This weekend in Monaco, the world’s most elite drivers racing the world’s most technologically advanced cars will take on a harrowing and unforgiving circuit that winds its way through the narrow streets of Monte Carlo, punishing drivers with limited sight lines, frequent and drastic changes in direction, momentum, and elevation, and a claustrophobic track surrounded on all sides by massive steel guardrails that offer zero runoff room and zero room for error to those who stray from the racing line; it takes just one wrong twitch of a steering wheel to send a driver on a quick shunt into the wall and a long walk back to the paddock.
Meanwhile, this weekend here in the States marks the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, an event commonly referred to as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” albeit a “spectacle” pretty well summed up by 33 drivers going around in circles and turning left 800 times. (Yawn!)
The Formula 1 Grand Prix of Monaco is also the most glamorous event in motorsports, set as it is in a principality that in addition to hosting the world's wealthiest population is descended upon this weekend by a motorsports league boasting a $2 billion annual budget. Thriftier fans will offset the $1,000 ticket price with a modest $2,500/night hotel stay, while the wealthier sailor set will indulge in the weekend's $30,000 (!!!) marina fee. The drivers even have their own informal contest of exorbitant wealth, competing each year to see who can arrive in the largest private yacht; several years back British sensation Jenson Button—never one to be outdone—chartered a decommissioned aircraft carrier to lay claim to the coveted prize.
Extravagance aside, though, Monaco has long been a place where history and heroes are made. Juan Manual Fangio won his very first race here in 1950 before going on to become the winningest F1 driver in history, a record he would hold until 2003. In 1984, in a downpour, a young Brazilian put himself on the F1 map in just his fourth Grand Prix ever: after starting thirteenth on the grid he showed a preternatural instinct for finding grip in even the harshest conditions, passing the great Niki Lauda for second by just the nineteenth lap, before hunting down race leader Alain Prost at a blinding four seconds a lap—very nearly overtaking him before the race was red flagged due to unpermitting conditions. His name was Ayrton Senna, and he and Prost would go on to be the only two winners of Monaco over the next decade, trading victories back and forth in the greatest rivalry F1 has ever seen. Ten years later Senna died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, just a week before a Monaco Grand Prix where Michael Schumacher—the only man to best Juan Fangio's 46-year record—would take the top step on the podium.
Such drama! And that's why it's long been a source of confusion for auto racing fans why Formula 1 never caught on in America, despite boasting the highest sporting audience internationally year after year (only the World Cup and the Olympics—both quadrennial events—beat F1 in viewership). More than half a billion people watch each F1 race, an audience fully five times that of the Super Bowl. Compared to Formula 1, the bloated payrolls of baseball teams look downright miserly: F1 teams have average annual budgets of $175m; one of them exceeds $400m. The highest paid driver nets an annual $42m in salary alone, 50% more than the much-derided $27m handed out each year by the New York Yankees to Alex Rodriguez.
And American readers will rightly be very confused by all of this, because over here we have our very own premier motorsports series—one as ignored by the rest of the world as theirs is here—featuring guys like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, all of whom have become household names thanks to the furious rise in popularity NASCAR has experienced in recent decades. We've even got the Go Daddy Girl! But F1, despite numerous efforts, has just never made inroads with the American audience.
Explanations for this disparity have ranged from the more “spectator friendly” nature of American oval racing (be it the ability to see the entire track; the promise of more “competition” from similar cars running similar speeds on roomy tracks; the frequent yellow flag caution conditions that bunch up the pack and produce more lead changes), to the ruggedly individualistic appeal of NASCAR and its outlaw moonshining heritage, to the populist nature of a sport with comparatively low budgetary and athletic barriers to entry, to the consumeristic aspect of brand identification (“I’m a Dodge man!”, e.g.), to the American’s ingrained democratic opposition to a group of racers generally regarded the world over as royalty.
But for anyone (like me) who has a hard time getting excited about a bunch of dudes driving in circles for a few hours, well, good news! You too can wake up at 7:30 on Sunday morning to watch a Grand Prix! But fair warning: F1 is actually kind of hard to watch? But don’t give up! Because it only gets more rewarding the more you unravel its many (many) intricacies.
* * *
At first glance these vehicles seem so exotic that their only resemblance to an actual car is the four tires protruding from their aerodynamically tapered carbon fiber chassis. Even the season itself is kind of confusing, in which not one but two championships are at stake, one for the “constructors” (the people who build the cars), and another for the drivers (the people who, er, drive them). Then there’s the teams! Even the team names are tough to wrap your head around: don’t confuse Vodafone McLaren Mercedes with Mercedes GP Petronas F1!
But by far the most confusing thing for the entry-level F1 fan (though ultimately the most rewarding) is the jaw-dropping levels of technology powering these cars. Compared to the oval racing we're familiar with here at home—where strict "stocks" exist to keep the cars running at more or less similar specifications ("spectator friendly," remember)—the "formula" which governs engine and chassis design in F1 encourages feverish innovation and technological advances. And perhaps the most important of these when it comes to understanding modern F1 came at the hand of a British car designer named Colin Chapman.
Chapman’s first great achievement was the introduction of a rear-engine car in the 50s that offered drivers superior weight distribution to the traditional front-engine alternative (an advance at which the great Enzo Ferrari famously scoffed “But a horse does not push a cart!”), though his real coup came years later right here at the Monaco Grand Prix of 1968 with a car called the Lotus 49B.
The 49B was the product of decades of research in automotive aerodynamics, research that culminated in the realization that drivers could turn a faster lap if they sacrificed top speeds on the straightaways for higher speeds through a track's many corners. They accomplished this compromise with something called downforce, in which a car's own speed was harnessed—in combination with clever aerodynamics—to literally press the tires down to the track with greater force than gravity alone could provide (a modern F1 car generates twice its weight in downforce; it could actually drive upside-down!). While top-line speeds may indeed have slowed, these cars offered increased traction which in turn increased cornering speeds which ultimately decreased overall lap times. The 49B was the first of its kind to sport the front and rear wings that are now the defining visual characteristics of today's exotic F1 cars, featuring front fins and a massive rear spoiler that effectively turned the car into an airplane: when a driver is at speed the wings generate lift, just like on an airplane, only Chapman inverted that lift, sticking the car to the track and sending Graham Hill flying through Monte Carlo's many corners to an easy victory in 1968.
And that’s what makes F1’s biggest difference from domestic oval racing so exciting: these cars turn right! (And also left!) But what’s more thrilling is that they do it a lot, and they do it really, really fast.
So fast, in fact, that drivers must be in top physical condition to withstand the battering they undergo in these cars: lap after lap a driver experiences g-forces comparable to an astronaut during launch (seriously!). Perhaps the best example of this comes at the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul, where drivers encounter the legendary quadruple-apex Turn 8 (translation: in racing, a driver will brake on his or her approach to a turn, swing wide before entering, then aim the nose towards the innermost spot in the turn before slamming down the accelerator and motoring out towards the wide side to make the fastest possible exit; that tight spot on the inside of a turn is the apex). Turkey’s Turn 8 is 600m long and drivers take it at 160mph, pulling 5.2 lateral gs for 8.5 seconds, all the while getting hammered by back-and-forth by positive and negative vertical g-forces as the car bounces over the turn’s bumpy washboard section before being promptly sucked back down on the track by the car’s downforce (compare: astronauts max out at around 3gs during launch). And F1 drivers do this 58 times a race, all while maintaining the necessary concentration to pilot the most advanced pieces of machinery on the road.
* * *
It’s the turns that explain the allure of Monaco, a circuit that takes all of F1’s high speeds and daunting corners and stuffs them inside two narrow steel barriers (it’s been said that racing at Monaco is like trying to conduct a symphony orchestra while having a knife fight in a phone booth).
An interview this week with the Mercedes team (the Petronas one, not the McLaren one) offered an illuminating glimpse at just what Monaco demands of a driver: throughout the course of a lap's nineteen turns (twelve right, seven left, one criminally tight hairpin), drivers will make 130 steering adjustments, 55 gear changes, and about 20 knob twists and button presses on their ornate, futuristic steering wheels to manage things like K.E.R.S. (the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a battery-charged power cell not dissimilar to hybrid technology that offers a temporary 80hp boost at the push of a button—just like a video game!) and D.R.S. (the Drag Reduction System, which allows drivers to lay the rear spoiler out flat and momentarily reduce downforce to increase straight line speeds). This means that over the course of a single one-minute and eighteen-second lap a driver makes over two hundred inputs on his car—and this doesn't even count his work on the two pedals!
* * *
Tom Wolfe famously broke into journalism with a 1965 Esquire article on Junior Johnson, the last of the great bootleggers to race in the NASCAR series. He said this when comparing the various motorsports of the day:
The speeds [of NASCAR] are faster than those in the Indianapolis 500 race, the cars are more powerful and much heavier, and the drivers have more courage, more daring, more ruthlessness than Indianapolis or Grand Prix drivers. The prize money in Southern stock-car racing is far greater than that in Indianapolis-style or European Grand Prix racing, but few Indianapolis or Grand Prix drivers have the raw nerve required to succeed at it.
Wolfe was fantastically wrong, of course, but such is the state of affairs in the transatlantic motorsports divide: Europeans call NASCAR “hillbilly wrestling on wheels,” while NASCAR enthusiasts say things as comically off the mark as Wolfe’s words here. Because when it comes to courage and raw nerve, one need look no farther than Niki Lauda, a man who burned alive inside his Ferrari at the 1976 German Grand Prix before being removed at the last minute by fellow drivers coming to is aid; he promptly fell into a coma and suffered severe burns on his head in addition to permanent damage to his respiratory and circulatory systems from the toxic gases he inhaled during the inferno.
Lauda was back on the track six weeks later. “Fear is something you have to live with,” he said.Matt Langer will join you Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time in watching the Speed Network, and hopes to see you next year when F1 returns to the U.S. for the inaugural Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, TX.
See more posts by Matt Langer