Why F1 should race on ovals

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IndyCar's final race of 2008 at Chicago

IndyCar’s final race of 2008 at Chicago

The F1 calendar features some of the greatest racing circuits in the world. To become Formula 1 world champion you must prove yourself on the 350kph straights of Monza, the tight confines of Monte-Carlo, and everything in between.

there’s one type of track missing from F1 racing, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the sport for decades. Here’s why I think it’s time for F1 drivers to race on ovalsBut there’s one type of track missing from F1 racing, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the sport for decades. Here’s why I think it’s time for F1 drivers to race on ovals.

Ex-F1 driver meets oval

Robert Doornbos last raced in F1 in 2006. He’s experienced the fearsome performance of a Formula 1 car – in fact he did so during the V10 era when the cars were even more powerful than today. And he’s raced at some of the calendar’s most spectacular tracks including Spa-Francorchamps, Suzuka and Interlagos.

After that you might think there isn’t much new left for him to experience in the world of top-line single seater motor sport. But you’d be wrong. He had his first encounter with an oval speedway testing for IndyCar team Newman-Haas-Lanigan this week. Here’s what he had to say:

It felt like going to a new school on the first day. I didn’t really know what to expect but I got a lot of information from the team but you have to do it for yourself.

The first five laps I thought ‘Oh my god, where did I end up?’ But that’s because you have to run at a certain pace and once you reach that pace its actually quite fun so we ended the day on a good note and I can go to bed with a smile.

I already got the bug and want to go faster and faster so that’s a good thing. Today was definitely the fastest I have gone in a race car and I am quite proud.

I have no idea what to expect with traffic. It must be something like driving in the middle of the night in China, the traffic is quite bad there. I will just take it as it comes. It’s a steep learning curve but I enjoy it like this.

Doornbos had just sampled the Miami Homestead oval for the first time. Last year the fastest lap in the IndyCar race at homestead was set by Ryan Briscoe at an average of 343.303kph. The fastest average lap speed typical seen during an F1 season is at Monza – around 250kph.

Oval racing is poorly understood in F1’s European heartland and viewed with some hostility and derision. But those who trot out tired cliches like ‘it’s easy because you only have to turn left’ should listen carefully to Doornbos’s words.

One comment posted here earlier this week when we discussed what F1’s biggest rival is was that ‘F1 is the pinnacle of motor sport‘. I think if F1 is to be the pinnacle of motor sport – and it should be – its calendar should present the ultimate motor racing challenge. Therefore, it has to include at least one oval.

Oval racing in single seaters is every bit as demanding as racing on a street circuit or road course – something Doornbos now has a whole new respect for. But the nature of the challenge is, obviously, very different. The courage required to race at such high average speeds is taken for granted. The skill lies in reading how the grip of the oval changes, working out which groove (racing line) to use, and getting through the inevitable traffic cleanly and quickly.

Reality check

F1 going oval racing would not be the work of a moment. For example, the cars’ safety structures would probably have to be re-designed to take into account the increased likelihood of striking a wall. Race distances at oval events would have to be doubled at least to ensure a running time comparable to what we get at an average Grand Prix.

But I’m convinced it is a more realistic idea than one might think at first glance. In the early 1990s the possibility of F1 racing on ovals was given serious consideration as the CART-run IndyCar series boomed in popularity. Silverstone looked at constructing an oval circuit using the southern portion of its track including the Stowe and Club corners.

There’s an obvious marketing incentive too: there is no better way F1 could increase its profile in America than by going there and putting on an oval race – in all likelihood at considerably higher speeds than IndyCar or NASCAR can manage.

I wouldn’t want to see too much of the calendar given over to oval racing – perhaps just one or two events in America. Say, Indianapolis plus one other track, perhaps near the putative USF1 team’s base in North Carolina.

I think the positives vastly outweight the negatives and it is in F1’s best interests to take this idea seriously. If not, one day it could find itself facing a rejuvenated IndyCar series with the mix of road, street and oval tracks that F1 lacks.

Do you think F1 should race on ovals? Ever been to an oval race? Have your say in the comments.

Update: this video is the best argument in favour of oval racing I can think of, and one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen. Juan Pablo Montoya vs Michael Andretti, CART, Michigan 500 in 2000.

Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick racing at Chicago

Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick racing at Chicago

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162 comments on Why F1 should race on ovals

  1. Mouse_Nightshirt said on 25th February 2009, 10:02

    After watching that clip, I still don’t necessarily see the attraction. Trading places for 8 or so laps just because they keep swapping each others slipstream doesn’t quite do it for me. The final lap was fun to watch, but I don’t think the rest of race is particularly relevant.

    You can’t argue with the speed, but speed is relative. Going through Eau Rouge with your foot planted is breathless, whereas the much higher top speed is lost to me on a simple oval.

  2. Jesper said on 25th February 2009, 10:15

    “The final lap was fun to watch, but I don’t think the rest of race is particularly relevant.”

    My thoughts exactly!

    Make the F1 tracks of today faster instead! I really miss the old Hockenheim for instance.

    And for those who like oval racing: what’s wrong with the existing Nascar and Indycar?

    /J

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 25th February 2009, 14:18

      Like I said, I think the ultimate single seater series should include examples of all types of tracks those cars can race on – including an oval or two.

      On the Michigan race, what made that so exciting (for me, anyway) was that the two drivers were jostling to be in the best position at the start of the final lap to lead at the finishing line. This is exactly the sort of thing we used to see in F1 – Jackie Stewart once won a classic Monza slipstreamer by running a long fourth gear so he wouldn’t have to shift up between Parabolica and the finish line as he and the inevitable pack of cars hurtled towards the flag.

      Here we have two drivers side-by-side at 240mph-plus, one hemmed in by a wall and coming up fast on another car, yet he kept his foot in to win the race. You can’t tell me that’s boring!

      I don’t buy “oval racing is boring” any more than when people (often NASCAR fans) say “F1 is boring” – this is just a cultural difference. Both disciplines can produce extremely exciting racing.

  3. Martin Bell said on 25th February 2009, 10:37

    Isn’t oval racing designed, like most American sports, around ad breaks, so that spectators can go get another burger and supersize Coke without missing anything? I really can’t see the appeal of F1 racing on ovals. A bit like watching racehorses doing dressage. Brooklands did start as an oval, but in the 1930’s infield sections were built to give the spectators what they wanted to see- European style cicuit racing. They knew back then that oval racing simply did not offer enough entertainment.

    • Indy was built so the fans could see the whole track instead of a couple of corners. I like the idea of oval racing in F1 as it’s another challange for the drivers. I never used to respect oval racing as being British i thought is was too easy, that was until i watched the homestead highlights in 2006 just to see what it was like. As 2011 is the 100th anniversary since the first indy 500 (i think) it would be nice to have an f1 race then but i can’t see that happaning sadly. Also seing ovals being added will make a nice change to these mega bland Tilke tracks.

  4. Sorry Keith, I can’t think of anything i’d LESS like to see than F1 racing on ovals. To be perfectly frank, I am posting this without even reading the article – I’m sure there are some valid points noted above, but to be honest, I’m just not interested in the slightest. I’m sure that others must agree.
    Oval racing belongs in America, and should stay in the history books for Europe.
    End of rant.

    • Aha, and there is one of the fault lines in this debate–should F1 remain a purely European sport, or should it diversify and back up its claim to crowning the “world” drivers champion by hosting a globalised variety of races? Personally, I quite like the variety of having the glamourised vision of night races in Asian metropolises, the idea of an oval race in America, etc.

  5. Clare msj said on 25th February 2009, 10:51

    Really interesting article Keith, Ive never really thought about Oval racing for F1 before, but after reading this I quite like the idea of an oval race on the F1 calendar, but like I think Singapore should remain the only night race, I think, if they were to ever do it, there should only be one, to keep the novelty of it so to speak.

    Watching the cars go round the banked Turn 13 at Indy the other year really was amazing, one of my favourite parts of the weekend. I know the cars would have to be completely different to cope with that for an entire race, given that they could barely cope with that small section at Indy, but I would quite like to see a whole race like that. Only one mind – its why Singapore and Monaco are successful despite there being little chance to overtake – the uniqueness. It really would test a drivers all round ability like no other Formula would, as it would include an even wider variety of challenges. As long as it didnt replace a ‘classic’ venue then I would be ok with it!

  6. Sorry, I have to respectfully disagree – what’s exciting about two drivers leapfrogging eachother repeatedly by getting into the others slipstream? That just makes it chance who ends up winning. I was bored after a minute or two.

  7. S Hughes said on 25th February 2009, 11:01

    Really don’t like the idea. From what I’ve seen, it’s so boring. I really like seeing the F1 cars around beautiful, winding, intricate circuits and all the rules and problems around them.

  8. I’d love to see it, once or twice a year. Maybe even more – oval tracks have more variety to them than you’d imagine so knocking out some Tilke clones for (say) Indianapolis, Motegi and either Rockingham or the Lausitzring in Europe would be a net gain.

    Safety and car design make it next-to impossible, and I’m glad Adam mentioned CART’s Texas debacle, where the drivers were blacking out, because it might be the final stopper on F1-standard cars on ovals.

    But you only have to listen to drivers who experience both to see that ovals aren’t the poor relations. Doornbos is just the latest – we spoke to ex-Honda tester Darren Manning when he was still with Foyt Racing last year and he raved about how exciting they were.

    The final race of the last IRL season was just edge-of-the seat stuff, with Helio Castroneves having to work his way up from the back row to win the race AND get the bonus points for leading the most laps to stand any chance of winning the title. Scott Dixon only needed to come 8th to be confirmed as champion but he raced Helio side-by-side all the way to the line, mile after mile, with Ryan Briscoe inches behind. Amazing stuff.

  9. The whole going round & round and swapping positions on every 1/2 lap was tiresome, but the final was great and this was because of the backmarker infront of them.
    The traffic makes it interesting, which means F1 should field a few more cars at the ovals, maybe, and make sure they do not crash at the start :-)

    I’m not entirely convinced about the prospective of 1-1.5h oval racing … :-)

  10. Scott Joslin said on 25th February 2009, 11:37

    Hmm, I tend to disagree that F1 needs to race on Ovals to prove it is the pinnacle of Motor sport. I mean Rally Driving or Ice racing provides a challenge that needs a unique skill set, but I would not expect F1 to adopt the format of those races just to prove it is the best of the best.

    I think Doornbos’s comments can be taken with a pinch of salt, he is bound to big up Indycar as all the doors in F1 have been closed to him, and he can say whatever he wants to makes him feel better when he goes to sleep at night!

    There are a couple of practicle & Financial reason’s why this concept falls over. It has been mentioned by Adrian earlier, the costs to convert the F1 cars to be aerodynamically efficient on an oval would mean almost a second car being created, and in a time that F1 needs to cut costs that poses a bit of a conflict.

    Secondly, I think it would do nothing to enhance F1’s reputation in North America. If what you are looking for is global acceptance of F1 as being the best and most challenging form of racing then we are pretty much there, the only people that tend not to buy in to this is the American’s who has been brought up with Oval racing all their lives. Now if F1 were to attempt to copy Oval racing by just dipping it’s toe in the water with one or two races, it would be dilutting it’s unique brand strength, because F1 on Ovals would just not be American oval racing to the North American Public, therefore giving the American’s another reason to critise F1. I believe if you cannot do anything extremely well then don’t do it, as someone else will, and the American’s have Oval racing nailed, right the way down to the way they broadcast the race to the public to the mass amount of access to the sport they open up to everyone.

    I enjoy Oval racing occasionally, some races are exciting at the end, mainly due to the long caution periods that bunch the cars up. But I feel it is very dangerous and would not want to see any more crashes that we currently already have in F1.

  11. Pete Walker said on 25th February 2009, 12:02

    Some people are stating that the cars swap positions too much, making the outcome almost random. I’ll be honest, a few years back I used to view oval racing in much the same way. But after following it for a while I came to really appreciate its virtues.

    One of the joys of oval racing is the strategy, knowing when to push and move forward and when to hold back, save fuel and the car by running in other car’s slipstreams. Its a bit like a Tour de France rider knowing when to make a break from the peleton and go for a stage win, I suppose. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be absolutely [i]fascinated[/i] to see how the current crop of F1 talent coped with this challenge.

    I’m sure the race would churn up some unusual results, playing to different strengths of cars and drivers, which is always a bonus for motorsport spectators.

  12. Scott Joslin said on 25th February 2009, 12:21

    Keith – Here is an interesting argument about overtaking from SpeedTV – Interestingly Peter Windsor here argues for F1 and not Indycar

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvUYz9f1XDc

    • F1Yankee said on 26th February 2009, 0:15

      i wish that discussion went on for another 10 minutes. both windsor and waltrip make strong arguments. obviously, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

  13. Back in the 60s they used to do a 1000km Monza sportscar race using the FULL circuit – i.e., one lap of the ‘normal’ Monza circuit, then one lap of the oval & so on. I’d pay good money to see modern F1 cars attempt that!

  14. Chalky said on 25th February 2009, 12:54

    I think F1 should race on 1 oval and that’s Indy. We go back to when the Indy 500 was part of F1. However, given the IRL use the Indy 500 I’d settle for a 2nd 500 for F1. You can’t expect a miracle and have a giant mixed field of cars for the Indy 500 as much as some of us would like to see it.

    The problems with F1 on an oval:
    Car strength:
    Now as Keith points out the F1 cars would need to be built to withstand a crash test on an oval, but given the strength of a F1 car this should not be a problem.

    Re-passing slipstream racing:
    The main point most of you have raised is to do with the endless passing and re-passing. Nascar didn’t used to be like this until they had to introduce restrictor plates for the super speedways, as the cars were getting too fast. Pre restrictor plate racing was IMHO much better as the really quick drivers could break away from the pack. If F1 can run on an oval without restrictor plates, then you would not get a bunched field.

    Re-fuelling and race distance:
    The main problem would be designing a car that could run on an oval without having to refuel as refuelling will be banned soon. If that’s the case, you’d probably find that the race would be too short and this is the only drawback to the plan.

  15. AmericanTifosi said on 25th February 2009, 13:00

    No no no no no no no no no no no please no. I would rather have F1 cars race underwater than on an oval.

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