Why F1 should race on ovals


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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. CaughtFlying said on 26th February 2009, 5:43

    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

  7. 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.

    • 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….

  8. theRoswellite said on 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.

  9. Arthur954 said on 26th February 2009, 14:44

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

  10. The Limit said on 26th February 2009, 15:23

    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!

  11. ruudtobz said on 26th February 2009, 15:25

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. Pingguest said on 26th February 2009, 18:34


    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.

  14. 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.

  15. YeaMon said on 26th February 2009, 21:19

    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.

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