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High-Speed Facts

Formula One Straightaway

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 9, 2010

High-Speed Facts
Courtesy of Johnathan Williams

What is Formula One? Is it like NASCAR? Nope. Unlike the favorite U.S. motor sport, which uses modified stock cars, Formula One uses handcrafted single-seat cars; think of them as jet planes with wheels and enough downforce to keep them on the track. F1 is the highest level of racing sanctioned and regulated by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, which oversees the bulk of major international racing events including rally cars, top-level dragsters, and GT racing.

So it's like IndyCar? More like Indy's big brother. They're both "open-wheel" autos, which means they look like the traditional streamlined single-seater race car. However, they have different governing bodies (F1 is under FIA, while the various Indy leagues have their own sanctioning authorities), and the cars are designed according to different, regulated specifications.

Can anyone join? Entry to F1 is restricted to sanctioned teams that must construct their own cars. Each "constructor" must field two cars and two drivers per race. Each race runs a set number of laps – between 160 and 190 miles in total – and must be completed within two hours. Drivers compete to win individual races, but points are also allocated to individual drivers and to their teams; these points are tallied at the end of the season to decide the drivers' and constructors' World Championship titles.

What are the tracks like? Barring the fact that they're all approximately 3.5 miles long, every single F1 track is different. Each combines tight and loose corners, chicanes (artificial curves) and high-speed straightaways. In the 2010 season, four of the 19 scheduled races (or Grands Prix) are to be held on regular streets. However, downtown races are becoming harder to organize, and public pressure forced F1 to drop plans for a 2012 race in either Manhattan or New Jersey.

Isn't it some fancy-pants European sport? While most teams are based in Europe, F1 is genuinely international. The 2010 season started in Bahrain on March 14 and loops back around to the Middle East to finish up in Abu Dhabi on Nov. 14. On the way it will stop in Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, and, yes, several tracks in Europe. It has also historically been a part of the U.S. motor sports calendar (see "Formula One in the U.S."), and America has produced some of the sport's most enduring figures, such as 1978 world champion Mario Andretti.

Is it a sport for the jet set? F1 definitely attracts its fair share of high rollers, especially to the more exotic events like Monaco. However, it would be hard to fill a 200,000-capacity venue with just millionaires, and TV viewership internationally regularly tops half a billion. As for the cost of tickets, it's difficult to get an exact comparison due to exchange rates, but a race-day seat starts at around $200 (compare that to $500 for the Super Bowl or $150 for the NCAA Final Four). The box office won't open for a long time, but Hellmund said he would keep ticket prices family-friendly for this scale of event. That said, if you like the idea of a three-day pass to the paddock club, start saving now: Those usually run around $5,000.

So who's this Bernie Ecclestone guy? Like the France family that runs NASCAR, Ecclestone is the face of F1. He's president of Formula One Management and Formula One Admini­stra­tion and part-owner of the Formula One Group's parent company Alpha Prema. Driveway Austin owner Bill Dollahite put it politely: "Nobody gets to the level that Bernie did without being phenomenally brilliant, and along with that comes an eccentric character." Popular opinion depicts him as an evil genius (whether the emphasis is on the evil or the genius depends on who you ask), and his habit of speaking first and apologizing never has led to some offensive public statements (in a rare moment of almost-humility, he announced that he had apologized to IndyCar racer Danica Patrick after he told reporters "women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances"), making him a lightning rod for criticism.

What about the money? It's a mixed history. F1 itself has made Ecclestone a billionaire, while teams and constructors usually need sponsors to cover their costs. As for the tracks, the successful ones have a mixed business model beyond just one annual race and can be very profitable for decades. However, a bad season can create a huge loss, and the global recession has undoubtedly been terrible for business, shortening the race season and causing several constructors to drop out. The Austin Grand Prix is part of a proposed re-expansion to include several new teams and plans for as many as 25 races internationally a year.

Is it true that the U.S. team got kicked out? Not really. There are no national F1 teams; they are privately owned franchises which change hands quite regularly. U.S. F1, with financial backing from YouTube founder Chad Hurley, was one of four new teams scheduled to join the sport this year. But the team failed to have a car ready for the season and has been barred from competing by the FIA World Motor Sport Council. Several former U.S. F1 engineers have now joined the Cypher Group, another U.S.-based team that aims to join the sport in 2011.

What about this $25 million from the state of Texas? You mean the $25 million the state might give them, if the project applies for support from the Major Events trust fund. Established in 2003 as the Other Events trust fund, it allows local authorities to receive a slice of increased taxes generated by certain major sporting events to cover the hosting expenses, or they can apply in advance to cover application costs. So far, eight events – including MLB and NBA All-Star games, the NCAA Men's Final Four in basketball, and the 2004 Super Bowl – have benefited from the fund to the tune of between $4 million and $26.8 million. In 2009, state Comptroller Susan Combs asked Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to carry a piece of supplementary legislation extending the number of eligible counties and municipalities. It also added two new eligible types of events: F1 racing and the Breeders' Cup (horse­ racing). However, the city can't even file an application until a year before the actual event. Robert Wood, the comptroller's director of local government assistance and economic development, said: "An agreement has been discussed, but none exists. It's all hypothetical at this point."

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