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The Speed of Formula 1:
An Utterly Different Reference Frame

March 5, 2012 by Matt

F1 Formula 1 Onboard On Board In Car Cockpit Driver Renault

I thought of the idea for this post the other day, just running errands with the kids in the back of the minivan. Pulling away from a stoplight, all the cars accelerated at roughly the same rate, and I thought, “There’s an expected g-force envelope that all cars fall into, more or less.” It’s true—even high-end sports cars with hundreds more horsepower than our lowly van still only “turn it up” a few notches over the average family sedan. They still play by the rules, so to speak; they’re just really good at the game. Driving or riding in one is fun and impressive, to be sure, but the experience isn’t different enough from an ordinary commute that it’s something our brain has trouble relating to.

And then there’s F1. Play the above video, if you haven’t yet. The location is the famous Eau Rouge corner at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium, a track many famous F1 drivers have listed as a favorite.

In the left frame, track-prepped sports cars navigate down the hill, around the bend and up the hill to the Kemmel straight. Were any of us to ride shotgun, we’d feel g-forces throwing us around in our harness as the car skirted around the edges of the traction circle. It’d be fast and violent, but we’d still be able to keep our wits about us.

The right frame, on the other hand, holds a different world. Late model Formula 1 cars literally blast through the bend in a fraction of the time it takes the already-capable “regular” race cars to make it through. It’s just…I can’t even conceive of what it must feel like to be behind the wheel. Neither my daily commute nor even the most extreme “automotive situation” I’ve ever experienced offer me any kind of framework for understanding that kind of speed, that power, that neck-breaking grip… When I first saw the clip, I was sure the F1 half was sped up, but no; it’s real-time.

Watching F1 on television, it can be easy to become numb to the otherworldly racing environment F1 cars and drivers inhabit. Viewing a clip like the above is something of a reality check, and if anything, increases my esteem for the athletes that participate in the sport.

Filed under: Formula 1, Miscellaneous, Racing


  1. John D says:

    I love that video. I can’t even imagine how fast the F1 driver must process input from both the car and the track in order to do what they do…nevermind doing it while your body is pummeled and jerked around like a slingshot. I would be a nervous wreck. It makes sense that amazing F1 drivers may actually be crappy drivers outside of the sport because, when it comes down to it, driving F1 really has nothing to do with driving, well, pretty much anything else. Craziness.

    • Matt says:

      I know what you mean. In a way, the surreal nature of the environment might help them actually do their job better: I know if I was in the midst of that kind of sensory overload, I’d have little time to actually fear for my life. :)

  2. Jack says:

    I think the Top Gear segment where Hammond drives the F1 car is a pretty good representation of the insanity of these drivers as well.

    • Matt says:

      That’s a good segment! I think that illustrates the exotic nature of the cars and tires, too, and by extension, the speed the drivers have to maintain just so the car will stay on the track.

  3. Ryan says:

    To quote the short bald guy from The Princess Bride… “INCONCEIVABLE!!!”

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