What’s in a number?

In the five odd decades of formula one racing, cars carried a variety of numbers ranging from ‘0’ to ‘208’. Though a reigning world champion driver gets to proudly display ‘1’ on the car, not all drivers stuck to convention.

In fact, there are interesting stories behind some of the numbers – specially the ones considered unlucky. Take No.13 for example. The superstition relating to this number and how steeply it is embedded in the Western world needs no mentioning. Its exclusion as an entry number for a grand prix car goes back to 1926, when Giulio Masetti died in a Maserati carrying the number ‘13’ in the Targa Florio. Since then, organizers of motor sport events have refrained from issuing the number, unless a driver requests for it. Surprisingly, there were a couple of drivers who had the guts to go for it.

One such exception was Divina Galica, one of formula one’s gutsy lady drivers. In the 1976 British GP she had the honor of reintroducing the dreaded No.13 to the Grand Prix world, when she entered her Surtees TS16. She could not qualify. The only other driver in Formula One to have No.13 was Moises Solana at his home GP of 1963. He qualified 11th and finished 11th.

But No.13 is not the only number that is deemed unlucky. The Japanese regard number ‘4’ as unlucky. That is why, back in the eighties, Satoru Nakajima refused to take the No.4 Tyrrell, even though it was assigned to him. The only Japanese driver who doesn’t seem to mind sporting No.4 is Takuma Sato in the current season. Whether it is providence or coincidence, it’s turning out to be disastrous for him.

The tryst with zero

One of the oddest stories about car numbers is that of ‘0’. As the number ‘1’ is awarded to the World Drivers’ Champion, 1992 champ Nigel Mansell took the number with him to America when he left Formula One. Thus Williams was given the numbers 0 and 2, rather than 1 and 2. Prost wasn’t interested in driving a zero car, so Hill raced with the number 0 on his car. As if destined, Damon was forced to carry number 0 again in 1994, as the 1993 champion and teammate, Prost, retired from racing, effectively taking the number ‘1’ with him.

In 1994, Damon lost the world championship to Michael Schumacher by just 1 point after a controversial collision between the two at the final round in Adelaide. However, it is worth noting that back in 1973, Jody Scheckter had raced with the number 0 on his McLaren M23 in two GPs.

The fatalist who loved 13

The most fascinating story of unlucky numbers belongs to Bernd Rosemeyer. The only car he ever raced was the monstrous rear-engined Auto Union, a car that even Nuvolari found hard to master. Yet, in a meteoric career, Rosemeyer established himself as the world’s fastest driver and Germany’s most popular GP driver ever. Starting in 1935 he was challenging for the lead in only his second race. On the infamous Nürburgring track, the ultimate challenge for any driver, Rosemeyer held the lead every single time he raced there and he finished 2nd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 1st and 3rd.

No one with the possible exception of Gilles Villeneuve has been able to fully emulate Rosemeyer’s driving style. In total disregard for the laws of physics, the thrill seeking driver threw the heavy car around (numbered ‘31’) in impossible angles. While he made the occasional mistake, his 10 victories during a time of just two years are testimony to a rare skill.

In fact Bernd and his wife Elly (a popular German heroine, Fräulein Elly Beinhorn and famous international flyer) seemed to be made for each other. Both lived life the fullest and both were confirmed fatalists. Their lucky number was 13.

Legend has it that Rosemeyer got married to Elly on 13th of July. He then took a superb victory at the German GP, exactly 13 days after the wedding.

In 1937, in the famous Formula Libre race at the rebuilt AVUS track, Rosemeyer’s streamliner was running on only 13 cylinders and the driver’s goggles were almost unusable due to oil. Even then he finished just 0.7 s behind the winning Caracciola, finishing the last lap in an incredible 4’11″2. At 276.39 km/h (171.78 mph) that is the fastest lap ever done in a formula race. It would take 34 years before such speeds were seen at the Indy 500.

On the 13th of June at the Eifelrennen, Rosemeyer took his third consecutive Nürburgring victory after a fierce duel with Caracciola. And the Donington GP was Rosemeyer’s 13th start of the year, where he took a great victory in front of the amazed British crowd.

In November 1937, after hearing Mercedes was planning to have a go at the speed records, Auto Union wished to defend theirs. Eberan-Eberhorst designed a revolutionary bodywork complete with panels that came close to the ground and channeled the air creating a vacuum. Sadly his career was cut short by a 400-km/h crash during a world speed record attempt.

On the morning of January 28, 1938, after some hesitation because of the wind, he started his record attempt at 10:40am. Having passed the first kilometer point the car continued on the flying mile but suddenly verged out onto the grass, went sideways, rolled and disintegrated. Rosemeyer was hurled out. His heart was still beating when the team doctor found him in the woods, leaning against a tree, but it stopped soon afterwards.


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