In the last few years, I’ve started watching Formula One. I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic, but I do try and watch all the qualifying sessions and races on TV, and I find it a fascinating sport to follow. There are a number of people who claim that F1 is boring. I think what they mean when they say this is that there isn’t as much “wheel-to-wheel” action as there is in other types of motorsport, and that it’s not as exciting as other sports they might prefer watching, such as football or tennis. And they’re right. F1 races can become a bit of a procession sometimes, with the fastest car at the front all race and not much overtaking. (The recent Bahrain Grand Prix was a bit of an exception, with the lead changing hands several times, although no-one really doubted that it would be one of the Mercedes cars crossing the finish line first.)
The key to enjoying F1 is to realise that it’s not really a sport. It’s actually a global engineering competition, disguised as a sport.
Several well-funded teams compete to hire the best designers and engineers, and produce cars which will go very fast around particular tracks, while conforming to some very stringent technical regulations. The stakes are high. The competition is fierce. They must develop a fast car for the start of the season, and continue to develop new parts and improvements to their car throughout the year to try and beat their competitors. While the regulations stipulate much of the car’s design, there is a lot of scope for teams to gain an advantage, sometimes through creative interpretations of what the regulations allow and by exploiting loopholes in those regulations. Red Bull have dominated the last few seasons largely down to their aerodynamic advantage, and it’s superior engineering under the new regulations that has allowed Mercedes to start the 2014 season so well.
As followers of the sport, we don’t actually get to see much of what goes on behind the scenes in a Formula One team. This is a bit of a shame, but the fact that the teams keep their technical secrets so well guarded is a sign of how seriously they take the competition, and how important each team’s technical innovations are to their results. Often you see a driver taking a long look at an opponent’s car when they are stopped at the end of a race, to try to glean any information they can about that car’s design and aerodynamic advantage. (Incidentally, I think it’s a shame that the BBC no longer have Gary Anderson as their technical analyst this season. He provided a lot of insight into the technical aspects of the cars that is missing from the TV coverage this season.)
Of course, it’s not solely down to the engineering. Races are determined by driver skill, as well as by the tactical decisions made by the team during the race weekend. Luck plays a part too, such as when a sound strategy is ruined by the appearance of the safety car. A dominant car can lose a race through driver error, through the wrong tyre choice, or at a bad pit stop. Teams have to make split-second tactical choices during a race that can determine their success or failure. There are exciting races in F1, with closely matched cars racing against each other on track.
But while there are exciting races, and tactical decisions can play a major role in the result of an individual race, it’s the long term playing out of the engineering competition over the season (and even over multiple seasons) which makes F1 such a fascinating sport to follow.