I’ve read a number of articles over the years on this subject matter – some for and some against the idea. With the inaugural F1 race in Austin upon us, I think its worth looking once again at the issues surrounding an F1 race on an oval circuit.
Could the engines cope?
Interestingly, in some of the older debates on this matter I have just re-read, the technology of the time often had the final say. Gerhard Berger commented on this about 12 years ago when he said that the modern F1 engine could not maintain 100% revs for more than about 20 to 30 seconds.
Yet in 2005, we saw the first of the ongoing engine regulation changes from the FIA to ensure they are more reliable, last longer and reduce costs. 10 years ago – the engines were probably the biggest restrictive factor preventing F1 racing on an oval because hardly any F1 cars would’ve finished the race.
Of course in present times engines have to do 2.5 F1 races and this is set to rise to 4 and 5 races over the next 3 years. Modern F1 engines would be able to cope with the demands of oval racing.
F1 circuits whilst having some camber, do not have the angles of banking found on the Oval tracks. There are 2 issues this raises, the first being G-Forces encountered by the drivers. It has been argued these may be too high for the F1 drivers and cars to withstand.
Having read about this objection about 6 years ago I subsequently had the opportunity to chat with a boffin from the aerospace industry (about something unrelated) but questioned them on this issue. They ran some models, which of course were track dependent, but the results suggested incremental banking related G-Force F1 drivers may experience would be at maximum increase of 20%.
F1 drivers today in the modern cars are experiencing up to 40% more G-Force than when Aytron Senna was alive, so this surely is not a limiting factor.
The second matter of consideration required aligned with the banked corners is over tyres. Tyres used in even the fastest F1 circuits are designed to produce grip in a variety of scenarios, grip under acceleration from a standing start or from slow corners and grip under braking from 200mph down to 50mph together with a programmed degradation effect to force the teams to change tyres.
The requirements from tyres for an oval are enormously different from the demands of an F1 traditional race. We all remember the debacle in 2005 at the F1 race in Indianapolis when following a number of accidents, Michelin realised they could not guarantee the integrity of their tyre in the new banked surface area of the track.
The FIA refused to put in an extra chicane to reduce speeds, so the Michelin cars did the parade lap and pulled into the pits leaving 6 cars only to race.
Tyres would be the biggest issue for F1 cars on a banked circuit and would most likely require 1 off specially designed compound for an Oval race.
F1 has Oval history
Although strictly speaking there has never been a ‘Formula One’ oval race, there have been some similar variants in different locations.
In the post 1950 World Championship era, the Grand Prix circuit that most resembled a conventional US-style oval was the Avus racetrack in Berlin. Avus was a particularly unusual venue as it ran along a freeway, consisting of just two six kilometre long straights joined together by wide banked hairpins. In 1959 it played host to the German Grand Prix and was comfortably the fastest Formula One race ever held at the time.
Avus was not the only Grand Prix circuit in use that shared characteristics with an American oval.
Up until 1961 the Italian Grand Prix at Monza intermittently included the banked corners from circuit’s oval layout. Drivers would complete a full lap of the oval (which was longer than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) before heading back out into the forest along the fast sections of road course. The layout was deemed too dangerous after the 1961 event and the banking fell into disrepair.
Maybe something that is almost an Oval
Although it wasn’t an oval, the famous Reims Gueux circuit in France wasn’t particularly complex. It was essentially just three tight corners joined together by gently curving straights, and one of those corners was bypassed in 1954 to create an even faster section of racetrack. It produced a number of classic F1 races and is fondly remembered as the home of 14 French Grands Prix.
There have been several other particularly simple circuits throughout the history of Formula One, and even some of the modern venues like Monza and Silverstone featured much faster basic layouts in the past.
It’s funny how time changes things. When I was in my 20’s, I had a ‘live fast die young attitude’, being old was for other people and not something I particularly aspired to. In modern times, I hear not just from the younger F1 fans so much talk about safety. In business, I encounter continual ridiculous regulations to prevent extremely unlikely events and the cost of safeguard against these improbably events is massively disproportionate.
Of course Jackie Stewart famously said in his early days of racing in F1, you had a 2 in 3 chance of surviving a season – in other words 1/3rd of F1 drivers were being killed. I’ve never seen the statistics to back this up, but the attrition rate was in fact very high and unacceptable.
Last week we’ve seen that Interlagos, Brazil has paved the grassy area on the outside of the Senna S curves creating a modern tarmac run off area to appease the health and safety brigade who would also have us be forced into enclosed cockpits for F1 if they could have their way.
For F1 to race on ovals, there would of course be some incremental safety considerations, but these need only be relatively small due to the enormous modern advances in impact science already applied to F1 driver cells.
The spectacle – isn’t it just turning left?
If we listen to F1 drivers who have made the transition, we get a flavour of the real challenge of Oval racing.
Mark Blundell, after his first morning test at Phoenix secluded himself away for an hour at lunch time. He reflected, “I had to get away from everyone to really think about this, if I was really cut out for doing this – this is some damned serious stuff. Nothing in F1 prepared me for this.”
At the same circuit, Eddie Cheever when asked how it felt told reporters, “They’re on the radio asking me about the car’s balance – I’m doing Mach 3, 6 inches away from a damned wall! How the hell am I supposed to know what it’s doing ? I’m scared sh!tless !”
Ayrton Senna having driven Fittipaldi’s car on a road course was offered a run at the Phoenix track. He declined, commenting “I’d really have to think about it, and probably watch for another day – just going out cold and running would be a big mistake, a good way to get hurt. It looks like a very serious discipline of its own.”
Cheever again, after his first testing at Indy: “It’s like turning left into a closet. You turn into turn 1 at 240 mph – I couldn’t do it, my right foot wouldn’t obey my mind – it kept backing off the throttle. I finally had to put my left foot on top of my right to keep it there.”
At the same circuit, Piquet reflected: “Nothing in F1 prepares you for this, there isn’t a single turn in F1 anything like this. Damn, that’s fast!”
Mansell having won the F1 title said on his first visit to Indy, “this place demands one thing : RESPECT. There is no room for error, none at all”.
After his incredible duel with Paul Tracy at NHIS (New Hampshire International Speedway) the British champion on his 40th birthday remarked, ” I’ve driven against the best drivers in the world, on the most famous track in the world. This race was definitely among the top 3 I’ve ever been in.”
Here’s the video of that Mansell/Tracey battle – 20 mins long, last 5 mins have all the closing action if you pushed for time. Commentator calls Tracey as the winner…but…..
No better marketing tool for F1
I have to admit, Oval racing is not my favourite motor sport, but it is an incredible sight when the cars are travelling close to flat out most of the time, inches from a concrete wall and wheel to wheel.
Maybe the idea of a simplified old style F1 circuit, ‘modified oval’, or the rectangle as a new purpose built F1 race in the USA is just too big an expense given the potential risk of not attracting Oval racegoers and alienating F1 fans. However, there are clearly plenty of tracks that could host an F1 Oval race to ‘see how things go’.
The fascinating part would be how the teams would cope. They have no knowledge of this style of racing and the database of circuits they build up year on year would be worse than useless. The drivers would need to learn new skills and to appease the F1 purists, the event could be a mandatory event for the teams but one that does not count toward the WDC or WCC championships.
I think though if F1 wishes to market itself properly in the USA, there is absolutely no marketing tool would even come close to promoting F1 to 300m people than by holding a race on an oval. Even the promoters make actually make some money for a change.
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Sources: (Enterf1.com, Wikipedia, F1Fanatic.com, Grnadprix.com As.com, motorsportmagazine.com)