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. Keith, what about a pool? ;-)

    1. … I meant poll :-)

    2. Yay!

      Wait – I can’t swim. :(

    3. well, get some lessons then

  2. Alastair: “The drivers necks would get way sore.”
    – That’s the lamest attempt at an excuse ever.

    Keith: “F1 could increase its profile in America – (…) at considerably higher speeds than IndyCar or NASCAR can manage.”

    – No, they wouldn’t go faster than IndyCars. Around the year 2000 ChampCars were supposed to have a race at a super-fast oval in Texas. During tests the cars were reaching speeds beyond 400kph. But it occured that some drivers were fainting because of the forces straining their bodies. The race was stripped from the calendar.
    Anyway, I’d love to see F1 race on an oval. Oval tracks have the potential of producing the most entertaining races.
    It’s hard to understand it by the clip Keith gave, because it’s taken out of context. And also – it’s more fun when the track is a 4 turn oval, just like Indy.
    Apart from that, it’d be easier for an F1 fan who doesn’t now IndyCars appreciate it if he saw e.g. Hamilton against Massa on that clip ;)

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

    Isn’t that how a lot of people would describe F1?

    An oval is a brilliant idea; what a spectacle! For all those people who are complaining that it would be boring or would detract from F1; it’s one race out of 20! As much as Europeans don’t like to admit it, the United States is the biggest market in the world and having and oval race in the United States makes plain business sense. It would draw American viewers to watch the other races as well, increasing total viewership, attracting more sponsors and therefor more money and better racing.

  4. Boston F1 Fan: That is such a closed statement. yes the US has a large market, but an oval is dull, there is little skill you just have to have big balls! surely haveing nascar and indy driving round in ovals is enough, it would be better market sense to go to a US Track and influence the US in that way.

    Do something different rather than going with the norm!

  5. Well after F1, Indycars is probably my favourite motorsport and like Keith I think F1 needs to cover all types of tracks so I’m sold on the idea. Also, I don’t understand how anyone can say side-by-side racing for multiple laps at 220mph with inches deciding the postions and the cars with wheels almost interlocked isn’t extremely difficult and exciting (as the Chicagoland race has proven in the last few years).

    The main problem is that F1 cars would need completely different packages for high banked courses – the IRL use a separate package for the ovals and the road courses.

    Maybe Keith could manage a mini-interview with someone from Dallara about the changes that are required for a single-seater to race on an oval and perhaps ask someone from Bridgestone about what changes they would need for their tyre compounds after what happened to Michelin in 2005!

  6. Well probably with the new rules in aerodynamics. They can now do an oval race. In the passed 5 year or so, Formula 1 cars produces tremendous amount of down force that when they do it on oval circuits the tires then to shatter. If we go back to what happened during the 2005 US GP. Most teams who had issues with the tires shattering had to ban the cars from running with just 1/4 of the oval part of the whole oval circuit. That was the Michellin’s part … nwo for Bridgestone tires I think it would also not last that much if they would run it on a full oval.

    The track itself had something to do with it. Some Oval tracks like Indiana was altered. They used diamond cutters to create deep grooves on the track which also lead to creating sharp edges that when an F1 car runs on it coupled with huge amount of downforce the tires will really not last.

    The purpose of this grooves was clearly to aid other series’ get more mechanical grip out of those left handed ovals. making the race safer. I think we all know that no other open wheel series can match the down force level that an F1 car creates. So this is I think one of the reasons why F1 doesn’t do oval racing before.

    Now though, with the new rules in aerodynamics. About 50% of the downforce was lost with the new design so I think FIA and Bernie can look at it. It would be nice to get F1 back to the US.

  7. Sam: “That is such a closed statement. yes the US has a large market, but an oval is dull, there is little skill you just have to have big balls”

    Did you read the article at the beginning of this page, or just make a post mindlessly? Stating “____ activity takes no skill” is the most closed statement you could possibly make.

    Quoth Keith: “But those who trot out tired clichés like “it’s easy because you only have to turn left” should listen carefully to Doornbos’s words.”

    Go to youtube, search for “Fifth Gear Nascar” where they discuss the challenges of driving on an Oval from a BRITISH perspective. I’m not speaking as a hick American; I follow F1 and find NASCAR and Indy pretty boring. However, I feel that seeing how F1 tackles driving around and oval or a four-corner Indy-style would be incredible.

    If nothing else and you end up correct that driving around an oval for F1 drivers requires no skill and just “big balls”, we would find for sure which pilots have the biggest balls. That alone would make it worth it. Speaking as a Hamilton fan, I think it would be Kimi.

  8. Or Kubica.

  9. Boston F1: dont you think though that the fact that there is already Indy and Nascar available that F1 could explore something a little different in the US?
    As a spectacle F1 primarily is about going fast, agreed but it is also about negociating difficult tracks and different demands, i just dont see how an oval track is going to offer that.

    1. I can’t think of anything more different to a road course than an oval.

    2. Agreed, ajokay. While Nascar and IndyCar’s oval races may be the most visible American motorsports, road racing is certainly more than available here as well–IndyCar’s road and street circuits, American Le Mans, Grand-Am, numerous national touring car series–even Nascar’s three road courses are great races. Doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a F1 road race in America (the big crowds at Indy showed there is), but an F1 oval race would be something else entirely.

  10. The problem with f1 on ovals is that f1 races unfortunately only rarely ‘go down to the wire.’ That video of Montoya and Andretti is indeed great, but what are the real probabilities that f1 oval races would give us anything resembling that? One idea, though probably not very workable, would be a solution like that at the Indianapolis track, but using much more of the length of the oval – actually, it would possible to use almost all of an oval with the exit and entrance to an enclosed course being very close together.

    One more thing: did anyone else catch the American commentator referring to the slipstream as the ‘wind-shadow’? I kinda like that.

  11. I would love to see an oval race in f1, preferably Indianapolis. Thinking though the drivers would need a spotter like in NASCAR and Indy car to watch out for there driver.

    1. I remember that. The ‘you can see him’ stuff seemed a bit pointless…

  12. I’m not sure I’d like to see F1 on an oval because then I may as well watch Indy cars. Having said that I don’t mind if a part of the race is on the oval like they have done previously…

  13. Personally, I can see the attraction for 1 race a year on an oval race. but then it would be hard for the teams to have to virtually recreate their cars just for 1 race because of ultra safety regulations. would be interesting, but hard.

  14. Imagine how many of the 18 or 20 cars would survive 2 hours without being turned into bags of carbon shards. Yes, that’s real exciting. I have enjoyed an oval CART race or two, e.g., Nazareth, Phoenix, tracks with actual and varied corners, but at the end of the day its too dangerous. And if people gripe about safety cars determining the race, and “fuel-economy-racing,” then this is not for you.

  15. If we are to have it all you need
    Ovals Pavement
    Ovals Dirt

    Now that would be a great series to watch if they could find that kind of balance.

    In truth I just can picture F1 on an oval. If they did they would need a big one like Indy or Daytona but I just cant see it working.

    1. I think the dirt oval is a bit far fetched, at least ovals and road/street courses have one thing in common – a hard surface. F1 on dirt, now that would be silly.

    2. I think you can’t drive with a F1 car on dirt. they don’t have any traction control, and a huge of power. I think the car will spin around just before you know

  16. That Montoya vs Andretti finale is the first thing I remembered when reading this post, and that’s what you get when on a series that’s built to give advantage to the car running behind. False overtaking. Countless overtaking moves every lap. It just gets as boring as no overtaking at all.

    I know a sim can’t really be used to compare, but we have no other way of doing it, and seriously, any street or race circuit is waaay difficult than any oval.

  17. Guiferrarissimo
    25th February 2009, 17:09

    Much better than ovals are the wonderful circuits USA have: I would love to see F1 races in circuits like Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta and Road America (even Sebring!). Wait, can you guys just imagine F1’s accelerating through the Corkscrew?
    These are real challenging tracks, unlike the boring Tilke’s experiments. With so many great “old-school european-style” tracks in USA why the – rather expensive – idea of going oval ?

    1. They are great tracks and I’d love to see F1 race on them. But unless they spend vast amounts on extending run-offs, building enormous paddock facilities, and probably getting rid of awesome corners like The Corkscrew and The Kink for safety reasons, it isn’t going to happen.

  18. And yes, I agree with Scott Joslin above, F1 on ovals will just be F1 diluting itself.

  19. I’m not for ovals in F1 there are plenty of series running ovals already. As a matter of fact the United States needs more road racing! I would not mind 1 oval event, I think that would make it special and sort of a novelty in the calendar.

    Most people here don’t even know what formula 1 is, maybe running the F1 cars at indy might be a way to promote the sport in america.

  20. F1 should definitely have an oval, Indy I’d say. Yes they would have to take it into account in the design but if it made the cars safer on normal circuits then it wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would add more variation to a season blighted by Tilke tracks, it would make F1 more popular in the States, and we would see the cars reach close to their potential top speed. It would add to the challenges drivers face over the season and surely cement F1 as the worlds leading series. It’s a winner all round.

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