The NASCAR Fan’s Guide to Formula One

Great! You’ve decided to join us! After all the buzz, the Netflix series, record-breaking attendance in Austin, and the incredible, unforgettable, controversial 2021 title battle, you’ve made the choice to get involved. You, a NASCAR fan, want to watch Formula One. 

That came off a bit harsh – and yes, F1’s fanbase has a reputation for being dismissive of stock car racing, but as F1’s popularity explodes in the US, there is more overlap between fans of the two series than ever before. Although both series are fundamentally still racing, having this guide specifically tailored to NASCAR-to-F1 transplant viewers (or “reverse Villeneuves” as I call them) will help you get the most out of your first F1 experience.

THE CARS

Formula One cars are the most technologically advanced race cars in the world. They weigh less than a metric ton, do 0-60 in less than two seconds, and top out somewhere around 220 miles per hour, but the really impressive stat is high-speed cornering. F1 cars can pull up to 6G in the turns.

Like old-school NASCAR, each F1 team designs and builds its own unique cars, but F1 doesn’t use templates. From a distance, all of F1’s open-wheel, single-seat cars look similar but the specific contours of the body, the structure of the suspension and cooling systems, and even the wheelbase are up to the teams to design(within certain guidelines of course). Each team must innovate in the pursuit of speed. Unlike American motorsports, F1 is specifically intended to be as much an engineering competition as it is a contest among drivers. Since each of F1’s ten teams is required to design its own racecar, they are technically each their own manufacturer, even the ones like Red Bull, Haas, and Williams that don’t make road cars. 

Although, because of the extreme cost associated with developing an F1 “power unit” – a term referring to the roughly one-thousand-horsepower hybrid system that combines a 1.6-liter turbo V6 and battery-electric drivetrain – teams are allowed to buy those from their competitors. The four supplier teams: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, and Alpine, use this power to create a B-team style relationship with their customers, like the Penske-Wood Brothers dynamic in NASCAR. 

As an odd aside, the Red Bull powertrain was actually designed by Honda, but Red Bull bought the rights to the design when Honda pulled out of the sport at the end of last year. It’s a bit like the Zombie Dodge that Carl Long used to run in the Xfinity Series, if that car were expected to contend for the championship.

Like NASCAR, in recent years F1 has had a problem with dirty air making passing (“overtaking” in F1-speak) difficult. So, like NASCAR, F1 is debuting new technical regulations for 2022 designed to improve the on-track product by utilizing under-floor aerodynamics. This principle, called “ground effect,” was first identified by F1 teams in the 1970s, but teams were previously banned from exploiting it for safety concerns. Also like NASCAR, the new regulations include a switch to 18-inch BBS wheels to offer more relevance to road cars, though F1 pit crews are already used to single center-lock lugs. After a few days of testing, there are hopeful signs that cars can follow each other more closely through the many turns of F1’s road courses.

Also designed to encourage exciting racing is the Drag Reduction System, (DRS) which lets a driver open a flap in the car’s rear wing to decrease air resistance and increase straight-line speed. DRS is intended to counteract the effect of dirty air in the corners by compensating with additional straight-line speed for the following car. Drivers are limited to using DRS in specific DRS zones, and only if they are within a second of the car in front. Many F1 races end with a closing driver trying desperately to break through dirty air into that one-second margin, after which a DRS-assisted overtake is a near certainty.

THE TRACKS

F1 races on road and street courses all over the world, with a schedule that changes far more frequently than NASCAR fans might be used to. The 2022 season will see 23 F1 races on 23 tracks in 21 countries – only Italy and the USA will be visited twice.

F1 tracks must be built to the complicated FIA “Grade One” safety certification, and since the mid ‘90s, F1 has relied on master track designer Hermann Tilke to handle both track upgrades and clean-slate new designs. For a NASCAR fan who knows the difference between Kansas and Las Vegas, hearing these road courses described as “cookie-cutter” might sound a bit ridiculous, but F1 fans like complaining about the tracks just as much as we do.

The first race of the F1 season will be held March 20th at the 3.36-mile Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, in the Middle East nation of Bahrain, which has been one of the most exciting tracks over the last few years. The 2021 running of the race was a close battle between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, with Hamilton narrowly holding off Verstappen at the end, after Max had to give the lead back after a track-limits violation. 

For fans used to NASCAR’s no-holds-barred road racing, F1’s track limits system may be a bit of an adjustment. F1 drivers must keep two wheels within the boundaries of the track at all times, and aren’t allowed to use runoff areas to advance their position. But this system is inconsistently policed and often the cause of controversy, like the out-of-bounds rule at Daytona and Talladega. 

THE TEAMS

Ten two-car teams will contest the 2022 Formula One season. Though the rules allow a maximum of 13, the series has been stable at 10 entries since 2017. However, an all-new entry from Andretti Autosport is applying to enter the series in the coming years. 

In F1, all teams have to run two cars, and those two cars are required by the rules to have identical paint schemes (“liveries”). The car numbers are small and may be hard to see. Driver numbers have historically not been as important to F1 as they are in NASCAR, but since 2014, each driver picks their racing number at the start of their first full-time year. That number then follows them from team to team for their entire career.

Maybe most unusual to a NASCAR fan, each team only has one pit crew that the two cars have to share, meaning that both of a team’s drivers can’t make pit stops at the same time unless one of them wants to wait. In an F1 pit stop, the crew always changes four tires and does not refuel. Making chassis or aerodynamic adjustments is also extremely unusual, so F1 pit stops are extremely quick, generally in the 2-3 second range, with the record being a shocking 1.8. 

Like the pit crew, the management of an F1 team’s two cars is much more closely aligned than in NASCAR. The role of “race engineer” – sort of like a NASCAR crew chief – doesn’t have the same prestige as in stock car racing. Instead the Team Principal leads both drivers on race day. A team asking one of its drivers to slow down and let the other pass (called “team orders”) is not against the rules in F1, and since the Constructors Championship counts the results of both drivers, it is a common occurrence.

Despite the fact the two cars are much more integrated in F1 teams than in NASCAR, the competition between the two drivers is much, much fiercer. If you found the Larson-Elliott beef at Fontana entertaining, F1 may be for you. Since the gap in performance between different teams’ cars can be massive, the only yardstick against which an F1 driver can be measured is their teammate. So teammate battles can get nasty, with dirty tricks, bold-faced lies, and simmering resentment that builds up over years – since F1’s more buttoned-up culture discourages the kind of. . . let’s say, physical conflict resolution NASCAR is known for.

PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING

The Grand Prix (pronounced the French way, with the “d’ and “x” silent) weekend starts with two hour-long practice sessions on Friday, with another on Saturday before qualifying. 

Since F1 races require drivers to manage tire condition and the cars run full loads of fuel that add almost 250 pounds of weight, qualifying is the best chance to see an all-out lap from the world’s most capable cars and drivers around the world’s most prestigious road courses.

F1 uses a three-round elimination group qualifying format, with the Q1 session eliminating 5 drivers, then Q2 eliminating 5 more, and the results of Q3 setting the first five rows. The track is fastest right at the end of the session, so the best action takes place after the clock has run out, as all of the drivers finish their final flying laps and set their best times one after the other.

“Sprint Qualifying” is F1’s equivalent of stage racing: a rule change for the benefit of entertainment that some old-school fans think reduces the sanctity of the old format. Three times this year, the final practice will be replaced with a shortened qualifying session, and the qualifying will be replaced with a short race, which awards partial points.

Qualifying is a much bigger deal in F1 than in NASCAR. Nobody has ever won an F1 race starting from last place. So, instead of being sent to the back of the grid as a penalty, officials will penalize drivers five or ten starting positions. For example, if Lewis Hamilton got pole position, but had to change a power unit component after qualifying, he would receive a 10-place grid drop, and start from 11th. 

RACING

F1 races are held on Sundays and last approximately an hour and a half. Even with red flags, Grands Prix are required to fit within a four-hour window (no Monday rain-delay races to be found). Due to the world-traveling nature of F1, they start at wildly different times, although most are scheduled for the benefit of the European market and begin at around 8 or 9AM on the East Coast.

F1 uses standing starts, triggered when the five red lights in the starting gate go out. The race start is when the cars are closest together (barring an optional post-red-flag standing restart) and as such, it is the best chance for drivers to make up positions. Full-course cautions (“Safety Car periods”) are rare, and Safety Car restarts are single-file. Chaos is common on the start, as are wild changes in position, but once the cars are through turn one, the strategy begins.

An F1 Grand Prix has no stages, no overtimes, just the exact amount of laps advertised. So, because lap times are much longer, gaps between cars are bigger, and the threat of a Safety Car is always low, it can sometimes be faster for a driver to make an extra pit stop and use fresh tires to shave seconds per lap off the opponent in front. Although the rules only require one stop, and drivers could nurse their cars home on those two sets of tires, the battle between “one-stop” and “two-stop” strategies is some of the best slow-burn drama F1 has to offer.

Pirelli is the sole supplier of tires in Formula One, but they offer three different compounds each race weekend: Hard, Medium, and Soft. Softs are fastest, but they burn out quickly. Hards are slow, but last the longest. Each driver is required to use two different compounds during each race, unless the FIA suspends that rule due to weather. That’s right – F1 races in the rain. 

Still somewhat alien to a NASCAR fan, many F1 die-hards hope for rain on a race weekend, where the differences between cars are less significant, and driver skill can shine through. F1’s most legendary drivers have reputations based on their wet-weather prowess: Senna, Schumacher, and today’s Hamilton and Verstappen are all known for their skill in the wet.

Whereas NASCAR fans know a pit road speeding penalty can take their driver out of the hunt, such penalties in F1 are extremely rare. The cars have electronic limiters controlling their speed on pit road. However, time penalties for unsafe pit release, causing avoidable contact, or track limit violations, none of which are usually penalized in NASCAR, can change the outcome of an F1 race even after the checkered flag waves.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Maybe the strangest thing about European motorsport in general to an American fan is that not every car scores points at the end of the race. In F1, since 2010, only the top 10 cars are awarded points towards the championship. 

While top drivers usually score points every time, backmarkers may only make it into the points once a season, if that. There are no resets, no playoffs, and each race is worth the same number of points – unless one is cut short, which is extremely unusual.

Drivers score points towards their Drivers Championship total, but the Constructors Championship is nearly as important, a far bigger deal than the NASCAR owners title. Both of a team’s drivers contribute all their points towards the Constructors total, and it is possible for a team that loses the Drivers title to win the Constructors if both drivers are consistent. Last year, Mercedes took home Constructors glory while Verstappen won the Drivers for Red Bull.

CONCLUSION

The most important thing to realize as a new F1 fan from a NASCAR background is that F1 races are more about suspense. Large gaps between cars, even as high as 30 seconds, can close as tire strategies converge. Drivers aren’t as unafraid to go wheel-to-wheel as you may have heard. Since there are fewer drivers, fans know the stakes for all of them, and even a battle for 10th may be the highlight of an individual race.

Fans used to American motorsports might not understand how big a deal F1 really is. In America, we think of our top oval and road-racing series as the peaks of their respective disciplines– neither IndyCar nor NASCAR feeds directly into the other. The entire rest of the motorsports world, however, puts F1 alone at the top of the pyramid. NASCAR is probably the only national series where the reigning champion wouldn’t drop everything for an F1 seat, even at a backmarker team. Kevin Magnussen gave up his seat at the frontrunning Peugeot Le Mans team for a second chance at Haas F1. 

This is why Juan Pablo Montoya’s decision to drop F1 for NASCAR mid-2006 was so shocking. Drivers don’t reject F1, F1 rejects drivers. Four of the drivers on this year’s grid– Alonso, Ocon, Albon, and Magnussen, all spent at least one year out of F1 trying desperately to get back in. Particularly now, in arguably its most competitive era, even getting an F1 seat is the pinnacle of a driver’s career – IndyCar’s Alexander Rossi ranks just starting an F1 Grand Prix alongside winning the Indy 500.

Because getting (and keeping) and F1 seat is so difficult, a driver’s accomplishments are a bigger deal than a NASCAR fan might expect. Winning a race is out of the question for most drivers in a given year, so scoring a single point can be the highlight of a driver’s career. Finishing on the podium, especially in a mid-field car, is like a win. Winning a Grand Prix is like winning the Daytona 500. 

For a driver to become the NASCAR Cup Series champion is a truly incredible accomplishment, one that represents a driver being on the top of his game, the tireless work of so many engineers and crew members, and a significant investment from sponsors and team owners. Unequivocally, Cup Series champions are the best oval racers in the world – but oval racing is only done on a significant scale here in America. The F1 championship represents the absolute summit of the entire non-NASCAR motorsports world, from German touring cars to Japanese Super Formula, and even Le Mans. Calling it the World Championship isn’t just a cheesy name. 

F1 teams have twice as many employees as NASCAR teams. Their budgets are more than double for half as many cars. The stakes are higher and the chances are fewer, and everyone involved plays dirty. Formula One is brutal, cruel and unforgiving.

NASCAR was founded by moonshine-running outlaws after a good time. Formula One was created by European aristocrats who had been trying to kill each other in World War II five years earlier. It’s an entirely different way to interpret the idea of high-level automobile racing – not necessarily better or worse, just the way the rest of the world does it. 

The best part? You can wake up on Sundays, watch F1, eat lunch, and then watch NASCAR. Lucky for us it doesn’t overlap. 

Featured image from Tony Stewart on Twitter

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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