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.

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

  1. beneboy said on 25th February 2009, 18:40

    I’ve started watching the odd NASCAR race last year and although I’m no expert I’ve found the ones I watched to be interesting.

    I’d love to see F1 cars on the Oval at Indy and maybe one or two others (maybe Rockingham so Britain could have two GP’s too).

    The F1 tracks are starting to get a bit generic since they’ve built all of the new ones & ripped up most of the old ones. A few Ovals would add in some much needed variety & could help attract a few more fans in America.

  2. @ Christian
    “I’m not for ovals in F1 there are plenty of series running ovals already.”
    – In the US, but in Europe there are none.

    “As a matter of fact the United Stated needs more road racing!”
    – And Europe (and the rest of the world) needs more oval racing, and that’s what the topic is about. ;)

    There are oval tracks in Germany (Lausitzring) and in Britain (Rockingham), but both of those countries have a Grand Prix already, so we’d need to have the venue elsewhere. The US just happens to be the perfect candidate.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 25th February 2009, 19:23

      I think the problem with those venues as well is how hard it is to predict the climate. You can’s race on an oval in the wet.

      Rockingham’s a spectacular place. I went there for the first time a couple of years ago, and it’s as if someone tore a chunk out of America and dropped it in the middle of Northamptonshire. It’s a terrible shame it never gets used for what it was built for any more.

  3. Jonatas said on 25th February 2009, 19:37

    Sure!! After they add ovals to the calendar, then we can add gravel too. Then F1 will truly be the pinacle of motorsport!

  4. I’m sorry, I can’t even watch a full irl race on ovals…so boring. In F1 the cars aren’t equal speed, therefore there wouldn’t even be close racing…..

  5. Stephen Higgins said on 25th February 2009, 20:40

    IndyCars and NASCAR racers are desinged for ovals.

    F1 cars are not.

    End of story.

  6. pSynrg said on 25th February 2009, 20:50

    I’ve tried to get into open wheeled oval racing over the years. Occasionally enjoyed the Indy 500 and the like. There’s always something missing though, as much as I respect the speed, intensity and definite skill of the pilots (come on, they ain’t exactly driving). Watching some of last years reunified series it was always the circuit based races that were the most interesting and indeed exciting, especially in the wet.
    Watching the Michigan 2000 Mon/And battle again, just now kind of summed it up nicely. It was terrifyingly fast, it was extreme and the pilots showed considerable skill but it left me kind of cold.
    Your turn, my turn, now you, now me etc. a bit like basketball, until some random event is thrown into the equation (back marker).
    For me the lack of overtaking in F1 although not great for the masses is precisely what makes it interesting. In F1, an overtake is an exception rather than a rule and although it seems to contradict the idea behind a race it’s what makes it for me.
    Motorbike races suffer similar to oval’s – all the right ingredients, thrilling skilful riding but ultimately does nothing for me…

  7. whoever has the less drag would win, ovals are for spec series. Also I think the cars would be too quick for a flat-out track, it would have to be a short track. eg:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firestone_Firehawk_600

  8. Terry Fabulous said on 25th February 2009, 21:28

    Absolutely Yes.
    It is a legitimate form of racing and one that is uniquely challenging.
    As for adapting the cars, we always here the techo’s rabbit on about hwo the cars have to be engineered to get around Monaco with steering lock and that sort of thing..

    Well Tech your cars for oval racing boys we are going stateside. YEEE HAAWWWWW!!!!!

    I reckon it would be great to watch.

  9. Chalky said on 25th February 2009, 22:03

    Rockingham’s oval is too short.
    I watched 2 CART races there. They should have extended the straights between 2 & 3 and 3 & 4.

    I’ve also driven it too. It’s a shame as F1 would be too quick for it and I doubt they’ll extend it ever.

  10. Never thought of it but i think it’s a fantastic idea, i loved that video you posted, and not because of the multiovertaking as i agree that too much of anything isn’t good, in fact i don’t have a problem with F1 2008 overtaking possibilities, they are fine to me. What i did like about that video was the strategic depth of the racing, really like a game of chess were the best one is he who can anticipate a greater amount of his opponents future moves, except it’s happening at 200+ mph, plus your brain starts to think about what those guys have to do in terms of weight shifting, grip, line (make that the right line for the next 4 curves), backmarkers, slipstreaming/overtaking frequency. It’s a lot of fun it seems and in fact i’ve made it a resolution to watch Indy this year as i very much doubt F1 will ever do this.

    So it seems there are two downsides so far: the technical aspect of safety/feasibility, and i’d be surprised if F1 can’t figure this out. The second one being the close mindedness of a lot of people that simply say it can’t be done, americavseurope, oval takes no skills, etc. which either indicates a lot of prejudice or little knowledge of what goes behind oval racing.
    And this is coming from someone who can’t watch nascar as it bores me to tears, but i’m very clear and have a lot of respect on what goes on behind the sport as such. Personally i don’t like spec series much, so F1 doing it sounds great to me. Once per season would work great.
    The possible third objection being that a non spec series would result in some cars disappearing into the distance. I don’t think it would be that different from circuit racing, but if it does and turns out to be a failed experiment, can it seriously be any worse than Valencia 08? all i remember about it was fernando’s early crash, massa’s funky pitstop and kimi’s engine, that’s it. And yes i know the gp2 one was ok.

  11. Robert said on 25th February 2009, 22:24

    That video was AMAZING!

  12. manatcna said on 25th February 2009, 22:51

    I wouldn’t watch it

  13. it would be interesting to see f1 cars on the oval but it would be just contradicting cutting costs in f1. Crash tests, engine, aerodynamics etc. and also this is my opinion to be the pinnacle of motorsport u dont need to copy another sport but come up with a fresh creative innovation to make it great, however sadly there is no colin chapman or ken tyrell anymore. and also will the oval race track safety comply with fia rules. the video was amazing by the way however f1 has had its fair share of great finishes ie senna vs mansell 86 estoril or jerez.

  14. TommyB said on 25th February 2009, 23:25

    Did you see the last race of the IRL 2007 season? Side by side to decide the championship. That is awesome

  15. The biggest problem I have with the current mainly Oval series (NASCAR and IRL) is that all the full course cautions, due to the extreme high speed of the tracks, makes the races artificially close.

  16. Before the advent of F1, many European GPs were held on ovals like Avus in Germany and the old Monza. They were phased out for safety reasons – and this at a time when death was one of the accepted risks of motor racing. The fact that there was a long history of road circuits in Europe also contributed to the loss of interest in ovals.

    Why Americans went the other way and concentrated on oval racing I am not sure, unless it has something to do with the fact that America’s cities tend to be laid out in grid patterns and country roads are straight (except in New England), thereby providing no suitably interesting ready-made circuits.

    But if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed must go to the mountain, and American series have included more and more road and purpose-built circuits over the last couple of decades. Even NASCAR includes a few road circuits in its calendar these days.

    That is an unspoken admission that mere speed is not interesting enough in itself – that route leads to the crazy situation of restrictor plates on the cars for the faster ovals. NASCAR has reached the limit of human endurance in the quest for speed alone and must devise other ways of entertaining the public. And that means corners, unbanked, in both directions and of various configurations. Cue the road courses.

    Oval racing in the States will continue but its importance will fade as time goes on and the public discovers that road racing is much more relevant to their own driving experience. It is possible that the oval will survive only in such places as it has in Europe – and that means dirt track racing, great entertainment and fun but hardly suited to be a premier motor sport.

    I think your wish comes too late, Keith. The last refuge of oval racing, the US of A, is already beginning the painful transfer to road circuits and there will be no going back. Ovals have had their moment in the history of motor sport but they have become too dangerous given the potential speed of modern race cars. The classics like the Indy 500 may survive but the era of the dominance of road courses has arrived at last.

    • Interesting comment! I definitely agree that the number of options for a road racing fan in America has increased compared to 30 years ago, with IndyCar, ALMS, Grand-Am, and numerous touring car series all eking out a sustainable existence. But I have to say, I don’t see any evidence for a cultural shift to road racing, or any signs that ovals are an endangered species. If it ever comes to America, I doubt it would be for another 30 years, at least. Nascar has so completely taken over the public’s image of motor racing in America and has become so politically charged that the young, international-looking, tech-oriented, college-educated demographic where F1 might seem most able to breed a new generation of fans (and where soccer and the English Premiere League is succeeding in making inroads) is totally repulsed by the mention of motor racing in any form as a political principle. (Which is a shame for all forms of racing.)

      “Oval racing in the States will continue but its importance will fade as time goes on and the public discovers that road racing is much more relevant to their own driving experience.”

      Frankly, I think that a country in which 90% of its drivers drive an automatic transmission suggests that its general public is not too concerned about their own driving experience in the way that a road racing fan might be.

      “Even NASCAR includes a few road circuits in its calendar these days.”

      Actually, Nascar has had road courses on the schedule since 1958 at Riverside. The importance of road racing in Nascar has neither declined nor risen since then–the appeal has always been for road racing fans to see their heroes come in and have a chance at winning, and for the Nascar fans to see their heroes attempt to adapt in an environment where many of them are clearly out of their element.

      “That is an unspoken admission that mere speed is not interesting enough in itself – that route leads to the crazy situation of restrictor plates on the cars for the faster ovals. NASCAR has reached the limit of human endurance in the quest for speed alone and must devise other ways of entertaining the public.”

      Nascar has never been on a quest for speed–it’s always been looking for competition. I would note that the hardest ticket to get in Nascar for the past few decades isn’t the flat-out, 200 mph superspeedways of Daytona or Talladega–it’s Bristol Motor Speedway, the 0.533 mile, 30-degree-banked stadium oval where average speeds are on the order of 120 mph or less. This is a track where, when the field takes the green flag, the driver in 43rd place is already over half a lap down on the leader, where the traffic is constant, and a well-executed bump-and-run is considered a mark of skill. To fans, it’s Nascar at its best and closest to its roots. Because in truth, Nascar has never been about pure speed (in contrast to Indy cars, where “And it’s a new track record!” is the most famous call at Indy). It’s about the strategy and tactics of racing cars that have far more power than appropriate for its grip levels, and the various tactics that ovals in their many forms (from the dynamic draft packs of the superspeedways to the jostling for position at short tracks) present to the drivers. So, despite the increasing availability of road racing to American fans I’m not at all convinced that ovals are on their way out in America. Not to mention that at a grass-roots level, Nascar and oval-style racing has a leg up because the cost of entering a $500 junker in an enduro at your local dirt track off the highway is much easier than getting a road racing license and taking a well-performing car to a road course.

    • Oval racing (at Brooklands) started because the British government wouldn’t sanction racing on public roads, which was the usual practice in Europe, especially France. The ‘British’ Grand Prix was actually held on a road circuit in Ireland….
      I think the American wooden ovals started for more or less the same reason – the cars were not allowed to race on the streets, and of course the spectators could see all the action too. There was also the development of dirt circuits too, but I am not sure how much they influenced the ovals. As I understand it, road racing in America did not really take off until after the end of prohibition, when there were a lot of powerful cars with nothing to do – but they also got used on the ovals too….

    • It’s my understanding that oval racing in America first caught on as dirt track racing at county fairs round the turn of the century (which continues to this day), and the paved ovals were a direct descendant of the dirt tracks. (Take the Milwaukee Mile, whose use as a motor circuit predates Indianapolis and was originally a horse track.) It wasn’t all that many decades ago that the USAC Indy car championship included rounds on dirt on their schedule. Road racing on public highways was also astrong tradition–in fact, I recall Jules Verne including a race across southern Wisconsin in one of his novels–and wasn’t banned until the 50s after the accident at the Watkins Glen street course. It was in the aftermath that the road courses that are classics today like the Glen, Road America, and Laguna Seca were built.

  17. Steve K said on 26th February 2009, 0:37

    NASCAR might run 34 races on Ovals (some twice a year) but they are all very different in length, smoothness and banking. A short Track in Bristol, .533mi, is banked to high hell while Indy is flat and square and 2.5mi. Some ovals are smooth and some are rough (depending on the last time it was paved). NASCAR actually has a large variety of tracks.

    This weekend ill be in Vegas rooting on the before mentioned Juan Pablo Montoya on a 1.5 mi progressively banked Tri-Oval drinking a cold one. It’s a ton of fun if you give it a chance.

  18. TommyB said on 26th February 2009, 1:10

    F1 drivers should just race the Indy 500 that would be awesome!

    • Steve K said on 26th February 2009, 1:19

      Would need more than 33 starting spots if that were the case. How about the top F1 drivers attempt to qualify?

    • Great idea, but sometimes the race is the same weekend as the Monaco GP, so that prevents most from entering. Also, with nearly a month of qualifying and practice leading up to the 500, it would almost totally exclude anyone in F1 from entering as a one-off participant.

  19. motion said on 26th February 2009, 3:20

    I don’t see much thought given to sustainable F1 & costs. The US series are finding it hard to merge due to the excess oval car engineering costs and the US domestic dollars are even failing the team owners in NASCAR.

    The oval owners actually expect bucket loads of money rather than losses. With F1/CVC dialing in track losses they expect subsidised from the public purse it is all heading down the gurgler with public deficits everywhere let alone thinking about getting back into the US where you have to pay the piper.

    But wasn’t it terrific revisiting Mr Instinctive Montoya, to spite the purists he could still turn the drafting lottery into something else.

  20. srilnakanf1fan said on 26th February 2009, 3:56

    i think F1 needs to race in ovals. no matter how much i hate Ovals, if people can race in the tough Monza, spa, Monaco circuits, they should be also tested on ovals. to be a champion on the pinnacle of motorsports, you should be tested to your limit. so, atleast one race couldnt hurt, hopefully, Miami, Motegi, or even bring back the Indy500!

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