Probing The Inaccuracies: Motorsport

I’m a fan of motor vehicles, something which can easily be identified by bringing up the subject in conversation with me. There’s something about roaring engines made up of hundreds of mechanical parts moving synchronously, and the sight of a motor vehicle moving rapidly that inspires me. It should therefore not be entirely surprising that I have recently acquired a taste for motorsport. Unfortunately, motorsport is not necessarily a particularly accessible sport, and I’ve heard quite a few misconceptions about it which I need to address, like:

“Racing is just driving around in circles! I could do that!”

For obvious reasons, this is one of those commonly repeated sentiments regarding the sport, usually recited by those which have almost no experience with it at all. Unfortunately for them, this is the most easily debunked misconception, and its application just damages any credibility that they have in order to make valid complaints.

First and foremost, very few tracks in the world are actual circles; most of them are at least ovals of some sort, and usually road or street circuits. A few circle tracks do exist, including Volkswagen’s Nardo high-speed test track, but these tracks are invariably not used for racing. Indeed, circle tracks give very unsatisfying racing. Because there are no braking points on a circular track, the cars will eventually just travel at either the highest speed that the tyres can manage without slipping, if the track has a relatively small radius, or at their maximum speed if the track has a large radius.

This removes several of the main dynamics of motor racing and leads to two unsatisfactory conclusions – if one car can maintain a higher speed than the others, it will undoubtedly win, and if the cars are all close enough to keep them in a pack, the only way to get any overtaking is to get into the slipstream of the opponent and hope to slingshot past them. The latter sorts of races are bound to be accident-prone, as demonstrated by superficially similar NASCAR restrictor plate races, where the bunched-up grid regularly leads to multi-car pile-ups.

If this looks like a circle to you, perhaps you need your eyesight checked.

Clearly, this argument isn’t literal, though, and is meant more as a way to disparage racing drivers for what the people making this argument would perceive as too much merit for an ostensibly easy sport. Of course, this argument is easily shot down as well. Motor racing, whether it’s autocross or single-marque racing up to the fastest cars in Formula One and the Indy Racing League, is not easy.

In order to be a successful racing driver, there are several attributes which you must have – ones that don’t necessarily exist in the wider populace. You must be able to control a car or motorcycle at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour, while racing rivals try to get past you. You must be spatially aware and capable of figuring out the physical characteristics of the vehicle under all conditions, and do so unconsciously. You must be able to communicate effectively with engineers and mechanics on the technical details of the vehicle and how you wish it to drive. These are not skills which exist within the majority of the non-racing populace, many of which seem to think that driving goes no further than turning the steering wheel and operating the pedals and gear stick.

Motor racing is not only mentally difficult, but can also be physically difficult as well. Depending on the characteristics of the car, the first physical difficulty can arise with actually getting the car to turn. While power steering systems have made it easier for any sort of driver to turn a steering wheel in a car at lower speeds, this ease of turning doesn’t necessarily translate directly at high speeds, where momentum and inertia can drastically affect how a car handles, along with other physical forces. Other physical effects on the body include high G-forces resulting from increasing cornering speeds and the inevitable buckets of sweat produced by a racing driver on the edge. As for motorcyclists, the constant almost-imperceptible shifts in body mass that need to be performed in order to race the motorcycle put them almost in a league of their own when it comes to physical strength and fitness.

It soon becomes apparent upon closer examination that motor racing is a far more difficult sport than most people would credit it with, but the argument persists. Indeed, arguments along this line are often made by fans of specific types of motor racing wishing to disparage other classes of racing, by people who should probably know better. These include:

“NASCAR is just a bunch of people turning left for hundreds of miles. How hard can that be?”

I’m going to be fair right now and admit that I’ve disparaged NASCAR in the past for what I’ve seen as a lack of entertainment value. Most of the racing tracks in NASCAR are oval tracks which are rather far removed from the road and street tracks that my favoured classes of motorsport are usually raced on. But while I may criticise NASCAR for what the racing looks like to a detached spectator, I do know something of what it’s like inside the actual car, and I maintain respect for the drivers who manage to muscle these heavy machines around the track.

For the unfamiliar, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is an American stock car racing series, raced using “silhouette” car models which are ostensibly based on road cars manufactured by Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota, but which are really homologated prototype cars based around a standard specification. The tracks used by NASCAR are predominantly anti-clockwise ovals, but two clockwise road tracks are included in the top-echelon Sprint Cup Series. Due to the lack of downforce created by the car body, along with the reasonably close standard of all of the cars, the series exhibits a lot of overtaking, and dozens of lead changes can occur during a single race.

NASCAR gets a lot of criticism, both from domestic and international sources, for being an overly-simplistic representation of motor racing, and indeed, for apparently being easy. Let’s get things straight immediately: NASCAR is far from easy, and the cars are as much of a contributor to the difficulty of the sport than anything else. NASCAR was, as its name suggests, originally raced using unmodified road cars, but in the 1960s, the cars were homologated in order to remove the massive technical advances that teams like Lotus and Cooper were dominating Formula One with.

Today’s NASCAR Cars of Tomorrow (that’s the official name, by the way), thus bear a reasonable amount of resemblance to the American cars of the 1960s, with cast-iron V8 engines using pushrod valves and carburettors in comparison to the overhead camshafts, aluminium alloy construction and fuel injection systems of today. One of the most obvious characteristics of NASCAR racing cars is their rather significant mass compared to other racing cars, which causes several physical effects to the car which make it more difficult to drive than it looks like from the eyes of the observer from afar. As I’ll discuss below, more mass increases inertia, increases momentum and decreases the speed that a car can turn at before the tyres begin to slip, affecting acceleration, braking and cornering respectively.

Most of the criticisms of NASCAR seem to centre around the fact that the cars largely turn left during the oval races, and that this is therefore not legitimate motorsport. Firstly, let me counter with a few words of my own: Watkins Glen International, Infineon Raceway. Secondly, turning left in a NASCAR racing machine at full pace is quite a bit different to turning left at road speeds in a road car, and uses a very different set of skills. NASCAR, unlike racing series which race predominantly on road or street circuits, rewards consistency and smooth driving rather than the abrupt braking and acceleration moves in other motor racing series.

Staying on the racing line at the longer tracks like Indianapolis requires one to take each corner at significant pace, as excessive slowing down will just open up an opportunity for somebody to overtake. Meanwhile, at shorter half-mile tracks, including the notoriously difficult Martinsville Speedway, the turns are much tighter and more closely resemble corners on road circuits than they do corners on longer ovals. Each of these corners needs to be negotiated in a car with several hundred brake horsepower transmitted through the back wheels, which makes it tail-happy under acceleration and rather reluctant to turn under braking.

All of this has to be done with a packed grid regularly consisting of more than forty cars jostling for position, which all comes to unhappy conclusions for many of the drivers when the cars begin to crash. This is a phenomenon which NASCAR is well known for, and while the rate of crashes in NASCAR is often exaggerated, when they do happen, they tend to be big. This is a natural consequence of oval racing using cars which are reluctant to stop; crashes often occur at speeds in excess of 150mph, which means a lot of momentum and kinetic energy.

Apparently, the only reason anybody ever watches NASCAR.

The phenomenon is accentuated at Talladega and Daytona, which are very long tracks with no real braking areas. To prevent deadly accidents, the cars run with restrictor plates over the carburettors to reduce the air and fuel flow to the engine, and thus reduce the power produced by the engines. The cars in these races travel in characteristic bunched packs, where the only way to overtake on track under normal conditions is to use the slipstream of the car in front of you to reduce the aerodynamic drag of your car and thus slingshot past. This technique, known as drafting, is commonly used in other racing tracks in NASCAR, and also in other racing series as well, but is taken to its extreme at Talladega and Daytona, with cars travelling bumper-to-bumper in order to not only increase their own speed, but the speed of the car in front of them in order to pull away from the pack.

This rather specialised type of motorsport, which leads to a certain breed of racing driver who can succeed at it, sometimes goes wrong. As mentioned above, NASCAR machines are rather tail-happy, and don’t take all too well to being pushed off the racing line. One car spinning out of control in a pack bunched up by restrictor plates can lead to a massive crash that can involve more than twenty cars. As those of you who have been in any sort of car crash will know, that sudden stop can hurt – or even kill. When you have dozens of cars flying around you, some of them spinning out of control, it adds another element to the crash, and one that would terrify most road drivers.

NASCAR isn’t the only racing series which is criticised (unfairly) for an ostensible lack of skill needed to succeed at it. The most popular motor racing series in the world, Formula One, is another target for invective, including the following:

“Formula One cars these days just drive themselves! How difficult is that?”

You know, I could almost understand this criticism from people who actually raced Formula One cars in the past. Formula One has evolved from the ultra-dangerous spectacles of the 1960s to a series where safety is paramount and the chassis is specially developed in order to take as much of the brunt of a collision as possible. Considering the balls it took to drive a Formula One car at racing speeds in the 1960s and 1970s, it would almost be warranted that they’d be less impressed with people racing in the series today. However, the Formula One racers of the past aren’t the ones that criticise the sport today. They have the proper amount of reverence, realising that the things which make Formula One difficult have changed since their days.

Formula One is one of the fastest racing series in the world, with cars reaching speeds in excess of 190mph, and sometimes in excess of 215mph at the likes of Monza and Spa-Francorchamps. While the top speeds are faster in the 24 Heures du Mans, the acceleration of a Formula One car is considerably more sudden than any other racing car, reaching more than 1G off the starting line. Think about the force of gravity pinning you to the ground, and then think about that force pushing you back into your seat. That is the least significant force felt by a Formula One driver, which should give you an idea of what the difficulties of Formula One often revolve around.

Cornering forces are a lot more significant than the relatively puny forces felt under acceleration, reaching 3 to 5G under braking, and occurring several times a lap. Imagine that force of gravity, scale it up by five times and imagine all of that load occurring on your neck. Short of being a fighter pilot, you’re unlikely to experience these forces in everyday life, so let’s just say that it’s a lot more than you or I could reasonably sustain through even one corner, let alone several hundred. The cars are sprung with extraordinarily hard suspensions, which doesn’t help the drivers either; every bump on the road is transmitted through the chassis and through the driver. Ouch.

Sometimes, this massive force is sustained over several seconds, as found at the 130R corner at Suzuka, or the long, sweeping anti-clockwise Turn 8 at Istanbul Park. Sustaining these forces for the fraction of a second that it takes to go through most corners is bad enough; making that last for any longer requires extraordinary neck muscles in order not to lose control. Add the twenty-plus cars that you’re racing against, and the need to stay concentrated through every corner, and it soon becomes mind-boggling how physically and mentally straining the sport really is.

Spa-Francorchamps – one of the most difficult and fastest racing circuits in Formula One.

It is not much of a surprise then that drivers in Formula One are immensely fit, and would be capable of doing athletic events in times that wouldn’t be embarrassing. A lot of the exercise done by Formula One drivers concentrates on the neck, giving them the strength needed to resist the tremendous forces on their bodies through every lap.

The difficulties posed by Formula One do not just involve physical strains. Characteristics of the car conspire to make things difficult as well. Under the current rules, Formula One cars are powered by 2.4L V8 engines, producing about 750 brake horsepower at 18,000rpm. Such finely-tuned engines have a very narrow torque band, in the higher end of the revolutions that the engine can produce, and need to be kept at high revs in order to get the maximum out of the engine.

The problem is, though, that pushing 750 brake horsepower through the rear wheels during a corner where the aerodynamic components aren’t working optimally leads to a lot of potential wheelspin, and the power has to be controlled while still transmitted to the track as quickly as possible. This needs quick reaction speeds and the capability to countersteer these ferociously difficult cars. Since the removal of traction control, it has been all up to the driver to be able to control the car, which immediately goes some way in eliminating the criticism that the cars drive themselves.

When you’re in a Formula One car, you have a very limited amount of space to move, being surrounded by the monocoque of the car. This also contributes to a limited visibility, which can be reasonably simulated by sitting on the floor, and blocking your view of anything below the bottom of your head. This impedance of sight makes it rather difficult to work out whether there are any cars behind or beside you, which is rather troubling when you’re trying to fend off impending overtaking attempts.

As for the technological criticisms of Formula One, these are at least somewhat warranted. Formula One cars are stuffed to the gills with transponders and gravitational meters in an attempt to detail every single facet of the car’s performance in an attempt to shave precious hundredths of a second off lap times. This sort of reliance on technology does come with the sport, and yet it could be said that it takes away from the purity of the sport, and makes everything rather expensive. It’s difficult to say where this should start and end, but technological development and innovation has been at the forefront of Formula One since the beginning, and nothing is going to stop the teams from trying anything within the rules to improve speed, short of a strict homologation like NASCAR or IRL, and that would take away one of the big advantages of motorsport in the real world, which will be discussed below.

Motorsport doesn’t just receive criticism for the driving; it regularly receives criticism from environmentally-conscious people who perceive some sort of wastage involved in the sport. As I am not a hemp sandal-wearing hippie, it gives me some pleasure to discuss the misconceptions found in this next point:

“Motorsport is just a massive waste of fuel!”

This is one of the most common criticisms levelled at motorsport, for fairly obvious reasons. There’s a germ of truth in there as well: as the consumption of a limited, non-renewable fuel has proven to be the most practical way to propel a motor vehicle, it is somewhat reasonable to assume that the sport is inherently wasteful and environmentally unfriendly. It may come as a surprise, then, to hear that motorsport was the catalyst for many of the developments, innovations and improvements in car and motorcycle design.

Engineers tend to be, as a rule, people who favour efficient solutions to problems. In motor racing, the chief problem is “How do we make this vehicle go around the set course in the least time?” There are several ways to achieve this, from minor changes in the car’s suspension or gearing, to increasing the power produced by the engine, but the most significant improvements usually come from decreasing the mass of the car. More mass in a car decreases acceleration, braking potential and cornering speeds, which are three very important characteristics in determining how quickly your car or motorcycle will go in all of the different circumstances it may be made to face.

Mass is a contributing factor to inertia, momentum and centripetal acceleration. The relation between mass and these three mathematical values is such that a vehicle will be quicker to accelerate, brake and corner when mass is decreased. There have been various clever innovations designed at reducing the mass of a racing car, including the monocoque chassis and the use of lightweight materials including honeycomb aluminium and carbon-fibre. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to racing engineers that one of those things contributing to the mass of a racing car is the fuel, and therefore, if the engine is more frugal or can produce more power from the same mass of fuel, the car would be quicker to get around a track.

Therefore, some of the innovations in vehicle design have included overhead camshafts and variable valve timing, along with improved fuel injection systems and electronic engine management. These innovations have worked to improve the frugality of engines, meaning less mass having to be dedicated to fuel, and greater distances between pit stops for fuel. Eventually, engineers designing road cars can mass-produce these systems for road cars, making your road cars better and more efficient in the process.

That’s all well and good,” you may say at this point, “but how does that excuse the amount of fuel that cars use to develop these systems?” Actually, motor racing consumes a surprisingly low amount of fuel compared to some common methods of transport used every day. A Formula One car has an engine which is more efficient per unit speed than your road car, including a sort of alternating V4 mode in order to save fuel, where some of the cylinders are turned off in order to save fuel at low speeds. Unfortunately, such technologies are too expensive to put into standard road cars, but it demonstrates how far ahead of road car technology that Formula One and other forms of motorsport can be.

If motorsport engines can be frugal compared to road cars, they are especially frugal compared to aeroplanes. Even a full season of Formula One can use less fuel than a single long-haul 747 journey, and as many of the people reading this will have travelled somewhere on an aeroplane, they can hardly complain about a racing series which works to improve the cars driven in everyday life.



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