Why F1 should race on ovals

CommentPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.

But 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”

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. Shame the new circuits are all boring Tilke-a-dromes then isn’t it..!!

    2. I agree Adrian. They’ve lost their touch re. designing great new circuits. I wasn’t even that impressed with Singapore.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 … :-)

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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


    1. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. AmericanTifosi
    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.

  11. F1 fans moaning about the possibility of too much overtaking?! I thought I’d never see the day.

    I’d like to see one race a year on an oval circuit, probably Indy, just to see what would happen.

  12. Terrible idea. I used to watch the Champ Cars back in the day, and would happily watch a full race from a road course, but only the highlights from an oval (and even then I’d make sure I had something else to do at the same time).

    F1 can race on an oval as soon as they’ve raced around Road America.

    1. Here, Here! Awesome track!

  13. About a race being ‘too short’ if it wasn’t possible to refuel the F1 cars – how far is the current milage possible on a single tank of fuel?
    Couldn’t the oval race deliberatly be a short ‘Sprint’ race to make use of this? After all, Monaco isn’t the official race length, for no aparent reason.

    1. Monaco is shorter because of the nature of the track – the low average speed would mean a full 300km race distance would take well over two hours.

      That’d be fine by me, but probably not for most!

  14. I watched the Daytona 500 for the first time this year and was very impressed. I prefer single seaters to tin-tops as a rule and oval passes generally are not very exciting but it stuck me how great it was to go into the closing stages of a motor race and not know who was going to win it. In F1, by and large, it is a foregone conclusion from the final stops, if not earlier. Oval racing adds that dimension, especially on Superspeedways like Michigan.

    People have already commented that f1 cars are not designed for such racetracks but I would also say that care has to be taken over the choice of oval. For an F1 car to hit 230-240 mph on the straight is fine but to do it in the corner is ludicrous. One poster mentioned the Texas Motor Speedway CART race in 2001 that was cancelled due to the high speeds. As a counter argument: TMS has 24 degree banking as does Daytona making them unsuitable venues for modern single seaters. An oval such as Indy with shallower banking will require breaking in the corners and create overtaking opportunities, as well as limiting G-Forces.

    I would like to see a Grand Prix run on an oval however I don’t think it will ever happen. It would upset too many people. The drivers and teams would be concerned at having to learn a new discipline and would disguise these concerns by moaning about safety as usual. The F1 purists would see it as beneath them to watch a race with only left turns – a look over some of the responses to this excellent article should prove that.

    F1 has so much ‘historical inertia’ Everything new Bernie and Max propose is met with a wall of intolerance and a general wish to go back to days past. See moaning about racing in the far east, or at night, or regulation changes, standardisation, or medals instead of points. I fear oval racing may go the same way.

    I remember watching an interview with Schumacher on YouTube (which, typically I cannot find – will try after work) from about 2002 where, when asked about a possible switch to the US he said that, for him the risks of oval racing outweighed the possible gains. Boo hoo.

  15. Oval racing requires an asymmetrical weight distribution and tyres. Even at that, it would be very inefficient to run an F1 engine currently at an 18,000rpm rev limit at full throttle for a good portion of the circuit.

  16. I went to a bunch of oval races back in CART’s golden age of around ’93-’96. It is a spectator sport in a way that normal road courses are not – you can see the whole track, or most of it and there is more happening at one time than you could actually follow, so there is no down time except for yellows. But I don’t think it will travel well over TV to audiences not accustomed to it. You have to be there to really appreciate it and understand the speeds – TV slows it down and road races rarely sustain such speeds, especially since Hockenheim was emascualted.

    I also agree with an earlier commenter’s point that F1 is about dominance rather than parity, ovals would be kind of weird with only 2 cars on the lead lap.

    But to Keith’s point, as much as I love F1, I have to agree with Nigel Roebuck that CART in the mid 90’s was the greatest racing series on earth and that part of it was down to the drama of ovals mixed into the road and street circuits. The Cleveland airport didn’t hurt either :). But only part of it was down to the ovals, the rest was parity and a great driver stable for that period. That’s more of what F1 needs – competition, not necessarily passing. Passing is the symptom. The disease is that it really is not competitive.

    1. Absolutely agree about F1 (at least, in its current state) being about dominance rather than parity. An oval race needs some level of parity in order to be relevant (in modern times, at least; Nascar events in the 50s and 60s were sometimes won by upwards of a dozen laps). Nascar and IndyCar achieve that by being effectively spec series, and the reason that we still saw parity even when CART was an open series (the good old days with Reynard, Lola, and Swift duking it out) is because essentially, every team is racing a customer car, built by competing manufacturers that have essentially even resources. If every team in IndyCar, from the big three of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti-Green down to the smallest shoestring budget teams, built their own car like in F1, you’d have a totally different story.

  17. If you guys get a chance, google Pocono Raceway. It’s a triangle like race track that features turns from 3 different race tracks. Turn 1 is from a now defunct Trenton New Jersey Raceway, the second turn is based off of Indy, and the third turn is based off of the Milwaukee Mile.

    CART would race there, but then left and Nascar took over the track. Each turn is very different from one another so the pit crews really compromise some turns to suit the driver. The leaders in Nascar often get very spread out, but there’s lots of mid pack action.

    I’m sure F1 cars wouldn’t have a problem using the brakes too much, but the Nascar teams often set-up the cars with road course style set-ups. If F1 unlikely comes to an oval, or all a left turn track for that matter, Pocono or Indy would be the right place in my opionion.

    1. Pocono was my first thought on a good venue as well for the reasons stated. The added bonus for Formula One is that Pocono is only one hour away from New York City, which I’m sure the powers that be would relish being so close to.

    2. I live less than 50 miles away from Pocono and have seen one Sprint Cup race there. Honestly, there’s a better chance of Bernie selling off FOM and becoming a monk than there ever is of seeing F1 at Pocono. Here are a few reasons:

      – Pocono is one of only 3 tracks in NASCAR not owned by one of the two big speedway companies- ISC or SMI. There’s no way the owners, the Mattioli family, would ever put up the funds to host F1.

      – Honestly, everyone on the NASCAR circuit probably lists Pocono as their least favorite venue. The facilites are way outdated by F1 standards, and it’s a narrow track that often produces processional racing. It is easy to get to from NYC, but it’s out in the middle of open woodlands and while there are some casino resorts around, it’s nothing like what the F1 circus wants- people will be comparing it to Magny-Cours in no time.

      Nice concept, but it woulden’t happen in a million years……

  18. Only americans get oval tracks. to everyone else they are boring, me included.

    1. I disagree with you. I’m not an American, and I like to watch oval racing.

      so it is totally not true of what you said.
      I agree that not everyone wants to see ovalracing. but what you said is crap

  19. Nope… I disagree with you for once I’m afraid.

    Watching cars just go fast in circles at constant velocity is indeed boring.

    Well, to me it is – but I guess it’s subjective.

  20. I’m not sold at all.

    I turned over to Sky Sports one Sunday to watch Nascar and the spectacle of the cars going round in ovals made me turn over straight away.

    Seeing an F1 car pull out another’s slipstream to overtake it is nothing compared to seeing it outbrake it.

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