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. 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.

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