A few days ago I had a discussion with a friend who trumpeted the familiar lines so many fans of other sports seem to think: “How can you watch F1, it’s boring to death. I can’t stand it, watching cars going around a circuit for a whole afternoon and in the end it’s always the same driver who wins because he’s got the best car.”
This stance can only be born of ignorance, and I will offer a defence of what is one of the most exciting sports one can watch. First of all, the statement about the same usual winner he made is wrong and revealed his ignorance about Formula 1. This season there were 4 drivers in 3 different cars that could have won the championship in the final race. However, I have to admit that watching a Grand Prix can be perceived as an unexciting couch potato activity if you watch it without knowing or understanding the rules and strategy. But saying that it’s just “watching cars going around a circuit for a whole afternoon” is very simplistic – it’s like saying “football is stupid, it’s just watching people run after a ball.”
F1 race events are organized by the FIA, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. As you will have guessed by the language, this is a championship that is 60 years old, a championship that has given birth to many legendary drivers such as Ayrton Senna or more recently Michael Schumacher.
There are actually two titles to win: the constructors’ championship, and the drivers’ championship. In 2010, twelve constructors battled to be champions. Each constructor is allowed to race two cars disputing the drivers’ championship in a total of 19 races, called Grand Prix. At the end of each Grand Prix, drivers earn points according to the position they finished in the race: the winner earns 25 points, the second 18 points, the third 15 points and so on down to tenth place which earns one point.
The drivers’ champion is determined by the accumulation of points awarded at the end of each Grand Prix according to his ranking; the constructors champion is rewarded in the same fashion, each team accumulating the point scores by its two drivers in each race.
Formula One is an extreme sport. Drivers are highly trained athletes who have to endure harsh and intense physical conditions during a race. The cars they drive can go over 200 mph and the deceleration he experiences if he hits the brake can be compared to a regular car driving through a brick wall at 180 mph! In hairpin bends, an F1 driver has to overcome a potential 5G lateral acceleration that his car will have generated. Knowing that a big rollercoaster would usually not even reach a 3G lateral acceleration, you can imagine how hard it must be to control a car while dealing with a 5G lateral acceleration at the same time.
Drivers do not only need to be in shape, they also need brains. They need to be focused during the whole period as they play with their lives while seated in their potential coffin. They have to take decisions within a tenth of a second, whether to accelerate and overtake or not, whether to hit the brake or not, decisions that cannot only affect the issue of the race, but their lives. Accidents occur quite frequently in the discipline and fortunately they are most of the time more spectacular than tragic.
It is true that not all the cars have the same performance. Some constructors have a more impressive budget than others, and therefore develop better racing cars. Nevertheless, as one could think, it is not always the fastest car that wins the race, the team’s strategy is more important than anything else.
The race does not only takes place on the circuit, but also on the “pit wall”, a sort of trackside headquarters where the team managers communicate with their two drivers and tell them the strategy to adopt and when to stop in the pits to change tires, repair, or make mechanical adjustments. A driver can loose a race in the pits if the crew takes more time than expected.
The weather can also cause havoc as the tires are specialized according to the weather and the temperature. For example, if the weather is uncertain, the team has to make choices that will be crucial.
But it isn’t just the race that is important in F1. The best engineers work for years on developing the best car possible and creating new technologies. Unlike football where most of a club’s budget goes into player’s salaries, teams invest more than 50% of their budgets in engineering that will be useful to the development of better everyday-use cars.
In reality, engine, aerodynamics transmission, wheel, tires and braking systems are essential components that are present in an F1 car as well as in any other car, and the entire car industry will benefit to a certain extent from the research that will have been done for F1.
Formula 1 is the only sport that can combine cutting edge technology that is still reliant on the sheer brilliance and skill of an athlete, and it’s one of the best spectator sports there is.