F1 with the universe

February 23, 2018

Like many millennials and humans in general, I struggle to escape my bed’s warmth each morning. Upon awakening, I consider my various options: leave the utopian safety of my mattress, or confront the world's terrors, such as work and people. My goals and aspirations pay a visit to my bedside. “We’ll never be achieved from here”, they chide me. If they fail, life sends in its ultimate closers, financial concern and hunger. Their combined consequences are enough to drag me from the pillow fort. 


However, certain occasions find me scrambling eggs before the sun takes the sky. These include snowboarding (fresh snow is the best snow), autocross events (no racing if you're late) and meeting beautiful women on private tropical islands. Most frequently, though, I'm up early for my version of church on Sunday mornings. Services are held in front of the television. The choir consists of 20 extraordinary race cars, piloted by the religion's foremost disciples. 


I dub this ritual worship Formula 1-ism.


First lap chaos in Formula 1. This is Turn 2 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, which hosts the only F1 race in the States.


In order to truly honor the faith, one must perform a holy pilgrimage and bear witness to a live Formula 1 race. With October 22nd mere hours old and the sun still asleep, my first crusade commenced, and I set sail on the Santa Miata for Austin, TX. The F1 circus had descended from on high and landed at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), and I was headed to join the congregation. 


Perhaps the ardor that propelled me from bed precluded proper preparation. I had arrived at the church (the circuit, that is) well before it welcomed the worshipers. We stood outside in a long queue, fervently praying for deliverance into the grandstands. But lo, our devotion was to be tested, for the skies did open up in anger, and cold, driving rains washed down upon us. Let it be known that running shorts and a hoodie offer no shelter from the elements; one must sheath the self in faith's armor. One should also bring an umbrella.


Sometimes, it rains in Austin. It is not a good time. 


At last, sweet mercy intervened. As the downpour slowly ceased, Circuit of the Americas opened its gates to the bedraggled flock. Soaked and shivering, I made it no further than 50 meters from the back entry gate before plopping down outside Turn 11. My freezing feet were adamant that I'd never press them into service again. But belief can often overcome bodily protest, as it did when heavenly music sounded in the distance and the first cars came into view. All rise as you are able!


These weren’t the turbocharged, carbon-fiber computers that today’s aces drive. These were Masters Historic cars, classic F1 machines featuring Cosworth DFV V8 engines, manual transmissions, and massively wide tires; they were dangerous, uncompromising, and savage. Nothing will quite relieve you of sodden misery like the angelic noise of vintage V8s. Their gentlemen drivers—as in, wealthy men with vast disposable income—went at it hammer and tongs on the treacherously wet circuit.


Filmed by me with a potato at Turn 11: two DFV-powered Lotuses duke it out in the wet. Listen to that noise! 


You’d think that these museum-worthy race cars would be kept under armed guard. Instead, they were housed in an open paddock, free to observe for any devotee. It was like exploring an F1 history exhibit, except the showpieces had just been driven to pieces and, in some cases, were literally in pieces; mechanics toiled over cars in various states of undress. Bodywork bore names like Hunt, Ickx, Stewart, Peterson, and Jones—legends and champions from a bygone era. As I gawped at Jones' Williams FW07 from 1979-1980, its mechanic said, "Have a better look! I'll push it out into the sunshine for you." And so he did. Bless that man. 


Alan Jones' utterly gorgeous Williams FW07. Jones won the 1980 World Championship with one of these beauties. 


Soon after, a much different exhaust note filled the air as Formula 4 took to the track. These entry-level cars are essentially identical, sporting small four cylinder engines and simple aero kits. With aspiring, adolescent drivers comprising the 30-deep grid, intense racing was readily produced. However, the lead cars put quite a distance between themselves and the chasers, whereas the back markers were quite a long way back indeed. I’m curious to know how much of that gap is driver-related and how much comes down to car prep (read: money) in a spec series like F4. Clearly, I must solve this mystery by racing my own F4 car. I accept funding in the form of cash, checks, international monies, Bitcoin, and crippling debt. 


 Kyle Kirkwood's winning Formula 4 car with a few stablemates. F4 is meant to be a lower rung on professional racing's ladder.


I imagine that, in regular church, certain sermons and/or choral arrangements evoke emotions such as rapture, wonder, and joy. I am not ashamed to admit I felt those things when the first 2017 F1 car came storming down the circuit. Now 4-time champion Lewis Hamilton was the first to take his pre-race warm-up laps, and I instinctively leaped to my feet as he flew past, shooting out of Turn 18 before downshifting and whipping through Turn 19. He was quickly followed by the rest of the drivers in a parade of million-dollar motorsport madness. Whatever phrase you like to employ for things that thrill—adrenaline rush, hairs standing up, life-changing, batshit crazy—insert that phrase here. There is absolutely nothing like an angry Formula 1 machine in the flesh.


 Onboard footage of McLaren's Fernando Alonso navigating COTA's turns 16 - 19. That long right is taken flat out.


Anticipation was palpable as the cars formed up for the start, made so by the eager buzz of fans and engines alike. My chosen vantage point was the soft, grassy slope at Turn 19, near the end of the circuit. The entire hill was packed with spectators, and we rose in unison as the cars roared by on racing lap 1—twenty fire-breathing marvels going flat out, one after the other in rapid succession. Amazing race, how sweet the sound. 


 More potato footage, this time from my vantage point at Turn 19. This is from early in the race, within the first 10 laps.


Watching a televised race does have its perks. You're treated to numerous track viewpoints from your couch's comfort, and you can get a drink from the fridge without paying extortionist prices. F1 races aren’t exactly long—roughly an hour and a half—so if you're at the track and want to see different turns, you’ll have to run (literally run) from point to point. I did this. I do not recommend it. COTA has massive screens that broadcast the televised race feed, meaning you can catch every bit of racing from any spot. It's like one of those mega churches with 50-foot jumbo-trons, the better for a pastor close-up during the offering. Racing is just like certain churches that way. It always needs more money. 


 Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton leads Ferrari's Sebastien Vettel into Turn 12. There are 8 drivers' championships in this picture—each has won 4.


However, running from turn to turn had its distinct upsides. It's one thing to watch motoring magic in pixelated form; it's another entirely to behold each turn in person. True, I might have missed moments of the race during my migrations. But I was on a march to see F1 cars in the most possible lights—braking heavily up the hill at Turn 1, carving through the esses, or flying flat down Turn 10's kink, among others. I wanted a comprehensive course in Formula 1 fury; having walked miles to achieve it, I have concluded that I will be firmly parking my bum in a single spot next year. 


 A Formula 1 line dance through COTA's esses. Watching the cars change direction is absolutely staggering.


In today’s formula of absurdly complicated aerodynamics, boring races happen with depressing regularity. It is incredibly difficult for an attacking driver to hang on the tail of his opponent, so compromised is his aerodynamic grip. But COTA is a track laced with prime passing zones, from the steep, blind braking zone at Turn 1 to the slower infield complex after the back straight. There was passing aplenty throughout the field, including the incredible move of Sainz around Perez at the sweeping, full-throttle complex of 16-17-18. The cars lean on every shard of carbon to produce downforce and the drivers' bodies take on tremendous G-loads. That physicality is part of what makes F1 so deserving of reverence.


 Renault's Carlos Sainz relieves Force India's Sergio Perez of 7th place, inches apart at something like 150mph and 4 Gs.


But it seems that F1 is at a bit of an awkward point. The gap between the leading teams and the rest is massive, in terms of both speed and spending (I believe they call that a schism in the church). The cars are overly complex, lacking the beauty of their forebears, and their exhaust notes are mundane compared to the past’s operatic V10s and V8s. In 2018, the dreaded Halo will gird the grid’s cockpits, obscuring not only the drivers, but perhaps F1’s overall vision for the future. Where does the series progress from here? Do they continue this relentless march down the path of technology when it seems to have compromised the sport’s essence? Or is technology’s envelope the essence of F1 in the first place?


No matter the answers to these questions, one blessed thing remains constant: service will be called on Sundays. For that, I give thanks.


P.S. — No pictures of the aforementioned Halo are included because I refuse to degrade my post with such a hideous thing. 


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