Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

An American's guide to Formula One - Explaining the pinnacle of motorsport for a new set of fans

Published by Christopher Wheelahan

Ok, we all know that NASCAR is the largest spectator sport in the US. So what exactly is Formula 1? You know Indycar? That thing they occasionally show on Versus late at night or in the middle of a Sunday afternoon? F1 cars look a lot like those, which is to say they are open wheel and rely almost entirely on aerodynamic downforce for grip (i.e. they have big wings in the front and back to force them onto the road).

The big difference is that F1 cars race on road and street circuits and never on ovals. Because of this, they have more downforce and are much faster through corners than Indycars, but they never quite get up to 212-215mph because the aforementioned downforce prevents them from going quite that fast. It’s actually quicker around a lap for the cars to be faster in the corners than to have that extra few MPH on the straights. Don’t worry though. They’re plenty fast enough. They’ll hit 200mph on some of the faster circuits.

Plenty fast enough
Plenty fast enoughCredit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

So now we know what Formula 1 cars look like and what they’re good at, now why should you care? Starting next year, the United States is getting itself a Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas. We’ll also be getting another race in New York/New Jersey in 2013. If that isn’t reason enough for you, it looks like Bernie Ecclestone, the guy who runs the F1 circus, is gunning for a TV deal in the US since TV deals are where the money is made.

It would be better for everyone if ABC bought the broadcasting rights

We don’t have a good one yet because the majority of the races are in Europe and Asia and generally do not agree with the sleep cycle of normal people. Canada and Brazil already hold races in our time zones and there are rumors of a Mexican and a third US race so we should have enough events to watch at reasonable hours that a good TV contract can’t be far behind. Common sense says that Fox will buy up these broadcasting rights and expand their network coverage for these few races then continue to show the away races on Speed. It would be better for everyone if ABC bought the broadcasting rights. Because they have an entire portfolio of sports-related cable channels, they could show practice and qualifying on an ESPN and the races on the network. Regardless, you’ll be seeing it on TV eventually.

The people, things and terminology you need to know

Let me start by saying this. The list of things you see below is by no means comprehensive. These are the essentials: the bare minimum you need to know so as not to appear a philistine when discussing Formula 1.

First, the teams:

Understanding F1 Teams
Red Bull RacingThis is the team that won the past two Constructors' Championships. They're generally favored to win next year as well, but with some difficult due to a rule change that cost them the major downforce-creating feature of their car. They are not to be confused with their sister team - Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Vodafone McLaren MercedesThese are the main contenders to Red Bull’s title. They are a very historic team in F1, with two former-world-champion drivers in Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.
FerrariThey have participated in every year of the Formula 1 World Championship. They should never be counted out and are always competitive. Fernando Alonso is their #1 driver and a two-time world champion.

Some other teams that could be crucial next year include Lotus, Mercedes AMG and Force India. Next up, the people:

Understanding F1 People
Sebastian VettelRed Bull driverVettel is the current World Champion. He is young and a blisteringly quick driver. He specializes in qualifying well and then running away with the race.
Mark WebberRed Bull driverWebber is the other guy at Red Bull. Most believe this will be his last season, or that he will at least move on from the team next year.
Lewis HamiltonVodafone McLaren Mercedes driverHamilton is a very talented and quick driver, but tends to get himself in trouble, particularly with Felipe Massa of late.
Jenson ButtonVodafone McLaren Mercedes driverButton is another talented and quick driver. He is known to be easy on tires and the sort of 'fast and steady wins the race' type. He also does a good impression of Optimus Prime in the post-race interview room.
Fernando AlonsoFerrari driverDespite being a two time World Champion and another incredibly good driver, watching him drive Ferrari’s 2011 car was rather like watching Baryshnikov perform in Crocs.
Michael SchumacherMercedes AMG driverSeven-time World Champion and holder of virtually every record that exists. Unfortunately, he has struggled mightily since his return to F1 in 2010 after a two year hiatus.
Bernie EcclestoneSupremo of Formula 1He essentially owns the commercial rights to the sport and makes all of the decisions that affect the whole F1 enterprise.
Charlie WhitingRace DirectorHe is the head steward and makes all of the decisions from programming the starting lights to red-flagging (suspending) a race.

Finally, the lingo:

Understanding F1 Terms
DRS (Drag Reduction System)DRS is a Venetian-blind-like mechanical device on the rear wing of the car which ‘opens’ the wing thereby greatly reducing downforce and increasing speed. This is only available to the drivers on particular parts of a track and only when they are within 1 second of the car in front of them. It is supposed to encourage overtaking.
KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System)KERS is an electrical system which allows the driver to deploy an additional 80 horsepower to the car for about 6.5 seconds per lap. They can do this at their leisure and can split it up however they want but only for 6.5 seconds per lap.
Option/Prime/Intermediate/WetThese terms refer to the tire compounds that Pirelli provides to the teams each race weekend. Each team gets a faster, softer tire (option) and a slower but harder tire (prime). There are the other two ‘wet’ tires. The intermediate has a slight tread and displaces enough water for slightly slippery tracks and the full wet displaces approximately half an ocean’s worth of water per inch traveled.
FlagsCheck out this Wikipedia article. The really important ones are greenyellowblue and red flags."
StewardThese are the mysterious folks who penalize the drivers when they’re naughty. You never see them, but their job is to distribute controversial punishments from on high. Imagine a replay official in American football, but they do their job while the race is still being run. Similar to review officials, they usually rule in exactly the opposite way you think they should. There are a few stewards every weekend, including one former racing driver.
Safety CarThink ‘Pace Car’. Imagine a massive accident with shards of carbon fiber everywhere, screaming death and general mayhem. VROOM! Mercedes SLS AMG to the rescue. Though it is fast enough to require a new set of undies from any normal person who drives it, the F1 cars safely putter around behind it in second gear. It is deployed whenever there is an incident on track which puts drivers or spectators in physical danger. Yellow flags are waved without a safety car when there has been an incident, but the aftermath poses little or no risk to anyone on track.

There are many, many more topics that could be on this list, but, like I said before, these are the bare essentials. Don’t worry too much about learning all of the teams and drivers. You’ll learn the finer points by osmosis after a few races. I would also recommend that you start reading some blogs and websites related to motor racing and Formula 1 specifically. There are roughly as many F1 blogs as there are people on earth, so don’t get overwhelmed. Start with three or four and keep searching or eliminate them as you discover which opinions you value most. These websites will keep you informed of the relevant issues in the racing world and teach you what matters most.

What makes F1 different

The rules governing F1 racing are very similar to those of NASCAR or Indycar, however many minor-but-crucial distinctions exist. The best place to start would be with the cars themselves. Every Formula 1 team is allowed to enter two cars into each race. They must look exactly the same except for the driver’s helmet which is pretty much the only way to distinguish them. The cars are not allowed to have aerodynamic parts that can be adjusted by the driver (except for DRS) and the size, shape and weight are all strictly controlled by the rules (or the formula… get it?).

In a race weekend, there are three practice sessions – generally two on Friday, and one on Saturday. After the Saturday practice, the cars qualify. The fastest car starts first on the grid and others follow behind based on their own times. The only exceptions would be for penalties due to being naughty in the previous race or using a new part that the teams have a limited number of per season (e.g. engine, gearbox).

...the fastest ten drivers duke it out for pole position and lose out to Vettel

There are three qualifying sessions and the drivers get to put up their fastest time in each. After Q1, the slowest drivers are eliminated and locked into their starting positions from the back. Q2 is the same deal, and in Q3 the fastest ten drivers from the previous sessions duke it out for pole position and lose out to Sebastian Vettel. They do have the option of not driving in Q3 and taking their fastest time from the previous session. The advantage of this is that they save the wear on a set of tires, since they’re required to start the race on the same set of tires they used in qualifying. The disadvantage is that most people go faster in Q3, so if they sit out, they’ll probably start 9th or 10th.

The race is started from a stand-still. Each driver parks their car in their grid slot and makes their pre-race checks. They then watch a series of five lights blink on – once they go out, the drivers give it a boot-full. The rest of the race pretty much goes as you would expect. They drive around until someone finishes first. There are a few little details however. Each race weekend Pirelli gives the teams two types of tire. These are the harder (prime) and softer (option) compound tires. The option tires go faster but unless your name is Jenson Button, they generally wear down too quickly to be useful for more than about a quarter of the race. Each car is required to use BOTH compounds during the course of a race unless it rains. Also, there is no refueling in Formula 1… at all. If you run out of fuel, you are done. That’s pretty much that. Whoever crosses the line first wins.

Helping you watch F1

Live television or live with the delay?
Live television or live with the delay?Credit: Moy/Sutton

Now, the important bit: how to watch F1 in the United States. The downside here is that F1 is raced in locations all around the world, so if you’re living in Seattle and you want to watch the Italian Grand Prix (that’s what the races are called: Grands Prix) you’ll be starting the race at about 3am. Unfortunately there is no way to get around this. For once it’s geography and not Bernie’s fault. Here’s my advice to you American F1 fans: do not try to watch the races live. Live with the delay. Cut yourself off from the racing websites you love, Twitter, ESPN and all other means by which you could have your race spoiled, and watch the delayed race a few hours later.

By my reckoning, you have four options for your Formula 1 coverage.

By my reckoning, you have four options for your Formula 1 coverage. Option 1 is the Speed network. They carry the practice sessions, qualifying and races live for you die-hards, and they also show a delayed race on Sunday evenings for the far-away type races. Down sides: Speed isn’t free (although the parent network Fox piggybacks off of their coverage for 4 races a year to broadcast on Network TV), the commentators aren’t great, and - the real deal-breaker for me – the incessant commercials.

Option number two is to get some crazy fancy satellite TV thing which can get you both the BBC (NOT BBC America! That’s a whole different thing) and Sky TV. I don’t know if this exists, but if it does, I’m sure it’s expensive. So that’s the downside. You’ll also need a DVR to record the race coverage.

Option number three is to torrent. This is illegal. Do not do it. Although, if you’re looking for a good race torrent there is no shortage of them about 2-3 hours after a race ends… I’ve heard. The advantage is that you have the races saved to your hard-drive so you can go back and re-watch them later if you so desire. Also, there are no commercials! The down side is jail time. For realsies – think before you click.

Option number four is the best but it comes in a number of steps.

  1. Make friends with someone in the UK. This can be done in a number of ways. I recommend finding a pen-pal but you could also look on Facebook, Twitter, eHarmony or a number of other places in the blogosphere. I say the UK because they have the best English-speaking F1 coverage.
  2. Make sure they have purchased the Sky TV package. If not, keep searching for friends.
  3. Purchase a Slingbox. Be sure that it will be compatible with their internet/TV connections.
  4. Purchase a computer with a lot of disk space and a TV tuner.
  5. Ship the computer and Slingbox to your new pen-pals.
  6. Ask them to hook it up. It is crucial to hook the cable to the Slingbox then the Slingbox to the computer.
  7. Use a remote desktop application such as logmein to set the media center application on your/their new computer to record the race.
  8. Later on, you can retrieve this file using the same remote desktop app and watch on your own computer at home. You can also watch British TV live with the Slingbox!

You could skip all of the Slingbox nonsense, but if you’re going to all of this trouble, why not get some witty English TV to boot? Piers Morgan just isn’t on in the US enough, IMO. Also, you’ll have to reimburse your friend for the new cable hook-up. A minor expense, I’m sure.

If you can possibly stand the commercials and the somewhat-less-than-spectacular commentary either watch the races live or get a DVR and record the Speed coverage. If this doesn’t fly with you, you’re going to have to download. Do so at your own risk. Neither I, the writer, nor the editors, publishers nor any other party involved with the production of this document bears any responsibility for your computer becoming infected with the digital equivalent of MRSA, or for your apocalyptically stupid rear-end becoming incarcerated.

So there.

You now know everything you absolutely need to know about F1. Go watch a race!