Formula One, the world's premiere motorsport, is returning to the United States this weekend after a five year absence. Watching F1 is different than watching any other form of motorsport. It's faster. It's technical-er. And to the outsider, it's boring-er.
It doesn't have to be this way. F1 can be absolutely incredible to watch if you know what you're doing.
Here's are a few simple tips on how to enjoy the first United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas this Sunday if you're like the potentially large number of American viewers who will suddenly want to pretend that they're F1 experts.
Many of you may be tuning in to an F1 race for the first time with this USGP and have no idea what F1 is. In short, it started in 1950 and is the premier form of motorsports in the world. The F1 circus is comprised of 12 teams, each with two cars. The teams build their own cars and get engines from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, or Cosworth. Budgets for the teams can reach and exceed $500 million per year as they work to beat everyone else.
Teams travel the globe from March until November on a 20-race odyssey that includes locales like Italy, Germany, Bahrain, Japan, and Monaco. All along, the teams are vying for two major championships: One for the driver and one for the team. The champions not only earn bragging rights, they get millions of dollars and a place in the history books.
Worldwide, F1 is the most popular form of motorsports. In America, it isn't close. That's NASCAR's domain.
If you come into F1 with the mindset that you're going to be watching cars bumping and banging into each other for three hours, you got another thing coming. Crashes do happen, and yes, there is wheel-to-wheel action, but there won't be crashes every eight laps or 'green, white, checkered' finishes.
What it is about is precision and strategy. Just because there are no passes on the track doesn't mean there isn't a ton of action going on. It's a different sort of action. Just watching the leader set incredible lap times that can't be matched by anyone else is amazing in itself.
If this is your first race, chances are you have no idea who these drivers are, and they have names that scare and possibly confuse you. A great way to have a vested interest in the race is to pick a driver. It gives you someone to root for and follow the entire time.
The best part is that battles occur throughout the field, so if you pick a mid-pack driver, you aren't necessarily going to be bored out of your gourd for 2 hours. I typically try and follow three drivers in a race: Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, and Kamui Kobayashi.
F1 has a few little idiosyncrasies that every viewer needs to learn. First, F1 has a little device called KERS, or the "Kinetic Energy Recovery System." The system stores energy lost during braking in either batteries or a mechanical flywheel (No teams currently use the flywheel due to packaging issues). The driver can then activate the system to have an 80 horsepower boost for nearly seven seconds per lap.
Another system, DRS, or "Drag Reduction System," was implemented to aid passing. If a driver is within one second of the car in front of him on certain parts of the track, a flap in the wing can be opened. This reduces wind resistance and increases top speed, which makes passing easier.
Finally, F1 cars don't refuel, so pit stops are ludicrously fast. Like four tires changed in 2.3 seconds fast.
This is a newer development, but one that I find adds a lot to a race. Behind the scenes access to F1 teams used to be hard to come by, but now Twitter has opened everything up. Teams will tweet when they're pitting, interesting tid bits on strategy, weather forecasts, tire choices, and more. While the commentary teams on TV do a pretty good job keeping you up to speed, they cannot get the tiniest little nuances.
Hearing commentary from team personnel straight from pit wall adds a whole new dimension to the race coverage. As a starter, follow a couple teams that pique your interest on Twitter. If you're more interested, there are some great insiders to follow. Caterham Technical Director Mike Gascoyne is a good source of info as are Will Buxton from SPEED's F1 team and journalist Ian Parkes. Part of the fun is also discovering your own insiders to follow and getting the right mix of commentary and humor. Experiment with it.
Make sure you have some snacks, since an F1 race is a two-hour ordeal from flag to flag. I like to set up a "command center" that typically involves coffee, my laptop, the remote, and some sort of snack. Since F1 start times are usually in the morning, a breakfast treat is my normal fare for watching a race.
You knew that, right? Put on SPEED if you're in the US, since that's the only place to watch the races until next year.
You've chosen a driver, you've gotten on the Twitter, and you've learned about the little bits of the racing. Now what you need to do is watch.
The race will begin with a standing start. I suggest turning up the volume as loud as it'll go because F1 cars sound unbe-freaking-lievable. After that I can guarantee you that anyone will find the race exciting for at least the first few laps, as the field is close together. But then they typically start to string out.
And that's ok! That just means there are different strategies playing out. You get to start guessing at what someone might be up to. Do they have a problem? Are they conserving tires? How many pit stops are they making? It's like a game of chess, except a really exciting one at 200 MPH.
Also pay close attention to the precision of the driving. I find how the drivers reel off perfect lap after perfect lap for two hours mesmerizing and quite incredible. These are the best drivers in the world at the top of their game. Like any sport, just watching an athlete in their prime is an experience in itself. It's no different in F1, except they are matching the incredible skill in the cockpit with some of the most advanced tech to ever hit the road.
What are your tips for getting the most out of an F1 race?
Photo Credit: Getty Images, Shutterstock, AP