Formula One: Of More than Passing Interest Globally

(Another in a series of occasional attempts to explain narratives around a secondary sport or other non-financial topic)

The Formula One motor car racing circuit, a.k.a. F1, has long been massively popular throughout Europe and much of Asia and South America. Given that its prominence globally has exploded in recent years, an F1 race may soon be coming to a US city near you.

Let’s take a look at how F1 fits into the auto racing constellation alongside the IndyCar and NASCAR circuits traditionally most closely followed in the States.

Some Initial Context: Open Wheel vs. Stock Car Racing

Big time motor car racing can be divided along the lines of “stock car” and “open wheel” competitions.

Stock car racing has traditionally dominated the US scene and is most notably represented by NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing). As “stock” suggests, the origins of the circuit are in competitions between mass-manufactured, production model vehicles. However, today’s NASCAR entries no longer roll off the factory floor but are instead custom built for racing.

Open wheel racing, in which the wheels are outside of the body of the car, is represented in the US primarily by the IndyCar circuit. Internationally, F1 is the dominant open wheel player, and recent seasons have seen one or more F1 events held in the US as the tour expands its reach.

The significance of open wheel construction is that it allows for a lighter and more aerodynamic car. In addition, it essentially eliminates the advisability of “trading paint” with competitors in tight spaces a la stock car racing.

Open Wheel Competitors: F1 vs. IndyCar Racing

Two of the most significant distinctions between the two open wheel circuits are related to courses and customization.

With respect to courses – Today’s IndyCar circuit has its origins in competitions held on oval courses with banked turns that facilitate speed in cornering. The leading example is of course the Indy 500 held on the Indianapolis Speedway, from which the circuit’s name is derived. As US open wheel racing evolved under various governing bodies, races increasingly featured road courses (which have been designed from scratch and feature irregular turns) and street courses (which also feature irregular turns but leverage pre-existing city street layouts).

By contrast, F1 began as a street circuit (think Monaco) and all F1 events are still held on either road or street courses, putting a premium on maneuverability as well as speed.

The oval courses that continue to be featured in several IndyCar races each season enable significantly higher top speeds approaching 240 MPH as there is no need to slow down going into, e.g., an S curve (“chicane” in the parlance) or hairpin turn – with a concomitant increase in danger to IndyCar drivers.

(Parenthetically, NASCAR races are primarily conducted on oval tracks, but also utilize road courses and, more recently, street courses).

As for the cars – Largely as a consequence of the circuit’s street course origins and absence of oval tracks to this day, F1 cars are more highly customized than Indy cars. Teams such as Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari expend enormous resources researching, testing and fine-tuning elements of their cars’ aerodynamic profiles and suspensions, among other variables, as they seek to optimize the tradeoff between top speed on straightaways and maneuverability in turns. In doing so, teams operate within financial and technical safety constraints dictated by F1’s governing body.

Another difference between the circuits is that F1 has banned refueling during races since 2009 on the grounds of improving safety, thereby increasing the focus on fuel management as part of car design and race strategy.

F1 Race Format and Qualifying

Each F1 race features ten teams of two cars and accompanying drivers. Competitions unfold over the course of two days. Typically, on the day before each race, all 20 drivers compete for placement on the race-day starting grid (10 rows of 2) by posting qualifying lap times in three stages. After the first stage (“Q1”), the five slowest drivers are assigned to the back of the grid based on their respective times. The remaining 15 drivers compete in Q2, with the five slowest drivers assigned positions 11-15. Finally, Q3 sorts the 10 fastest drivers.

Being toward the front on the race-day grid can provide a substantial advantage, as passing is challenging on some tracks. In addition, being higher up on the grid reduces the likelihood of being caught in an early pile up as closely packed drivers jockey for position at the start of the race.

Tire Management: A Crucial Element of Race Strategy

While a bit arcane, perhaps no element of F1 race day strategy is more important than tire management. This is because it is not possible to be competitive while running a race on a single set of tires, due to tire wear (“degradation” in the F1 argot).

Drivers generally choose between three types of tires: soft tires which provide greater speed but wear more quickly, hard tires which are less grippy (and hence slower) but last longer, and medium tires which provide a compromise between speed and durability. Drivers generally begin a race targeting either one or two tire changes. In choosing, each team assesses the tradeoff between time lost spent in the pit via an extra change versus the time gained by driving on fresher or softer tires. They then choose a starting tire accordingly (harder tires being more amenable to a one-stop approach).

Frequently, the initial tire strategy is adjusted during the race. For instance, a late-race accident that leads to a temporary halt in competitive racing may provide a driver the opportunity to make an additional, unplanned switch to faster soft tires without losing meaningful ground.

Drag Reduction System

Since 2011, an important element of F1 racing has been the ability of drivers to deploy the drag reduction system (DRS) incorporated in each car.

By way of explanation – F1 cars are designed with aerodynamics that deploy tremendous downforce to compensate for the light weight of the vehicles and help maintain traction at speed. The rear wing of each car is integral to the downforce equation. Since the introduction of DRS, the rear wing incorporates a flap which generally lies flush to the wing, but when raised by the driver creates an opening which increases the car’s top speed at the expense of downforce and traction. Each F1 track incorporates between one and three “DRS zones” – extended straightaways on which a trailing driver within one second of the car in front of him is permitted to raise the wing flap and gain a speed advantage.

While criticized by some traditionalists as gimmicky, DRS was introduced in response to a desire to see more passing and wheel-to-wheel competition during races given the difficulty of passing on some tracks.

F1 Scoring: The Constructor and Driver Titles

There are two concurrent competitions that play out over the course of each F1 season: The Constructors’ Championship and the Drivers’ Championship.

The drivers’ title is an individual award determined by total points awarded over the course of a season’s 20-plus races based on race finish order as follows:

  1. 25 points
  2. 18
  3. 15
  4. 12
  5. 10
  6. 8
  7. 6
  8. 4
  9. 2
  10. 1

In addition, the driver among the top 10 finishers posting the fastest lap during each race is awarded a single bonus point.

The constructors’ title is a team award meant to recognize accomplishment in car design and construction. Placement is determined by simply adding together the points posted by both drivers for each team over the course of the season.

In recent years, Red Bull and its lead driver Max Verstappen have dominated both the constructor and driver competitions, following several years of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton topping the field.

Thank you for reading! I hope this – admittedly very high level- breakdown of F1 proved informative.

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