James Foley

Why we love Formula One

This is an old piece of writing that I never finished, but with my new found enthusiasm thanks to this micro.blog I thought it would be nice to see it through. Looking back it’s hard to believe that the race that was about to take place somehow surpassed all expectation and provided us with the most exciting (and controversial) finish to a season in recent memory.

I’m writing this the night before the 2021 Abu Dhabi grand prix, the final race of what many would consider the single greatest season in Formula One history, the culmination of the year-long battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen and in a larger sense, a moment that feels pivotal for F1’s place in the greater sporting world. After the longest, most gruelling season to date, both drivers arrive to the circuit level on points, wrapped up in the maelstrom of controversy that was the Saudi grand prix, with one final frantic dash to the finish line separating either driver from their place in the history books. Lewis can leave tomorrow with his eighth World Championship, and the outright record for the most titles won by one driver (a record he currently shares with Micheal Schumacher). Max on the other hand is on the cusp of clinching his first, and in doing so join the exclusive club of Formula One World Champions, ending 7 years of Mercedes dominance and dethroning the man that many argue is the greatest driver our sport has ever seen. Quite simply, this is peak F1.

Formula One is a unique sport in many ways.

First of all, it’s not exactly accessible, certainly not in the way football, cricket or any other run of the mill sport is. A kid watching football on TV can witness Lionel Messi drop his shoulder and pirouette around a defender, watch him take a split second to glance up and realising that the goalkeeper is off their line, strike with the most delicate of touches to send the ball floating tantalisingly above the goalkeeper’s fingertips and into the net. After observing poetry manifest itself in the form of a 5’7” Argentinian, that same kid can grab her football, go outside and spend the rest of the evening trying to replicate her hero.

The next day when she watches an F1 race with her friends, and she sees her favourite drivers mere inches apart from one another, pulling more than 5 times their body weight in G-force through a corner, and hurtling the down a straight at speeds in excess of 300kph, she doesn’t have any way to take that experience and recreate it herself. Outside of the rare few that have grown up with some exposure to motorsport via wealth, luck or a combination of the two, most people don’t have a frame of reference through which they can relate to the experience of driving an F1 car.

In many ways this should be detrimental to a spectator sport. How can we as an audience care about what we’re watching when we have no basis for it in our own experience of the world? I like to think of this as the ‘astronaut equivalence’. The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver is as foreign a concept for most people as the notion of setting forth into outer space. Neither profession is something that you can ‘practice’, and the only way to even get your foot in the door is to rise to the top of a number of other disciplines along the way. And yet it is exactly this exclusivity that is so attractive.

Sidenote, there is an interesting parallel in the number of people that have been to space and the number that have ever competed in an F1 car, with around 650 intrepid explorers strapping themselves onto the top of rockets throughout history whilst 770 drivers have taken to the grid of an F1 race. Compare this to the over 100,000 currently registered professional footballers around the world.

When I watch the latest crew of astronauts blast off from Cape Canaveral, there is a potent cocktail of excitement, awe, anxiety and fear in the deepest pit of my stomach. The only other time I get that mix of feelings is waiting for the lights to go out at the start of a grand prix. There is so much energy coiled up in those cars before the green light, standing still almost against their will, against their very nature as objects designed purely for speed. Then there are the drivers, seemingly unaware of the tension in the air, the weight of expectation from the crowd, and the absurd fact that 1000 horsepower is waiting to respond to the slightest twitch of their right foot. When we watch a race, we are watching real life superheroes do things that the rest of us could never even begin to attempt. At every bend we watch them take unimaginable risks, and hold our breath as they do battle over inches of tarmac. F1 is more than just a sport, it is a celebration of engineering excellence, a throwback to the danger of gladiatorial combat, and an awe inspiring expression of man and machine operating together as one.

It might not be for everyone, but tonight hundreds of millions of people are going to bed imagining the infinite number of scenarios that could play out on track tomorrow. There will be pundits and punters arguing back and forth all morning over driving style, team work and strategy. The previous 21 rounds will be dissected, every overtake, every collision and every statistic, prediction and opinion will be rendered meaningless. The cars will take to the grid, Lewis and Max sharing the front row. The lights will go out. Thousands of components refined over millions of simulations will dance in perfect unison to accelerate them towards the first turn, reaching nearly 200 kph before they jump on the brakes. What happens next is anyone’s guess.