With just a few days before the first race of the season kicks off in Melbourne I felt compelled to describe my new-found obsession with Formula 1 racing.
It all started off innocently enough last summer when a friend casually mentioned that he had started watching Formula 1. I admitted that I knew next to nothing about it, but always felt like if someone jump-started my knowledge I could "get into it". Two beers and ninety minutes later I had a good working knowledge for watching my first race the following day: The British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
I didn't know who any of the drivers were. I didn't yet understand the economic classes of haves and have-nots amongst the teams. The announcers were all completely anonymous. And yet there I sat for two hours watching a sport I had never watched before and I found myself absolutely entranced.
It turned out to be a pretty good race to watch too. It turned out to be the second act of the engrossing Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg story that unfolded throughout the season (more on this in a bit). Lewis redeemed his mid-season stumbles at his home Grand Prix which was enough drama for me to recognize that it was more than a bunch of guys going around in a circle in fast cars. From that point I was hooked.
Me writing to convince someone to watch Formula 1 is a bit like writing an essay on why you should like a particular musical artist. At the end of the day you'll either enjoy what they do or you won't. No amount of reasoning can get around that fundamental fact.
I don't need you to be a Formula 1 fan either. I don't get a commission for signing people up. Your fandom (or lack thereof) doesn't impact my enjoyment of the sport. But here in the good ol' U.S. of A., there is a very thick cloud of politics and culture that many of us have to penetrate before we can even see the sport for what it is.
In the US, NASCAR dominates motor-sport in terms of media coverage and popularity. NASCAR is also a decidedly red-state kind of sport, meaning that do-gooder lefties like me are culturally and politically disinclined to even consider paying attention to it. Because NASCAR is the 800 lb. gorilla here, all other motorsports are relegated to fringe status, including Formula 1. Like soccer (football), Formula 1 is immensely popular everywhere else but in the United States.
So right from the get-go, it's tough for your average provincially-minded American to make the extra effort to look beyond our own vast sporting and geographical borders. But as a lefty do-gooder living in the Pacific Northwest there is an inherent appeal to European sport. Just like our enjoyment of Swedish modern-design, we like our European sport because it feels more enlightened and civilized (which it really isn't). I'm not by any means a huge soccer fan, but the presence of the Sounders makes me inclined to watch more soccer than I would otherwise.
Formula 1 allows me to indulge many of the same ugly biases. I'm not necessarily proud of this fact, but it's a part of American blue-state mentality. Unlike those dumb hicks in NASCAR who only turn left, F1 races on demanding street and track courses requiring immense driving skill.
I'll have another espresso Giovanni, per favore.
I would argue that most motorsport has a lot of visual appeal, but to me F1 takes the cake. Like all motorsports, the economics of F1 rely heavily on corporate sponsorship which dictates what the cars look like. Whereas NASCAR cars look like a sticker factory vomited on a Chevy, F1 seems to have more consideration for the visual design of the cars.
Even better, F1 fans actually care what the cars look like. Each season when teams reveal their drivers and cars, much ink is spilled on the livery of the cars. At early-season testing the much-ballyhooed reunion of McLaren and Honda resulted in a decidedly boring change in livery (a red stripe? Ooh, don't go crazy). In contrast, early-season testing for the Red Bull team revealed a wacky black-and-white "camouflage" look that had race fans pressing for it as the team's new look.
What's great is that F1 fans care quite deeply about this. There is as much talk about the the visual appeal of the cars as there is about the racing.
Beyond just the color-scheme, the overall design of the cars simply looks fantastic. Unlike other sports where the type of car is strictly dictated, F1 designers ("constructors" in F1-speak) have the freedom to explore different designs. This has allowed F1 to push the boundaries of high-end racing design from an engine-only focus to increasing attention on aerodynamics. These cars are like pieces of art couple with extraordinary engineering. To me, they are simply stunning to look at.
The look of the cars is just part of the package. They still have to be competitive and that requires a lot of engineering. Any intersection of art and science is fascinating to me, but particularly when it's something as visceral as Formula 1 cars.
The shine of computer technology has started to fade for me and there isn't much in that arena that gets me too excited these days. But deep inside there is still a tech-nerd that likes geeking out on the engineering side of things. Formula 1 is a perfect fit. I can spend hours reading about engine design tweaks, aerodynamics, suspension and all the rest.
Formula 1 cars are incredibly dynamic systems. The body shape is dictated as much by weight, stability and heat management as it is by aerodynamics. This effects how the engine is designed, to say nothing of how the suspension will work. You can't simply put the fastest engine in any old chassis and expect the car to be competitive.
This becomes even trickier when you consider the styles of the individual drivers. Last season saw a change to new V6 hybrid engines. Some drivers (Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Ricciardo) took really well to these complicated machines. Others (like four-time world champ Sebastian Vettel) seemed to really struggle with them. The infinite number of tweaks and design approaches to producing the most competitive car is simply fascinating.
This video on the design of the 2014 world-beating Mercedes hybrid turbo design should give you an inkling of the level of complexity in F1 design:
I love that this sport travels all over the globe. I love maps and geography and it's fun to take a little trip each race weekend to some exciting new place (even if it's only on TV for me). Every race is practically another weekend on the set of a James Bond film: Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, Italy, Singapore, the list goes on and on.
The climate of each location has an effect on how the cars perform. The dynamics of the cars are further complicated by where they are raced. Racing on a new track surface? The tires are going to wear differently which will affect the number of pit stops you have to make as well as fuel-consumption. Racing at higher altitudes, the engines will respond differently when those turbos have less-dense air to ram into the cylinders.
The look of the cars is one thing. But when they're set against the backdrop of locales all over the world, the result can be simply stunning.
Formula 1 is an old enough sport that certain personalities and grudge-matches set the overall tone of each season. For fair-minded Americans it seems completely insane that the supposed governing body of the sport (the FIA) simply rubber-stamps the decisions of the all-powerful Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights-holder for the sport.
The sport is also a fascinating study in economics. At the top are a handful of teams that make incredible amounts of money, the middle-tier teams which struggle to break even and an ever-changing cast of characters at the back of the pack. Not only are the top teams typically boosted by the biggest sponsors but some get special economic consideration. For example Ferrari's long-running association with the sport guarantees them a significant chunk of cash regardless of their performance on-track (which has been woeful the past few years).
The politics in this sport cannot be adequately described by the term Byzantine. Back room deals between every party, many of them secret, make for an impenetrable web of allegiances. From the outside this looks completely insane. But to watch it as a form of drama is utterly fascinating. Forget Game of Thrones or House of Cards, I'd rather be a fly on the wall in the competition committee meetings. That's some real back-stabbing.
Even more interesting are the team dynamics. Each team typically fields two drivers per race. They are teammates in the sense that they race for the same team, but they are also competitors. In many cases a team has a clearly-established leader and any drama between them is unusual.
But some years both drivers are incredibly competitive which only heightens the drama since they ostensibly drive for the same team. While the Mercedes/AMG team blew the doors off of the competition with little difficulty this season, the battle between its two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, was fantastic to watch all season. It reminded many longtime observers of the bitter Prost-Senna rivalry of late eighties.
Here were two guys that had been friends since their early carting days. But on the high-stakes world stage of the F1 championship, drama seemed to unfold after every race and as the drama built we watched their camaraderie crumble before us. When the dust finally settled and Lewis took the championship we all loved seeing Nico be the first to walk up and earnestly congratulate him. You can't write a script that good.
F1 also gets the benefit of a limited number of competitions. The race calendar typically spans about seven month with a total of about twenty races. Like American football this gives the season a comforting weekly cadence. Practice rounds are on Friday, qualifying is on Saturday, the race is on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday you talk about what happened on Sunday. Wednesday through Thursday you start talking about what's going to happen in the following race. Unlike baseball's 162-game season, F1 has a very manageable amount of watching.
The cast of characters is also relatively small. There are typically 18-22 drivers in the field. It doesn't take too many races to know who they are and where their relative skill-levels are. After a few interviews (or appearances on Top Gear) you start to get a feel for their public personas and it's hard not to develop an affinity for certain drivers.
I love history. I never get tired of reading about it. It's why I read very little fiction. I seem to find stories of what really happened more compelling than any author's imagination and F1 is a sport with a long history.
I love that they are racing now at tracks that were first raced on over fifty years ago. There's a continuity of history that lets you draw lines through the stories over the years despite the massive changes in technology. The cars that Jackie Stewart raced are very different from what Ayrton Senna raced or what Daniel Ricciardo is in now. But there are enough threads to tie all of them together into one cohesive narrative.
If you're at all interested two films worth watching are Senna and Rush. The former is a wonderful documentary about the legendary Brazilian racer whose death in 1994 brought a sea-change to the sport. The latter is Ron Howard's fantastic re-telling of the classic battle between Nikki Lauda and James Hunt in 1976. Even if you don't particularly like racing, both are excellent stories told well.
As an American sports fan I have teams that I root for. The psychology behind team fandom has always struck me as a bit tenuous and illogical. And yet there I am in my team-jersey of choice hoping that my day isn't ruined by the outcome of a game on television. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, being a "fan" of a team is ultimately about rooting for different uniforms.
What I love about watching sports is how the stories unfold. With American football or baseball, I have teams I root for. This makes it difficult to watch the championships when my teams don't get there. It's even more heartbreaking when they do get there and lose (Seahawks, Ducks).
While I enjoy watching sports, I intensely dislike rivalries. A rivalry between competitors on the field is one thing—that's just good drama. But a rivalry between fans strike me as the worst sort of tribalistic tendencies of humanity.
But Formula 1 is different for me. I may be naturally drawn to particular drivers or cars, but my day isn't ruined by who wins or loses. I can enjoy watching any race without the specter of disappointment lurking in the background. As a sports-fan whose teams have often been lousy to mediocre watching this kind of action is incredibly liberating.
I may not convince anyone to tune into a race after reading this. I don't need to. I've given you all of the verbal, logical explanations of why I find this sport fascinating. Those are all true. But there is also an intangible, inexplicable quality to it that grabs me. I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps the fact that, in my forties, I can still discover something new that is this engaging is what I like most about it.