Formula 1 (Abdellah El Ouastani)

  Formula 1

This piece is for everyone who may be willing to go beyond surface-level when it comes to the inner workings of Formula 1; but particularly, I am addressing this work to people who may be unfamiliar with Formula 1. To those who disclaim it as a bunch of cars going around in circles, which is far from the truth and a statement that is wide of the mark, to say the least. Therefore, much of what is to follow is an argument geared towards putting to bed a number of misconceptions held about Formula 1, while simultaneously providing a number of fascinating insights about what makes Formula 1 unique and in a league of its own in many different ways.

First of all, Formula 1 is one of the most complex, multi-dimensional sports in the world, if not the most of them all. Intrinsically, Formula 1 is a multi-billion business empire; the most technologically advanced sport; a breeding platform for trend-setting technological breakthroughs; the ultimate test of men and machine. To preface, Formula 1 is the paradigm of extremity, and no stranger to superlatives at all. It is the pinnacle of motor (racing) sports, where the fastest, most developed vehicles are put through their paces by the absolute finest 24 best drivers in the world, out of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of aspiring candidates.

Essentially, Formula 1 as a business is regulated by the governing body known as the International Automobile Federation (FIA) and owned by the Formula One Group, in turn belonging to Liberty Media, an American media company who bought the commercial rights of the sport from the former owners CVC and Bernie Ecclestone. In that capacity, Liberty Media are entitled to selling the sports content to TV companies and interested sponsors. To put it simply, the FIA is responsible for coming up with a set of sporting and technical regulations by which all the teams involved need to abide by, and the commercial rights holders are responsible for putting in place a financial framework for the sport and how the distribution of the revenues is allocated to the teams that signed up to race or participate.

Business-wise, Formula 1 is one of the most expensive but lucrative businesses on the planet.[1] Owing mainly to the business acumen of the former Formula 1 CEO, Bernie Ecclestone, F1 experienced a dramatic transformation, departing from its early days as a gentleman’s favorite pastime activity, and turned it into a meritocracy, both financially and sportingly, a global phenomenon with international appeal, and an astronomical financial wealth. Widely regarded as having single-handedly put the sport on the map, the business mogul attracted sponsors and TV audiences like a magnet, chiefly due to his business sense and shrewdness. Famously, Bernie was a regular backgammon player, where strategic moves and opportunistic thinking are essential to prospering in the game. In much the same way, he timed his moves to perfection; just before negotiating new contracts with the promoters and sponsors, he proceeded in bringing together the teams participating in the sport under one banner, one organization, agreeing to negotiate on behalf of the sport other than each team represented separately and avoiding any conflict of interests; effectively, gaining negotiation upper ground in the process of agreeing terms with potential interested investors in the product.

Formalizing the sport materialized in the form of what is branded the Concorde Agreement, legally binding the teams together to take part in every single race that is FIA-licensed, in the process. This move provided the media companies the guarantee they needed that the show would go on, ensuring the consistent exposure of their brands and exceptional global reach to untapped markets and wider reach. In fact, the sport, under Bernie’s regime, has become a global sport in all senses of the word, attracting all four continents, and many a country vying for a slot in the coveted stage for brand exposure and awareness that F1 offers. In 2017, the F1 contingent put on a show in 20 different countries[2], and an additional country already securing a spot for 2018 – a far cry from the days when no more than 6 races took place, within the confines of Europe.  In numbers, F1 generates revenues of around £1.1bn a year, on a regular basis. Racing hosts pay up to £15 million each; as for TV, British TV channel Sky Sports, is paying an estimated £1 billion for the exclusive rights to live broadcasts from 2019 for six years; couple that with the team’s variety of sponsors and the business model suddenly makes for a smart business investment worth millions, if not billions in revenue return or profits. [3] All in all, it’s a win-win for all involved, for the sport and the teams.

Formula 1 Calendar


The business is in a healthy state with world-renowned leading automakers like Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, Honda all investing and involved to market their technical knowhow and their brand values. Technology-wise, Formula 1 is easily the most sophisticated sport there is, and the most technically complex, no doubt. In Formula 1, the aim is simple: it’s about going around a race track in the fastest manner possible, thus beating the competition to the finish line; achieving that, however, within the spirit of the rules mandated by the FIA. The governing body, and Formula 1 encourage technical innovation, yet they put rules in place to limit the areas where engineers can find performance gains; restrictions which interrupt the engineer’s freedom and stipulate the do’s and the don’ts of the rule book.  That said, Formula 1 is a highly competitive sport, and the teams, led by their Harvard graduate engineers, who go to extraordinary lengths, in a never-ending pursuit of fractions of a second, which affect the end result, notably if one bears in mind how the difference between winning and losing a race is measured in milliseconds, let alone seconds.

Formula 1 is blessed with some of the brightest minds. Indeed, even with their hands tied behind their backs by the restrictive nature of the FIA rules, the brain power of engineers, who constitute, in the case of the big teams like Ferrari and Mercedes, a part of a 1000-plus employees, spend days on end of research trying to find loopholes or ways around the rules, to outsmart and to beat the other teams into making a technical find or breakthrough that could determinedly give them the edge over the rest. It is a race on track and off-track. The engineers are equipped by their respective teams with enough resources to carry out tests and virtual experiments in the Wind Tunnel and the Computational Fluids Dynamics; essentially two simulation tools used in order to produce and predict aerodynamic airflow and much-needed data, if proving to generate the desired effect and results, will then be translated into the real world, or implemented to the cars.



 Computational Fluid Dynamics                                                                      Wind Tunnel



Basically, the teams involved in the sport focus on and push in two key areas in quest of a competitive advantage: aerodynamics, and the engine. A Formula 1 machine is an only-for-racing car, capable of sensational speeds of over 300km/h on the straights, and up to 270km/h through corners, which makes the other racing categories appear slow and standing still in comparison.[4] The difference in speed between Formula 1 and other forms of motorsports is the aerodynamics. It is a crucial area of development in F1, particularly as it has to do with pushing the tires, the car onto the track, in the corners; helping the machine grip and stick to the ground while carrying immense amounts of speed through turns. The more aerodynamically-efficient a car is, the more it bites the tarmac, the faster it corners; and the more corner speed a car carries into a turn and out of it, the faster the lap times at the finish line. Decisively, considering all race circuits, bar none, are 70% made up of turns and twists than straight-line courses, aerodynamics are arguably the most fundamental element in determining the end result of a race. Worthy of note, owing to the technical regulations, Formula 1 cars have grown extremely detailed wings, front and rear, engineered for aerodynamic purposes, in other words, to fly at higher speeds. In fact, planes and F1 cars have one thing in common: that is wings. But while planes use their wings to create lift, race cars use theirs to create negative lift, better identified as down-force.[5]


Front and Rear Wing Details of the SF71H


As the pinnacle of motorsport, not only does F1 carry the reputation as the most technologically advanced sport, but also a proven record as a pioneering breeding ground for road cars. It has to be mentioned, the transfer of technology from Formula 1 to the road car productions is one of the primary reasons for big automotive giants in associating their brands with that of F1. In this regard, F1 has served, and continues to serve as a research laboratory for the automakers. For example, Sequential Gearboxes were originally developed in F1 by the Williams team in 1991.[6] Now these semi-automatic gearboxes feature predominantly in contemporary production vehicles and in sports cars overwhelmingly. Over and above, the KERS, short for Kinetic Recovery Energy System, is another Formula invention which has found its way to road machines. Fundamentally, this system functions by harvesting energy under braking that would otherwise be wasted and use it to as additional horsepower. Putting this new find to good effect, public service vehicles such as buses, which have a high braking cycle, have had systems fitted to harness this free waste energy and reduce their fuel consumption. [7]

The above brings me to the other most salient element in separating the winners from the second-best: the beating-heart of the car: the engines. Since 2014, the FIA laid out a set of revolutionary technical regulations that presented the engineers with a clean sheet of paper, and sent them back to the drawing board. The aim of which is bringing the sport closer than ever to the mainstream industries, particularly in an environmentally fatigued world.  Therefore, to maintain relevancy, move along with the changing times, and sustain both the business and the environment alike, the FIA, decided to promote electric mobility by ridding the sport of the outdated engines, and welcoming a greener propulsion technology; provided the new technology hits at least the same performance targets of its predecessor. The objective was simple and clear: to engineer a car that travels at equally fast speeds as before, if not quicker, but manage that in a way that is more efficient, to reduce green gas emission, or CO2.  This new device is termed the Power Units; basically a hybrid engine that marries a small part of the old technology with a large portion of newer and more pertinent incorporated solutions. In short, this Hybrid technology uses an electric motor to assist the petrol engine.



A Power Unit


 As can be seen from the image above, it is notable how the Power Unit is a complex device that houses a turbocharged V6 Internal Combustion (petrol) Engine, one of the few elements remaining from the former era of the sport. Then, there are the two electrical motors, with the MGU-H and the MGU- K, which stand for Motor Generator Unit- Heat, and Motor Generator Unit- Kinetic, respectively. The former is connected to the turbocharger and recovers energy from the turbo, stores it, and then uses it to spin the compressor, providing immediate power. The latter is directly connected to the rear wheels of the car; therefore it helps produce more power; it recovers wasted energy in heat during the braking process. It is simply an upgraded version of KERS. Both electric systems work in similar fashion in that they either function to recover or supply power[8]. All the power that comes from the various sources, it all finds its way to one place: the Energy Store, shown in the picture above. These technical innovations have not found their way to road cars as of yet, but given Formula 1’s status as a trendsetting testing bed for the outside world, it is only a matter of time before these highly technological advances and momentum is transferred over to the vehicles on the road.

As established before, besides Formula 1 being a business, and a technical factory for mainstream cars, it is more than anything, a sport where drivers take center stage. As a sport, Formula 1 is one of the most incredibly powerful experiences, both as a spectator and a driver racing those state-of-the-art cars; it plays on some of the most fundamental human emotions: passion (for your favorite team or driver), dislike (for the other teams), agony (over a lost race with mechanical failure or human error) or euphoria (when everything works smoothly and the driver and the car are on song culminating in a victory) – along with unique powerful emotional experiences seeping out from the speed of the cars and roar or sound of the engines. Indeed, although Formula 1 is a mechanical sport, the human factor or input, is an instrumental part in making a difference between glory and defeat. Before anything, without a driver calling the shots behind the wheel, the car won’t ever move a wheel. As such, the driver is a big variable is swaying the result one way or the other; a small chink in a large chain connecting and carrying the hopes of 1000-plus employees[9], not to mention representing major car brands on a global scale.

As sportspeople, contrary to popular belief, Formula 1 drivers are ones of the most conditioned, sharp athletes. A Formula 1 car requires immense physical and mental strength. The expression having “strong head on young shoulders” is a fitting phrase when it comes to describing F1 drivers. In most cases, during a race, they pull quadruple the amount of their head weight when they navigate through a turn; and they need to be prepared to sustain up to 3.5 Gravitational Force created by the cars in the turns and twists of a given circuit.[10] Say, if the weight of a driver’s head stands at 6 kg, and factor in the 1kg of the helmet; combine the two variables together and it amounts to 7kg, at least. In other words, the stress their necks have to withstand is 7 times 4, if not more, for the duration of no less than an hour and a half. In terms of stamina and cardio endurance, Formula 1 driver are some of the finest, in any sport. That is one of the reasons why a training regime of a top-flight driver involves cycling, swimming and rowing, to name a few. The average human being has an average resting heart rate around 70bpm; the average formula 1 driver’s resting heart rate is around 40bpm due to their conditioning.[11] When racing, life is on the line, it is of utmost importance to keep concentration levels high and sharp especially when the conditions of the track change from one lap to another, with the track temperatures either raising or dropping, tires degrading (meaning less traction onto the surface, thus more skill), plus ever a lighter car as the race unfolds, which means the braking points change and the car could go faster. It’s a never-ending story of discovering, and rediscovering the limits and the skill lies in staying on that constantly changing references and or edge without falling off of it.


A F1 Steering Wheel


Equally, F1 drivers have to be quite sharp between the ears – quite an adaptable breed. They need to be extremely well-prepared and smart to navigate corners, adjust buttons on the steering wheel; be it to monitor the fuel consumption or the gap to the front cars and the cars behind; or to conserve the tires, nurse the engine. In the meantime, working out how to go faster at the next corner, all this at over 300 km/h. Another aspect of the bright mental faculties of the drivers is the necessity to develop a skill and ability to converse on the same level with world-class and competent engineers, discussing algorithms and aerodynamic permutations, not to mention race scenarios; agreeing strategies in advance, and then being able to act according to plan A, B, or C scenarios anticipated together with the teams strategists in the build-up before the races.  To put F1 drivers into perspective, they have the stamina and endurance to survive long distances akin to that of long marathon runners; reflexes of a jet fighter to make split-second decisions; and upper body strength of a heavyweight boxer to resist the G-force loads they are subjected to when in the car. All in all, there is much more to Formula 1 drivers than meets the eye; they are an incredibly multitasking breed, trained to keep on their toes at all times. They are underrated. And so is the sport.

Abdellah El Ouastani

Institut catholique de Paris (Catholic University of Paris – ICP)

Master 2 Anglais














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