For those new to Formula 1 racing, this is the championship's 58th year. This season will involve 19 races, between 20 drivers, over circuits of varying complexity. Turbochargers and superchargers have long-since been banned, but the three liter engines still manage around 970 bhp and the cars will reach speeds of over 220 miles per hour.
Many of the regulation changes have been in a bid to reduce speeds (for safety reasons) and increase competition. Typically, only one or two teams in a given year will do well, simply because the demands are so great. Any error in the design will result in a vehicle that underperforms at best. At worst, the car's innards will rip themselves to shreds under the strain.
The sole exception has been the reintroduction of refuelling and the elimination of maximum fuel loads. With refuelling permitted, it is entirely possible to have a miniscule fuel tank - and therefore negligable staring weight. A car just needs enough fuel to build up maybe 30 or 40 seconds of lead. After that, it can easily make a pitstop, refuel and leave, with little risk of being overtaken. (It takes about 20 seconds to come in, stop, and then accelerate away. Refuelling is at 12.1 liters per second.)
This year, tire changes are out. That's right - you stay on the same set of tires for qualifying and racing. This means that there will be intense pressure to produce tires that wear as little as possible, without sacrificing too much grip. The teams need results, and they need them before the other teams. Preferably before the Bridgestone/Ferrari coalition becomes too entrenched.
The idea behind the tire change rule seems to be that the increased wear on the tires will make for closer race finishes. Towards the end of the race, cars won't have nearly as much grip, so shouldn't be able to go as fast. That's the theory. In practice, it is likely to work the other way round, with cars that are struggling not attempting to catch up with those in front.
Another aspect of the tire rule is that it will reduce the risk of tire accidents. More than a few cars have shed tires at high speed, because the single restraining bolt has been put in too hurridly. (All four tires are changed in around 4-6 seconds. That puts enormous strain on the mechanics, who don't have time to do any kind of inspection.)
Also new this year, engines have to last two complete racing weekends. No modifications between races allowed, no replacements after qualifying (or you sacrifice whatever position you earned on the starting grid). A race can last up to two hours or 200 miles. A road car engine can handle such distances easily, but then road car engines are usually not jammed in seventh gear (F1 cars have 7 gears, plus reverse) running practically flat-out with very limited oxygen.
This modification does make a little more sense. Formula 1 engines are designed to survive only as long as necessary. This often resulted in engines that were regarded as little more than motorized hand-grenades. By forcing superior design, the quality of the engineering necessarily goes up. Again, it's an attempt to slow cars down, this time by reducing the internal stresses in the engine. In practice, it will take at most six months before the engines are more powerful than ever.
Unlike NASCAR, Formula 1 racing tends to appear uneventful. There aren't many spectacular crashes, the cars aren't usually bunched together (except for the first quarter of a lap after the start), the complexity of the track makes it hard to see more than two or three cars at a time, and the drivers tend not to be television celebrities.
When you get into it, though, it is probably one of the most dangerous, certainly the most technically advanced and definitely the most intense motor sport since the days of the European city-to-city races.
One of my fondest memories of watching F1 was seeing Ayrton Senna (arguably one of the best drivers who ever lived) going head-to-head with Alain Prost down the start/finish straight. Absolutely level, less than an inch between the cars, at speeds in the range of 220-240 mph. Neither driver willing to back off, until the last possible split-second, when they reached the corner at the far end.
Another was at Silverstone, 1996. Nigel Mansell was trying to overtake Nelson Piquet on Hanger Straight. Both drivers had been duelling for several laps, but the dodging, swerving and blocking had become extreme. I don't recall if they still had titanium skid plates, but the sparks were furious. Mansell finally managed to duck past Piquet, barely. If he'd lost control, I don't think the catch-fences would have stopped him before he'd hit the stands. The scenes after the race were phenominal, with an all-out track invasion lasting over an hour.
How to describe the intensity of racing, at speeds vastly in excess of anything a normal car is capable of, where the driver has to be accurate not just to within a few feet, but maybe a few sixteenths of an inch, where the tougher venues like Monaco can turn a grid of twenty to thirty cars into less than half a dozen survivors at the end?
It is arguably not the all-out toughest racing in the world. That title belongs to European rally racing, where it is not uncommon for cars to fly off the edges of cliffs or get sliced in half by an unyielding tree.
There are endurance races which punish car and driver far more severely. The Le Mans 24 hour race is one of the longest survivors of the true endurance races, but early races regularly ran the lengths of several countries. Notorious for high fatalities, most such races vanished early on. Le Mans hasn't escaped unscathed, with a Mercedes in the 50s exploding, sending flying metal through spectators.
Formula 1 combines the dangers and the pressure with a drama that none of these can provide. Despite every effort to slow it down, the speeds have barely shifted. The cars today go as fast as the best turbocharged cars of the 80s and corner nearly as fast as the winged cars of the 70s.
Although the entire history of Formula 1 Grand Prix racing is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning two of the most ingenious inventions of the 70's/80's - one from Brabbam and the other by Lotus supremo Colin Chapman.
In motor sports, downforce is everything. Downforce is the reverse of an aircraft's lift, and pulls the car to the road. The more downforce a car has, the tighter it will grip the road and therefore the faster it can go around corners.
Brabbam's idea was to tilt the cooling fan on the car. Instead of pulling air in from the front, it pulled air in from underneath. This literally sucked the car to the road and became known as the "vaccuum cleaner car". It was banned after the first race for no other reason than nothing could come near it. It could navigate over oil slicks or tight corners as if they didn't exist. That was simply too much for the F1 ruling bosses.
Not long after, Colin Chapman came up with another way to improve downforce. This one lasted a few seasons. It was known as the "ground effect car". This was because the underneath of the car was an upside-down airfoil. The whole car was literally a single wing. (Those familiar with Niki Lauda's autobiography "To Hell And Back" will see it referred to as a "Wing Car".)
This would have caused a lot of drag on the straights, so he made another modification. The top and bottom halves of the car were attached by springs. When the car was going along a straight section of track, the bottom of the car was pulled up and there was negligable drag. On the other hand, when the driver approached a corner, they merely had to release the springs and the car would be locked tight. It was often talked of as "cornering on rails".
Over the years, other tricks have been tried. The front and back spoilers (often referred to as wings, but not in the same sense as the winged car) have been modified. Some teams have stacked spoilers vertically. Others have split them into two or three pieces, horizontally. For a long time, there was no restriction on their size, and gigantic spoilers would be used, which often fragmented and became a hazard for everyone in the vicinity.
In the 90s, a popular "toy" was the traction control system. This device was a computer system linked to thermal sensors in the tires, the car's speedometer and a few other sensors. It regulated power to the wheels, so that it was physically impossible for the driver to spin the wheels. This guaranteed that the power delivered was always the maximum that the tires could take.
Not all ideas have been so flash-in-the-pan, though. Formula 1 racing cars have had, for some time, carbon-fiber anti-lock disc brakes. These allowed drivers far better control over their car and reduced (but didn't eliminate) the risk of spinning out of control when braking too hard. This technology has, over the years, slowly migrated to road cars and, as a result, road cars are safer for it.
Modern Formula 1 cars are as far beyond this old technology as modern road cars are behind it. A modern Formula 1 car has a 9-12 cylinder engine, 7 gears, sensors monitoring every aspect, impact resistance capable of keeping the driver intact after a 200 mph shunt into a wall, tires that can withstand blistering temperatures when under stress but still provide grip when virtually cold.
The drivers are as unbelievable as the technology. At Silverstone, drivers experience 3g on many of the corners and an instantaneous 7g when slamming from one corner into the next, on some parts of the track. A driver is unlikely to win a decathlon any time soon, but if the world started looking for non-military astronauts, they'd make good candidates. Lightning reflexes, sharp eyes, an incredible "feel" for how a machine is behaving, and incredble gugs - those aren't attributes you'd find anywhere.
This leads me to Michael Schumacher - six times World Champion (making him one championship ahead of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio. The modern Formula 1 driver is very different from the old-time greats. Cars handle very differently, the seasons aren't the same, the tracks aren't the same, the speeds aren't the same. One thing that is the same is the ability to turn a machine into a skillfully guided missile, capable of handling anything thrown at him.
Schumacher is getting old for this game - although some have raced into their forties. This may well be his last season, especially if the new rules disrupt his rhythm to the point where he simply can't remain competitive.
His skill and nerve are astonishing, but not unique. Fangio, as I mentioned, was certainly no less a driver. He came very close to winning seven championships, being beaten into second place in 1950 and 1953. Ayrton Senna, the flying Brazilian, won three World Championships and came close to a fourth, was an incredible driver to watch. His skill and daring in the rain, in particular, was unmatched. Unfortunately, so were his arrogance and temper. In an ideal world, we would have seen a "special" between him and Nigel Mansell - this was actually being debated, as the two drivers were so astonishingly quick but suffered too many technical misfortunes to ever be fairly compared.
Actually, the real ideal would have been the two of them and Michael Schumacher. Just the three of them, no other cars to obstruct the path. However, Schumacher was not then a celebrity and the Mansell/Senna race never happened for politicial reasons. Senna died, after his car left the track at the Italian Grand Prix, slamming into a concrete retaining wall at high speed. He survived the crash itself, to be killed by a wheel detatching and slamming into his head.
That race marked one of the worst outings for Formula 1 in a long time, with another driver - Roland Ratzenberger - dying in an accident during qualifying the previous day. Also during the race, several spectators were injured from debris thrown up by an accident at the start, and a pit crewman was injured by a wheel that came loose in the pit lane.
Given the unbelievable danger of racing, it is incredible how many drivers do survive their careers. Refuelling accidents, where cars are engulfed in flame, do happen. In one dramatic incident I watched, two cars collided on a tight corner at the Monaco Grand Prix, with one driver later revealing tire tracks across his helmet where the other car had literally driven over him. (If I remember correctly, that was Martin Brundle.)
Each generation has had one - or more - heros. There has never been a heroless time in Formula 1. Today, Michael Schumacher is undoubtably the hero of many German fans of this generation. The new McLaren line-up may present problems for him. Fresh and determined, they have something to prove. Schumacher, as mentioned before, may be retiring and his chief mechanic already has. The car has been built by a new group and that introduces a whole bunch of unknowns Schumacher may decide he's too old for.
Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Nicki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Alan Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell - Formula 1 success only lasts a short time. It isn't restricted specifically to an age group, to a country, to a personality type. Damon Hill won his championship at the age of 36 - the same age Schumacher is now. Fangio's final championship came at the age of 46.
(For that matter, the championship doesn't even depend on you being alive. Jochen Rindt died three races short of the end of the season, during practice at Monza. However, nobody was able to beat his score and so he won the 1970 world championship.)
This is a dramatic and sometimes deadly sport. Passions run high, but so does respect. Superstition is rife, but so is technical excellence. Formula 1 Grand Prix started off very much as a sport of gentlemen and has largely stayed that way, despite the vast sums of money being thrown around.
It is surprising that none of the women who compete in motor sports have reached Formula 1. They generally do well in rally and Formula 3. When they do break through, it can only solidify Formula 1 as the ultimate test of driving skill, without prejudice.