An Ignorant American's First F1 Weekend
In February I had minor surgery that required major recovery. I was home from work for about a month, mostly on bedrest. What is one to do with so much down time? I put it to good use and became a fan of Formula 1.
Until this weekend I had never seen a F1 race, except for about 4 laps of the Grand Prix in Austin last year which was playing on the television in a restaurant where I was eating a salad. I didn't grow up in the "race fan" part of the USA, so I've never watched a NASCAR or Indy race either. I'm a bit of a gearhead and about a C+ level mechanic but even the idea of watching cars take 500 circular laps makes me both sleepy and nauseous. For me racing was like baseball - if I get free tickets to see it live I'll have a drink outside and enjoy myself. If the CIA ever needs to torture me, put me in a cell with a TV playing a baseball game or a NASCAR race and I'll crack in minutes.
But the 4 or so laps of F1 I saw last year were different. The unique turns of the track and the downforce the aero must generate to put the nose into them at such impossible speeds, the blistering takeoffs on the straights, the cockpit cameras they switched to on overtakes - it all stuck with me. I was also vaguely aware that the sport has some serious history, and the aroma of history on anything is a gateway drug to full obsession for me. I thought that if I ever had a free month I would educate myself and learn to follow the sport. Thank you gaping wound that takes months to heal, you really helped me fulfill a dream!
So I watched some documentaries on F1 history, read lots of websites, got caught up on preseason news coverage, learned to pronounce driver names, and studied the Melbourne track to know what I would be seeing in the season opener. Because of the time difference and my schedule I got to see P1 and Qualifying live, and had to watch P2 and the race itself a few hours after the fact. I can't call myself a true fan yet, much less an expert, but all the study I did really helped me enjoy the race this weekend and I'm glad I did it. For the record then, it takes about a month of consistent effort to turn a totally ignorant American into someone who at least knows enough about what he's seeing during a Grand Prix race to enjoy it. Here are my observations as a complete newcomer to the sport:
1. There's a lot more chaos theory involved than we like to admit.
In preseason all the attention is on the factors that human beings can plan and control - the engineering of the car, the fitness of the drivers, tire hardness, pit stop strategy, new regulations and so on. But actually winning a race depends on all the uncontrollable factors that do not submit to human planning. A tire or two touches wet grass and Bottas is launched into the wall when he contacts asphalt again. Hamilton now has to defend the lead on his own. Another team bumbles in the pit and now Vettel can take advantage of a virtual safety car and pit lane rules to overtake Hamilton. None of that is planned, and even the best organizations with the best cars and the best drivers need some luck when it comes to the race.
2. Yes, F1 is a team sport – the same way bullfighting is a team sport.
The picadors and bandilleros all have a part to play in preparing a bull for the matador, but at the end of the fight it’s just an animal with horns versus one man with a cape and a sword. To send a man back out onto a F1 track with a cross-threaded wheel lug can cost the team a podium, but the only one really risking his life for a win is the driver. As bad as the Haas pit crew must have felt about their screw-ups, my heart went out to Magnussen and especially Grosjean, who probably felt the worst deceleration G’s of the day as their hopes of being the biggest upset of the opener turned into the fear of getting smeared across the track. What a shame for Haas!
3. F1 TV Pro desperately needs to happen.
As an American without cable TV I had to get creative with a free trial of a web service and ESPN 3 in order to see all the events of the weekend. During the race, ESPN cut in with ads at random times and I felt like I was missing the action. Their coverage was also focused on the race leaders, and while I get that the story of the day was Hamilton v. Vettel, there was a lot of good midfield racing that I would have liked to see. F1 TV Pro looks like a great experience and I really hope they launch it before the season is over (there are only so many web services that offer free trials!).
4. Lightning Round
The halo didn’t bother me because it was my first race and I don’t know any better. However, in my F1 prep I watched a few documentaries about the safety of the sport, and I have to say that keeping drivers alive is better than… not. So if the halo works, again – there’s only one man with his life actually on the line and he deserves what protection the engineers can afford him.
Sebastian Vettel is a sneaky fox.
It looks like McLaren has more of a shot this year than anyone thought, maybe even more than they themselves thought. In qualifying it appeared they’d made a mistake sending Honda to Toro Rosso, but the race didn’t bear that out. I like just about everything Honda does in the world and I hope they get it together.
I still haven’t decided on a team to support (not that any of them would care, I’m worth about $50 a year in merch at best). It won’t be Ferrari, since I already have a demanding religion and I don’t need a second one. I’ve never been a huge Mercedes fan, so I was leaning toward Red Bull. But I didn’t like to see Verstappen get flustered like that, and Alo did a lot better than I thought he would. Hmm.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed myself with the whole thing and am already making plans to attend a race in Austin, maybe next year. Do you tribers have any suggestions for a team to support? Is there any place where my American ignorance shows through that needs correcting? Anything I'm missing to really enjoy F1? Let me know in the comments!