Here’s What It’s Like To Watch Modern Formula 1 In The United States
Photography by Alex Sobran
My experience with modern Formula 1 is very limited—a handful of early morning alarms to watch some of the bigger races, two short road trips to Montreal over the course of two decades, a half-hearted isolated attempt to play along in a fantasy league. It’s a discipline that just seems to exist outside of the rest of motorsport, for multiple reasons. The obvious one is cost, both in terms of team budgets and ticket prices for even the most right-angled sun-soaked bleacher seats, and this is to say nothing of the ways these cars perform as a result of all these dollars and euros and pounds and rubles and rupees poured into this superfast circus each year.
Among all the company’s that put their logos on things built by somebody else, there are a few that take an active role in moving the sport forward. The elongated Pirelli “P” has been spun by hundreds of F1 legends (both mechanical and mortal ones) since the Italian tires helped Giuseppe Farina and Alfa Romeo win the first official Grand Prix championship in 1950. They invited me to attend the only Grand Prix that’s currently held in the United States with an above-pit-lane pair of tickets the price of which could afford a decent daily driver. To add to the excitement inherent in watching some of the best drivers on earth racing each other in the fastest cars in existence, it was also a weekend that could have easily seen Lewis Hamilton become World Champion for the fifth time by the conclusion of the 56th lap last Sunday.
If you follow the sport at all you’ll already know that that didn’t happen, thanks to a very strong performance from Kimi Räikkönen who passed Hamilton on the first turn of the first lap and led for the majority of the race to finish on the top step for the first time in five years. Seeing your favorite driver cross the start/finish line under the checkered flag in person is one thing, but it was by no means a snoozer of a race. Watching from afar on some lowish-resolution internet stream offers more dynamic views of the racing on track than you get by planting yourself in one place (helicopters are easier to chase these cars with than your own two feet, which can only take you so far between the miles and miles of fencing surrounding the Circuit of the Americas in two hours’ time), but you do gain something special by being there in the moment. It’s not that the V6 turbos are the most exciting things to hear in person—they’re loud enough to drown out conversation completely, but clearly nothing like the aural experience was like during the times of tobacco sponsors and manual gearboxes—but it’s impossible not to get swept up in the production of it all.
When your pit stops are measured by hundredths of seconds, the crews’ calisthenics and stretching routines seem less silly than they do when you see the first group loosening up for their fast-forward ballet of air tools and carbon-fiber-clad jacks. Every single thing you see just looks downright exotic, like it had (and it probably did) thousands of hours of work put into its design and production. If you look too closely at a modern-day F1 car you quickly lose track of which part you’ve zoomed in on—I tried counting the individual carbon fiber canards and other appendages on the Red Bull practicing its tire changes in front of me and lost count north of one hundred. The level of complexity in the finished product is mind boggling enough, and to think of how much work went on behind the scenes to come up with the precise angles and sizes and shapes and positions is enough to give yourself a mild headache.
The lights above the cars being prepped in the garages resemble something more like Weyland-Yutani than what you’d expect to find trackside in a state famous for big guns and hats (that’s not an insult), but the facility itself is more than modern enough to do justice to the sharpness of these cutting edge race programs.
Between these shrouded garages and the teams running their tire-swapping routines in the sunshine are walls lined with blanket-warmed tires wrapped around wheels that, when bare, look less like something for a car than they resemble specialized tubes that the military might use for a project you’re not likely to know anything about until it’s a decade old. I took a picture in the fitting area—the inside of which was filled with full-size shipping containers holding the 1,800-odd tires that will be fitted over the weekend—that someone working inside kindly asks me to delete; these are wheels that Red Bull is developing.
It’s like trying to snap an interior shot on your cell phone in the Monte Carlo casino but much cooler because it involves motorsport tech rather than people who might not want to be seen spending money. The wheel pictured above is also used by the Red Bull team, but it’s solely for pit stop practice. I feel safe enough in saying that the set they’re testing for the future looks “hi-tech.” But so is everything even tangentially related to this sport. Everything is just cool, from the AMG medical car with its long roof and aggressive stance, to the racks of tires dedicated to just one of Alonso’s front wheels.
Walking around in the pit area on Saturday, the setups reminded me of the space race in the sense that you’ve got all these different teams chasing the same goal (even if most of them are run out of British-based headquarters), and they’re all getting pretty damn close to achieving it, but they all go about it in their own distinct way despite the very narrow window of engineering choices that are available when you’re designing the fastest cars you can within the rulebook’s parameters. The McLaren design language (sorry, that’s a trite term but it fits here) is evident in both their actual car and their pit lane telemetry and comms box, as it is distinct for Ferrari and Mercedes and Red Bull and Renault and Haas and so on.
Some parts of this gallery are more heavily edited than others, but it I hope you’ll agree that the extreme nature of what’s going on with these cars makes it excusable to pull back from reality in the photos after watching it being bent to the wills of these impressive collections of canards that are pulling multiple Gs back and forth through the first section of the track after the steep hill where Räikkönen passed Hamilton and kept the championship alive for another race (despite Vettel spinning very early on and playing catch-up all the way back to the front pack to finish in fourth). The photos below are from a decidedly slower perspective—part of the weekend’s activities involved a loop around the track pumpkin-patch style on a tractor trailer. It felt fun enough at our 15MPH pace, so I can only imagine how quickly my lunch would be on my shirt if I was subjected to the speeds the pros can maintain mid corner.
Despite how many he laps and how many passes (sorry, overtakes, relax) there were in total (not many, relatively speaking), I found it impossible not to get totally swept up in tire strategies and engaging in armchair-rubber-degradation-diagnoses when the replays went into slo-mo on the jumbotron. After reacquainting myself with which colors correspond to which rubber compounds (next year Pirelli is simplifying the look of the races by reducing the colors to just three: white, yellow, and red for each race, regardless of which mix of compounds are actually used at each circuit), it was fun to see the team’s strategies playing out over the course of the race. When conditions are dry, the rules state that each car must run two different slick compounds during the course of the race, and watching the split times expand and contract between the cars at the front as they swapped between their sets gave credence to just how important one element of such a ridiculously complex machine can be.
Then there was some visceral excitement in the last few laps, wherein Räikkönen held off Verstappen who was holding off Hamilton while Vettel slipped past Bottas to keep the championship from being clinched. Barring some black swan event, Hamilton will almost inevitably win this year, but when the whole season’s worth of money and time is all but literally on the finish line with the last few races of 2018, every effort to prolong feels like a David and Goliath tale. Only in something as otherworldly as F1 can a Ferrari feel like the underdog. You’re not reading this, but good job Kimi!