Someone explain Formula One to Me
December 12, 2021 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Where can I get a simplified view for a hardcore sports fan that knows little to nothing about formula one on what transpired today in the last race of the 2021 Formula 1 Season? I'm reading articles but don't totally understand. There was controversy? Why? A Vox Explainer or a Bill Simmons mid 2000s style piece explaining English Premier League would be nice.

How is it possible people are tied after so many races? What is a virtual safety car? How big of a deal was this season? Is Hamilton going like Federer and going to start being #2 every year?
posted by sandmanwv to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
r/Formula1 has a ton of information, including a recent explainer post that you may find helpful.

In short, this was an extremely big deal--Hamilton was set to make history as the first 8-time World Champion if he'd won, and meanwhile Verstappen becomes the one of the youngest first-time champions, so there's definitely the sense of the new generation/torch maybe passing. Hamilton/Mercedes had been dominating the field for seven years and really turned it around in the final quarter of this season, so there was the usual backlash against frontrunners (and a fair amount of racist fans who don't like Hamilton) but Red Bull aren't really underdogs since they, too, are pretty dominant. Verstappen is a very aggressive driver, but Hamilton doesn't back off either and some feel that he's been so dominant for so long that he doesn't expect/like hard racing anymore. The two of them crashed into each other several times this season (which isn't uncommon for #1 and #2 drivers, but it's been a while since a rivalry has been this close). But overall this season was marked by very inconsistent ref'ing from the race stewards which has fans of both drivers--and of consistent race rules--totally up in arms. There's very much the sense that today the race director decided the outcome.
posted by TwoStride at 8:44 PM on December 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also here's their New to Formula 1 guide. They have a FAQ and a video explainer as well.
posted by TwoStride at 8:46 PM on December 12, 2021

It's too soon, but I expect that Chain Bear will release a relatively decent, relatively even-handed explanation of today's race later this week like he did for last week's Saudi Arabian F1.

But as for the below the fold questions:

Drivers and the teams (known as the Constructors) they drive for each earn points with every race - 25 for first, 18 for second, 15 for third, down to one point for 10th, and nothing at all for eleventh through twentieth. The driver who got the fastest lap also gets a bonus point if they were in the top ten.

So, from that, it's easy to sort of trade blows, first one week, second the next, first the week after that, etc to be even on points after 21 races. That's not _exactly_ what happened this year - it's a simplified view, but the short of it is that the points they win aren't linear with their final position, so drivers can recover after a poor start to the season.

A virtual safety car is an electronic speed limiter on the car - fundamentally it slows the cars down to something like 50% of their top power and there are limits to how long they can spend in any particular section of the track to prevent drivers from slowing too much and bunching up the pack.

There's no passing under a virtual safety car, and the intent is to provide the second-least impact to a race after yellow flags which are basically "hey slow down, there's something happening up ahead of you", but not as impacting as an actual safety car (everybody bunches up behind a road car trying its damndest to keep the F1 cars in their temperature range) which eliminates any gaps between positions, and faster to resolve that stopping the race via red flags.

All of those are thrown for safety reasons - immobile car on track, debris on track, bad weather, etc. There is no tolerance for risking either crew or drivers while recovery operations are going on, so they have a variety of options to slow down the race, and they take all of them.

The hard to tell thing about next season is that it's going to feature massive changes to the cars that are hoped will allow closer racing instead of the 10-20 second gaps between every car on the track that we've had since 2014. So it's entirely possible that Mercedes will lose the advantage they're had for most of this era and Red Bull Racing will do a better job of things. It's possible Hamilton will fade into elder statesman driver like Vettel as a result - on track and appreciated, but not driving the hottest car on the track any more. Or maybe they'll both drop the ball and Ferrari or McLaren will be the hot shit. Anything's possible for the next few months until the 2022 season kicks off.

Which is itself a topic for a huge can of worms, driver versus car - what's more important? And fans can and will argue that until they're blue in the face.
posted by Kyol at 9:03 PM on December 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

There's very much the sense that today the race director decided the outcome.

I think this is the key thing, and it reflects sociopolitics of F1.

If you understand the English Premier League, you understand the rise of foreign ownership and viewership and sponsorship. The F1 equivalent is the pretty rapid expansion of its core audience (Europe plus Brazil and a smidge of Australia and US/Canada) into a global one. This translated into new races (esp. in the Middle East and SE Asia) and new sponsors. The final races of the calendar were in Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Most years the championship is settled before the final race[s]. But this one was not, and the race director clearly wanted the last race of the season -- and thus the championship -- decided under full racing speed in front of the relatively new and extremely rich audience in spite of the late crash. A number of rules were interpreted, let's say flexibly, to set up a one-on-one contest over a single lap, and an uneven contest at that. To a lot of people, it felt not so much a penalty shootout but more like yelling "last goal's the winner" in school playground football/soccer.

tl;dr: F1 is a year-long slog for teams and drivers, and instead of accepting an anticlimactic finish, the race director magicked up a tiebreak format out of thin air.
posted by holgate at 11:23 PM on December 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't keep up with the race, but I am fascinated by the tech war between Mercedes and Red Bull, and their vehicles and the tech that go into them... And Formula One regulations constantly trying to reign them in and outlawing devices that would give a team too much advantage.

Back in November, Red Bull accused Mercedes of cheating after winning the Brazil GP but Formula One officials tested the vehicle and the Mercedes car passed. Basically Red Bull can't believe how fast LH's vehicle was on the straights, that it won AFTER the stewards levied penalties for the DRS system failed to perform within specs. It wasn't the first time Red Bull levied such allegations. So there's already bad blood between the two teams.

There are various explainers about how the close the race was during the Adu Dhabi GP, so here's a VERY VERY short recap.

Hamilton was 11 seconds ahead with less than 5 laps to go when Latifi crashed.

Max went in for fresh tires, Hamilton stayed out. No passing is allowed during caution, and the race may not go back to green. It was reasonable tactic for Hamilton and Max.

There were FIVE lapped cars between Max and Hamilton at the time.

With less than two laps to go, F1 officials allowed the five lapped cars to pass Hamilton to get their lap back, leaving no car between Max and Hamilton. However, no other cars were allowed to get their lap back that way. This can be considered a violation of rule 48.3
“any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car"
Furthermore, there seems to be also a violation with the safety car with 48.3 as well
“unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”
What actually happened was F1 waved the five car pass Hamilton on the SAME LAP that the safety car entered the pits. If the rule was actually enforced as written, the race should not have restarted for ANOTHER lap.

Even with worn tires, Hamilton should have held off Max for the win. Instead, race was restarted a lap early, Max caught up with Hamilton, and finally passed Hamilton on the final lap to claim victory.

Mercedes has lodged formal protest, as both of their appeals were denied by onsite stewards.

Mercedes also claimed that Max violated 48.8, passing Hamilton while they are technically still behind the safety car, but that seems to be on VERY thin grounds and was dismissed.

posted by kschang at 12:56 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

At least one YTber opined that F1 officials were engineering Max and Hamilton to have a shootout for the season finale, by intentionally giving Max a slap on the wrist for brake-checking Hamilton in Saudi GP. Something like that could be penalized as far as DQ, but Max received a 10-second penalty AFTER the race. For a longer explanation, see here.

The flip-flop between no-passing during safety car (which was a real safety car for the final laps, not a virtual one) then to "only 5 cars may pass" was also controversial and seemingly some sort of exception cooked up on the spot to force Max and Hamilton into a final confrontation unencumbered by lapped vehicles.

One can sort of understand why F1 officials would NOT want such a season to end up with the vehicles just tamely following behind the safety car to complete the race, but in their hurry to restart, they seem to have skipped a few rules they wrote themselves.

Source: How the FIA messed up the F1 title decider
posted by kschang at 1:23 AM on December 13, 2021

So it's entirely possible that Mercedes will lose the advantage they're had for most of this era and Red Bull Racing will do a better job of things.

I think that's more after the constructors have settled into the rules for a couple of years.

My expectation for next year is that whoever's figured out the rules the best, whether by skill or plain luck, is going to run absolutely rampant for at least the first big chunk of the season while everyone else tries to figure out what they're doing. Which might be Mercedes or Red Bull, but might also be one of this year's second tier of Ferrari and McLaren. Or might be Red Bull's other team, Alpha Tauri.

The car formula changes for next year are *large*. The simplest change is finally moving from 13" to 18" wheels, which is going to introduce other changes in the suspension.

I can't easily find any kind of specific percentages, but current cars generate most of their downforce through their wings and especially their front wings. The front wing on an F1 car is fantastically complicated and optimized for the specific track they're going to as well as, presumably, the conditions they think they're going to be running in. The downside with relying on wings is that wings are more finicky about the air going over them -- if you feed them air that's not what the designers were expecting, they don't produce the downforce they're designed for. If you're a front-running team, that means designing the wing for the clean flow of air you'd expect if you're in the lead.

So if you're in second place in a current car trying to pass for first and you're rushing up on a corner behind the leader, as soon as you get close to the leader you find that your front wheels, which are supposed to have (let's say) 3000 pounds of force pushing down on them, only have 1600 pounds pushing down so when you turn the steering wheel the car doesn't turn like it should because the tires won't bite. This makes it especially hard to pass -- the leader is in clean air and can take the corner at 5g, but the runner up in the leader's dirty air can only take the corner at 3g (or whatever the numbers are). I don't know whether constructors will admit to this, but they'd have to be stupid not to use maximizing the dirty air behind their car as a secondary design goal for their aero package.

Next year, the cars are supposed to generate much more of their downforce through air moving under the body, which should be less finicky about the wake from the car in front. Instead of losing 35-50% of their downforce when chasing another car, they might lose 5-20%.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:25 AM on December 13, 2021

The tech that goes into an F1 car is mind-boggling, and aero package is just a part of it, as everything affects everything else. While downforce is good for turns, it is bad for straights as it is basically drag that prevents the car from going faster. FIA has banned any sort of "adaptive aero" or "active aero" that allows the car to "react" to the conditions. However, earlier this year, Hamilton accused Red Bull of using a "bendy wing" in the front, i.e. a wing actually deform under load to become "smoother" so the cars can go faster on straights. While FIA already have tests in place due to Red Bull using flexible front wings back in 2011, Hamilton believed that Red Bull found a careful balance that the wing doesn't bend enough when tested but bends during the race. It's almost ironic that Red Bull accused Hamilton of deploying such a wing for the rear wing in the Saudi GP (the race before the season finale Abu Dhabi GP) only a few months later.

The change to a larger wheel size will require complete redesign of the chassis and suspension system. Tires are an integral part of the system and larger wheels mean less sidewall and thus tire flex, so suspension would have to handle more load, while keeping the vehicle stable so the aero package can work to their fullest, esp. if the bottom diffuser is used to "suck" the car lower by accelerating the flow of air under the car.

Mercedes gained a bit of infamy back in 1999 back when several of their CLR racers at LeMans flipped end over end when aero failed and air got under the car.
posted by kschang at 9:11 AM on December 13, 2021

Best answer: What happened in the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a manufactured ending designed to be "entertaining" rather than fair.

This is controversial because F1 has generally prided itself on the fairness of the racing. It is a pure sport where the participants (both drivers and engineers) decide the outcome, and whilst it doesn't always live up to that, it's the target that is aimed for. It's quite an old school British gentleman approach that says winning well is important, much more so than just winning.

So, onto what happened, which is fairly simple:

Hamilton was leading by 11 seconds with 5 laps to go. Short of a puncture or other mechanical failure, he was going to win his 8th world championship (a record).

A safety car came out to lead the cars round at about 50-60% of their normal speed so that marshals could clear a stricken car that was in a dangerous location. This backed everyone up into a bunch so Hamilton lost his advantage.

The only driver who could beat him was Verstappen, who was second, but there were 3 lapped cars in between him and Hamilton.

Every lap the safety car does counts, so while they're trundling around the laps are being completed. By the time the stricken car was cleared, there were 1 and half laps left.

The race director had two choices, based on the rules and the entire history of safety car restarts:

1. Allow all the lapped cars to "unlap themselves" by going past the safety car, then bring the safety car in at the end of the next lap. In this event the race would have finished under the safety car, and Hamilton wins the race and the WC. This happens 99 times out of 100 because it is the rules, and if that "ruins" the race, so be it. It's about integrity more than anything, and it could easily have been Verstappen leading, so this doesn't prejudice either driver.

2. Don't allow any of the lapped cars to unlap themselves, which leaves Verstappen having to overtake 3 very quick cars in one lap AND Hamilton to win. Definitely possible, but Hamilton would be a strong favourite. This has occasionally happened, apparently, but is rare.

Instead of these two choices, the race director chose to just let the 3 lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen unlap themselves, then called the safety car in immediately. As Verstappen had fresher tyres he was able to beat Hamilton on a 1 lap sprint and win both the race and the WC.

This is INCREDIBLY controversial because the FIA broke it's own rules in order to gift Verstappen the win (there was no chance, given the difference in their tyres, that Hamilton could have won in the circumstances). Whichever driver/team you prefer, this was a terrible outcome for the sport which ended up in the stewards office for 4 hours post race, at which point they decided they hadn't done anything wrong - surprise - and the result stood.

Mercedes are now considering appealing this verdict and then going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The whole thing is a mess created by the race director, allegedly because Liberty Media, the sport's owners, wanted a new challenger to beat Hamilton, create a villain to increase viewers, and make sure that Netflix's "Drive to Survive" F1 documentary they do each year continues to do huge numbers.

In short: it felt like American wrestling, not sport, and a huge number of F1's fans feel very, very short-changed, even a lot of the ones who wanted someone other than Hamilton to win.
posted by underclocked at 10:47 AM on December 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

The race director had two choices, based on the rules and the entire history of safety car restarts...Instead of these two choices, the race director chose to just let the 3 lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen unlap themselves, then called the safety car in immediately.

This first-of-its-kind decision - to remove only the obstacles between the two racers and then let the challenger with fresh tires chase the leader with busted ones - is what has been the focus.

My F1 obsessed British boss analogized this today to a team leading the Super Bowl by two scores in the final minute of the game, getting ready to kneel on the ball, with the NFL commissioner suddenly declaring "next score wins" and spotting the losing team the ball near the goal line.
posted by AgentRocket at 11:24 AM on December 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

And Chain Bear's explainer is up and pretty solidly discusses the sporting regs and how they were weirdly applied at best, horribly misapplied at worst.
posted by Kyol at 1:48 PM on December 13, 2021

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