You could almost feel Daniel Ricciardo’s trademark grin through his helmet. His race engineer had just told them that he could catch and pass race leader Nico Rosberg with four laps to go. Ricciardo had been trailing Rosberg by a handful of seconds for laps and wasn’t getting anywhere. Then his engineer called a sudden, surprise pit stop with just 12 laps left. The Australian got a fresh set of weaponized supersoft tires and proceeded to carve thick slices off of Rosberg’s ensuing lead, sometimes at the wild rate of three seconds per lap. Then, in the final lap, Ricciardo hit traffic. Forced to negotiate around a pair of lapped cars, entrenched in a battle of their own, he lost time, and finished the race .4 seconds behind Rosberg. Another lap and he would have taken the top step, giving him a 3rd-2nd-1st sequence in three consecutive years at Singapore.
I was sweating. My heart rammed around in my chest like a roid raging guinea pig stuck in a Tupperware. My roommates had noticed my heavy breathing as I sat with my laptop and headphones. It wasn’t just the caffeine overdose I’d needed to keep me awake on a Sunday night after a long weekend. It wasn’t that Ricciardo’s sportsmanship and patient skill had ranked him as my favorite driver. Or that he’d been fencing with Rosberg’s and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team all season. Or that anyone was about to finally beat Mercedes fair and square. It was just bloody good racing, and I was riding a wave of fizz.
But when I talk to other gearheads about Formula One, the most advanced and expensive motorsport in the world, they call it boring. They just can’t get into it. Not really their cup of tea. I felt the same way when I started watching F1, but I’m sure glad I got over it.
To the F1-watching novice, he or she who has watched a couple of races in full and fought sleep on a Sunday afternoon, there are two main contributors to the boredom. Overregulation and a lack of overtaking.
Usually, when someone cites overregulation as an issue in F1, two cars come charging out of their mouths at full throttle: the bonkers, six-wheeled Tyrrell P34, which raced with mixed success in 1976 and ’77; and the Brabham BT46 “Fancar,” which was so fast, thanks to its massive, downforce-enhancing suction fan, that it was banned after a single race the following year.
Who wouldn’t want to see a track full of suck mad and maniacal wacky racers? I definitely would. Currently, the only way to tell one F1 car from another is its livery. F1 cars are technically regulated by reams of specifications, which also drive up development costs. But not all innovation has been outlawed.
In 2014, the Mercedes F1 team started winning like mad. We soon learned that they had a technological edge over the other teams. New regulations had mandated a turbo V6 engine for every car. The size of the turbo was regulated, but not the location. Mercedes designed theirs as a two-piece system. The compressor, where cold air entered and was shoved into the engine, sat at the cool front end of the engine, while the exhaust fan, which powers the compressor, sat at the back. They were connected by a drive shaft. So while every other team used the traditional turbo setup, with a compressor and hot exhaust fan right next to each other, Mercedes cars compress cooler air. Cooler air is denser, and the denser the air headed into the engine, the more horsepower it can make.
Mercedes saw a gap in the regulations and drove it to two world championships. Barring any drastic changes, they’ll win this year, too. Yet many of those who complain about regulation also complain about the team’s boring dominance. Maybe deregulation isn’t the best idea for more exciting racing.
But overtakes always make racing more exciting. Creative passes in interesting places, faking out the driver ahead, outbreaking. These duels are what racing is all about. But there are comparatively few of them in F1, while rallycross, NASCAR, and sprint car racing often see many every lap. Most of this comes down to strategy. F1 is a world of very thin margins. How long will the tires last? How much fuel can we spend? Will we ruin the brakes if we hit them a little later at the end of this straight?
Rosberg, for example, had been managing his brake health all race on Sunday. Onboard sensors had alerted his pit wall engineers to the issue, and they’d instructed him to dial them back. One of the reasons Ricciardo didn’t pass him with the predicted four laps left was that Rosberg cranked the brakes back up, meaning that he could get more speed out of every lap. The cars have the performance to make the passes, but can they spend the resources? Does a push for position make sense now, or will it be too expensive?
Yet this isn’t a new problem. People have been calling for more overtakes for years. And for several years now, F1 has been using technological tricks to help make it happen. First it was a simple electric motor boost. Now they have DRS, the Drag Reduction System. In certain zones of the track, if the chasing car is within one second of the car ahead, the driver can mash a button, opening a flap in the rear wing. The car needs that wing’s downforce, but only in the corners. In the straight DRS zones, it only creates drag. Opening it gives the driver around 15 extra mph over his opponent.
This encourages more overtakes, but has been extremely controversial, as the passed driver cannot activate his own DRS until the next DRS zone, and by then the car that passed him is usually more than the required second ahead. And the passing driver can leave his wing open for the whole length of the DRS zone, which means that the passee will have a much harder time battling to take the position back.
I’m not the biggest fan of DRS. It has probably cut down on accidents, but the wheel-to-wheel battles are tougher to come across. Yet I will say that it highlights a driver’s skill in defense. Before DRS, the driver had to “make the car as wide as possible,” using his place on the track to try to prevent the pass. Now that job is even harder, and when he pulls it off, it’s even more impressive. DRS is annoying, but doesn’t make the sport boring.
That’s because F1 is chess at 200 mph. It’s all about strategy. Not just with pit stops. Zoom out a bit. Tires are chosen over the entire weekend: Practice, Qualifying, Race. Each team is only afforded so many tires, and must place them accordingly on the schedule. Zoom out further. An F1 car is only allowed to carry so many engines per season without being penalized. If your engine is weak, you can’t afford to push it to failure in any given race, so you might lose a few points in that race, going slower. But you’ll earn more points in the long run by finishing more races. Red Bull famously suffered in this area last season, blowing up their crappy Renault engines left and right. McLaren’s Honda engines face a similar fate this year. Zoom out further still. Lose too many points and you may begin to lose your sponsorship. Then you’re not racing at all. The last is true of any type of racing, but since F1 cars cost more than most small cities, sponsorship is doubly important. Each year we see another team go under or change ownership due to lack of green.
Now zoom back in. Let’s talk about the “undercut.” DRS isn’t the only way to pass someone in F1. You could just pass them when they’re in for a pit stop. This is what Ricciardo attempted above. He was close to Rosberg, so he drove into the pits. This seems counterintuitive, since a pit would cost him about 24 seconds. But with fresher tires on, he would be faster per lap than Rosberg.
Now Rosberg’s race engineer had a choice to make. They could bring him in on the next lap for fresh tires of his own. But since Ricciardo was that much faster during that lap, he would likely pass Rosberg while the Mercedes was still in the pits. This is called the undercut, and you’ll see it in every race.
Ultimately, Rosberg’s people made the right decision, leaving him out and forcing Ricciardo to deal with the extra seconds he accrued in pit lane, though Rosberg’s tires were shot by the end of the race. But if Ricciardo wouldn’t have hit that traffic? Who knows?
It’s likely that the Mercedes team was reading that projected traffic, as well. They read everything. Race engineering teams watch broadcasts, watch traffic, watch weather. They watch the pit crews of the other teams. If Ricciardo is going for the undercut, they want to know quick, so they can pull Rosberg in on the same lap, eliminating the advantage. It’s not at all uncommon to see a pit crew bluff, pulling tires out of their warmers and staging up in their box, even if the driver isn’t coming in.
By now, you should have a good idea that F1, like most other types of racing, is a team sport. Not just because each team has two cars and two drivers (with another driver or two held in reserve). Every team is made up of race engineers, mathematically gifted strategists, ninja-fast pit crews, tireless mechanics, all the way back to designers, mechanical engineers, team owners, financiers, and more. The driver gets all the press, and certainly must be talented, but without the best team, the best driver rarely succeeds. The driver is like the wide receiver, while the race engineer could be compared to the quarterback, and so on. The coordinated effort makes it that much more exciting to me.
And then there are the variables. At some point, I firmly decided that the more variables involved, the more exciting the race. I thought that this made rally the most exciting type of racing, and it may be. After all, rallyists might race on gravel, tarmac, snow, or water. They have to face every season, every time of day, and obstructions on the track, sometimes including moronic fans diving in for a picture.
But the more F1 I watch, the more I realize how many variables there are. Or how they compound. At Sunday’s race, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had a painfully slow start. Bad news for Max. Worse news for the drivers behind him, who either had to slow down or dodge around him. As a result of the shuffle, Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg collided with Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz, then careened into the wall, crashing out of the race and forcing a safety car while the wreck was cleaned up.
As the wreck occurred on the pit straight, each car came through pit lane instead of down the straight. So everyone stopped for fresh tires. Why not? But this immediately changed everyone’s tire strategies. F1 cars are required to use at least two different types of tires throughout the race, including the “prime” tire, which everyone is required to use at least once. Teams who opted to start with the prime tire could now switch to another and run the rest of the race with a completely different strategy.
These are variables, and each driver on the track brings a billion more. Coded messages, engine failures, body damage, secret strategies. The action is there. You just have to know where to look.
But how do you get there? Can you acquire the taste, like coffee or booze? Yes, but I have a few tips that could speed the process. No pun intended.
First, watch every race. F1 is much better watched as a whole season. Each track is different and presents its own challenges. And most races are two or more weeks apart, so you won’t want to miss one. Watching every race will help you begin to understand the lingo, too.
Second, watch the battles that aren’t out front. It’s true that the lead doesn’t change hands very often throughout the course of an F1 race. But battles happen all throughout the track, and a duel for 10th can be just as exciting as one for the lead. And since the top ten positions are all good for championship points, every battle matters.
Third, and this could get me in trouble, try to find the British Sky F1 coverage. I won’t tell you how, but until the still admirable NBCSN coverage comes without commercials, Sky is your best bet. Commentary from Martin Brundle and Charlie Croft is spot on, too. And watch a little of the post-race coverage, too. Watch the drivers in the cooldown room, watch them on the podium.
When you see them congratulate each other, celebrate, spray Champagne, hoist their trophies, hug their teammates, it’s hard to imagine that just moments before, they were pushing the boundaries of human technological achievement, rocketing down a straight at 220 mph, their heartrates reaching 170 bpm or more. For two hours. Yours wasn’t beating that fast, but you felt as if it was. Because F1 is far from boring.
This post originally appeared on StreetsideAuto.com, but it decided to expand its horizons.