If you’re reading this, I will assume you are a racing fan. If you’re a racing fan, then you will know the most-watched form of racing worldwide started its season this past weekend — Formula One.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the next most-watched form of racing conducted one of its 36 points-paying events in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.
Both series involve four-wheeled machinery, human drivers and Monster Energy sponsorship.
But that’s where the similarities end. Because the two largest racing series in the world have decided to go in two completely opposite directions in how they want to entertain their fans.
And I am not talking about technology, formats, or grid girls. These two massive series have chosen the opposing ends of the spectrum on something that only 30 years ago was elusive.
In Formula One, the teams and the sanctioning body agreed two years ago to make the 2017 cars “5–7 seconds faster” than their 2015 counterparts. How would they do this? By opening up the aerodynamic rules and therefore adding downforce — tons of it.
In NASCAR, we have done the opposite over the last few years. The level of achievable downforce constantly has been reduced by cutting spoilers and splitters and getting stricter on the aerodynamic rules.
Which brings me to a question I was asked.
This weekend, a friend texted (I know, groundbreaking stuff in the year 2017) to ask, “How do you feel about the cars being stuck to the ground vs. skating around? I think you are on to something where road racing stuck to the ground is interesting and oval skating around is interesting.”
(This also was groundbreaking because someone was asking my opinion. Which comes with a disclaimer: It’s free for a reason.)
But in all seriousness, the question was incredible. The reason was that it was only a mere 30 years ago when the conversation in racing was more about “How fast could cars possibly go?” or “Will humans be able to keep up with the speed of racing cars?”
Now with the advent of technology, we no longer question how fast a car could go, because we know. When the F1 world simply can tweak rules with the knowledge it’s going to be exactly “X” amount faster, there is no more mystery.
As a sport, racing has reached the point where it’s no longer, “May the force be with you.” It’s “How much force would you like?”
This monumental change in philosophy is why, as I write this, there are amateur “aerodynamicists” on Twitter, commentators on YouTube and alleged experts on the Internet telling you whether NASCAR or F1 is right.
On one hand they will tell you the high downforce makes it faster, which is better! On the other, they will tell you downforce is the devil incarnate and should be eliminated from the sport.
The thing is, neither series’ race was particularly memorable.
In Australia, you had a pass for the lead occur when neither driver could see each other (via pit strategy). While the biggest storyline out of the California race was that the driver who seemed forever the bridesmaid finally won.
Nothing of what occurred will be replayed on YouTube illegally for years to come. And I don’t think either showed us a clear-cut path to the elusive “Great Racing!” everyone wants.
No, it’s become apparent that even with all the knowledge in the world about cars and aerodynamics, there still is mystery in what makes a good race occur.
How did I answer my friend’s question?
Fast road racing cars look insane. Meanwhile, sideways and dynamic oval racing looks insane. Speed is tough to see on an oval. It’s far easier to see and appreciate on a street or road course.
That’s why we have what we have.
Road racing needs downforce to achieve incredible speeds and produce what I described watching qualifying from Australia as “Sparking, twitchy, on-the-ragged-edge stuff.” It was obvious the drivers were at the limits of possible control.
While with low downforce in NASCAR, we see far more dynamic slides. The drivers are working harder. And the speeds may be way down as they get into a race run, but it doesn’t hurt the show whatsoever. Seeing cars that visibly move around and make the driver fight is far more interesting than watching a car go in circles on rails.
We never might know which philosophy — low or high downforce – is correct. But the most memorable and best race of any premier series this weekend happened directly between Formula One and NASCAR.
In Qatar, the Moto GP series held its season opener and put on one of the best races I have ever seen in my life.
How much downforce do those bikes make?