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Glory on the track: what parallels can we draw between today’s Formula 1 and Ancient Chariot Races?

For the 5th Day of our 12 Days of Christmas activity, we are taking a deeper look into the parallels between chariot racing and the king of motorsports- Formula 1.

The latest season of Formula 1 has truly been epic, races were ‘battles on the track’, ‘a fight between warriors’ and the image we are left with is one which is not too dissimilar from the Chariot Races of old. So, we want to know whether these two high-intensity sports are intertwined in more ways than meets the eye. Whilst a Formula 1 car and a chariot hold little physical similarity beyond their wheels and having a driver- when we dig a bit deeper, we can see many more similarities.

Even though Formula 1 is arguably one of the most modern and innovative sports, much of the sportsmanship has not altered from its ancient counterpart on a chariot. We have unpicked these similarities right the way through from the engineering behind the vehicles to the champions on the podiums.

Technology and Design - they matter now, and they mattered then

Modern Formula 1 cars are often assessed based on the quality of the technology used when building the car. Just as people wait in anticipation to learn who will win the driver’s championship, the teams eagerly anticipate the constructor’s championship as it is another way to win accolades based on the quality of your technology. For these cars to achieve such high performance on the track, it’s paramount that each part is working from the engine to the wheel axle. Aston Martin F1 even focused on making sure they had the perfect colour for their vehicle for the 2021 season with team principal Otmar Szafnauer determined to have the most eye-catching coloured car on the track.

The AMR21 Aston Martin F1 Car with bright green livery, pirelli C3 tyres (yellow and black)w),
Aston Martin F1 car with tailored green livery colour

Whilst chariots are far more simplistic than a Formula 1 car in their design, the same attention and care were put into crafting the technology behind them. Evidence, from Mycenaean Greek Tablets, found in Knossos, highlights that over 3,500 years ago chariot makers were just as concerned with the development of their technology. The Chariot Tablets that have been found go into detail about the methods of assembly, the accompanying equipment such as bridles and blinkers and the quality of the materials inlaid into the chariots for decoration. We also see an array of chariots emerging - box chariots, quadrant chariots and dual chariots which all have their own features. And so, the overwhelming impression is that both modern and ancient constructors care deeply design and engineering of their vehicles.

Ancient Table with Linear B script and ideograms depicting the number of chariots in Knossos and their details
Linear B Tablet KN236 from Chariot Tablet Series found at Knossos

How strategy continues to be a stepping stone for success

Formula 1 is filled with strategy- from the data strategists and engineers sat on the pit wall and in the garage crunching numbers to the drivers training in simulators in the lead up to a race. No one can deny the amount of effort that goes into developing the best strategy prior to every Grand Prix. We only need to look at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Red Bull’s team strategy which ultimately paid off for the team in the long run, as Sergio Perez (Red Bull) held off Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) for long enough for Max Verstappen (Red Bull), his teammate, to catch up.

Again, Ancient Chariot racing saw similar team tactics and strategies being put into place. One of the earliest examples appears in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad, when we see Nestor providing counsel to his son Antilochus where they are discussing tactics for the chariot race which will take place at Patroclus’ funeral games. Just as Formula 1 is seen to be a combination of car and driver quality, chariot racing was no different – whilst Nestor acknowledges Antilochus to have the ‘slowest horses’ he recognises his son to have the most Μῆτις (mêtis, skill/craft). Being aware of Antilochus’ skill he advises him to take a closer line to the dry stump which creates the turning point for the course, and to make sure he is ‘leaning to the left' whilst he is ‘giving full reign to the horse on the right’.

Seeing this technical style of racing emerge so early shows another similarity between the modern and ancient sport, with skilled drivers having an awareness of their balance and the techniques they can use to get the best race possible.

Understanding the divide: from modern team rivalries to ancient Roman factions

Since the beginning of Formula 1, the teams have been such an iconic part of the sport. Team spirit is encapsulated by the Ferrari ‘tifosi’- literally derived from how the swathes of fans clad in red look like an infection. Formula 1 without a doubt is a team sport that divides the masses, and even the members of the team battle it out with each other; perhaps two of the most heated matches this season have been with the team principals off the track, with Christian Horner (Red Bull) and Toto Wolff (Mercedes) constantly battling indirectly on the radio and in person when appealing to the FIA stewards.

These immense team rivalries are nothing new to the sport of racing. In Ancient Rome the chariot racers were divided amongst four factions – all governed by social and business organisations sponsoring the races. The four factions were colour-coded (according to Tertullian) into Red (dedicated to Mars), White (dedicated to the Zephyrs), Blue (dedicated to the Sky and the Sea) and Green (dedicated to Mother Earth) and each faction could enter three chariots per race. Having the ability to collaborate on the track meant that the drivers played similar strategies to those we still see today- drivers from a team would divide, whilst one would try to get ahead the others would slow competitors from rival teams down to secure a victory- or in extreme cases, drivers were encouraged to crash other drivers into spina (the turning point of the track).

The fans were also just as committed to their teams: in one race where a driver from the Red faction was killed, a spectating fan was said to have thrown themselves onto the funerary pyre with the deceased driver. Ultimately, the commitment and passion within the sport has not dissipated in any respect and having the team rivalry only creates additional excitement on race day.

Racers, victors and insurmountable glory

The commitment to the drivers in ancient chariot racing was just as important as the commitment to the teams, and the same can be said in Formula 1. For example, whilst many people may not follow Formula 1 closely, they know famous figures such as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Michael Schumacher because their success has skyrocketed them into the public eye.

Lewis Hamilton wearing black Mercedes driver suit holding trophy after winning 2020 Grandprix. Michael Schumacher in red Ferrari driver suit holding trophy after winning Grand Prix. Max Verstappen in blue Red Bull drivers suit after winning 2021 world championship.
Formula 1 World Champions - Lewis Hamilton (7 times champion), Michael Schumacher (7 times champion), Max Verstappen (World Champion 2021)

Chariot Racing was no different, with drivers such as Scorpus and Gaius Appuleius Diocles capturing the hearts of the crowd and the general public. In many instances, these champions had greater track records than racers of today, with Scorpus winning over 2,000 races and Gaius Appuleius Diocles winning 1,462 of the 4,257 races he competed in. They were the World Champions of their time and just as we cannot deny the racing prowess of modern victors, these ancient drivers have spectacular numbers of victories to speak for themselves. Gauis Appuleius Diocles was so impressive he is considered to be the most highly celebrated athlete and highly paid athlete of all time, making a whopping, 35, 863,120 sesterces, equivalent to $15 billion during his 24 year-long career. To put that into context, for Cristiano Ronaldo (the world’s second-highest-paid footballer- making $120M per annum) to accumulate a similar amount of wealth, it would take 125 years and for Lewis Hamilton (the world’s highest-paid Formula 1 driver- making $55M per year) it would take almost 273 years.

White marble statue of Gaius Appuleius Diocles most celebrated chariot racer in history- riding a duplex chariot with two horses in a bent knee position.
Gaius Appuleius Diocles

And so, it’s undeniable these chariot racers were icons who dominated their sports just as the beasts we see on track today dominate theirs. From huge winnings to immense celebration these figures possess unimaginable quantities of glory a crowning jewel in a successful racing career of modern and ancient times. For, with both the ancient and modern sport the pinnacle achievement is becoming a champion, and it is that achievement which has gripped millions of spectators over thousands of years, kept investment in racing sports high and will be the driving factor inspiring those finding the sport in the future.

This brings us to the end of our analysis of these two iconic sports. Do you have any thoughts? Let us know on Twitter!

Written by Emily Shead

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