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?
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.
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.
Le Mans Series
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 – 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.
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 – 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
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 – 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 – or better? Have your say in the comments.
Read more: What F1 can learn from other racing series