How to be an F1 geek

Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think […] that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. […] When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”

— John Scalzi, “Who Gets To Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be”

February 1, 2012

I’m in my office, reading through various tweets and articles. Formula 1 season is over a month away, and news revolves around car launches and testing dates.

Luke spies a flash of silver and peers over my shoulder.

“That car looks like sex on wheels.”

“That car” is the McLaren MP4-27. Shrouded in liquid silver, a slender nose melds seamlessly with the safety cell comprising the majority of the car, enveloping the driver in a protective cocoon of carbon fiber. Sleek sidepods channel air around the car, providing a cooling breeze for the 2.4L V8 Mercedes housed immediately behind the driver. The rear wing, jutting from the car’s rear, helps these incredibly lightweight cars stick to the track — and also provides sponsors a handy platform to tout their brand to millions of potential customers. When you’re talking about a car costing anywhere between $300-500 million to create, survival relies on sponsorship.

Sex on wheels is only part of the story.

Formula 1: Fast cars, laboriously preened and groomed by teams of talented engineers and mechanics into a pure distillation of performance. Twelve teams compete for the coveted constructors’ championship, prize money for the series goes to the winning team. Instead of one or two companies building chassis for the different teams, as you may see in NASCAR or IndyCar, each team is responsible for designing, manufacturing, testing, and developing their cars. Following a set of technical regulations created and issued by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), each team spends countless hours testing and refining each component on the car to wring out every last drop of speed. Parts are continuously refined, tested, used; lather, rinse, repeat. Teams who stop developing their cars — either by choice or by circumstance — plummet through the ranks as rivals scramble to find that extra tenth in the corner. Why? That extra tenth can mean millions for a team.

These twenty-four cars house twenty-four drivers, culled from every racing series imaginable, campaigning not only for their constructors but also for the drivers’ championship. These drivers spend untold hours physically and mentally conditioning their bodies to become an extension of the car; one cannot exist without the other. They race for money, fame, and glory; they also race for the ability to carry the number one on the nose of their car the following year, forever afforded the title World Champion.

It’s a grueling schedule, honestly. In 2012, drivers and teams compete at twenty circuits scattered throughout the world. Historic tracks, like Monaco and Spa, mingle with purpose-built circuits, freshly paved and ready for the upcoming challenge. As the sport evolves, the tracks evolve as well. Newer tracks, like those in Shanghai and Dubai, often see top speeds of 190 mph, but top speed is but one aspect of the total package. Cars make anywhere between 14 and 25 turns on each track, with most tracks running clockwise. Some of these turns can be taken at high speed, but most are best navigated at around 45 mph. This rapid acceleration and deceleration, over and over for anywhere between 57 and 70 laps, takes its toll on man and machine. It’s a beautiful, graceful, exhausting dance.

Tracks pass a stringent series of checks before they can be approved for a race event, and the sport’s regulators emphasize safety. Modern tracks provide drivers with vast expanses of asphalt outside the official track limits (typically marked by brightly-painted curbs), so cars running off-track have room to safely rejoin. Older tracks use gravel instead of asphalt; historic tracks like Monaco rely on safety barriers and tire walls. Fleets of medical personnel hover around the track, ready to spring into action if needed. Armies of marshals and track personnel communicate to drivers throughout the course of the race, using a series of colored flags to designate different warnings or messages.

As fans, we cannot confuse safety with a lack of danger. This sport is dangerous. Drivers make their money pushing the limits of the car, every corner of every lap. Engineers and mechanics make their money ensuing the car is as light and aerodynamically efficient as possible, but continuous development coupled with a relative lack of on-track testing means no assurances of reliability. Drivers must be able to pressure one another without using their car as a wedge — to touch is to risk everything.

Every race weekend brings a mix of intrigue, talent, politics, wealth, technology, gossip, and speculation. As a student of organizational theory fascinated with figuring out how people work within organizations — and how organizations work within larger systems — it’s fascinating to watch interplay between teams. There’s something for everyone in Formula 1.

June 17, 2005

We’re standing on the infield at Turn 11, perched atop one of the grassy swells dotting the track’s edge. We left at 2:30 in the morning to ensure we’d be on track in time for the weekend’s first practice session. For my birthday, my mom and dad bought me a pair of tickets (and a coveted parking pass) to the USGP. It’s my first on-track experience; the smile on my face from sheer joy would shame the Cheshire cat.

I’m alternately waving and holding a large Finnish flag. My husband (new to Formula 1), stands next to me, clutching an air-horn and staring intently at the track. Our ears fill with the sound of V10s as the cars fire-up in the pits and find their way to the slick, clean track. Initial laps deposit fresh rubber on track, providing cars with increased grip as time ticks away. Tentative installation laps soon shift to full-fledged madness. Cars dash through the corner, dancing on the edge of breaking contact, but always managing to skitter through. I’m taking hundreds of pictures, trying to capture everything.

“Ah! I see we’ve found some fellow Raikkonen fans! Mind if we join you?”

I turn and see two friendly gentlemen, one with a shock of brilliantly white hair and a matching handlebar(!) moustache. His eyes smile at us. “I’m Scott. Nice to meet you.”

His friend grins and shakes hands. “I’m John.”

“I’m Erin. This is my husband, Chris. Nice to meet you, too.”

Formula 1 fans in the United States — usually spotted roaming in packs at the wee hours of the morning on Twitter — face a maddening, uphill battle. NASCAR reigns supreme, particularly in the Midwest and South. If, like me, you live twenty-five miles from Carl Edwards’ hometown, you can’t escape. Co-workers stop me in the hallway to tell me they watched “some of that racing you like,” then proceed to describe Sunday’s IndyCar race. (I always mentally give bonus points if said race was held on an oval track.) I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve explained Danica Patrick’s non-role in Formula 1. There are worse things in life than having to explain this, I suppose.

I completely understand why people confuse IndyCar with Formula 1 in the United States. At first glance, both types of cars look similar: they are both open-wheeled cars with large front and rear wings. The driver sits in the center of the car; there’s an engine behind the driver. It doesn’t help that many of the names cross over between the two series, and have for several decades, including Villeneuve, Bourdais, Barrichello, and Montoya. The United States also has a less-than-stellar track record at keeping a Formula 1 race — it’s been five years since Formula 1 cars raced in the States. Race organizers must be willing to pony up large sums of cash for the honor of holding a Formula 1 race at their track; refuse to pay and Mr. Ecclestone will sell your slot to any number of other tracks openly salivating at the prospect of holding a race. The upcoming inaugural Austin race at the Circuit of the Americas holds great promise for the future of Formula 1 in the United States. I hope it works. This sport is awesome. I want others to share in its awesomeness.

My name is Erin Hansman. I’ve followed Formula 1 for a long time, but more closely since 2001. I live-tweet every session of every race, but I never spoil delayed broadcasts. I cheer unabashedly for Kimi Raikkonen. I’m an F1 geek, and an advocate for the fan. Join me.

Doctor Erin Hansman (not that kind of doctor) is an avid enthusiast of Formula 1 motor sport. When not following “the pinnacle of international motor racing” she works for a small, private university in the middle of Missouri wrangling databases, preparing reports, and developing new ways to do things. She can also be found on Twitter via @DrHansman and at her often-neglected personal blog

11 Responses to “How to be an F1 geek”
  1. Jess Coffman says:

    Great read! Congrats on the first column.

  2. Amid the endless column inches devoted to Formula 1’s politics and technology – both in print and online – it’s a genuine treat to read a well written article by an avid and knowledgeable F1 enthusiast (with content directed towards other enthusiasts, new and old) in which the author is openly celebrating the pleasures of all that F1 brings to its audience. A wonderful and welcome breath of fresh air. More please. Congratulations, Erin. All best wishes, Steve Matchett.

  3. Worst…Article….Ever….. (Is this worth a drink?)

  4. Rob Parker says:

    For me, good literature takes me into my past or forward into my imagination. This article did both. Thanks for stirring some great memories and sharing yours, Erin.

  5. showbizk says:

    Wow, I feel inadequate following the prior posters, but–what the heck! Well-written, enjoyable article, Erin! And a kudo from Mr. Matchett, to boot!

  6. Doug Bryan says:

    I can’t count how many times I’ve had to explain to friends that Formula One is not the same as the indy series. Reading this article makes me feel a little less alone. There are kindred spirits out there. I’ve been a devoted fan for about a decade, but haven’t met anyone as devout as the good Dr. Hanman. She is brilliant. This article is spot on. Well done Dr.

  7. Really enjoyed your article and was heartened to see that your first in person F1 race turning out to be a ludicrous 6 car parade did not dampen your enthusiasm for the sport (my first was the 1966 USGP and luckily I did not go to Indy that year). I thought it very well written but can’t help pointing out one really glaring error:

    ” Some of these turns can be taken at high speed, but most are best navigated at around 45 mph.”

    most corners <75 kph? No, indeed very few are.

  8. Harold Gabriel says:

    Great article! Just wonder if Dr. Hansman have a gorilla suit in her closet.

  9. Stephen Clark says:

    I follow Erin’s posts on #speedf1 during live race events. She has a very entertaining perspective on the sport, and she is a true F1 Geek, like I am. Try it sometime!

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