So many people ask me, ‘How can you like Formula 1? It’s just a bunch of cars driving around a track over and over (and over and over) again!’ I originally posted this article on my Formula 1 blog, where I was far more likely to have readers on my side, but here is why I think F1 is such an awesome, underrated sport.
Many forms of sport concern the individual – someone pushing themselves to see how far or fast they can run, how high they can jump, or how far they can throw various things. Other sports concern teams, and people having to work together in order to win. In Formula 1, there’s a conflict of both. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of motorsport is the number of different conflicting elements that have to collaborate to bring success: the partnership of man and machine, the requirement of both physical and mental agility, the tension between teams and drivers (and drivers within teams), and a good strategy trying to ward off bad luck. In Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport, where finishing even one place higher in the Championship can make a difference of millions of pounds, all this tension is heightened.
Man and Machine
Without the cars, F1 would be like watching a marathon. Floats some people’s boats, but I doubt they’d tune in most Sundays. Without the driver, the car is just a pretty combination of engine and carbon fibre – the fuel without the flame. (Well, ordinarily it was a fairly good-looking combination, until we saw the noses on the cars this year.)
The question of the skills really demanded of the driver is a constant one. Ask most males who have passed their driving test (and many who haven’t) and they’re bound to think they could do the same job no problem (and they’d do it for far less money). They should then watch Richard Hammond’s attempt to start an old Renault F1 car, five minutes into this video:
Admittedly, it’s perhaps not the most conclusive example, but driving one of these cars undoubtedly involves more than just putting the foot down and turning the steering wheel. And at £40,000, these are no ordinary steering wheels. They’re not only expensive, they’re difficult. No matter how realistic any video game tries to be, they cannot replicate carrying out 71 gear changes in one lap round Singapore. There are around 32 controls on the steering wheel, which are used to change the differential settings and torque, adjust the steering angle and engine mix, and activate DRS, amongst others. In 2011 – it has likely increased – more than 200 actions were required per lap, not including the throttle or brakes.
Brains and Brawn
When I mentioned brains and brawn as another necessary combination to succeed in F1, someone asked me, ‘Where are the brains?’ Well, put simply, F1 is the ultimate geek sport: it’s all about engineering. Adrian Newey, recently awarded an OBE, is the current man to beat. His designs have won ten Constructors’ Championships and taken several others down to the wire, more than any other designer in the history of the sport.
Constant technical development aims to make the cars go faster, but it often concerns itself with improving safety. In the sixties and seventies, so many F1 drivers were killed in motorsport that they had a 50-50 chance of dying while racing. Since the tragic death of F1 great Ayrton Senna in 1994, no driver has been killed while racing in Formula 1.
Outside the sport, the technology developed in F1 ends up on road cars, like traction control, and on other, more unexpected, objects – carbon fibre on wheelchairs, for example. There’s more information in this video:
This season has seen a massive change from V8 engines to turbo-charged V6 engines. This is to reduce the environmental impact of the sport, but will also provide valuable information on how to make road cars ‘greener’.
To return to the question of mental agility, when changing the set-up of something as fast as an F1 car, you have to have good reflexes. As you’ll discover in the next video, drivers’ reactions are not necessarily quicker, however, they are able to react using a much smaller proportion of their brain. Probably a good thing, since they need some spare capacity to converse with their engineers in English – for many of the drivers, their second or third language. As a languages student who can find it difficult to speak French or Spanish simply because it’s too early or late in the day, I can only admire people who can think quickly enough in a foreign language to deal with problems at 220mph.
Another misunderstood aspect of Formula 1 is that drivers don’t have to be physically fit. However, when an activity requires you to spend an hour-and-a-half in a 60-degree cockpit, subjected to up to 5G forces (around 20-25 kilos on their neck on each corner), leading to a heart rate of up to 160 or 170, it is literally not for the faint-hearted. It is not uncommon for drivers to lose 3kg of their body weight during races in hotter climates.
More on the physical and mental challenges of driving an F1 car:
Team and Driver
In F1, ‘the first person you have to beat is your team-mate’. And yet, you’re supposed to be on the same side. The two championships – the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ – aggravate this tension, especially in the top teams.
The driver is, ultimately, an employee, and should do as asked by his team. This is regardless of the fact that team orders were banned for a few years. Who can forget the furore from 2010, when Felipe Massa received over his radio the now notorious code: ‘Fernando is faster than you’? They made a ringtone out of it, for crying out loud! However, it’s not only Ferrari that employs these tactics. Near the end of the season, if a team has one driver in the running for the Championship, the other driver will be expected to help his team-mate achieve the best result possible. He might have to sacrifice his own race, even a victory, for the glory of the team because the personal desire to win has to be put behind his duty as a team player.
This inevitably leads to tension between the two drivers within the same team. Feuds between team-mates – Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, even Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – create publicity for the sport, and incidents like the Red Bull crash in Turkey 2010 are revisited shamelessly (here included) to buy into the drama and stir up the rivalry.
When you consider that Webber and Vettel are far from being the most explosive team-mates, you can see how easy it is for driver feuds to hurt the team. This is why it’s so important and difficult to strike the right balance: sometimes it’s necessary to put one driver first for the good of the team, but they have to keep both happy for the same objective.
Strategy vs Luck
Finally, there are many ways to lose a Grand Prix. Sometimes it’s down to poor strategy; other times, Lady Luck just isn’t on someone’s side.
On the side of strategy, there are situations when not fighting for the win might be the best plan. A driver might decide that a safe third place helps them in the long run and in the Championship race, rather than challenging for the win and short-term glory. It’s the Prost versus Senna example again – you have the Professor, carefully counting points, or the man who believes that, ‘If you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver’.
Then there’s the tortoise or the hare choice – two pit stops or three? There are a limited number of tyres available to each driver for each race, and there are two different compounds that must be used: one will go quicker for fewer laps; the other is slightly slower, but will last longer. Be more conservative with your tyres and make fewer stops, or burn them up racing as hard as you can? The number of pit stops is a variable that can make or break a race.
However, chance also plays a role in Formula 1. A tiny wheel nut can fly off and finish a driver’s race (Jenson Button). Engines can spontaneously combust (Nick Heidfeld’s, Hungary 2011). Bad weather is out of everyone’s control, and can delay races (Canada 2011, two-hour gap in the middle of the race). On the other hand, this can allow a young driver with a midfield car to earn pole position and go on to win his first Grand Prix (current four-time champ, Sebastian Vettel). Every single person in the team can do everything they possibly can to win, only for part of the machinery to fail or for their driver to be hit by another car.
Of course, all this is interesting and admirable, but for those not interested in the behind-the-scenes and solely caring about the spectacle, what is there to see?
The drivers can’t get it right all the time, and it can be pretty funny when they make a mistake:
Team radio can be entertaining, particularly if someone has angered Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen:
You can partake in a bit of celebrity-spotting, especially at the Monaco GP. However, my favourite celebrity visitor from 2011 was undoubtedly Rowan Atkinson, for his reaction to Hamilton and Massa getting too close (again)!
Overtaking doesn’t happen often enough these days, but every now and then there’s a moment that has you holding your breath until the cars make it through safely:
Every now and then, a man can start in seventh, go through the pits six times, find himself last, and go on to win the Grand Prix. This was the best race I’ve ever seen – skip to 0:44 for the footage:
Finally, here is a highlights video from one of my favourite recent seasons, 2010, when the final race began with four drivers still able to win the Championship, which was decided at the very end of the GP:
So that’s why I like Formula 1!
For fellow fans of the sport, let’s indulge ourselves with the BBC’s farewell to the V8-engine era:
Unfortunately an updated version of this post requires a new final paragraph – F1’s most successful driver, Michael Schumacher, remains in a coma after a skiing accident at the end of December. Keep fighting, Schumi! This video is a tribute to his incredible career: