WINNIPEG (CUP) 8212; Every second Sunday morning between March and October, I get up at the crack of 5 a.m., turn on the coffee maker, and watch cars go around in a circle for 90 minutes while ingesting copious amounts of caffeine. While I suspect that you just made a face, I implore you to listen to what I have to say, and give Formula One the chance it deserves.
To be perfectly honest, if F1 was just the race on Sunday, I would be right there with you, scoffing at anyone who woke up that early to watch cars turn left. However, as with most things, F1 is much more complicated and interesting than it first appears.
If I had to put it into more relatable terms, I would describe F1 as more of a soap opera than a sporting event 8212; with controversy, conflict, scandal and intrigue. The race on Sunday represents just a tiny, and perhaps insignificant, slice of the action.
Typically, an F1 weekend begins on Friday with two practice sessions, which serve two very different purposes. Before a team turns a wheel in anger at a track, thousands of computer simulations have been run to determine what the optimal setup for a car should be. These setups include things like the kind of wings placed on the front and back of the car, gear ratios for the transmission and suspension settings.
For example, if the track has many turns, and few long straights 8212; like Malaysia 8212; you want a setup that favours suspension compression, fast acceleration and lots of down-force. If you are racing in Canada 8212; a course with many straights and relatively few corners 8212; a low down-force setup, favouring top speed is more appropriate. The first purpose of the practice sessions is to ensure that the setup recommended by your simulations is on the money and to make changes where necessary, while the second is more insidious.
While all teams no doubt test their setups, some use practice as a way to wage a counter-intelligence battle against rival teams. This can be done in one of two ways. The first is commonly known as “sandbagging,” where a driver intentionally drives a car erratically or slowly, giving other teams the impression that the car is uncompetitive.
This serves to discredit a team’s ability in the eyes of the competition, and has the goal of preventing them from setting up their car to directly compete against yours. For example, if your car is very good in the corners, you might sandbag, in the hope that your rivals will not focus on that part of their setup. This gives your car an advantage during qualification.
The second practice tactic involves setting up a car which is blisteringly quick in a short practice session, but unreliable for an entire qualifying session or race. By dominating the lap times in practice, other teams might think you are faster than you really are, and choose to set their cars up for outright speed to remain competitive in qualifying. By doing this they sacrifice handling and reliability, while you quietly dial back your setup, to a slower, albeit more manageable, level.
Saturday has a practice session of its own. However, the main attraction is qualifying, which is like a little race in and of itself. There are three sessions in which cars and drivers are sent out onto the track with the goal of setting the fastest lap time possible. After each session, the slowest cars are eliminated, with the third session being a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle round between the top 10 cars. This determines the order in which the cars will start the race.
Adding to the complexity and importance of qualifying is a rule stating that the cars that make it into the third session are placed in “parc fermÃ©.” This means that they are not allowed to be touched by mechanics before the race. These cars must race with the setup, and more importantly the tires 8212; which wear out and lose grip as the race progresses 8212; that they qualified with. Cars that are eliminated in the first two sessions can start the race with new tires and changed setups, giving them a distinct advantage.
Sunday is race day, where all the week’s efforts, posturing and strategizing culminate in an hour and a half of racing. While some might not see the appeal of watching cars go in a circle for an hour and a half, I would argue that those are the people who aren’t paying attention to the four-day circus that makes a modern F1 race.
The first race has gone by, but don’t despair if I have piqued your interest; the Australian Grand Prix starts on March 26, and promises to be an excellent race 8212; well worth getting up at 5 a.m. on a Sunday.