How F1 teams overcame superstition to embrace number 13
On February 18 the Mercedes Formula 1 team will unveil its W13, a model that incorporates a number that has obvious connotations in the wider world.
Thirteen has been considered unlucky in many cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the fear of it is known as triskaidekaphobia. It is so prevalent that even in the 21st century some planes don’t have a row 13, and buildings are constructed without 13th floors.
The significance of W13 has not gone unnoticed within the Mercedes camp. Last month when there were suggestions that the new car still had to pass an FIA crash test the team’s communications department told the media that the prototype W13 had completed its homologation process on January 13, while also pointing out that the crash test regulations are contained within Article 13.
“Good job we’re not superstitious about these things!” a team spokesperson joked.
In fact, Mercedes is the sixth outfit on the current F1 grid to have ignored any links to potential bad luck by using 13 in a model designation. Four of those cars won races – one even earned a world championship – so the Brackley team is hardly venturing into unknown territory.
However, there was a time when using 13 in motor racing was almost unthinkable. Indeed, Colin Chapman, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees and Ken Tyrrell are among the team bosses who stayed well clear of the number, and thus the histories of their marques skipped from 12 to 14.
It’s hardly surprising that superstition played a big role in earlier decades. In other sports competitors may have fretted about having an off day or losing a match or game, but in racing death lurked around every corner.
And it’s not just about 13. In Italy 17 is the unpopular number, while in the USA and especially at Indianapolis green was considered as a bad choice of car colour for many years.
Alberto Ascari, Ferrari 500
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Double world champion Alberto Ascari, who was born on June 13, was a hostage to numerology, and the statistics surrounding his death are well known. He father Antonio was killed while leading the French GP on July 26th 1925, and for the younger Ascari 26 (or double of 13) became significant.
In 1955 he crashed into the harbour when leading the Monaco GP, but somehow escaped with minor injuries. Four days later, wearing a borrowed helmet instead of his lucky blue one, he died in a testing crash at Monza. It was May 26th, and he had lived for 13,466 days, just three longer than his father.
Numbers have had an impact on others. In 1966, and encouraged by his then girlfriend, young F3 driver Francois Cevert went to see a clairvoyant – only to be told that he wouldn’t reach his 30th birthday.
Just before qualifying for the 1973 US GP at Watkins Glen he pointed out to his Tyrrell mechanics that it was October 6th, he was driving Tyrrell 006, his race number was 6, and he was sitting in front of DFV number 066. It was, he said, his lucky day. When he died in a gruesome accident that afternoon he was 29 years old.
It was a Frenchman from a much earlier generation who is believed to have been the trigger for motor racing’s fear of 13.
In 1925 13 cars started the San Sebastian GP, and Paul Torchy was carrying the number when he ran wide while trying to pass a rival. The Delage driver slid into a tree and was killed instantly.
Just a year later Count Giulio Masetti was also killed in a Delage when he crashed on the Targa Florio while running as number 13.
Subsequently, race organisers, notably in France, avoided allocating 13. That philosophy continued into the world championship era, and thus since 1950 it has barely been seen in F1.
When Mexican Moises Solana used 13 on his rented BRM at his home race in 1963 it was a seen as a highly unusual occurrence.
The number next appeared at the 1976 British GP, when Divina Galica – who used it in other forms of racing – failed to qualify her private Surtees.
For many years F1 numbers were haphazardly allocated between teams, but even when the system of giving them out in constructor’s championship order was introduced the FIA pairings jumped from 11 and 12 to 14 and 15.
It was only in 2014, when drivers were first given a chance to choose a number that they could keep for their whole career, that 13 became a regular sight. Pastor Maldonado opted for it, and the Venezuelan used it for two seasons on his Lotus, to little good effect.
Pastor Maldonado, Lotus E23
Photo by: Patrik Lundin / Motorsport Images
Outside F1 another to embrace 13 was regular Le Mans 24 Hours entrant Yves Courage, who used it on his Cougar and Courage cars for many years, while 1982 500cc two-wheeled world champion Franco Uncini was another to favour it.
Race numbers are one thing, but what of type designations, which could be associated with multiple cars and drivers, and race for more than a season?
Colin Chapman was probably the first F1 constructor to consciously skip 13, although it wouldn’t have been seen on the grand prix grids anyway. The Lotus Type 12 was an F1/F2 machine, but the next in the sequence – the 14 – was the internal number for the Elite GT car.
“Dad was not superstitious,” says Chapman’s son Clive. “But you are right to say that Team Lotus always avoided 13, and still does. Although there was a 33/R13, but we suspect this was numbered by Reg Parnell Racing - it was never a works chassis.”
The next major name to avoid 13 was Brabham. Team co-founder Ron Tauranac was born on January 13th, and he even used the number in his early motor sport activities. It was thus his partner Jack Brabham who decreed that there would be no BT13, skipping from the BT12 Indy contender to the BT14, a customer single-seater built for Libre racing.
Neither of the above marques would have used 13 in F1, but Bruce McLaren had the option to do so. His M12 was a customer CanAm car, but the next model his team built – the 1970 F1 entry – was named the M14. In a tragic twist Bruce only started three GPs with it before losing his life in a CanAm testing crash in June that year.
McLaren is also a rare example of an F1 team avoiding 13 in chassis number allocation, simply because not many cars were built in large numbers. However, when in 1977 McLaren built the 13th M23 chassis for the use of Brett Lunger and the BS Fabrications team it was designated as 14.
Like Brabham and McLaren before him John Surtees was another owner/driver who avoided using 13, although he had just hung up his helmet when he opted to skip it and call his 1973 F1 contender the TS14. Whether that choice brought him any luck is a moot point – famously at that year’s British GP all three of his entries were wrecked in the crash triggered by the spinning Jody Scheckter.
Outside the British-based outfits Guy Ligier was another who opted not to use 13, despite his preference for only using odd numbers attached to the initials of his friend Jo Schlesser, who was killed in the 1968 French GP. Ligier’s F1 cars went from the JS11 of 1979 to the updated JS11/15 of 1980 and onto the JS17 in 1981.
The last big F1 name to actively avoid using 13 was Ken Tyrrell. His first Renault-powered car in 1985 should have been 013, but instead he went to 014.
“Ken was not particularly superstitious,” recalls his son Bob. “But it was definitely decided to skip unlucky 13. Why tempt fate?”
Some well-known customer racing car manufacturers also avoided the number. There was no Merlyn Mk13, while Chevron boss Derek Bennett did not make a B13. Intriguingly, he also skipped B11, and its multiples B22, B33 and B44, after a crash at Oulton Park in a car carrying number 11.
It was just four years after Ken Tyrrell ignored 13 that the number was first used by a major F1 team, and it’s perhaps not surprising that the guy who opted not to be swayed by superstition was no-nonsense Frank Williams, However, even he had an earlier moment of doubt.
“It’s a funny one as FW07 is the only design of ours of which 13 or more cars were made,” recalls his son Jonathan.
“There were 16 chassis in total, but they did intentionally not allocate chassis 13, the chassis being numbered 01 to 12, and then 14 through 17.
“I asked my father about this many years after, and he said it was due to racing superstition. I then asked how come you allocated 13 to a design - FW13? He thought for a moment and replied, ‘We must have forgotten the superstition!’”
Thierry Boutsen, Williams FW13 Renault 1st position .
Photo by: Motorsport Images
The FW13 was the first purpose-built, Renault-powered Williams. The team began the 1989 season with FW12C, converted from the Judd V8 spec of the previous year, while Patrick Head and his colleagues honed the new model.
The early signs were not positive. It was finished late as the team learned about the requirements of the new engine, finally appearing four races from the end of the season.
On its debut in Portugal both Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen retired after their radiators filled with tyre debris. Next time out in Jerez their front wings were hitting the ground so hard that Boutsen’s fell off in practice, and Patrese refused to race the car.
However, just a few weeks later in atrociously wet conditions in Adelaide, Boutsen survived the carnage to win the red-flagged event. Any lingering doubts about FW13 and bad luck were forgotten, and indeed in 1990 Patrese won in Imola and Boutsen triumphed in Hungary with the same model.
Nevertheless, Head doesn’t have fond memories of it: “It’s not a car that I look back on with any warmth or pleasure!”
Since the FW13 F1 teams appear to have had few if any qualms about using the number. In 1992 Michele Alboreto and Aguri Suzuki raced the Footwork FA13 with little in the way of good or bad luck, and that continued with the FA13B at the start of the following year when Derek Warwick replaced the Japanese driver.
In 1994 Sauber gave the C13 designation to its second F1 car, raced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. It was to be a year of turmoil for the sport and, after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola, tensions ran high at the next race in Monaco.
In Thursday morning practice Wendlinger suffered serious head injuries when he had a huge accident at the chicane, but thankfully the Austrian not only survived but was able to return to the cockpit the following year. Was therefore the C13 a lucky or unlucky car? It’s a difficult call to make.
Mika Hakkinen, McLaren MP4/13 Mercedes-Benz leads David Coulthard, McLaren MP4/13 Mercedes-Benz
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Then four years later came the car that really put any doubts about 13 to bed. By co-incidence Ron Dennis made his first appearance at a GP as a mechanic to Moises Solana at Cooper in 1966, albeit not with 13 on that occasion. Given his logical approach to everything in life, it’s perhaps no surprise that the McLaren boss was happy to use the MP4/13 designation in 1998.
Between them Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard would score nine Grand Prix victories that season, and the Finn clinched the world championship at the Suzuka finale.
The next car to use the number was also a race winner, and an unlikely one at that, in 2003.
“I don’t recall any real discussion on using EJ13,” recalls former Jordan GP commercial boss Ian Phillips. “It was probably ‘I’m not feckin’ superstitious,’ from EJ [Eddie Jordan], and matter concluded.
“The only time he claimed to be superstitious was when Benson and Hedges proposed the snake design for 1997. He didn’t like it, and claimed everyone in Ireland was frightened of snakes, and he would be a laughing stock. He was outvoted. It was probably our most admired livery!”
In 2003 the Silverstone team was on the ropes financially, with unloved Ford engines and Giancarlo Fisichella joined by pay driver Ralph Firman. The car hardly figured all season, and only finished in the top six once – on a soaking wet afternoon at round three in Brazil.
That was the day that Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber had huge crashes on the pit straight and the race was red-flagged, but not before Fisichella had moved to the front of the field with good strategy and tenacious driving in the awful conditions. The team was convinced that he had won, having crossed the line twice as leader before the flag. However, the win was awarded to Raikkonen.
Later it was realised that F1’s timekeepers had made a rare mistake, and Fisichella received his winner’s trophy at the next race at Imola.
In 2017 Red Bull used the RB13 for the fourth year of the hybrid regulations. It was a decent enough car given the performance of its Renault engine and the strong form of Mercedes and Ferrari, and it logged three wins in the hands of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. However, the team scored 100 fewer points than the previous season.
A year later sister team Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) fielded the STR13 for Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley. They scored points with it, but the team slipped from seventh to ninth in the championship that season.
The shift to embracing 13 triggered by Frank Williams 33 years ago continues this year with the Mercedes W13.
In earlier eras when teams were small and run by one man, and safety was sketchy, nobody questioned it when the number was avoided.
In modern times, it’s much harder to justify. These days are owned by manufacturers or corporate shareholders, they are sponsored by multinationals who operate in countries where 13 has no significance, and they employ hundreds of data-driven and logical thinking engineers. Thus old superstitions cannot be seen to play a role.
However, an individual driver can still have his personal thoughts on the matter – thus it will be interesting to hear what Lewis Hamilton and George Russell think of number 13…
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