What is F1?s biggest rival?

A1 Grand Prix raced at the former Grand Prix venue Kyalami last weekend

A1 Grand Prix raced at the former Grand Prix venue Kyalami last weekend

For many people motor racing means Formula 1. For evidence of that, see how many news sites list ??F1? in their sports sections instead of ??motor sport?.

But F1 is not the only international racing series. Which championship comes closest to matching F1?s intoxicating blend of speed, glamour and cutting edge technology?

NASCAR

For many Americans, motor racing equals NASCAR and nothing else. As a country it is by no means unique in having a majo racing championship that is even more popular than Formula 1 – Australia has its V8 Supercars, for example – but the NASCAR racing philosophy is uniquely American and wholly unlike F1.

In short, technical innovation is extremely limited to guarantee close racing, and the championships consists almost entirely of ovals.

Despite the gulf between the two disciplines a few recent F1 drivers have given it a shot including Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Speed. Montoya has been vocally enthusiastic about how NASCAR places greater emphasis on driving skill than the technical quality of his car. Perhaps tellingly, no NASCAR has yet tried moving to Formula 1.

But the days when F1 designers had a free reign are fading further into the past. With every new restriction on freedom of design comes the accusation that F1 is growing ever more like NASCAR.

NASCAR?s popularity is largely confined to the United States but Ecclestone isn?t taking any chances. He is now involved in running the Speedcar series alongside several GP2 Asia rounds using cars that bear a strong resemblance to NASCAR machines.

(I’ve written before about What F1 can learn (and forget) about NASCAR and Clive also wrote about it recently).

A1 Grand Prix

Could the NASCAR philosophy of single-specification car design work as a formula for an international single-seater series? A1 Grand Prix, now in its fourth season, is an attempt to do that, dressed up as a nation-versus-nation concept in the same vein as the football world cup.

Serious questions have been asked about A1?s organisational structure and long-term financial viability. Already this season three rounds have been cancelled at Mugello, Lippo and Mexico City. Several cars were missing from the first race.

The concept has a moderate following but is not yet in a position to challenge Formula 1. That said, Ferrari?s involvement in the championship adds a new political dimension to the dispute between Ecclestone, Max Mosley, and the Formula One Teams? Association, headed by Ferrari?s Luca di Montezemolo.

More about A1 Grand Prix

Le Mans Series

Allan McNish in the Le Mans 24 Hour-winning Audi R10 TDi

Allan McNish in the Le Mans 24 Hour-winning Audi R10 TDi

On the face of it, the Le Mans Series has the most in common with Formula 1.

It runs an international calendar which, although much shorter than Formula 1?s, includes one of the world?s best-known races: the Le Mans 24 Hours. However the length of its race is likely to limit its mass appeal and impair its ability to get much TV time on mainstream channels.

Comparatively relaxed technical regulations means the top teams build their own cars. It even allows for competition between different engine types (Aston Martin?s petrol V12 will challenge the dominant Audi and Peugeot turbodiesels at Le Mans this year) something F1 hasn?t seen since the mid-90s.

The spiritual predecessor to the modern Le Mans Series was the World Sportscar Championship. It boasted strong grids, excellent races and a rapidly expanding international calendar ?ǣ visiting Malaysia in 1985, 14 years before F1 did. The demise of that championship in the early 1990s, when it boasted manufacturer backing from Toyota, Peugeot, Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan, was blamed by some on Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone’s desire to eliminate a potential rival to F1.

Indy Car

Tony Kanaan racing at Detroit

Tony Kanaan racing at Detroit

In its heyday IndyCar was a credible rival to F1, but its infamous split in 1995 ruined a once great championship. This just two years after it could boast three F1 champions – including reigning title holder Nigel Mansell – among its front runners.

In its current form Indy Car is a spec series, with identical chassis and engines. The governing body is looking to reintroduce an element of competition between the engine builders, but thanks to the recession this won?t happen until 2012 at the earliest.

But it is still the home of the most highly-developed single seater racers outside of Formula 1. Its calendar may be limited to the United States, but by taking in races on road courses, street courses and ovals, the breadth of its challenge is arguably even greater than F1?s.

F1 has never been shy to pinch ideas off Indy Car racing ?ǣ safety cars and refuelling, for example. It can still learn a few things about how to involve fans at race weekends, and how to offer content via the internet.

FIA GT series

Ex-F1 driver Karl Wendlinger drives an Aston Martin in the FIA GT series

Ex-F1 driver Karl Wendlinger drives an Aston Martin in the FIA GT series

On paper, you?d think the FIA GT championship would be one of the most popular racing championships going. It?s packed with the kind of exotic supercars mere mortals rarely see outside of episodes of Top Gear: Lamborghini Murcielagos, Aston Martin DB9s, Ferrari F430s, Maserati MC12s and more.

The GT calendar is very Euro-centric but is moving into exciting new territory. By taking advantage of its less onerous safety requirements it can race in places where F1 cannot follow ?ǣ like the stunning Potrero de los Funes track in San Luis, Argentina.

Its not difficult to imagine the FIA GT series becoming much more popular if it was promoted more widely.

Do you follow any rival racing series to F1? Which ones are as good as F1 ?ǣ or better? Have your say in the comments.

Read more: What F1 can learn from other racing series

Visit Maximum Motorsport for more on these and many other motor racing series

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54 comments on What is F1?s biggest rival?

  1. Clare msj said on 26th February 2009, 11:13

    I dont know if there will ever be a proper rival to F1, because even though it has it problems and controversies, it is still the place where most aspiring racing drivers, especially outside of the USA, aim to reach.

    I really enjoy wathcing the A1GP – but this year in particular it has struggled – cancelled races, missing teams etc. If maximum effort was put into that i think that would be the most likely to ever come close to F1 in the open-wheel popularity levels, but as it is still a young series, that would take time.

    GP2 is also good, but will never challenge F1 in the popularity stakes or prestige levels because, no matter how good the racing is, it is essentially only a feeder series for F1. Young drivers who enter GP2 do it with the aim of F1, GP2 isnt really where drivers aim to complete thier career when they start out.

    MotoGP is definitley the Motorbikes equivalent, or it certainly has been, but of late the 250s and 125s have often been more exciting, and WSBKs may threaten MotoGP’s top spot the way things seem to be going at the minute. And Rossi is definitely a key factor in the profile of MotoGP – in the same way Schumacher was in F1. Without him i think the live audience in several countries will drop somewhat.

    I dont really know much about the American series, only that Nascar is incredibly popular within the States, and by all accounts gives great access to the fans – something which F1 needs to take note of. The limitation to Nascar challenging F1 is the non-internationalness of it. F1 is globally popular, Nascar is not, so its hard to compare.

    If Formula One keeps going on self destruct mode though – losing teams, not reducing costs enough, political scandals, and inconsistent application of the rules and penalties to name but a few problems – and A1GP works on improving it’s profile and preventing problems such as those at the start of this season, I think it is that series that could potentially provide the biggest threat – the racing is good (with the cars being essentially equal, it means there is a wide variety of teams capable of winning), it is entertaining, the cost of attending is a fraction of that of the F1, with better access to the drivers and cars, it is an international series, which is independent of F1 and therefore not just a feeder series, and is becoming more popular year on year. Once it is fully established and a bit more consistent – A1GP could be really a interesting competitor to F1.

    All that said though, I think F1 will always be my favourite, theres just that history, and the prestige that comes with it. Monaco and its Grand Prix was recently voted the top international spoting venue in a poll by people in the UK, above many impressive football stadiums and Olympic venues – there is a reason for that.

  2. Ronald said on 27th February 2009, 14:44

    HI Keith, it’s been a while…

    it’s a very important question you raise here, and i think on teh face of it, there is no true world championship other than F1 and WRC. Nascar is too national and doenst figure, A1 is international but lacks the panache (although they are trying).

    however there is something about F1 that captivates, and i don’t think it’s bernie eclestone, mosley or even Ferrari.

    F1 is an institution, a hobbie, a passion. it has excisted and has always been at the forefront of wheeled technology. nothing can match it’s appeal even if they run the same calendar. true, racing does tend to be more on display in Nascar and other series, but when racing in F1 does take place it remains in people’s minds for decades. there are plenty of examples to give on that instance…

    In essence F1 has a larger than life aura that captivates, adding national pride from both Italy, germany and England and now india that fuel it, and driver clashes that define its history.

    I guess what i’m trying to say is that F1 in its entirety is like WRC in the mid 80’s when Group B was there. Out of this world and oozing with passion for machines that defied physics and the driver’s that controled them.

    And even with limitation such as the ones we are seeing now, when the economics re adjust, the factories will come back to race at limitless budgets but maybe the fuel and sound will be different, but the essence of Formula 1 will endure.

  3. I have to say, that I can not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my opinion, which could be very wrong.
    p.s. You have a very good template . Where have you got it from?

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