The FIA World Motor Sport Council recently announced that the maximum number of entrants for a Grand Prix would be raised to 26 from its previous figure of 24, in order to accommodate a flood of new entries anticipated for the 2010 World Championship.
The fact that such a maximum figure exists has been irrelevant for several years now, as the last time the grid was full was back in 1995, but with entry numbers set to rise for next season in the wake of the FIA's massive cost-cutting scheme, it could become a burning question once again.
Ignoring, for the moment, the artificial limits imposed on the number of entries by the F1 Sporting Regulations, what is the theoretical maximum number of cars that could enter a Grand Prix?
The answer to this question is held in Appendix O of the International Sporting Code, which applies to all FIA-mandated motorsport events. Except for Formula One, the maximum number of cars permitted to start an international race is derived from the following formula:
N = 0.36 x L x W x T x G
N represents the number of cars, whereas the numbers L, W, T and G are coefficients determined respectively by the length of the circuit, the minimum width of the circuit, the duration of the race and the type of car competing in the event.
F1 regulations do not currently allow teams to enter the sport for anything less than a whole season, so for our purposes we will use Monaco—the shortest and narrowest track on the F1 calendar—for determining the maximum number of cars permitted to enter an F1 race.
The Monte Carlo circuit is 3.340 km long, which corresponds to a coefficient for L of 12. A quick Google search for the minimum width of the Monte Carlo circuit yielded 8 metres, which means that the coefficient W has a value of 9.
An F1 race lasts for a maximum of two hours, so T has a value of 1.15. "Single-seaters over 2000cc," such as F1 cars, are given a G value of 0.6.
As such, we can multiply these numbers together to give a maximum entry number for an F1 race, N, of 27 (the figure is rounded up to the nearest whole number, as given in the regulations).
According to the same regulations, "The maximum number of cars admitted to participate in a same practice session shall not be greater than the number authorised to start in the race increased by 20 %."
Therefore, assuming the structure of the F1 weekend remained the same, 33 cars would be permitted to practice and attempt to qualify for an F1 race. For practical purposes this would be 32, since single-car teams are no longer permitted in F1.
So the short answer to the question is that 16 teams of two cars each could be permitted to enter the F1 World Championship, and five cars each race would not be allowed to start.
In order to properly consider the question, however, we would have to take into account the facilities of the circuits, and how many teams they are capable of accommodating.
If this is the case, then the answer is actually much lower. Modern F1 circuits tend to be built with the capacity for 12 teams, with Monaco only actually having room for about 10.
In the days of pre-qualifying, when there were more entrants to the sport than there were spots allocated even in the qualifying sessions, teams used to set up shop in the paddock and were only allowed to move into the garages in the event of actually qualifying for the race.
One suspects that such an approach would not be particularly popular in today's age of high-tech F1, with more computers and machinery needed to run a Grand Prix car than can be realistically set up anywhere other than a garage built for that purpose.
In allocating an extra team to F1 for 2010, the FIA have obviously decided that they can make room on most of the circuits for a 13th garage, but expanding the grid any further beyond that may prove very difficult indeed.
Bernie Ecclestone is among those who have expressed a wish to return to those days, in the early 1990s, of pre-qualifying and overflowing entry lists for Grands Prix, but with the demands that modern F1 imposes on its circuits, it is unlikely that this will occur any time soon.