fStory by: Ben Sanders
Race fans the world-over can rejoice as the 2017 edition of the FIA Formula One World Championship kicked off this past weekend in Melbourne, Australia. A new wave of technical changes have made the cars wider, sleeker and faster– harping back to the cars of the early 1990’s, have created a renewed excitement for this season.
In recent seasons, the cars have become slower and easier to drive as the FIA has leaned on the side of safety. This decision was epitomized by the unfortunate and devastating passing of Jules Bianchi in Suzuka, Japan in 2014, after the young Frenchman and rumored replacement to Kimi Räikkönen at Ferrari crashed, helmet-first, into a service vehicle.
Formula One is the epitome of bad-ass drivers, pushing purpose built $100-$250 million cars to the limit for the sake of performance, spectacle and winning. Years, decades even, have gone by since the V10 and V12 eras where mavericks like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher risked it all to win. The cars back then were hard to drive, providing unwavering levels of grip to the limit of adhesion, but push it too far and the driver would end up in the gravel trap.
The cars of 2017 are much like the savage racing machines of the 1980’s and 1990’s where physical and mental endurance are the keys to staying on track. Over the offseason, drivers have increased weight and muscle training to be able to withstand the immense G-forces produced by this season’s cars.
Formula One should be comprised of the 20-24 best drivers from the open-wheel racing community as the pinnacle of motorsports and engineering, however in recent seasons this hasn’t been the case. With the cars, not much more powerful or difficult to drive than a GP2 car– the official feeder series to Formula One– and the ever-escalating cost of racing pay-drivers, drivers who have average talent but above average funding, have clogged the seats in the midfield teams. This made it simpler for drivers, regardless of talent-level, to attain a ride and finish between 8th and 15th position each week while providing global sponsor exposure.
For example, 2011 GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi and 2012 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer have only tested a car, while pay-drivers Max Chilton, Charles Pic, Esteban Gutiérrez and Giedo van der Garde have spent one or more full-seasons driving and scored a measly six points between them, all in one race by Gutierrez in 2013. Gutierrez did claim the inaugural GP3 series in 2010, but hasn’t lived up to that high standard since.
This isn’t to discredit Chilton, who has gone on to perform in Indycar with Chip Ganassi Racing, while Gutiérrez has landed a top ride in the FIA Formula E series with Techeetah. On the other end of the spectrum, after a messy lawsuit with the Sauber F1 Team, van der Garde has dabbled in sportscars and Pic hasn’t driven anything competitively since 2015. These drivers between them amassed 12 GP2 wins while Leimer and Valsecchi scored the same amount between them. Each driver ran between two and five seasons in the official feeder series to Formula One.
This is the first season in which 18 of the 20 drivers in the field either claimed a championship in Formula One, GP2, GP3, Formula V8 3.5, or a national Formula 3 or Euro Formula 3 title. The two exceptions are 19-year-old wonder kid Max Verstappen, who was thrown into a Formula One car as a teenager, and Pascal Wehrlein who won a championship in the ultra-competitive DTM touring car series.
In addition to the strongest field in years, Formula One fans finally get to see the rivalry they have been anxiously awaiting; Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel battling each other for the title. Between these two racers; seven Formula One World Championships and 96 victories since getting their rookie debuts in 2007. A resurgent Ferrari is looking to overthrow the dominant Mercedes-AMG in a battle for worldwide automotive supremacy.
Formula One is important to manafacturers as the technology produced, such as crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, carbon-fiber chassis and kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) all originate from being developed on track and are subsequently put onto modern day road cars in the following years.
The rivalry will not have the same hatred as Senna vs. Prost or the political shenanigans of Hamilton and retired 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, but will provide the answer to who is better. Vettel and Hamilton won their championships while the other was in less-competitive equipment, so this is the true litmus test of who is quicker.
Vettel and Hamilton both strive for perfection and being the best. Driving in Formula One isn’t all luxury yachts and supermodels in Monte-Carlo, but the ultimate competition of being the undisputed best racing driver in the world. There aren’t two drivers who love and value winning more and push themselves and their teams harder than these two. With downforce– the pressure and stream of air flowing under and over the car at speed– as high as it is, passing will be at a premium and each driver and team will need cunning and tact to establish precedent.
Winning the Formula One drivers title is equivalent to the Ballon d’Or in soccer or the Heisman trophy in college football and these two drivers are the best of a generation. Seeing them battle it out on track all year will be no less than epic.
Featured image for this post courtesy of formula1.com