10 Geeky Reasons You Should Be Watching Formula One

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Image by Flickr user PresidenBertho, used under CC Licensing

This weekend’s Grand Prix of Germany will mark the halfway point in the 2011 Formula One World Championship and if you haven’t been watching this year’s season, you are not only missing out on some of the best races in recent history, but you’re also being left out of what is, arguably, the geekiest sport this side of the Quidditch Cup.

Year after year, the Formula One World Championship is the most watched sporting event in the world, with more than 525 million people watching over the course of the season. Only when the World Cup or the Olympics come around, do more people tune in for sport. F1 fans love watching the incredible speeds of the machines, their physics-defying nimbleness at the hands of the drivers, and the high strategy of the competition, but beneath it all are some incredibly geeky people – and reasons – that should have you DVRing every practice, qualifying session and race.

1. The engineers are as important as the athletes. In a typical race weekend, the driver is in the car only about 6 and a half hours. But, before the car ever makes the track, race team employees have spent thousands of hours preparing the car for the rigors of each individual track. The engineers spend the race weekend pouring over car telemetry, making adjustments, reading sensors, making adjustments, reviewing driver feedback, making adjustments and trying to figure out ways to eke out another hundredth of a second from each lap. Additionally, there are a couple of hundred (or more) other engineers, R&D managers, and others back at headquarters, preparing for the unique demands of the next race.

Plus, the engineers are seemingly capable of producing blood from a stone. The engines found in Formula One cars are, theoretically, not much different than those found in many garages or car showrooms. For comparison sake, quickly consider the stellar Chevrolet C6 Corvette power plant. At 6,000 RPM, the 6.0 liter V8 makes 400 hp. That’s pretty amazing and near the top of what domestic engines can do without tuning. Now, take Formula One engineers. The much smaller 2.4 liter V8s, dictated by the FIA, have been twisted and cajoled to produce an ear-splitting 18,000 RPM while generating a staggering 750 hp. Brakes developed by these engineers can bring a 100km/h car to a complete stop in as little as 48 feet, what’s more, every car on the grid is capable of going from a stopped position to 100 mph and back to a stopped position in less than 5 seconds. These performances of these cars are beyond extraordinary … and geeks are responsible for it.

2. Science! Good luck finding experts in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and computational fluid dynamics on the sidelines of an NFL game. However, on any Formula One team, you’ll find some of the brightest and talented people in more than a dozen scientific specialties. Over the course of a typical race, sensors will monitor air flow, fuel consumption, tire temperature and wear, oil levels, the driver’s heart rate, and more. In all, on the average F1 car there are over 300 sensors producing data that is interpreted by men and women from a variety of scientific disciplines. These numbers are continually crunched, creating the need for advanced computer system administrators and mathematicians, positions you won’t likely find in an NBA franchise.

Further, because a 0.05 second advantage over the field equates to a 3 second lead at the end of the race, little expense is spared (especially at the larger teams) to find extra time in the car. Most teams own a wind tunnel or broker a deal with a larger team for time. Aerodynamicists and fluid dynamicists are constantly inventing and testing new, creative ideas in computer models (virtual wind tunnels) and real-life counterparts. Scientists are as much a part of a Formula One team as the drivers who get all the TV time.

3. Teams know the importance of a good computer. During any race weekend, more than 30 GB of data is collected and streamed to engineers at the circuit and back at headquarters. With this information and the mountain of numbers from previous races, stockpiled during off season testing, and created during endless simulation, millions of calculations are endlessly crunched, generating probable outcomes based on various scenarios and conditions. Strategy based on good computer models can mean the difference between a podium and being an also-ran. Accordingly, even small F1 teams boast datacenters that rival huge corporations, leading to more technology partners than engine oil associations.

4. They create some really cool technology. F1 was at the front when Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems were introduced to motorsport. While regenerative brakes have been around for a while and it took some time for F1 teams to get it right, KERS has been one of the big reasons the 2011 World Championship has been so exciting to watch. Suddenly, there’s an abundance of passing! In 2009, drivers could adjust front wing flaps via a cockpit control, allowing them to compensate for wind turbulence when following another car and reduce understeer. This year, adjustable aerodynamics have been moved to the back of the car and christened DRS. The Drag Reduction System can be deployed at specific areas of the track, under certain conditions, to reduce drag and gain a speed boost. Along with KERS, the Drag Reduction System has created conditions that have led to very exciting racing.

There are all sorts of clever and creative ways that the different engineers, scientists and materials people working on these cars have used to discover how to gain a competitive edge, but one area where technology is occasionally overlooked in terms of its impact is safety. When Robert Kubica suffered his horrifying crash in Montreal in 2007, his car hit a concrete barrier at nearly 200 mph, applying 75Gs of force to Kubica. His car nearly disintegrated around him, yet he came away from the crash with just a light concussion and a sprained ankle. This same crash would have killed Kubica just years earlier. Thanks to advances in technology, F1 has made a significant difference in driver (and fan) safety.

5. It captures the best of science fiction & fantasy. On a grand scale, F1 unfolds like an epic tale. Its setting is a mysterious place that few have visited, with open, barren land surrounding the circuit, pits draped with hoses and strange devices, manned by mysterious humanoids and hidden alcoves where secrets are carefully concealed. Like any good fantasy world, Formula One’s maps hold history; tiny chunks of land where battles have been fought and heroes became legends: Silverstone’s Maggotts & Becketts, Spa’s Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, the Temple of Speed’s Parabolica. For fans, rivalries in the sport produce good vs evil matches that compare to the great antagonisms in literature. The duels of Prost vs Senna, Hill vs Schumacher, or Mansell vs Piquet, carry the weight of Frodo going up against Sauron. And, as in fiction, for the hero, the taste of victory is sweet. But often unlike its literary counterpart, sport does not always reward the just. Tragedies often befall the strong. A failed mechanical part, degraded tire, or momentary lapse of attention can end a hero’s race (or season) as quickly as a sword thrust.

6. The athletes are superhuman. There is a misconception among some that auto racing is not a sport. After all, the guys are just sitting in a chair doing, essentially the same thing that most people do on their daily commute, right? The reality couldn’t be further from perception, as anyone who has ever emerged bruised and aching after an hour of karting can attest. The pool of people capable of standing up to the rigors of racing (and attaining success) is quite small and the group who can step into a F1 seat is even smaller.

After donning several layers of fireproof clothing and their helmets, drivers are cinched uncomfortably into their seats, just inches above the pavement. This is anything but comfortable. Soon the temperature of their cockpits will reach 140º F and they will be subject to G-forces that surpass space shuttle launches. While astronauts face maximum forces of two to three times’ Earth’s gravity, F1 drivers deal with forces approaching 5Gs under braking and up to 4Gs of lateral force under cornering that would make the average person weep like an infant while his head felt as though it was being ripped, fiber by fiber, from his neck. The drivers do this for a couple of hours at a time, at speeds of up to 200 mph, all the while trying to maintain a prescribed race line around the track while monitoring several outputs and making about 200 inputs from steering to gear changes, throttle adjustments, engine tweaks, and fuel changes on the two dozen knobs, dials and paddles that populate their steering wheels. That’s a little different than bumper-to-bumper on the 405.

7. It filters technology, like NASA. Over the years, your life has benefited greatly from the space program as ideas, inventions and technology filtered down from NASA. While Formula One’s contributions aren’t as deep as the space program’s, they are impressive. American bicycle manufacturer, Specialized, announced a partnership with British team McLaren and the resulting bike went on to win its very first race. Olympic bobsled teams have turned to F1 for manufacturing and aerodynamic assistance. F1 has even helped in outer space, lending their expertise to both the Hinode satellite and the Beagle 2 Mars rover. The Williams team has developed a flywheel to store energy that may soon be replacing chemical batteries in consumer alternative fuel vehicles. Manufacturing plants have adopted slip-resistant footwear based on F1 technology. These are just a few of the many examples of technology that has come from the R&D labs and garages of Formula One teams.

8. Beam me up. While sometimes the circuit’s celebrities suggest galaxies far, far away, the cars definitely suggest an alien influence. These machines resemble space ships more than what you have parked in your garage. With flowing curves, numerous antennae, and extraneous baubles attached to the bodywork, you could easily be mistaken for a Visitor. Plus with all of the carbon fiber, exotic alloys and unique materials making up an F1 car, it seems more out of this world than terrestrial.

9. Movie geeks are discovering F1′s draw. On the heels of the Sundance-award-winning documentary, Senna, which tells the heart-wrenching story of Brazilian champion, Ayrton Senna, a movie with blockbuster clout behind it was announced. Ron Howard will be directing Rush, which will look at the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the ’76 World Championship. And with Hollywood’s penchant for making films based on a formula, will other F1 movies soon follow?

10. You don’t want to be a backmarker. Jump to the front of the pack now. After a five year absence, Formula One will be returning to the United States next year. The track and its supporting infrastructure, which is under construction now in Austin, Texas, will be an incredibly modern facility, packed with incredible technology and provide a state-of-the-art experience for spectators. The circuit, itself, draws from some of the finest corners in the world and has drawn favorable reviews for its Hermann Tilke design.

Coverage of the Grand Prix of Germany begins with Friday practice on Speed at 8 AM ET in the US. (Note: Sunday’s race will be tape delayed and broadcast on Fox, check local listings for times.)

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