Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Formula 1 can perhaps best be described as something of an afterthought when it comes to the Irish sporting landscape. Indeed, it has been 15 years since an Irish driver appeared on the grid, with Ralph Firman lasting just a single season racing for Eddie Jordan’s eponymous team.
Jordan himself is the last Irishmen of real note to have had any involvement in the sport, having owned and run his team from 1991 until its sale in 2005, and whilst he has remained a pundit on television since then, he has featured primarily on British screens for the BBC.
This of course has likely had the knock-on effect of a general disengagement with the sport in this country and whilst exact viewing figures for Ireland are hard to pin down, it is worth noting that no races are featured live on terrestrial television here, unlike in the UK.
As an avid fan of F1, this strikes me as a great shame, as I believe there are many great things that F1 can offer sports fans. So, if you’re one of those people whom single-seat, open-cockpit motorsport has passed by, below are my four reasons to make 2018 the year you start following the sport.
1. This year’s title races look set to be the closest in a long time
Formula 1 is a fairly unique sport in that the season consists of not one but two titles to be won: the constructors’ championship and the drivers’ championship. This year, for the first time in a while, there seems to be the possibility of both races going right down to the wire.
Since the introduction of the newest V6 engine regulations in 2014, both of those championships have been dominated by Mercedes, the constructor having won all four titles with one of their drivers having won their championship as well. Before that, Red Bull dominated the previous four seasons from 2010.
Only in three of those eight seasons has the drivers championship been decided at the final race, and in one of those cases, in 2014, the second place driver in the championship, Nico Rosberg, retired from the race, robbing viewers of any tension in the title fight.
This year, all of that looks set to change. The early indication from winter testing – although such tests must be taken with a pinch of salt – is that three teams are genuinely on a par in terms of car performance: the aforementioned Red Bull and Mercedes being joined at the top by the legendary Ferrari. All things being equal reliability-wise, that could mean a six-way battle for the drivers’ championship and the possibility of the two championships being won by different teams for the first time in a decade.
2. The technology involved is cutting edge
It might surprise you, given that F1 has a long-held reputation as an all-guns blazing affair full of speed and loud engines, to discover that, under the current regulations, F1 is at the forefront of green technology.
This came about in 2014, with the abandonment of the traditional fuel-guzzling V8 internal combustion engines, which have been replaced by new V6 “power trains” – highly complicated engines a mile away from a traditional ICE. These new units combine the kind of hybrid technology that one might find in a Toyota Prius with revolutionary energy recovery systems (ERS).
Without wishing to get too technical, what ERS does is recover kinetic energy that would usually be lost under braking, and stores it in a reservoir, in this case a battery, to be redeployed as bonus horsepower at the drivers’ whim.
Another way in which the sport utilises revolutionary technology is in the efficiency of the new 1.6L power trains. At the same time as the new regulations were introduced, the FIA, the body that governs F1, eradicated refuelling stops and reduced the volume of fuel available to each team by one-third.
This meant that teams now have to extract maximum performance from minimum input, and this has driven such innovations as the turbo on the hybrid power unit being used to reroute exhaust output back into the engine, providing it with more oxygen, as well as new forms of direct fuel injection, both of which increase the power train’s efficiency enormously.
This pioneering technology is not only impressive in its own right – it is believed that the technology used in F1 today will be seen in the road cars of the future. Indeed, Tesla – the company at the peak of revolutions in electric car manufacturing – has already begun to employ similar ERS systems to that of F1 cars. Watching F1 then, might be as close as one gets to watching the future of transportation technology.
3. F1 tracks are sporting venues like no other
I will confess in these pages to being something of a sport architecture nerd – I have a copy of Simon Inglis’ book “Engineering Archie,” about revolutionary British stadium designer Archibald Leitch, and love it to pieces. However, even I will admit the majesty of soccer’s finest grounds hold no candle to the spectacle of some of F1’s venues.
The obvious example is the Monaco Grand Prix, which even those with very little passing interest in F1 will surely have heard of. 78 laps through the streets of one of the world’s wealthiest areas, past enormous yachts parked in the marina and some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, all of which are separated from the cars by only thin metal barriers – the Circuit de Monaco is undoubtedly a fascinating sporting venue.
But Monaco is by no means the be-all and end-all of great F1 tracks. Spa-Francochamps, in the Belgian countryside, sees cars winding through the Ardennes forest, up some incredibly steep hills – Eau Rouge corner is so steep that, when it snows, track staff are often said to enjoy skiing down its twisty turns – turns that an F1 car can take in excess of 300 kph.
Other more modern tracks to capture the imagination are the Sochi Autodrom in Russia, which consists of a tour through the former Winter Olympic Park, and the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan, a street circuit that features corners centred around a 13th century castle.
So, even if the racing itself isn’t for you, there should be plenty to catch your eye across the various Grands Prix!
4. You’re always likely to see something dramatic
It should come as no surprise that when you line up 20-odd of the fastest race cars on the planet and send them round some of the most technically challenging circuits ever designed, crazy things are liable to happen. Whilst obviously nobody wishes for serious crashes during a race – and thankfully, due to the FIA’s concerted efforts, F1 has become significantly safer in recent times – it is undoubtable that collisions are a fascinating part of watching F1, especially since they often have a huge bearing on title races.
In 1994, at the final race of the season in Adelaide, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, separated by just one point in the title race, came together in what was allegedly a deliberate move by the German, which duly secured him the title. In 1989, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna crashed at the Japanese Grand Prix, handing the former the title – a year later, on the same track, Senna took revenge by purposefully driving into Prost and stealing the title he felt he deserved the previous year.
Crashes are by no means the sole source of drama in F1 races however. Team orders – the controversial way in which a team can instruct one of their drivers to move over in favour of their teammate – were banned after it was discovered that, in 2008, the Renault team ordered Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash deliberately to force a safety car that would neutralise the race and ultimately hand his teammate, Fernando Alonso, the race victory. Even now they have been re-instated, they are regularly ignored – see Vettel 2013 or Hamilton 2016.
Then of course there is the pure spectacle of the racing itself – there are few things more magnificent than watching two drivers going wheel-to-wheel at ridiculously fast speeds, or watching one driver hunt another down over a series of laps until he can affect an overtake – or perhaps not. All this adds up to make F1 one of the most constantly entertaining sports, with rarely a dull moment throughout a race.
Perhaps, then, if F1 is a sport which previously you had banished to sporting exile, you might consider making 2018 the year you bring it in from the cold.