Fastlane

Why Americans should care about Formula 1

Formula 1 can be extremely exciting. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

First of all, they are the fastest cars on the planet around a racetrack.  This is not in dispute. They have shared tracks with NASCAR and Indy car and completely blew away the former and were several seconds faster than the latter. They’re also significantly faster than MotoGP, aka the fastest motorcycles on the planet. So, if you’re into the fastest cars, these are them.

As far as G-forces go, no other profession routinely endures the level of G-forces that F1 drivers do. Fighter pilots are capable of it, but as a matter of course, they do so only rarely. An astronaut being launched to the space station will very briefly take on a load of about 3 G’s during the launch. An F1 driver will take as much as 5 G’s in a turn and in excess of 6 G’s during braking and do so repeatedly throughout the course of a race. Because this begins to approach the limits of reasonable human endurance, the “Formula” is a constant battle between rules makers trying to slow down the cars and engineers trying to overcome the rules to make them faster.

The Formula 1 paddock is like no other. With a global audience of nearly 400 million viewers the F1 paddock is THE PLACE for international celebrities to be seen. There are models, athletes, musicians, movie stars, captains of industry, and royalty all twittering about between the likes of the Ferraris, Red Bulls, and Mercedes prior to the race. Lewis Hamilton, 4 time world champion and current points leader for Mercedes AMG, is a frequent attendee on red carpets of all kinds all over the world.  

One of the common criticisms from American motorsports fans is that the style of racing is boring, with very little overtaking as compared to Indy car or NASCAR. The difference, to use a baseball analogy is very similar to the difference between a 10-8 home run derby style game and a 1-0 pitcher’s duel.   When you have 2 first rate pitchers at the top of their game, they are very nearly unhittable. They locate their pitches within fractions of an inch and strategically choose their pitches to keep the hitters off guard, first one to make a mistake loses. The battle at the front of an F1 race is often about he who makes the fewest or even no mistakes. The cars are placed inch perfect lap after lap even as conditions change with regards to fuel levels and tire wear. The margins for error are so unbelievably slim.  A fast pit stop can literally be the difference between winning and losing. What’s a slow pit stop? In excess of 3.5 seconds. A fast one is less than 2.5 seconds with a 3 second stop being fairly average.

And then there’s the races in the rain. Most motorsports stop for rain, but not F1. They have wet and intermediate tires with large grooves capable of dispersing nearly 23 gallons of water per second at speed. Multiply this by the entire field over the course of a racetrack, and they can move an Olympic pool’s worth of water every 3 laps or so. Because the setup of the cars is not allowed to be changed between the beginning of qualifying and the start of the race, the potential for upheaval due to rain is quite large. Often the fastest cars on a dry track are the slowest on a wet, sometimes this is a strategy based on the weather forecast.

What about the drivers? Are they better? Obviously this is very subjective, however, Formula 1 drivers who have had small amounts of success in F1 have generally gone on to do great things in other series. Most recently, 2 time world champion Fernando Alonso won Le Mans and was leading the Indy 500 2 years ago when his engine let go. Other notables include Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansel, Emerson Fittipaldi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Alexander Rossi and the list goes on. Not to mention, the best F1 drivers are far and away the most highly compensated racers on the planet. There are 2 currently making close to $50 million this year. (Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes AMG) It’s not a stretch to say that as competitive a breed as race drivers are, wouldn’t they go after a prize that large if they could get it?

There is now a purpose built Formula 1 track in the United States. The Circuit of the Americas in Austin has hosted Grand Prix since 2012. It has become a very popular race for the drivers and teams. Their enthusiasm for American fans, food, and culture is obvious. We also have an American team, Haas F1, owned by legendary race team owner, Gene Haas. While we don’t yet have an American driver, it seems inevitable that we will soon.  Alexander Rossi was a reserve driver and did actually drive in a few Grand Prix before getting a full time ride in Indy Car and winning the Indy 500 in his rookie year.

The ownership of Formula 1 recently changed hands. The new owners, Liberty Media, are Americans and have expressed a desire to make the sport more accessible to the American audience. Regardless, if you like fast- if you like brute force- if you like strategy- if you like flash and you’re not already checking out Formula 1…you’re missing out.

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