Formula One Needs to Race on an Oval Before It Can Be the Pinnacle of Motorsport

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Photo: Claude Paris (AP)

Formula One is often lauded as the pinnacle of motorsport. A quick search on the Internet reveals everything you need to know: articles, forum threads, and lengthy comparisons to other racing series to further establish that F1 is the top racing series in the world. And I might be inclined to agree… except for the fact that F1 doesn’t race on an oval.

Don’t hit the comments just yet. Bear with me, folks. Hear me out.

F1 is at a level of technological advancement that other racing series could only dream of. It takes years of development and millions of dollars just to find a competitive edge in that series because it’s world class. The best engineers and designers congregate in the shops that send these beautiful pieces of machinery to tracks around the world for eight months out of the year in order to fight for recognition. It’s called a World Championship for a reason.

And, importantly, it’s international. Drivers are required to show their talent in all kinds of weather conditions at different tracks around the world. Sure, you might be a fiend for the blazing heat you’ll find in Singapore, but can you also master Spa on a cold rainy Sunday?

So, why doesn’t F1 race on an oval?

Yeah, yeah. I know oval racing has A Stereotype. Mention the word “oval” to a die-hard F1 fan and you can just about see the horror in their eyes as they imagine a sultry Tennessee evening spent drinking cheap beer watching thirty-odd cars go in a circle for hours on end. No sir, no ovals for us, we are well contented to not be associated with the connotations of NASCAR.

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But how can you claim to be a series that produces the most well-rounded, competitive drivers if you’re discarding an entire category of racing?

Oval tracks produce their own set of challenges. As much as people like to shrug it off as “just turning left”, teams and drivers have to be prepared in a much different way. The skills you used to win at Monaco aren’t going to work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ovals produce an aerodynamic challenge unlike anything else you’ll see in sports: how to deal with banked turns, competition that can slingshot around you at any moment, exhausting G forces, you name it. It’s a whole different world.

And it’s one that F1 needs to tackle.

While I love IndyCar dearly, I can easily recognize that they’re not on the same level of F1 in the slightest. It’s not a series run on a global scale with the same amount of money. But I do think they do one thing better than F1: they test a driver’s overall skills in ways you don’t see across the pond.

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Road courses, street circuits, and ovals are three tracks that often end up sanctioned and utilized in the same way—which is why I’m not suggesting we take an F1 car out to Rally Sweden. I’m suggesting that F1 needs to capitalize on all the different types of paved courses it can in order to prove the versatility and respectability of their drivers as opposed to anyone else’s.

Not to be That Guy, but I could easily believe that a driver like, say, Scott Dixon could hop in an F1 car and be comfortable racing at each stop on the F1 calendar without any prior seat time. It’s harder to see Lewis Hamilton jumping in an IndyCar and understanding how to navigate Gateway. I’d argue that, to truly be able to call yourself an open-wheel champion, you should be capable of tackling any paved course and the challenges it brings.

That’s not to say F1 drivers can’t be good drivers without an oval race. But you’re likely to be far more impressed by the artist who can paint just about anything than the one who makes a pair of hands look like a dried up tree branch sticking out of a floppy coat. You can still be an awesome painter, even if suck at painting hands. It’s just that no one is going to be able to call you a master of portraying a realistic human body.

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It seems disingenuous, then, for F1 to claim they produce the best drivers in the world when they’re ignoring a very large contingent of racing.

Back in the day, F1 drivers could compete in the Indy 500 as part of the Grand Prix championship. The oval track at Monza was frequently used in the 1950s as the home of the Italian Grand Prix. There’s a history of F1 drivers taking on ovals as they headed across the pond to compete in an IndyCar. And, probably even more interesting was the fact that, around then, IndyCar drivers were heading over to Europe to compete in oval racing at Monza.

The Race of Two Worlds, held in 1957 and 1958, was intended to actually get F1 and IndyCar (then, USAC) drivers competing in the same field. It was rare that an F1 driver would actually head to Indianapolis, and The Powers That Be figured it would be easier to get F1 drivers to compete on European soil, with USAC drivers making the trip over.

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F1 teams built their own special cars for the event—and they got their butts handed to them by the USAC drivers both years running. It was hard to turn a profit for that kind of racing on European soil, so the Automobile Club of Milan went back to using Monza’s oval for F1 races only.

There’s not much tradition here to back things, sure—but it’s something. It’s not impossible. And, since we’re not asking IndyCar drivers and F1 drivers to race head-to-head in their own unique machinery, it would be a little more of a fair fight as everyone navigates their understanding of an oval for the first time. I have a feeling that breaking tradition would draw a lot more viewers in this era than it did back in the late 50s.

See, if there’s anything motorsport needs right now, it’s a kick in the ass. We’re constantly monitoring viewership and trying to find new ways to attract new fans, but things have been pretty stagnant for a while.

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Why should we close off avenues of potential viewership? There’s something of a rivalry between the European and American contingents—there’s a tendency to view each other as snobby or rednecky, respectively. That’s usually based on some relatively unfounded stereotypes. NASCAR has been taking on road courses: why shouldn’t F1 experiment with an oval?

Listen. This isn’t going to happen overnight. Oval racing is a much different beast to road or street racing, given the fact that, to conquer a banked oval, you have to have a staggered car setup, entirely different aerodynamic properties—you name it.

I hear your argument that forcing F1 teams to develop an entirely new million dollar car for a single race of the year is, potentially, a Really Bad Idea. Trust me. As a former Manor-Marussia fan (may they rest in peace), I’m very conscious of the fact that racing costs a hell of a lot of money, and if you’re not drinking out of the Ferrari legacy, you’re pretty unlikely to just be able to snap your fingers and make some cash appear.

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Here’s my compromise. F1 runs a flat oval.

Banking is one of the significant obstacles on many oval tracks. It’s also the reason NASCAR and IndyCar teams stagger their tires. Get rid of banking, stretch out the track, and boom. It’s Formula One ready. Make the straights wide enough for cars to slipstream and run side-by-side, trying to be the first one in the turns that force them to race single file.

The problem is, there isn’t a circuit quite like that out there yet.

Jalops, we’re at a bit of an impasse. Someone either needs to spend the money to build a flat oval, or F1 teams need to spend the money to build an oval-ready car. But I have the confidence that, if The Powers That Be in Formula One expressed their interest in running an oval in the near future, then someone somewhere would purpose-build them a track.

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Yes, it’s still something of a pipe dream, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. F1 should constantly be searching for ways to be more competitive, to be on the forefront of aerodynamic exploration and technical innovation. Right now, doing the same things they’ve always done, F1 hasn’t quite shown that they’re doing the work they should be to maintain their position as the pinnacle of racing.

Formula One should, one day, race on an oval.

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