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The Lessons F1 Can Learn From IndyCar’s Austin Debut

27th March 2019

IndyCar’s first visit to Austin provided a rare chance for a direct comparison with Formula 1. The race at the Circuit of the Americas ably demonstrated that performance metrics don’t correlate directly with sheer spectacle

Speed equals spectacle. That was the simple foundation stone upon which Formula 1’s 2017 aerodynamic regulation overhaul was built, encapsulated by the single objective of improving laptimes by four to five seconds compared with 2015. This was the panacea that would cure all F1’s ills.

It wasn’t. Although the changes nailed the target almost perfectly – the average difference between fastest laps on each weekend in 2015 versus ’17 almost bang on 4.5s – the rationale was flawed.

Laptime proved to be a false god, one that caused more problems than it solved, and watching last Sunday’s IndyCar race in Austin at the Circuit of the Americas was a reminder of that.

Penske driver Will Power took pole position for that race with a laptime of 1m46.0177s, which doesn’t compare well with the 1m32.237s set by Lewis Hamilton in qualifying for the 2018 F1 race.

Two top-tier single-seater series, but dramatically different pace. There are two basic interpretations of this 13.8s disparity, and ever since a video emerged showing the onboard of Hamilton’s lap alongside one set by IndyCar driver Felix Rosenqvist in testing that was actually fractionally faster than Power’s pole effort, debate has raged.

One interpretation is that it shows IndyCar is slow (the implication being therefore easy) and that it’s almost embarrassing in terms of pace. F1 blows IndyCar out of the water by every performance metric – braking, traction, acceleration, corner speed and everything else that goes to make up a laptime.

The other position is more compelling, that for all the breathtaking speed of the F1 lap the IndyCar one is more interesting to watch. The endless steering wheel inputs are visible, the driver catches slides that are visible. Slower, but it looks like it’s more challenging. In its own way, it’s arguably more spectacular.

This argument here isn’t about driver skill, it’s about ‘the show’. This is the top priority for any racing series, for a knowledgeable fan might be able to watch and appreciate the virtuosity of the F1 lap, but for most, the driver in the IndyCar is doing something that seems visibly harder.

Both are difficult, requiring phenomenal skill, but they don’t look the same. When comparing the two laps side by side, the ‘slowness’ (very much a relative term) of the IndyCar is somewhat painful.

But IndyCar does not share the track with F1 and, in isolation, looks spectacular. Watching the onboard footage of Graham Rahal fighting the wheel in the race, catching moments, visibly fighting the car, was more engrossing than the average F1 onboard. And while some of that is down to the way the onboard cameras are positioned and operated, it’s also something inherent in the car.

F1 is well advanced with its new rules, and it’s important that this misplaced belief that speed equals spectacle is set to one side. Pat Symonds has been central to the work being done and, given he was among those to criticise the 2017 rules and their excluding focus on laptime, we know that’s something he understands well.

Laptime is a one-dimensional measure, but spectacle is three-dimensional. F1 needs to be the fastest racing series out there but it’s just as important that it looks like the quickest as well.

Driving an F1 car is not easy, requiring tremendous precision, infinitesimal adjustments and transcendent skill, but it also needs to be made to look that way. One of the great challenges for motorsport is that a car that moves around more is usually easier to control than one that does it less.

F1 cars are not forgiving and the corrections must be sharper, almost imperceptible to the outside. But that’s very difficult to convey to those watching. The trouble is, laptime is a mathematical construct. It’s factual, something you read but not necessarily something you feel. What you experience when you watch a lap is different, and not directly proportional to laptime.

People relate more to the visual experience than the mathematical, so this is at the centre of ensuring any racing series grabs the attention.

For example, Power’s laptime was 14.9% slower than Hamilton’s 2018 pole position. This actually puts IndyCar’s pace fractionally slower than Formula 2, which was on average 14.2% off F1’s pace last season where conditions were comparable. But to this we must add the caveat that the unique configuration of the Baku circuit allowed F2 to be significantly closer to F1, therefore pulling down the average.

Eliminate the outlier and the average is a more representative 15.9%. For reference, GP3 last year was 23.0% off.

The pole mark for the most recent World Endurance Championship round in Austin in 2017 was 13.6% off, and therefore quicker than IndyCar. But the WEC class that produces the most engaging racing, GTE Pro, was a massive 33.4% off.

For a final comparison, the last time F1 and IndyCar-style racing appeared on the same circuit in the same 12-month period was in 2006.

Then, Champ Car went to Montreal where Sebastien Bourdais set a pole time 7.1% slower than Renault driver Fernando Alonso’s fastest lap of the 2006 weekend.

None of this is an argument for making F1 slower, that’s not the point. It’s just that the cars must not only be the fastest in the world around a road but they must actually look like it as well.

Think of the iconic image of Ronnie Peterson sliding his Lotus 72 at Woodcote – spectacular and, with the slip angles of the day’s tyres, easier to achieve than it looks. But again, this is the spectacle people rightly clamour for.

In today’s F1 cars, the window is so narrow that by the time someone watching detects something moving out of line, the driver has long since felt it and either reacted to it or failed to do so and gone off.

This is why moments that are actually enormous to the driver can often be barely detected from the outside. It’s also not an argument for making IndyCar faster. Firstly, as a spectacle, it’s working well and it should be noted that some of the wheel-to-wheel action in Austin was great to watch and beyond anything F1 has produced.

IndyCar also has the advantage of being a spec series, meaning the costs are controlled and the bang for your buck in terms of performance is far better than in F1. And while it might seem slow compared with F1, an average lap speed of 115.80mph is still very quick.

And if you express Hamilton’s time the same way – 133.71mph – the gap doesn’t seem so different. And while people often talk of IndyCar being heavier, it’s worth noting that the minimum weights are now actually pretty similar.

F1 talks about the much-vaunted show a lot, and usually this focuses on overtaking. But a glance back at F1 onboard cameras from the late 1980s makes it seem a more visceral, almost inhuman achievement to drive one of these cars quickly.

Today they almost look like they’re on rails. They aren’t, it’s just that the movement is harder to see, but the driving virtuosity needs to translate to those watching.

Overtaking is part of that, since there’s nothing more dramatic than a wheel-to-wheel battle.

But it’s necessary to watch an onboard lap of nothing more than a driver trying to piece together the perfect lap and have the feeling that it’s impossible, that those in the cockpit are superhumans. The F1 drivers are. But they just don’t look like it.

Watch an IndyCar onboard and they do look more like a breed apart. The question is, how to reconcile the need for things not just to be demanding and near-impossible, but for them to look that way as well.

Let’s hope that’s part of the F1 rules equation as the 2021 regulations near completion.

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