Alonso wearing his team colors (photo by James Deakin) and Alonso in his winning car (photo from the Financial Times)
The sport is full of all sorts of insane extremes in terms of what kinds of equipment -- and the amount of money -- that goes into these cars. But what's keeping my interest in the long term is the battle for supremacy among the drivers. It's kind of like a race car soap opera, though without quite so many evil twins and devious plots. So I'll tell you a few of the equipment extremes etc., and then I'll give you some brief descriptions of the drivers. Maybe you, too, will be intrigued by the drama at work.
- The first thing to know about the sport is that it is competed internationally, at tracks around the world, and among teams from around the world. Each team has two drivers who compete, and one or more test drivers.
- The teams are not based according to nationality, but rather according to which manufacturer makes the car that they drive. For example, Fernando Alonso is from Spain, and his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella is from Italy, and they both drive cars made by Renault, which is based in France.
- The teams compete, throughout the racing season, for two titles: the drivers' world championship and the constructors' world championship. The driver with the most points accrued in the season wins the drivers' title and the manufacturer whose cars have earned the most points wins the constructors' title. This is a way of recognizing that not only does driving these cars take incredible skill, but so does putting them together and maintaining them and making choices about tires and fuel.
- Points are awarded depending on where each driver finishes each race relative to the other drivers. That is, first place wins the most points (10), second place wins the next highest points (8), third wins 6 points, fourth wins 5, and so on in descending order through eighth place.
- You might think, wouldn't the best driver with the fastest car always win? Wouldn't each race turn out pretty much the same? While that's a fair assumption, there are all sorts of variables that figure into each race, choices that the drivers and the crew can make, and all sorts of things that can go wrong.
In 2001, driver Burti attempted to pass champion Michael Schumacher and bumped the back of his car. Burti's car rolled a few times after this, but even so, Burti exited his car with only a few bruises. (Photo from The Guardian)
- Fuel: One of the biggest considerations is how much fuel to put in the tank. If you put in less fuel, the car will be lighter and can go faster. But then the driver has to make more pitstops to re-fuel, which burns a lot of time (30 seconds). So would it be faster for the driver to start out with a bigger load and make fewer pitstops, or would it be faster to carry less fuel and reload more often?
- Tires: The choice of which tires to put on the car is one of the most critical decisions for a team to make. Tires that are softer give more grip on the track, but they wear out even faster, which means the driver will have to stop more often to change tires. In addition, each track has its own dynamics -- different curves, different surfaces, different demands it will place on the car and on its tires. A crew must decide what kind of tires to put on the car before the qualifying race begins, and then they are required to continue to use that same kind of tire throughout the qualifying race, the practice races, and the race that counts for points. And in general, the right tires can make even a so-so car race well, while bad tires can screw up everything.
- Overtaking, or passing: Passing other cars so that yours is in front is obviously essential to winning the race. But it's tricky, since yours is not the only car that handles extremely well at very high speeds. When you're about to pass in the straightaway, you benefit from the bubble of air behind the car in front of you (slipstream). While your car is in that bubble, it doesn't have to work as hard to keep up or to accelerate. However, when you and the driver ahead of you both go into a turn, the bubble works against you, putting pressure on the wings of your car, making it less aerodynamic and therefore slower. Also, the driver in front of you might be an excellent defensive driver, meaning that he positions his car in the turn such that you don't have enough room, or the right angle, to be able to get by him. Calculating all these niceties of position and speed is one of the main things the drivers are doing throughout the race. Overtaking other cars could be extremely dangerous and result in horrific accidents. However, the drivers take it not just as a point of safety but a point of pride in accomplishing incredibly dangerous feats without contacting another car. Even so, crashes still happn.
Ralf Schumacher (brother of champion Michael)'s 2004 crash at turn 13 of the US Grand Prix. This crash gave him his second concussion in a year. (Photo from Getty Images)
- Here's why are some reasons why it's so important to drive well:
- Depending on the track and weather conditions, race speeds average from 195 miles per hour to 255 miles per hour. That's three times faster than most of us drive on the highway.
- When the cars go into corners, the high speeds put up to 3.5 g of force (3.5 times gravity) on the drivers' bodies.
- The cars get extremely hot, including the interior. Drivers can sweat up to 6.5 lbs of their body weight during one race.
- Because drivers have to withstand such high forces, they keep themselves in top physical condition, with cardiovascular training as well as weight training, especially in the chest and neck muscles. It is said that preparing for a Formula 1 race is similar to preparing for a marathon.
- Perhaps the best reason to drive safely:
Ayrton Senna's car, after his crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. He was airlifted to the hospital, but his head and neck injuries were massive, and he died hours after the crash. (Photo from the BBC)
- Some other facts about the cars:
- Engines rev to over 19,000 RPMs, which puts a force on the pistons of about 9,000 times gravity.
- Race cars consume over 53,000 gallons of fuel for testing and racing in a season. The cars can be refueled as quickly as 3 gallons per second. The cars' fuel efficiency averages about 4 miles per gallon.
- While Formula 1 car brakes weigh half as much as passenger car brakes, they can stop a car going 100 mph in less space than it takes a passenger car to come to a stop from 65 mph.
- The steering wheel is equipped with all sorts of electronic features and buttons to allow the driver to shift gears by pressing a button, and to adjust many other features of the car as well. However, the steering wheel must also be detachable -- easy enough to unsnap from its position so that the driver can exit the car within 5 seconds in case of an accident.
- Helmets are made of materials that are lightweight, flame-resistant, and strong enough to stop bullets. They are shaped to reduce aerodynamic lift, which can be anything up to 33 lbs at racing speeds. Visors have anti-fogging coatings and are equipped with transparent strips that can be torn away when they collect too much dirt. They are ventilated and also filter out track debris. Drivers also wear a mandatory head and neck support system (HANS) around the collar, which reduces head motion by 44%.
Rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger from Austria also crashed at the same track as Senna, days before in the qualifying race. The front wing of his car failed, sending him into the retaining wall at nearly full speed. He was killed instantly. (Photo from a French site about the 1994 Imola race.)
Now here are the 2006 drivers and the drama:
After his 2005 championship (Photo from 42, a blog in German)
- Fernando Alonso was born in Spain in 1981. His mother worked in a department store at that time, and his father was an explosives expert for mining companies.
- In 1996, he won the World Junior Karting title, and in 1999, he switched from karts to cars. He raced in a series of events and then signed onto a Formula 1 team as a test driver.
- He continued to distinguish himself and in 2002 was signed onto Renault's team as a test driver. In 2003, he graduated to race driver for Renault and became the youngest ever pole winner. In his next race, he became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix.
- In 2005, he established a strong lead early in the season. Though his car was not as fast as Raikkonen's, he demonstrated adaptability, the ability to stay calm under pressure and yet react quickly. Despite threats from McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, he finished comfortably in first.
- He is the youngest ever Formula 1 driver's champion and the first Spaniard to win the title.
- He won the first race of the 2006 season at Bahrain, moving up from 4th position to 1st.
After winning the championship for the 7th time (Photo from Virgin.net)
- Michael Schumacher was born in 1969. His father was a bricklayer and his mother ran the local canteen. He made his debut in Formula 1 racing in 1991, at age 22.
- He established himself as a man of shrewd racecraft, with superb skills in wet weather and raw speed. Despite being force to sit out for three races for a violation, he won his first Formula 1 race in 1994 (age 25), following the death of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna in the San Marino Grand Prix.
- He won again easily in 1995, but then he switched to Ferrari in 1996 and suffered a series of close finishes and upsets. He battled hard, but after running another driver off the track, many thought he was dangerously aggressive.
- In 1999 he crashed and broke his leg, which sidelined him for most of the season. He considered retiring, but later in the season he came back strong.
- In 2000, he won the championship again, and repeated his winning ways again in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004.
- In most of the races in 2005, he pressed a consistent challenge despite equipment problems and remained a force to be reckoned with.
- In the first race of 2006, Schumacher finished 2nd, 1.2 seconds behind Alonso.
- His younger brother, Ralf, is also a Formula 1 driver, but he has been stuck with poorer cars and has suffered serious injuries in two crashes.
Pronounced Kee-mee Rye-cone-en (Photo from Grand Prix.com)
- Raikkonen is from Finland and is 26 years old. He signed on with McLaren in 2001 at age 22.
- He struggled with car troubles for three years but was recognized as a very impressive driver. It was thought that he would be the first driver to upset Schumacher.
- In 2005, he won several races during the season and frequently set fastest lap times. He nearly won the championship, but his car had technical troubles in a crucial race that put him too far back out of first place in points.
- He finished third at Bahrain, over 19 seconds behind Alonso. He had, however, fought his way up from the 22nd start position.
- Raikkonen is likely to be one of Alonso's closest challengers for the 2006 title.
The Official Formula 1 website
The Grand Prix Encyclopedia, Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen
The Grand Prix Encyclopedia, Drivers: Fernando Alonso
The Grand Prix Encyclopedia, Drivers: Michael Schumacher
Wikipedia, 1994 San Marino Grand Prix
(For more crash pictures, see Wigo's Formula One Crash Database)