Formula 1000th? Why F1's milestone race might not be a milestone at all

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The Chinese Grand Prix has been dubbed Formula One's 1000th race, a landmark that has attracted plenty of attention from fans and media alike.

It's a clever marketing tactic and one that has clearly achieved its goal ahead of the race in Shanghai, but when the lights go out this weekend, will it really be the 1000th time Formula One drivers have contested a grand prix, or are we being led down the garden path?

The answer is not straightforward, but bear with us.

One immediate problem is what can be called a grand prix, and whether the definition can be stretched to races that would today never be considered in that bracket.

For example, from 1950 to 1960, the Indianapolis 500 was included in the championship race list but very few Formula One drivers competed. That meant it was won by U.S. drivers who had usually agreed to race under their own adopted rules. So do those 11 races that took place in Indiana really fit the bill of a grand prix?

If not, then what do we make of 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 winner Bill Vukovich?

He never even drove a Formula One car, but his victories in the race meant he finished seventh and sixth in those years in the world championship. His tally of 19 points from five races still stands in Formula One history, and his death at the 1955 Indy 500 was technically the first for a driver competing in a Formula One championship race.

Rules were a big issue during the early years of the world championship. In 1952 Alfa Romeo were unable to fund a new car, so pulled out before the season began, with British Racing Motors (BRM) also withdrawing before an April race in Turin.

That left Ferrari as the only serious contender, so championship organisers decided to run races to Formula Two specifications, changing the engines used and allowing more cars to enter (Ferrari still won every race). The same thing happened in 1953, so you might well say both those early seasons were Formula Two championships, not Formula One.

If we add the Indy 500 races with the 1952 and 1953 calendars, 26 grands prix included in Formula One's tally never had a Formula One car in them. It's easy to argue there have only been 974 races since the first at Silverstone in 1950, and that means we're still more than a season away from the actual 1000th race.

Equally it's possible to say there have been more than 1000 grands prix, since there were plenty of races before that so-called first in 1950.

The first race generally regarded as a grand prix was as early as 1906, at Le Mans, and was won by Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz. The Monaco Grand Prix has been running since 1929, and there were two grands prix at Silverstone in 1948 and 1949 before that "first" race.

And then there are the non-championship grands prix, F1 races that never contributed to the world championship standings but still took place and were, at one point, very popular. There were lots of them too -- in fact in some years there were more non-championship than championship races.

The most famous examples were the International Trophy, which took place at Silverstone between 1949 and 1978, and the Race of Champions, which was run at Brands Hatch from 1965 to 1983.

The races were used by teams for extra testing and to get their cars ready for the European leg of the world championship, but they were serious business and were won by serious drivers. Just look at the list of winners of the International Trophy: Alberto Ascari (1949), Stirling Moss (1956 and 1961), Jackie Stewart (1965 and 1973), Emerson Fittipaldi (1972) and Niki Lauda (1975) all feature.

So, where does all that leave us?

In short, nowhere definitive. Formula One's chequered history means it's almost impossible to say what number race the Chinese Grand Prix is, even if it has generated plenty of fervour.

The 1000th time drivers will earn points towards the world championship standings? Yes. The 1000th grand prix? Absolutely not.

Information from Reuters contributed to this report.