An Ignorant American: Montreal Helped Me "Get" F1
Also some groundhog jokes and an extended wrestling analogy.
Welcome back to Ignorant American F1! Guess what? I think I finally have Formula One figured out. Hang with me a second while I explain. It’s worth it, there are groundhog jokes further down.
First, figuring out Formula One - I know that’s a bold claim, since Sunday’s Montreal Grand Prix was the 7th race of the season, and it was also the 7th F1 event I’ve watched in my entire life. But after Monaco (which despite my inflammatory article title from two weeks ago was admittedly a little slow on the action) almost every F1 aficionado I know told me some version of this:
“Yeah, Monaco is lame now. But get pumped for the next race, Montreal is where the action is.”
So I researched Montreal, and its power track, its Wall of Champions, its inclement weather and intrusive local fauna, and, as I was instructed, I “got pumped.” Practice and Qualifying were close and intense, with dust everywhere and a woodchuck smoothie served at speed. However, the race itself… after Hartley and Stroll met on lap one, there wasn’t much to see. Watching the live timing chart on the F1 app was basically the same experience as watching footage of the track. It was a Formula One race, with F1 cars and drivers, but that’s ALL it was. Verstappen and Grosjean have spoiled us this year with spectacles most weekends, but judging by the comments of other commentators on Montreal (even Martin Brundle, who basically gets to stand on the track as the cars race around him), I know I’m not alone in saying that when a race is just a race, it’s a little hard to maintain your pump.
And that’s when I had a little breakthrough (which will show you all how ignorant of the sport I really am): Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport, not the pinnacle of motorsport ENTERTAINMENT.
Let me illustrate with wrestling.
Two men, wrestling.
Greco-Roman wrestling is an international sport. It is technical and takes incredible skill. It takes years of dedicated fandom to see and appreciate everything that happens in a match. Sometimes two dudes lay on the mat together for a long time, then stand up and a winner is declared on points. It’s kind of boring and weird, but it counts. At the Olympic level, it is the pinnacle of grappling sport.
Four people doing something else.
On the other hand, American televised wrestling is an exhibition of oiled, loud-mouthed body-builders. It takes incredible skill, but they are the generic skills of athlete and showman, not the technical skills of a professional grappler. The match is scripted to provide the most spectacle, and the winner is declared by contract ahead of time by the commissioner. I’m sure pro wrestling is the pinnacle of something, but it’s not even in the same category as Greco-Roman wrestling. One is a show, the other is a sport and a competition. One is a Monster Truck Jam on Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! wherein cars are deliberately destroyed and explosions are deliberately ignited. The other is a 70-lap F1 race on Sunday, sometimes with few overtakes or crashes, but an event that still has a major impact on who will win the drivers’ and constructors’ championships at the end of the season.
The truth is that sometimes the engineers get the race they want – technical, long, uninterrupted running of really advanced machines driven by really talented human beings. I’m fine with that. Part of the appeal of F1 for me is the learning experience. Even with a “boring” race I get to see unique aerial shots of cities I’ve never been to and will probably never visit. I get to dust off some lessons from high school physics to try to understand what’s happening with the aerodynamics. I like automobiles, and F1 cars and their drive systems are very advanced and interesting. This week I learned all about the magical pit stop strategy of the “overcut.” And the championship races are season-long narratives that are messier and require more work from the viewer than season-long television dramas. F1 has culture. It’s not the pinnacle of culture, of course – I still read a lot, enjoy the orchestra, and watch the Grand Tour. But as a motorsport it can expand your horizons and make you a better person if you show up willing to learn. In Texas terms, don’t stop drinking Jose Cuervo tequila if you like it; just don’t expect it to be top-shelf mezcal. I can appreciate a good Monster Truck Jam, but I don’t need F1 to be the same thing.
Ok, enough preaching. I promised some groundhog jokes, so here are my ignorant impressions of the race.
It was pretty sadistic to make the rodent a star by showing it for 5 minutes before Grosjean murdered it. The incident wasn’t on Sky’s coverage, but man did F1 TV Pro capture the whole thing. I definitely understand how the little blob of woodchuck sliding down the camera lens angered the animal rights brigade. But if you know anything about Canadian history, you know that Romain Grosjean was far from the first Frenchman to skin a groundhog adjacent to the St. Lawrence sea way (French trapper joke!). I’d bet good money he’s been the fastest to do it though. Hey, at least there’s something that he’s quick at besides fussing at every other driver on the track whenever they get within 3 meters of his car. When Martin Brundle calls you “junior school” on international TV, go have a think about your form, my friend. Anyway, for those who see Formula E as the savior of the environment, that might be true on a macro-scale but on an individual, woodchuck-to-woodchuck basis an electric race car is just harder to hear. Harder to hear means harder to avoid, so as Formula E gains popularity expect to see dozens of groundhogs macerated every race. Of course the electric cars don’t have air intakes for their engines so who cares about a little flying rodent debris?
Hartley is unlucky but also very, very lucky.
There was a split second on lap 1 when it felt like I was about to watch someone get very seriously injured. When the nose of Hartley’s Toro Rosso was riding Stroll’s tire and the car started to lift a little I was sure he was going airborne. I know Stroll was upset about a DNF in front of his home crowd, but that could have been a lot worse. I’m glad Hartley’s car stayed on the ground, that his tethers worked to keep his wheel from turning into a mortar round, and that the nose of the Toro Rosso found the side of Lance’s car instead of the gap between the bodywork and the halo. Hartley’s having a rough year, but he walked away from a potentially serious crash and that’s cause for a little celebration even as the boss-folk debate his future in the driver’s seat.
Perez still has the moves.
When the race restarted after the safety car, Sainz’s little bump of Perez sent my daughter’s favorite car and driver onto the grass at Turn 1. Perez, however, turned the off into a power-slide and rejoined the track in the middle of heavy traffic with a sweeping move that showed a lot of courage and skill. I was very impressed with that recovery, and although Perez was irked that the marshals cleared Sainz I’m sure there would have been consequences for both of them if Perez’s re-entry had caused another collision. Luck and talent saved the day for Perez, although he didn’t finish too well and sadly looks to be another one of those drivers potentially on the chopping block.
Red Bull had a solid weekend.
Joy of joys for Red Bull, young Max kept it together all weekend, qualified 3rd, and finished 3rd. Sure, on lap 1 he brushed some other drivers in an attempt to move up to 2nd, but everyone was bumping into everyone else on Turn 1 and it was less “Vercrashen” than just plain, regular F1 driving. It had to be encouraging to the whole organization to see Max put his considerable talent to use with wisdom and self-restraint. Daniel Ricciardo also did an excellent job defending against Hamilton, and the overcut (which I just learned about) worked very well. I stand by my claim earlier in the season that Red Bull might be the best organization in the paddock right now, or at least they’re doing the best considering what they have for equipment. Red Bull’s pit stops were about 0.2 seconds faster than Ferrari’s, and Ferrari basically admitted to still being traumatized about the pit lane because of the Bahrain incident. It’s too early to call, and it might compromise my credibility as an ignoramus, but Red Bull Racing is really growing on me and I might end up as a fan by next season.
McLaren has issues.
Vandoorne doesn’t have the chops. There’s something wrong with the car. Alo’s unhappiness is palpable and his car isn’t getting him to the end of the race. Command structures are complicated and it’s difficult to know who’s in charge. The organization is reorganizing and everyone is insecure. Toro Rosso is doing fine with Honda, or at least their issues aren’t due to the powerplant. What is going on at Woking? Alo is talking like he’s done with F1, but I wonder if he would feel the same way about the races being boring and nothing being fun anymore if he was in that Ferrari or Mercedes or Red Bull or even a real Renault car. Leclerc is a great young driver, but if McLaren can’t put the great Fernando Alonso in a vehicle that will leave Leclerc’s Sauber in the dust, they deserve to lose him to whatever racing series he wants to join.
What’s up with Lewis?
Bottas did great this weekend, and is one of the grid’s most underrated drivers. Lewis, on the other hand, must have something going on behind the scenes because you never know which Hamilton will suit up. We didn’t get the Barcelona Lewis this weekend, we got the “fussy on the radio, back end out, driver fighting the car” Lewis Hamilton of Bahrain, with worse results. I’m really curious to know what the mystery factors are that determine his mood and his ability to win. But it also makes for great racing, since the driver’s championship is once again extremely close and up for grabs. If the humans driving them were as perfect as the cars, F1 would be a pretty pointless exercise (see my article on Formula AI).
Congratulations to Seb for a magisterial win.
Seb OWNED Montreal. Not only did he win everything there is to win on the race weekend, he ended the whole thing with a calm and goofy attitude, humming a little ditty that might have been loosely Mario Kart related (?). The driver, the car, the team, the track, the weather, and the race all bowed to Vettel’s will, and he stuck an absolutely perfect drive. The only downside for Ferrari was that Kimi was nowhere around and couldn’t keep ahead of Hamilton when he pitted. I’m sure Ferrari will just shrug that off though, with Vettel really driving like a champion. We’ll see if Hamilton shows up to challenge Seb next time out, or if Bottas can get a look at him. See? This can be fun.
To wrap up, I learned two very weird things this weekend. First, all the team radio channels are available to all the teams. Why? Why would they all let each other hear their strategy conversations? And second, if a friend of one of the drivers, who is not a motorsport professional, race official, executive, or person of any authority waves the checkered flag, it’s just over. That seems like a holdover from F1’s ancient times, and if I got to pick a friend to wave the flag they would have clear instructions about when to make a “mistake.”
Well race fans, that’s another one in the books. I’ll see you next time, from now on drinking my tea with my pinky finger extended and wearing a monocle, yet still secretly hoping that Max pulls a Max and Maxes all of France.
Now’s a good time to join Ignorant American F1. I’m going to try to do some random articles on off-weeks, so look for those as I’m able. May all your pit stops be as smooth as Red Bull’s.