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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