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 13 January, 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.
Double world champion Alberto Ascari, who was born on 13 June, 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 26 July 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 26 May, 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 6 October, 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…