The Right Time to Retire a Number

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The number 17 of Jules Bianchi will never again be carried by another Formula 1 driver. FIA president Jean Todt has decided to retire the number from the Formula 1 World Championship in honor and in memory of Bianchi, who passed away in the early hours on Saturday, 18 July 2015.

This is absolutely the right time and context in which to do this.

Formula 1 adopted the current numbering system just last year, giving drivers their choice of any number they would carry with them for the remainder of their F1 careers at any team they may race for now and into the future. The idea came from the motorcycle Grand Prix circuit, MotoGP, where riders have their choice of number to use throughout their career. It is virtually impossible to distinguish the number 46 with anyone – not just in motorcycle racing, but in all of motorsport – but its greatest champion, Valentino Rossi. It is also a series that has tragically lost three of its riders in this millenium, each of whom were also very much inseparable from the numbers they chose to ride with.

Daijiro Kato, the dominant 250cc champion of 2001. A Honda protege who by the start of the 2003 season looked ready to push Rossi to the limit as a title contender and multiple race weekend. Two weeks after a heavy double impact crash just three laps into the first race of the season – at Suzuka, his home race – Kato was dead at age 26. His number 74, which he carried throughout his brief MotoGP career that should have culminated in him becoming the first premier class champion from Japan, was retired by the FIM, and no rider has worn it since.

Shoya Tomizawa was only 19 when he opened the 2010 Moto2 season with a win in Qatar and a second place in Jerez, establishing himself as perhaps the successor to Kato’s unfulfilled legacy. At the eleventh round at Misano Circuit, Tomizawa was struck and killed in a multi-rider accident, just shy of turning 20. And thereafter, the number 48 that he carried in his brief Moto2 career was retired.

And most recently Marco Simoncelli and his number 58, which are as easy to connect as Simoncelli and his big hair and even bigger personality. Talented, flambouyant, aggressive, seemingly cut from the exact same cloth as Rossi, his friend and countryman. By the end of the 2011 season Simoncelli was already a two-time pole winner and had stood on the podium twice. The first victory was imminent, a future winning championships and riding the finest factory bikes – carrying his number 58 – surely was to follow thereafter. On lap two of the Malaysian Grand Prix, Simoncelli was taken away in an appalling multi-rider accident. He was only 24 years of age. After Loris Capirossi rode his final MotoGP race two weeks later in Valencia, carrying his fallen countryman and friend’s number 58 for one race only, the number was officially retired from MotoGP.

Three MotoGP riders have died while racing since 2000. All three have since been honored with the retirement of their numbers.
Three MotoGP riders have died while racing since 2000. All three have since been honored with the retirement of their numbers.

In all of those cases, the FIM were completely correct in retiring the numbers of those riders. So too was CART when they were struck by the death of Greg Moore. His number 99, assigned to him at first in go-karts, carried on with him from Formula Ford, to Indy Lights, to the CART World Series for Forsythe Racing – whose cars traditionally carried number 33. Moore was set to join Penske Racing in 2000, carrying his famous #99 with him, before he was killed in the final race of the 1999 season in Fontana, California. CART retired the number thereafter, a retirement that lasted even as the series changed from CART to Champ Car, into the ownership of OWRS, but was put back into circulation when Champ Car was acquired and folded into the current IndyCar Series in 2008.

IndyCar, which will readily claim CART accomplishments and accolades as part of the unified history of North American open-wheel racing despite their old figureheads spending over a decade trying to put them out of business, put the number 99 back into circulation and into the hands of drivers nowhere even close to Greg Moore’s level for parts of five seasons. Thankfully, no team or driver has elected to carry number 99 since the 2012 Indianapolis 500, but the number should be re-retired by the series in short order.

This is different from when a team owns a number that then becomes associated with a legendary driver, as is often the case in NASCAR. When Jeff Gordon retires after this season, concluding a legendary career whose accomplishments transcend stock car racing, Gordon’s car number, 24, will be assigned to Chase Elliott, a second-generation star who appears to be a very worthy successor. Hendrick Motorsports owns the rights to the number – it is their call as to whether or not the 24 is taken out of circulation or carries on with another driver. The retirement of Richard Petty‘s famous number 43 after he retired in 1992 lasted all of one season, before it was reinstated to the team and car that he owned.

The numbers 3 and 28 are associated with the late Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison respectively, and a large sector of NASCAR fans felt their numbers should have been permanently retired from the series when they died under tragic circumstances. Even still, it is impossible to dissociate Earnhardt with the number 3 or Allison with the number 28, but those were not “their numbers” in the same sense as Moore or Simoncelli or Kato or Bianchi – their team owners, Richard Childress and Robert Yates, owned the rights to the numbers 3 and 28 even before they were brought on, and the decision to either withdraw the number from competition, as Childress did with the 3 from 2001 until his grandson Austin Dillon‘s 2014 debut, or not, as Yates did from 1993 to 2002 until Texaco withdrew their longtime sponsorship, is that of the owners.

By the time Dale Earnhardt became associated with the black #3 car, he had already used nine different car numbers in NASCAR.
By the time Dale Earnhardt became associated with the black #3 car owned by previous driver Richard Childress, he had already used nine different car numbers in NASCAR.

There are arguments against retiring the number 17 already. Bianchi’s death is only the most recent in a line of F1 driver fatalities since 1950. But Formula 1 teams and drivers weren’t assigned permanent numbers until the 1974 season, and they were to the teams, not the drivers themselves. Gilles Villeneuve may be synonymous to most F1 fans with the number 27, but aside from the overlooked fact that most of his wins, career starts, and his best season in 1979 were all accomplished with him carrying number 12 – not the number 27 which is as much a symbol of Ferrari’s legacy of winning zero World Championships from 1980 to 1999 – Gilles would not have taken the number 27 to every team that he raced for thereafter, Ferrari would have assigned it to another driver in his place.

Which is exactly what they did when Patrick Tambay, a name which stirs only a thin sliver of the emotion of Gilles Villeneuve, was brought in and assigned the number 27 at Ferrari two months after Villeneuve died in Zolder, Belgium on 9 May, 1982. Roland Ratzenberger‘s Simtek, still carrying the number 32 after his death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix meeting, was given to four other drivers in the last eleven races of the ’94 season. Those who raced and died before Bianchi did not have the choice of one number to use at any team they would race for, for the duration of their F1 careers.

Any MotoGP fan can correct me if I am wrong, but when Kato and Simoncelli’s numbers were retired, I’m certain that nobody had chimed in to say that it was disrespectful to the memory of the late, great Jarno Saarinen, whose number was not retired from Grand Prix motorcycle racing after his death in the 1973 Nations Grand Prix. The deaths of Villeneuve, or Ayrton Senna, or Jim Clark, or anyone before Bianchi do not mean significantly less to the history of motorsports than Jules Bianchi’s just because Bianchi’s number will be retired and no number was retired in honor of those who died before him.

The second point is that the number 17 was not Bianchi’s first choice, he originally went for the number 7 that eventually went to Kimi Raikkonen, his second choice in 2014 was the number 17. Fair point, Bianchi never won a single-seater championship nor had a long association in karting with number 17. But when another famous #99, Wayne Gretzky, chose the number because a teammate in junior hockey originally held the number he wanted first – #9, in tribute to Gordie Howe – nobody had chimed in to say that it would feel wrong for all of the National Hockey League’s teams to retire Gretzky’s number in 1999 when it wasn’t his first choice as a rookie for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League.

Nobody told those who helped make #JB17 a prominent hashtag on social media, or those who made the “Tous Avec Jules #17” stickers that adorned nearly every helmet of every driver after the accident, not to incorporate a number that was “only a second choice.” By then it was an footnote of little relevance.

Then there is the argument that number retirements in racing should never become as overdone as they are in other sports, particularly North American team sports, where number retirements – once players actually had the option to wear numbers on their uniforms – were once reserved for players who had died or were seriously injured during their careers. Now, any player of reasonable distinction can have their jersey retired by a twenty-year-old expansion team seeking to make instant history out of whatever fleeting greatness it can latch onto.

This, I can agree with. Unless the unthinkable happens to any one of our five active World Champions in Formula 1, the numbers 44 (Lewis Hamilton), 5 (Sebastian Vettel), 14 (Fernando Alonso), 7 (Kimi Raikkonen), or 22 (Jenson Button) should not be retired from F1. At least not when looking at their careers in the year 2015. Formula 1 number retirements should never grow as overdone as they are in baseball, lest they want to open the door for triple-digit numbers soon.

Jules Bianchi would have taken his number 17 to any team in the Formula 1 paddock, from Marussia to Ferrari, or even to Williams or McLaren or Red Bull. It was his number, and with his life now tragically cut short before we could ever know if he would join the ranks of the World Champions of past and present, his number should be honored with the dignity and respect it deserves. This is absolutely the right context and time in which to do it.

I would hope that this would be the only time Formula 1 has to do this, but I know better than that.

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