There’s a time and a place for fast cars and a time and a place for good old fashioned engineering. It’s perfectly natural that some drivers and teams are better at one than the other. For decades, it was the ability to take a spin around the track in the fastest possible car. It remains a desirable skill set, one that has lured racing’s most elite talent to F1. For the rest of us, speed comes with a cost.
For all those same reasons, the sport of driving has evolved into something entirely different. For starters, Formula 1—the only kind of Grand Prix racing I watch every year—also includes the longest lap of any form of motor racing on the planet. These “attacking cars” do not simply race in a straight line at over 200 mph. They slide, veer and toy with one another. The result is a drama-filled competition where the cars themselves become drama: hugely detailed, detailed, driven by skilled people with serious issues of sportsmanship. It’s done with a cocktail of skill, science and hardware that goes far beyond the skilled wheels we put on our feet.
The Human Factors department has long been one of F1’s top engineers. This is someone whose job it is to ensure the safety of the drivers and the equipment on the race track. In recent years, Human Factors has greatly expanded its capabilities beyond safety.
The scale of F1 just gets bigger and bigger. Formerly characterized as a sport reliant on engineers, Formula 1’s website now mentions four crucial departments:
Earthenware/Engineering – a combination of mechanical engineering, fluid dynamics, electronics, sensors, and performance analysis to make racing cars as complex as possible, yet as effective as possible. During a season, we may have six different main sensors on a car to detect temperatures and mechanical pressures and pressures and improve the car’s performance. Efficiency: How the car is equipped for aerodynamics, aerodynamics, and the most efficient way to control its lift and drag? Performance: How the cars are fitted with electronic stability control, traction control, power steering, braking, brakes, differential lock, and seatbelts?
It’s the engine that really gets it. Keeping things going—from balance and camshaft response to throttle response and gear selection—requires a training and calibration regimen that spans hundreds of hours.
While the technology is obviously developing, so are the skill sets of those inside Formula 1. Yet despite all of the advancement, we’re a long way from a world where a mechanic can repair an engine on his or her own.
One F1 driver told me a couple years ago, “To be able to work a half-hour’s race in a car that is older than most of us were born in, and replace these things, that’s nothing short of remarkable. That’s the level of skill that these guys have…now it’s the drivers that are bringing it home.”
Look at Max Verstappen. From the get-go he demonstrated that he was the type of racer that was not content to let the competition dictate the pace, and to drive his way around the course. For the best part of two years he’s managed to put up impressive stats and incredible performances. Like most folks my age, I grew up watching Formula 1. The truth is I’ve probably never seen a better driver, and for good reason. The Red Bull driver is endlessly energetic, giving passionate answers to questions that are impossible to wrestle away from him. He’s a young kid that still views the world through chunky pillows of red.
I asked Verstappen about the team his family was riding with, Williams F1. Instead of posing that he’s riding with the weakest team in the bunch, he wanted to talk about how good that car looked.
Verstappen is exactly the type of guy you want to have racing for your team. A winner, a big personality, and hard-working guy.
Any way you look at it, Formula 1 is one of the most uniquely skilled set of teams on the planet, but that is not going to remain that way.
The world of F1 racing is going to evolve and evolve further. This weekend marks the United States Grand Prix, where we saw some of the best drivers in the world thrilling crowds. And while the turn-in point will no doubt be Sunday, the climax is not far from the horizon. Don’t bet against Verstappen.
Mark Sebak is the chief operating officer of F1.com, a digital publishing