been left by older teams disappearing. Thus the numbering system became such that the World Champion and his team-mate took 1 and 2 the following season, while the other teams took their numbers according to their finishing position in the Constructors’ Championship. This meant that teams could not easily use their numbers in marketing campaigns, because they would change year by year.
In the end, before the 2014 season the FIA agreed to allow the drivers to choose their own permanent numbers, with the #1 being left open for the World Champion, if he wanted to use it. The number 13 also appeared that year as Pastor Maldonado wanted to use it.
All of this means that since the start of 1975 only one driver has ever appeared in the #1 car who was not a World Champion. This was John Watson, who appeared at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1985. He was standing in for Niki Lauda, who was out of action having suffered a wrist injury when he crashed in the Friday practice session at the Belgian Grand Prix. The steering wheel whipped around in the impact and Lauda’s wrist was strained. It was felt best that he miss the next race and Watson was called up to help.