A tenth

I had an interesting conversation a few days ago with Varun Grover, who sat across me in a coffee shop and quietly, but deliberately said “I can’t stand F1. I don’t know what people get out of watching a bunch of cars repeatedly go around a track.” I almost gave into a flash of anger, but I saw a smile playing on his face. What ensued was a passionate tirade about why I love the sport when hardly anyone else in India does. When I was finished, Varun’s smile widened and he said two things:

– He asked me to write down my tirade
– He said he’ll definitely catch the next race (which, by the way, is tomorrow in Belgium)

I presume Varun will honor the second point so I’ll honor the first.

I know there are a lot of things that make F1 hard to follow. Not the least of which is the dense jungle of technicalese surrounding it. Others find its elitism off-putting. There is a third group of people who shun the sport because they believe human ability is overshadowed by machinery, rendering it unworthy of being called a sport. Whenever these reasons are mentioned, I get angry. But I also understand why these misconceptions exist.

Before I address any of these issues, let me point out that all three are merely symptoms of one problem: it’s difficult to understand the point of F1. The goal, so to speak. Sadly, this confusion can be blamed on the stakeholders of the sport. I’m pretty sure if you quizzed Bernie Ecclestone he’ll say the point of F1 is “to make money”. If you asked a F1 driver, he’ll say “to win races. oh, and make money”. The typical spectator may say they “came to see their hero win and watch fast cars”, an engineer will say “to build better cars with better technology”, etc.

It took me four years to really understand the point of F1. I first started following it in 1999 when I was an electrical engineering student. My classmate Sumeet used to share interesting tidbits about the electronics inside F1 cars those days. For example, the timing chip, the engine management system, gear changing system. Some of those conversations even inspired rudimentary attempts to replicate those functions (e.g. my laughable attempt at designing a circuit to regulate gear-changes in cars). But the point is, I found the technical wizardry of F1 fascinating and started following the sport to see what the end result of all that geekiness looked like. And because I took an interest in what was inside the car, the outside fascinated me even more. The deafening roar of its engine, the blinding speed, the fact that they took an engine thrice the capacity of a Premier Padmini but gave it TWENTY times the power….you get the point.

(F1 enthusiasts are brimming with stats. These stats tend to put off laypersons who are genuinely interested in the sport. The stats make it seem less of a sport and more of an examination. The numbers do absolutely nothing to convey what the sport really is about. I mentioned before that the governing body is responsible for the greatest disservice to the sport. Take a look at their website. The “Understanding The Sport” page has a clinical description of different aspects of F1, never once delving into the larger picture. It’s NOT just a race. Not to me, anyway. The rest of the website is full of technical details and stats. Exactly the kind of thing a curious fence-sitter will avoid. There are descriptions of drivers but not a single human interest story. What does it take to be one of the world’s 22 best? Has anyone ever researched the management case study possible of Michael Schumacher’s turnaround of Ferrari? Or perhaps of Fernando Alonso’s resurgence at Ferrari and how he followed in Schumacher’s footsteps and molded the team around him to make it a championship challenger today? Nopes.)

The turning point was a documentary about the late Ayrton Senna’s superhuman ability to go significantly faster than his competitors, seemingly at will. They timed Ayrton and another driver (I forget who) around Silverstone and analyzed the telemetry from the cars. When we’re driving and approach a turn, we tend to apply brakes until the car slows down to a speed at which we can take the turn without skidding or tipping over. It’s something we learn from judgment. That is how the other driver drove. His approach to turns would be to brake-turn-accelerate. Not Ayrton. They realized that Ayrton would start pumping the brake repeatedly before he approached the turn, take the turn at a far higher speed than his competitor and thus, exit the turn even faster. Ayrton’s approach to the turn was brake-coast-brake-coast-brake-coast-accelerate which allowed him to shave seconds off his lap times. I believe the term for this braking style is Cadence Braking and it’s the heart of the Anti-Lock Braking system (ABS) in modern road cars today. (Did I mention that documentary was the turning point? It was, literally and figuratively.)

It was then I realized, Formula One is about perfection. And the deaths we die at every inch of our progress achieving it.

Ayrton didn’t just want to go fast. He wanted to go faster. How fast? There was a point in his career when his competitors were merely of academic interest, so he only had himself to beat. But by how much? When can you sit back with a tall drink, put your feet up and say, “that’s it. That’s the limit. Now no one can be better than me”? There is no such limit. Which is why every minute, tiny, insignificant advantage in the sport becomes a game-changer. Let’s consider the blink of an eye. The fastest takes 100 milliseconds. One tenths of a second. A measure of time so very insignficant. And yet, in that single blink are formula one races won. The sport rewards the winner. It doesn’t say by how much. That’s because this pursuit of perfection doesn’t allow us the luxury of defining standards of victory. Consequently, the margin for error is so low, every race is an exceptionally efficient symphony of human excellence in motion. That’s another thing you need to know about F1. It’s a TEAM game. A team of exceptional, well-oiled human beings who happen to use machines to achieve an impossible standard of perfection. And they have to do this with restrictions on the car. (The fact that a F1 car is subject to size, weight and of late, engine and technology restrictions should be enough to negate the argument that the sport is driven by tech.)

Take for example this picture tweeted by the Lotus F1 team. Notice the markings on the ground? That’s the scale to measure how accurately the car stops when it comes in for a pit-stop and tyre change. So intricately and accurately is this dance orchestrated that the enire pit crew is supposed to stand at pre-defined positions – inch perfect – so that there will be minimum time wasted in moving the wheel gun to the wheel, removing the old wheel, putting in the new one and replacing the wheel nut. The typical time it takes for this entire operation? Around four seconds. The fastest pit stop apparently is 2.4 seconds by a team I have no love lost for, but must acknowledge.

2.4 seconds. Think about it for a moment. That’s the time it takes you to move your fingers to that irritating itch on your nose, scratch it satisfactorily and bring your hands back to rest. In the time it took you to scratch your nose, they changed four wheels on a car and sent the driver out to compete again. Unfathomable.

The driver is merely one component of a team, albeit it’s most public face with an entire championship dedicated to his/her performances. That’s because it takes a special kind of courage to hurtle around a scorching asphalt surface, bordered with unforgiving rubber and concrete walls, pounding your body with five times its own weight just so you could go point one seconds faster. Than the guy behind you. Than yourself a lap ago.

In 2008, the sport’s governing body removed almost every electronic driving aid in the car to battle allegations from purists that the sport was becoming more about the technicians and less about the driver. So the drivers no longer had the help of assists like traction control, electronic start or automatic gear shifts. The sport was stripped down to basics and made even tougher than it used to be. Those point one seconds were so coveted, teams shifted all their focus to innovating the body of the car – its aerodynamics and came up with Drag Reduction System, F-Ducts and internally, the KERS or Kinetic Energy Recovery System. (These are all amazing gizmos you can learn more about when you have time.) For the folks who believe a formula one driver is less of an athlete, here’s what they have to do

– communicate with the pit wall concerning strategy, condition of their tires, pit stops, niggles with the car, wing adjustments, etc

– decide when to use the power stored in the KERS so that he gets a boost in speed while driving

– activate the Drag Reduction System only when a light on the steering wheel indicates it is permissible to do so

– look out for flags on the track that signal accidents, race stops, restarts, etc

– change air-fuel mixtures using knobs on the steering wheel, which means taking a hand off the steering wheel at 200mph.

– Use their hands (or feet) to block the air into an f-duct system so that the airflow over the front wing is mitigated, resulting in faster straight-line speed

– ensure their neck and forearms are strong enough to handle the g-forces during a turn so they can look in the right direction and then steer the car in the right direction when all their body wants to do is hurl itself out to inertial peace

– remember braking points and exit gears for each turn

– brake and change gears manually

All of it simultaneously, while battling dehydration that will make them lose 2 kilos of body weight in two hours. The ability to drive a formula one car is a combination of superhuman abilities of stamina, concentration and brute force.

Try changing the radio station in your car at 100mph.

The Olympics are an excellent example of a sport where there is no limit, where athletes push their own bodies to achieve greater standards of perfection. But they’re alone, they’re the stars. F1 is the same, except there are fifty people who need to be at that level, each master of his/her domain. I humbly submit that it’s tougher.

I have great respect for all forms of sport (except, perhaps American football but that’s another story) but there are sports where winning is quantized and defined accordingly (e.g. you win Tennis matches according to rules for games, sets, tie-breakers or cricket where you score a run, never two-thirds of a run) and then there are sports where measurement is in time, the most fluid benchmark of all. Of course, this applies to all forms of racing, but F1 is the premier version. There are 10-11 teams in F1 with the bottom 3 typically being classified as uncompetitive all season (India’s Narain Karthikeyan is in one of them). Why then, do these teams still get a chance? It’s because they get to work in the rarefied atmosphere of the world’s best athletes and brains, all combined in their pursuit of an extra tenth. There are folks on the sidelines with huge amounts of money who invest behind these drivers and teams because they respect the effort it takes to be the world’s best.

I’ve followed the sport for more than a decade and I don’t intend to give it up anytime soon, for all the reasons I mentioned above. So when the lights go out at Spa Francorchamps tomorrow, I hope there will be fewer people making ignorant statements about a sport they’ve never taken the effort to understand, and a few people more watching with me, enjoying not just the adrenaline rush of the sound and speed, but also following the struggle of the teams striving to eke out that elusive tenth.

8 responses to “A tenth”

  1. Neha says :

    I went to the race at the BIC last year because, I’m embarrassed to say, I was dragged along by my husband. Your post makes me wish I had paid more attention :)

  2. kuthali kashala says :

    A very interesting read. Thank you for the post. As a fan – I suspect your take on American football might be more interesting though! Hoping that you find the time and inclination to post about it as contrary views are so far and few in this rah rah world.

  3. Jagannath Moorthy says :

    Lovely writing, I’ve been following F1 since the mid-80s and used to get the same questions all the time, I would just dismiss them with a “you just won’t understand”. Now if someone asks, I will point them to this page.

  4. Siddharth Deswal says :

    Dear Sir, while the idea of a case study on the turnaround of Ferrari is indeed noteworthy, you seem to have forgotten to mention Messrs Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Jean Todt.

    Not that I’m some kind of a “Credits” Nazi, but I would still beg of you to make in this rather passionate post at least a passing mention of the previously named gents, given that they were instrumental in the resurgence of Ferrari.

    Other than that, first class post Sir. Done like a boss \m/

  5. Varun Grover says :

    Privileged to be the starting point of such a fascinating post. I was, frankly, too happy to see your passion that day while explaining how you were initiated into F1 and had become a reluctant, half-convert anyway. But this post, with some finer nuances written down for posterity, ensures that I will soon catch the sport Live on a TV. Hope it lives up to the ‘symphony of human excellence’ description you have given. The slight problem is I don’t have a TV at home and September looks crazy hectic. But…(and this is a good ‘but’ unlike the one in the first comment)…you have done the initiation bit as well as Master Shifu.

  6. rajat15 says :

    Loved the article. Succinctly captured my love for the sport as well.

    I happen to support the team you “have no love lost for”, and have done so since about the same time when you started (only I was a lot younger). I’m guessing you support the team I lovingly refer to as the ‘Red Rats’ for their despicable treatment of their own drivers and cushy relationship they enjoyed with former FIA President and Current Nazi tool Max Mosley… (incidentally, if you don’t support them, I hope you enjoyed a laugh).

    HOWEVER… The fact is that without this team (and all the others along with them), there would be no sport. No excitement. I say to all those who don’t get the point of the sport – Could you find another mode of entertainment where technical skill marries intense passion? They should hear the joy each and every driver exudes when they qualify on pole. Or see grown ups jump for joy when they find themselves at the top of the podium.

    I do humbly submit to you that a keen interest in the machines is probably necessary to totally enjoy F1 (my disregard for anything MotoGP proves that for me, even though that might be a greater test of a driver).

    /endgushingtribute

  7. Woop says :

    Fascinating read. Remarkable insight into various aspects of the sport. Total respect for the pursuit of perfection undertaken by those involved. But I’m afraid I still won’t be watching the sport because, to me, it still seems pointless. To each his own, I guess. :)

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