It’s both the world’s most expensive and its most popular sport. The fastest cars, the most glamourous VIP spectators, and the cleverest engineering geeks all combine to make F1 the successful controversy that it is. Behind the race victories and the outrageous driver salaries, which run into hundreds of millions of dollars for the very best, is a world of details and deceit that the organizers would rather you ignore. When the stakes are this high, with rules more complicated than an iTunes agreement and teams spending billions per season to be competitive, you know there’s a lot that doesn’t get told.
From its European roots to an exhaustive nine-month racing calendar, with events on every continent but Africa, F1’s appeal is broader than ever, and its broadcast appeal is without comparison. Each Sunday there's a Grand Prix, 400 million fans dedicate their afternoon (or early morning, depending on which time zone you're in) to watching who’ll be the fastest man in the world. However, despite its popularity, there are some things F1 execs wouldn't want its fans to know. Here are 17 of them:
17 You don’t need to win to get all the money
To cope with the insane costs of jetting a team around the world for a year, F1’s organizers take some of the vast broadcast revenue they receive and pay it out to the participating teams. You’d imagine that such a distribution of income works on a sliding scale: those who won get the most, and whoever finishes last, the least. But that would be far too simple and logical to work in the complex world of F1. Last year, for example, the team who finished second, Ferrari, received the largest chunk of broadcast revenue. Mercedes, who won both the driver and team championships, got less than the Italians? Why? Because Ferrari is the only team who gets paid for its status as an LST (long-standing team).
16 You can buy a drive
It’s ruinously expensive to run any F1 team, even one that possibly has no hope of winning. To prevent creditors from selling off the team overalls and tire warmers even before the season has begun, many use the ultimate in-house beneficiary: a pay driver. He might be slow. He might crash a lot. And he might be from a country with troubling social issues, but he’ll pay enough money for the privilege of driving an F1 car (although badly), thereby ensuring the survivability of the team. Most are really awful. Rarely is there one who can actually drive.
A famous example was Pastor Maldonado at Williams, the Venezuelan government paying $46m to secure the driver in the 2012 season. Amazingly, through sheer luck and coincidence, he won the Spanish Grand Prix that same year.
15 The graphic designers aren’t made fun of
F1 is the only place where sensitive artists and the cold logic of engineers collaborate. In the world’s most expensive sport, sponsorship is a big deal. The cars are effectively 200mph billboards on wheels, and to ensure that spectators can make out what’s branded on them as they scream by at 200mph, a bit more than rudimentary Photoshop skill is required. Colours, shapes, fonts and the position of all graphic elements to the car’s massively complex aerodynamic shape, are planned and executed to millimetric perfection by teams of detailers. They get a tad upset when drivers crash or scratch the cars – understandably.
14 It’s the most dangerous professional sport out there
Sure, you might think base jumping and bullfighting are more likely to bring an end date to your personal Wikipedia page entry, but F1’s even more lethal. Accumulative fatalities since the first race in 1948 total a terrible 51. In the 1960s and '70s, even moderate impacts punctured fuel tanks, spilling flammable high-octane fuel onto hot engines and, as a result, igniting cars. Of course, modern F1 cars are much safer, but the speeds involved and F1’s persistence on racing even when there's rain can still have disastrous consequences - a scenario tragically illustrated with the last recorded F1 fatality, which was caused after an accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
13 They're not cars; they’re more like planes
Ever since Lotus discovered that wings didn’t work only on airplanes but race cars, too, F1 has been a lot less about car design and more about aviation. Back in 1967, the Lotus 49 became F1’s first car to feature aerodynamic wings, and it won on its debut at the Dutch Grand Prix. Since then, if you don’t have on your team a clever person who studied aeronautical engineering to help shape the car, you’re going to be slow. In fact, a modern F1 racing car generates so much downforce due to its wings, that it could theoretically drive along on the roof of a tunnel.
12 One of its most powerful characters commands from a wheelchair
F1 has its very own Doctor Xavier. The only independent owner left in a sport dominated by corporate teams, Frank Williams started in F1 back in 1969 and despite a rental car crash, which has confined him to a wheelchair since 1986, he’s still involved at the age of 75. After nearly 50 years in F1, the Williams team have won 114 races and nine team championships – most of them under the supervision of Frank, at the back of the pit garage, in his wheelchair.
Even more progressive was Frank’s decision to promote daughter, Claire, to team boss, superseding his son Jonathan, who runs Williams F1 heritage museum.
11 Its greatest ever driver died at the wheel
Statistically the greatest ever F1 driver is Michael Schumacher, but most rank one man above all others: Ayrton Senna. Known for his temper and ability to drive qualifying laps so much quicker than anybody else that he made officials wonder if the timing devices had a glitch, Senna won three world championships and appeared destined for a fourth. Unfortunately, in 1994, at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy, he crashed into a concrete wall whilst rounding the Tamburello corner at 190mph. At the moment he was being airlifted to a hospital, his life faded; Senna transformed from being the fastest driver in F1 to the legend he remains today.
10 It’s produced a posthumous champion, too
Jochen Rindt was the first true F1 superstar. He had a movie-star girlfriend, conducted himself with an aristocratic Austrian air, and as a World War 2 orphan, was admired as a self-made man. Brilliant car control meant he was destined to become world champion. Rindt eventually did become world champion in 1970, but he never managed to collect his trophy or bask in the glory of his achievement. Utterly dominant during the season, Rindt crashed during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix and was killed. Illustrating his quality, though, Rindt became posthumous world champion despite having only raced in 9 of the 13 races.
9 An unlikely world of hybridization
With screaming engines, high-octane fuel, and an undiluted quest for speed and averaging 3.1 mpg, F1 cars are thirstier than just about any other vehicle you can imagine. But they have more in common with your neighbor’s Prius than you’d think. Since weight is the greatest enemy of performance, if an F1 car can carry less fuel and produce the same amount of power for a full race distance by being more efficient, it’s a big win. That’s why since 2014, they’ve embraced something less than 1% of global new car buyers do: hybridization. Yes, all F1 cars have an emergency recovery system, which provides about 120hp of pure electric power.
8 Channel Tension
Despite forming a coalition during the two World Wars, Britain and France don't have the easiest of relations. They once fought a hundred-year war against each other and often refer to the other as ‘our dearest enemy.’ This tension shapes the politics of F1. Most of the racing teams - in fact, all of them but Ferrari - are headquartered in England. It’s the technology and skills hub for F1’s development. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) are those people who make the technical regulations and race rules organize the world championship - and their office is in Paris. Geographically the rule makers and car makers are only a 90-minute flight from each other, but culturally and politically, they're worlds apart.
7 It’s not really a democracy
The men who've policed the rules in F1, often determining the drivers and team world champions, aren’t always model citizens. Here's an example: Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre policed the paddock from 1985-1993, cashing in heavily with brilliant triple world champion Ayrton Senna. Eventually, he was outsmarted by Englishman Bernie Ecclestone, who managed to wrest control of F1’s broadcast rights away from the committee that made the racing rules and returned revenue from television to the teams.
Balestre was followed in his position by Max Mosely. He was the son of a renowned British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosely. Max’s tenure as the man in control of F1 discipline was tainted by the exposure of his obsession with being disciplined by up to five women at a time.
There's also the case of the current FIA boss, Jean Todt. He was the former boss of Ferrari’s F1 team - a detail of previous work experience that hardly makes him the most impartial.
6 The winning tradition is an Americanism
Elaborate podium celebrations are synonymous with F1 - drivers in fire-retardant Nomex overalls spraying gloriously expensive champagne over themselves and anyone else within range. Despite F1’s European roots, though, it was an American who started the champagne-spraying tradition, and it didn’t even happen at an F1 race. The brilliant Dan Gurney (1931-2018) became the first driver to spray-celebrate after his win in the 1967 Le Mans 24-hour race.
“I was so stoked that when they handed me the Magnum of MOËT ET CHANDON, I shook the bottle and began spraying at the photographers, drivers, Henry Ford II, Carroll Shelby and their wives.”
5 They’ll do business with anyone
To host an F1 event is expensive, like "Kardashian wedding" expensive. Operational costs average nearly $50m per race, and you can double that by including the ‘race fee’ rights payable to F1’s overlords. Most host cities imagine that they’ll be able to recover the costs and turn a profit by the sheer number of tourists jetting in for the weekend, but it’s often a road to financial ruin. In fact, organizers are constantly on the prowl for new venues to take the financial risk in hosting an F1 race, and the result has been places the United Nations wouldn't recommend you go visit or do business with. South Africa during Apartheid, Bahrain during the Arab Spring, Azerbaijan - you get the idea.
4 The ultimate boy’s club
Unlike Nascar and Indy, there are no female racers in F1. In fact, the only woman to ever make any credible attempt to change the ultimate boy’s club in sports was South African Desire Wilson, who won a race in the Aurora series. Wilson’s victory was in an F1 car, but the race was a mixed formula Aurora event. She's one of only five women to ever attempt racing in F1, but none have ever qualified for an official FIA race start. The most successful female driver was Italian Lella Lombardi, who managed to qualify for 12 races and scored half a point.
3 Even the gardening is competitive
Beyond aviation and perhaps NASA, you won’t find more meticulous and committed engineers than those who staff F1 teams. At times, the collective sense of perfection does escalate to the realm of something ridiculous. Nowhere, perhaps, is this better illustrated than at the gardens outside of Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s offices in Grove technology park, Oxfordshire. True to English tradition, there's a perfectly kept F1 hedge car with a service-pit crew.
2 They use a lot of data
There's no car approaching the complexity of an F1 car. With 150 sensors monitoring every imaginable parameter of its high-speed performance, these cars can generate a mountain of data for engineering to analyze. Information and telecommunication-technology sponsors replaced tobacco after it was legislated out of F1, which has been a great gain for teams. With an F1 car streaming 2GB of data per lap and 3TB of data per race, it’s a lot better having a sponsor that makes servers and data logging solutions instead of cigarettes.
1 The Finnish are quite good at it
If you're a team owner and need a driver who's guaranteed to be quick and will probably win, you get a Finn. The Nordic country has produced only nine F1 drivers since 1950, of which five have been race winners and three, world champions. It’s such an impressive average that one struggles to understand why there aren’t talent scouts permanently encamped at Helsinki’s karting circuits. The irony behind this remarkable success in producing winning F1 drivers, though, is that Finland has never even hosted an F1 race.