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. well for me racing in an oval circuit is not a big deal cause i like watching racers battles in tight corners it would be nice to see a track has one oval corner like Indianapolis (which i used to like it a lot) but an oval track this is really like watching kids learning how to drive in a park cause tight corners or slow corners make u think n do ur best to make it to the optimum of braking points n defending ur place this is somthing i enjoy to see besides every driver in F1 pinnacle has his own way of driving & a different talent i dont see that in oval circuits n a lot of things else to say but as i said an oval corner in a track would be nice not an oval track thats my opinion

  2. I agree with this post. If Formula 1 wants to claim that it has the most sophisticated cars, it needs to be able to demonstrate that on a variety of circuits. Until then, these cars are only good for a very narrow range of circuits—wide, flat, smooth circuits only. How can you claim to be at the “pinnacle” of engineering when your car can barely handle a slightly banked turn at Indianapolis? Pathetic. If it were up to me, I’d turn Formula 1 cars into supercars that can do ovals, streets, road courses and even dirt roads with relative ease. That would earn massive respect. Such a series would provide an even more interesting challenge for the engineers, because they would have to compromise their designs to be reasonably effective over the whole season. That could also lead to more variety of winners throughout the season, for example, if some cars are better suited for ovals than road courses. And finally, in response to the idea that F1 cars are too fragile to race on ovals, they should consider that there is plenty of potential for oval circuits to utilize safety features like softer walls or stickier run-off or whatever to accommodate ever escalating speeds.

    1. I agree completely, F1 circuits are getting too easy and too similar, and if its going to turn into a spec series, it should be as challenging as possible for the drivers and the engineers – otherwise they might as well be in GP2 or Superleague Formula….
      At the moment, if you want to see cars tackling different circuits and street races, some long, some short, some very fast, you should watch Touring Cars and GT Racing….

  3. theRoswellite
    26th February 2009, 6:15

    Wow. Sounds like a fair number of folks are just as dismissive of oval racing as oval-heads are of all the geeky furiners driving them little formulabugs round ‘n round the streets.

    Make no mistake about the skills required to finish at the front of any kind of serious professional motor race.

    Also, I’m not sure I get the problems with F1 cars running on ovals…..other than the obvious physiological problems related to high sustained G’s, and that isn’t a car problem. The cars should be capable of any crash test requirements (Kubica/Canada), and you can’t tell me the teams can’t make the necessary adjustments without designing an entirely new car.

    Additionally, if you’re going to do an oval, do one. Don’t mix and match the Dayton combine, ditto Indy; gives us one good example of the best drivers in the world, in the best cars, on a very high speed oval. (The refueling can be worked out if the FIA wants to see it happen)

    Make the World Champion a champion of all the world.

  4. Of course ! would the tyres hold up ?
    Just dont let Tilke get anywhere near any cool US track

  5. When I first went to live in America, I was deeply sceptical of oval racing. I fitted perfectly into that bracket of people who believe that oval racing is easy, a simple job of just turning left for four hours.
    I had been raised on road courses, the famous F1 circuits of Spa and Monza, and knew very little about ovals. In America, NASCAR is totally dominant and overwhelming. The first series that grabbed my attention was the IRL, with cars that looked far more like my beloved F1 cars than NASCAR did.
    The first IRL race I saw was the 2006 St Petersburg race in Florida. It was the first street race I had ever seen and I loved it, and have been back there every year since.
    My lifelong ambition had always been to witness all three series of F1, IRL, and NASCAR. Up until that point, I had crossed two off my list. At the end of last year, I took the time to visit Daytona and the
    legendary banked corners and was blown away by my
    experience. By pure chance, I decided to buy tickets for the Daytona 500, and I can safely say it was the best racing experience I have yet witnessed.
    Some may scoff at $300 for a seat, plus pit and fanzone axcess, but not me. It was worth every penny to see the cars in their garages, being worked on feverishly by the mechanics. The crowd around Earnhardt Jnr’s car must have been ten deep, everyone of them wearing their favourite drivers shirts and hats.
    I suddenly thought of this scenario being played out around Raikkonen’s garage or Hamilton’s. ITV aren’t even allowed that kind of view, nevermind the fans.
    The racing itself was highly enjoyable, despite the early finish due to the rain. After watching that, I now realise how wrong I had been about oval racing, and how much I would have loved to have seen F1 run a race like that.
    The sound, the excitement, and sheer speed was awesome and awe inspiring. The biggest mistake F1 has ever made was turning its back on the North American scene and never venturing into oval racing seriously. Keith is
    absolutely right. F1 needs to dabble in every track
    configuration, and not just the traditional circuits.
    Its a bit like saying you are the worlds best mountain climber without every attempting to scale Mount Everest. Just try it, and see!

  6. yeah,would the tires hold up? it did not in 2005 on one banked curve let alone two . f1 would be faster there, they have shown on a straight can go over 350 kph, but it might not be safer because we see crashes and fatalities in cart/indy, how much more f1. im sure ralf became half the man or half the racer he is after the crash.2 years after the crash he’s in a DTM car.

  7. Conceptually racing F1 on ovals is a great idea. Financially it’s ruinous. They would have two build a car designed specifically for an oval including different tires and rims. And additional testing at ovals. And at high speed ovals there is limited braking, so how does KERS figure into that? Doesn’t compute in my mind.

    In these economic times I can’t see anyone backing this concept until we’re well out of the depression.

  8. Keith,

    Nice article but I’ve two things to mention.

    The 2000 Michigan 500 had an exciting finish, but that was because of the ‘Hanford Device’. The standard rear wing design was introduced to greatly increase drag and reduce downforce, making it very easy to slipstream. The Hanford device was introduced for safety reasons but had an artificial effect on the race too.

    In the past, you strongly opposed refuelling. I agree, races should be won and lost on the track. But a oval races always need to be relatively long a refuelling ban isn’t a good idea from a safety point of view.

  9. HOLY CRAP thats a lot of comments, but this one is directed at Loki back up at the top. From watching the video of Montoya/Andretti I learned that the constant passing was them trying to work out a strategy and see where they needed to be on the last lap to get the right timing of the pass. While I do agree that oval racing and F1 don’t necessarily mesh, there does seem to be a particular bit of strategy involved rather than just following the leader for 100 laps and making the pass at the last second. Don’t the oval leagues give points out based on the position of the car throughout the entire race as well? i.e. more points for leading laps, having led the most laps, etc… (I don’t watch any of those leagues, but I seem to remember something about this) If that is the case, then leading the race takes more importance and there is more incentive to pass the leader and be in P1 than there is to sit back and relax until the end.

  10. Jason, In Nascar I know that that for leading a lap, 5 bonus points are given. An additional 5 bonus points is given to the leader of the most laps.

    I’m unsure if there’s any bonus points awarded in the IRL.

  11. Well, we already have a night race, street circuits, historic tracks and Tilke-dromes – so why not an oval race? I really don’t see the problem with one a season for a bit of variety. And surely even a left turn that goes for 2 hours would be more interesting than Valencia….

    But it’s useless us all espousing what we’d like to see. If Bernie thinks he can make a buck out of it, then it’ll happen. If not, back to dreaming for us lot.

    1. The funny thing is that he would probably make a very good dollar on the deal, but he dose whatever he wants to do, even when it flies in the face of logic.

  12. Bernification
    27th February 2009, 1:37

    If F1 races on ovals, could they just do it behind closed doors and just tell us afterwards who won?

    I personally think the performance differences between the cars would just mean that there would be cars finishing laps apart. Hardly anyone would be on the same lap as another car. So overtaking would just be the faster cars lapping slower cars continually.

    Aren’t indy and cart spec series, using customer parts and engines, ie. less differences between cars, just down to set-up. If that’s so, there is very little likelyhood that F1 will perform the same or produce the same ‘exciting and tense finishes’.

    And surely, the whole point of giving points for leading laps was to engineer a reason to lead, and encorage taking the lead earlier, rather than slipstreaming until the end, and passing on the last corner?

    Should we change the points system just to encourage coverage and following in a different country? Maybe the drivers could be rewarded with medals here? And Frankfurters in Germany?

    Oh, and if we are going to have different types of circuits to test the pinnacle of motorsport, can we have a rally and a hill climb too!

    I think you catch my drift.

    I’m not in favour ;)

  13. I believe that the point to this debate is the fact that Formula One is labelled the ‘pinnacle of motorsport’ yet totally ignores one aspect of modern motorsport which is oval racing.
    How fascinating it would have been to have seen Schumacher or Alonso do a hot lap around the full
    Indianapolis course, as opposed to the horrible infield section. Believe me, I felt embarrassed when F1 raced there and only used half the original circuit, unlike the NASCAR and IRL series.
    And to top that, we expected the Americans to buy into F1 enmasse in the process. We are then, telling everybody that we have the best and safest racing cars in the world yet are unable or unwilling to race them on the same circuit as a stock car or Indy variant.
    This just does not make sense, and is why in many ways our sport has suffered in recent years. Indianapolis 2005 was the perfect example of F1 being exposed in the worst possible way, and all through lack of planning and poor judgement.
    F1 should, without question, consist of atleast two ovals and two street circuits. These circuits should be in this order. Daytona, Indianapolis, Monaco, Singapore, with the rest being traditional road courses. I would drop Bahrain, Sepang, and Valencia and bring back Imola and Hockenheim but in its original layout.
    Daytona I would be tempted to run before the 500, and say set it for 4.00pm so as not to be too late for the European audiences, yet enabling the fans to see the cars race under the lights.
    F1 is just, circuit wise, too predictable and bland with its latest venues. This would also raise the status of the sport in the new world, without interrupting too much of America’s traditional racing schedules.
    And don’t tell me it would be too expensive. For the 2009 spec cars the teams have already spent tens of millions on designing, development, and testing, on a concept still not proven to be successfull. F1 happily spends its fortune on this enterprise, yet cannot take a chance on changing its circuit concept.
    Safety is always paramount, but I have witnessed enough oval races Stateside to see that the safety
    precautions taken are superb, with nearly all super
    speedways now sporting safer barriers instead of concrete only walls, with plenty of runoff areas.
    Only then, can this sport be judged to be truly a world championship where only the VERY BEST prevails.
    Then, maybe, with a challenge infront of him, we can awake Raikkonen from his coma like state and getting him racing again.

  14. Really, F1 has technically raced on ovals before. From 1950-1960, points earned in the Indianapolis 500 counted toward the championship.

    Personally, I would like to see F1 return to this. If F1 is to race on an oval, it should be the biggest open-wheel oval race in the world, which the Indianapolis 500 is. It would be mutually beneficial to both Formula One and the Indy 500. It would provide F1 a major portal to the U.S. market, and it would strongly raise the pedigree of the Indy 500, which has declined quite a bit with the rise of NASCAR.

    Furthermore, with 26 full-time IndyCar drivers, the field is filled with 7 drivers and teams who are basically there to fill the 33-driver field and run wholly uncompetitive races. Instead of having this situation, IndyCar should let F1 teams come and race, making the field more competitive.

    Lots of things would have to happen. IndyCar would have to be willing to relax their technical regulations for that race and let F1 teams build their own cars, chassis, etc. and not have to rely on chassis supplied by IndyCar’s providers or be forced to use Honda engines. Tony George and Terror Dwarf would have to heal the right they obviously have, and neither men do particularly well at that sort of thing. And, of course, F1 teams would have to make lots of changes to provide for safety.

  15. One heck of a discussion here….

    Whoever mentioned Bristol up there, you’re exactly right. I have a good friend who has tickets- he needed to enter a lottery to get them and hit it after 5 years or so..lucky him, as some people spend 30+ years on the list and don’t get tickets. Bristol and Watkins Glen are his favorite tracks, and he attends the NASCAR races at both each season. Just gose to show that road racing is more popular with the NASCAR crowd than some may believe…

    I wuld like to see an oval race in F1, but if it were held in the U.S., there perhaps should be one other GP in this country that is on a good road course. Many Americans (such as myself) are attracted to F1 precisley because it is different than oval racing. If there is a cost-effective way to do it, the race would be a hit.

    1. F1 at Bristol would be… hilarious, wonderful and utterly wrong. Can you imagine Ecclestone trying to squeeze the Paddock Club in there?

  16. Yes Yes and Again Yes, definetly positevely they should do it. i remember when F1 first went back to indianpolis a lot of fuss was made about the banking and how the engine fluids would deal with it. And that was only one banked turn, i wonder what would be needed to adapt engines as well.

    but keep in mind, when there is a crash in Indy it takes out about half the field, so much for F1 with 20/22 cars no one would be left. but it would be cool nonetheless…

    i’ll vote for it

  17. I don’t like it. I’ve fallen asleep everytime I’ve tried to watch an oval race. Not worth it. Even if it’s not as easy as it looks, it’s even more boring than watching the Spanish GP….

  18. If F1 is to be the pinnacle of motor sport it should include a few events which are massively different and represent a different challenge. I think one endurance race(not 24 hours, maybe 3 or 4) and one oval at least should be on the calendar. allowing refuelling only at those events.

    Also as far as ovals, what about the smalle mile ovals/speedways, be amazing to see the cars go 140-200-140-200 like 300 times. less taxing than a superspeedway at 225+ for 95% of the time. and less dangerous…

    I’d love to see a 400+ mile oval event and a 3-4 hour endurance race at Le mans (full circuit) or another awesome track that currently doesn’t get much love but would work over a longer distance, Fuji or china, which over time would be killer, but at least have long enough straights for a rest

  19. that would be incredibly dull, just round and round and round far to repetitive!

  20. Ovals are a better fan experience because you can usually see the whole track from any seat in any grandstand. That helps sell tickets. But having said that, I find F1 races to be more interesting, because with the varying strategies it’s more like chess, whereas oval racing consists mostly nothing more than drafting and “giddy up go” and little more. Also, while IndyCars protect the driver unbelievably well, the concrete walls that surround them are a nasty hazard best avoided, and because of that oval races cannot be run in rain. I prefer F1’s road courses.

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