Modern F1 is probably facing its most serious existential crisis: the sport remains a formidable engineering laboratory, but the racing on track – or the perception of it – leaves much to be desired.
Seasoned viewers should be able to appreciate the underlying technology, and enjoy the constant showoff of amazing numbers, namely 200 kph to 300 kph in ~2 seconds, unbelievable short braking distances, body challenging G forces, and so on. F1, for example, is now the reference in applied IoT (Internet of Things), with hundreds of addressable sensors per car.
Yet, casual viewers, not knowing or not caring about the technology, and with no understanding of the history of the sport, will have no references, and see nothing but a small set of 20 cars going around boring wide tracks, designed for safety, difficult to capture on video, conveying a decent sense of speed.
The fact is that the “relative speed” of F1 is eventually at its lowest ever: cars might be regularly exceeding the once magical 300 kph mark, but 300 kph at an “airfield” is like 12 kph on a treadmill. Moreover, the understanding that the cars are safer to crash than ever, creates the perverse collateral effect of undervaluing the drivers’ effort: in the past, one mistake would literally break or kill you, so overwhelming respect was due to those daring to ride their fallible temperamental machines. After Senna’s death, in 1994, F1 changed enormously in terms of safety. The early 1990s cars were the last
machines to constantly challenge the drivers’ physical integrity, and even then, less than in the 1980s, the 1970s, and certainly the crazy 1960s.
I remember the day Jacques Laffite (JL) broke both his legs in what seemed like a slow accident: his car steered to the right, at the first corner of a chaotic first lap, to avoid other cars in trouble. His Ligier left the asphalt, and then just skidded “slowly” over the zero grip grass, until its “nose” hit the barriers. The absolute speed of the car upon the impact must have been “low” (~50 kph), but the car’s construction offered nearly no protection to the feet and legs. JL’s F1 career ended that afternoon.
Imagine higher speeds and even less modern cars, namely the machines from the 1960s and from the 1970s! Every event was a bit of a “circus”, such were the life threatening risks looming. Yet the “rewards”, for example measured in exhilaration and/or adrenaline, shared by both racers and spectators (which were crazy daring, placing themselves in unacceptable spots), is something unparalleled.
Today, somewhat bored with the F1 2020 cars, I decided to exercise my arms and legs, by virtually racing the “Matra” from the 1968 F1 season. I did some laps around the “new” Portland circuit, USA, a track for rFactor2, released this July. It was formidable! What a challenge! The Matra is a noisy, nervous, powerful car, capable of ~275 kph in such a short circuit! My best lap was a 01:14:8xx, half a second slower than the best adversary.
In real life, with this car, I imagine, if you put a wheel wrong, you will hurt yourself – instantaneously and seriously. The Matra is agile, nervous, very fast, but unstable. It accelerates much better than it can decelerate or turn, so be careful with what you request it to do!
The video that follows has two segments: first it captures my best 01:14:8xx lap, from the in-car camera (footage taken while I was driving the lap), then it features two other laps, from the “TV” camera perspective.
Enjoy and try it yourself. The “Portland” track and the 1968 F1 cars are both free.