F1 Year 1

I am not a handy person. I blame my dad. He was the least handy man I’ve ever known. He had a 5-gallon bucket in the garage with some tools in it but I’m not sure they were ever used. He carved beautiful ducks and songbirds and tied intricate flies to feed his fly fishing addiction for decades. He could fill a room with the tools he needed for those tasks and expertly wielded every one of them. I’m not sure he could do much more than change a light bulb or hang the occasional picture in our house, though. That’s the DNA and experience with which I grew up.

This translates directly to my knowledge of automobiles. I hear tales of boys who grow up restoring old cars with their dads. Spending months or years under the hood getting that classic back up and running. That was not my dad and me. There was a period when I was in my teens when dad treated cars as if they were disposable. He’d buy a beater from the 1970s for a few hundred bucks, drive it until it had absolutely nothing left to give, dump it, and buy another one. I learned to drive in gigantic brown Pontiac Catalinas or Ford Crown Victorias that had lap belts and AM radios. The day of my first driver’s test the brakes didn’t work on the Catalina and mom was out of town with the family’s one decent car – a Ford Taurus – so I had to drive a loaner that dad was able to acquire last minute as a favor from his friend at the local car dealership. I was so confused in that brand new car that when the DMV lady asked me to test the windshield wipers I was baffled. You may have noticed that I referred to it as my “first” driver’s test above, and that’s because I failed. Partly because I was being tested by Green Bay legend “No Pass” Patty, but also partly because I was bewildered by the modern amenities of the car I was driving.

Here’s the exact list of automotive maintenance/repairs that I can execute with confidence:

Fill the gas tank
Check tire pressure
Refill wiper fluid
Change headlights and brake/turn signal lights
Change a flat tire

If anything else happens I’m completely useless. I’ve had people ask me why I didn’t take auto shop class in high school. Great question. Let’s just say my personality clashed with most of the guys in shop class. I only needed to be called a “fucking wigger” once or twice before I realized that I wasn’t welcomed. As trailblazing as it would’ve been to be the first kid to listen to Guy and wear a Shawn Kemp jersey in Pulaski High School’s auto shop class, it was evident that the further down the VICA hallway I traveled the more likely I was to get my ass kicked. Avoiding shop class was more about self-preservation than it was about a lack of interest in the inner workings of automobiles.

Because of everything you just read, I’ve never had any interest in motorsports and was content to stay that way. I already spent enough time watching basketball, football, baseball, and boxing. I didn’t have the time or energy to pick up another sport. Then two things happened: First I got married and had kids. Everyone around me got married and had kids, too. Before kids I had half-season tickets to the Milwaukee Bucks and every Green Bay Packer game was a gathering. Once we all had kids we stopped making our weekly pilgrimage to the Bradley Center for Bucks games and having Packer parties every Sunday. Sports aren’t as fun when you’re watching them by yourself while folding laundry while your kids do other things because they share none of your love for sports.

More importantly I met Dave. Dave is a co-worker and good friend of mine and the first car junkie that I’ve known well. Dave is the person who convinced me to watch Game of Thrones, a TV show that I had zero interest in. Within weeks of caving into Dave’s cajoling I was waiting every night until the kids would be asleep so I could stay up until 3:00 AM binging past seasons. I was listening to GoT podcasts to fill me in on everything that I missed. I was invited to weekly viewing parties with family and friends at Dave’s house. It was an event that I would’ve missed out on were it not for his convincing.

Not long after Game of Thrones Dave started telling me about another interest of his, but this would take a lot more work on his part. This time it was Formula 1. I trusted that Dave wouldn’t steer me wrong, and I loved the idea of recreating that kind of community we had with GoT, but auto racing? I’m not interested in watching a bunch of dudes drive around an oval. Formula 1 isn’t the one where guys drive in circles? OK, I’m 1% more interested. Dave began telling me about a Netflix docuseries called Drive To Survive that goes behind the scenes with F1 drivers and teams over the course of a season. I wasn’t particularly interested, but I’ve learned this over the years: Combine compelling personalities with heated competition and you can make anything interesting. I watched a season of a Netflix show about glass blowing at one point. If they can make glass blowing interesting, imagine what they can do with people driving 200 MPH.

After months of foolishly ignoring Dave’s recommendation, one night last February I found myself sitting in front of the TV staring at nothing. I needed something new to watch. I looked at Drive to Survive and thought, “I should check this out just so I can tell Dave I gave it a chance.” You can imagine what happened next. Two hours later I was texting Dave.

I’M IN

My wife loves to joke that she spent a month trying to fall asleep while hearing the “VROOM VROOM” of F1 cars on TV, but she’s exaggerating like crazy because I finished two seasons of Drive To Survive in a few short days. Texts to Dave that used to say things like, “Theon is a piece of shit,” and, “I can’t believe Stannis burned his own kid at the stake,” transformed into, “Christian Horner is a piece of shit,” and, “I can’t believe how Red Bull did Pierre Gasly.”

Drive To Survive roped me in, but there was still one hurdle looming: Would I actually enjoy watching races? Could I sit and watch cars drive for 90 minutes and find it compelling without Netflix spoon feeding me storylines and interview clips? The Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28 along with the preceding free practices and qualifying provided a swift and resounding answer. Hell yes.

Here’s the first bit of amateur analysis I’m going to provide about Formula 1, especially to a skeptic who might be in the same place I was a year ago. F1 actually reminds me a lot of baseball. While the drivers require supreme concentration at all times while on track, F1 is not necessarily a sport that demands the viewer’s undivided attention. Once a race gets started and the chaos of the first lap sorts itself out the chess match begins. You can absolutely walk away from your TV to use the bathroom, grab a snack from the kitchen, or hold a conversation with someone. You might not miss anything. You might also miss a lot. You never know. There have been races this season – surprisingly few, but there have been some – that provide little action or intrigue. Monaco, for instance. When the much ballyhooed Monaco GP got going there were few surprises and for the most part the drivers held their position with little overtaking (passing). The lone exciting moment came when Team Mercedes was unable to remove a tire from the car of Valtteri Bottas during what was supposed to be a routine pit stop, forcing him to retire from the race.

Like baseball, there can be long stretches of F1 where the status quo is maintained and nothing happens. Also like baseball, you never know when that moment is going to strike, and the buildup and drama in those moments is greater than in any sport I’ve ever seen. During the Brazilian Grand Prix we watched Lewis Hamilton trail Max Verstappen for what felt like hours. Just when it got to the point where it felt it was never going to happen and the commentators were actually discussing how Lewis should change his strategy, he struck and overtook Verstappen with a move that actually had me jumping out of my seat and yelling despite the fact that I was in a room by myself. You never know when that moment is going to happen so you’re on the edge of your seat even during times when it feels like nothing is going on.

With that, I’m finally getting to the reason that I wanted to type this post in the first place. I know, it took me 1,500 words to get here. I have a problem being succinct. I offer you my list of random observations from someone who spent 45 years ignoring motorsport, then the past ten months learning as much about it as I can:

Let’s start here so you know where my loyalty is: I freaking love Lewis Hamilton. I came into this season expecting to hate Hamilton and Mercedes because I’ve never been a fan of the reigning dynasty in sports. I respect them, but I’m the kind of person who likes seeing the the reigning champ knocked off of his/her pedestal. The more I see of Hamilton the more I love him. In a sport that seems to be full of divas, Hamilton (at least outwardly) handles winning and losing with the same amount of class. He’s a fierce competitor on the track, but off the track he is always quick to deflect praise to his team and put the blame on his shoulders when things don’t go well. That’s a true leader. I love that he’s not afraid to take a stance on social justice. He’s really the entire package that I look for in an athlete and he’s quickly become a favorite of mine. I can understand how so many are tired of Hamilton and Mercedes winning every year because I’ve been there with other sports. I got tired of the Bulls, Yankees, and Patriots and wanted them to lose every year. F1 is new to me so I’m not tired of Hamilton or Mercedes. Quite the opposite.

That leads me to my next observation: It’s taken me nearly a month to post this because I’ve been so heartbroken and bothered by the events of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Typically in sports you say the scoreboard doesn’t lie. The best person/team wins. Not on that day. Lewis Hamilton was cruising to a much deserved victory, which would’ve locked up his record breaking 8th championship. But, the two guys in the back of the pack bumped and one slammed into the wall, which required a safety car. Many things happened at the end of that race that I didn’t like, but all of those events ultimately led to Hamilton’s lead being completely eliminated and him having one full lap with 30-lap-old tires to defend against Max Verstappen on fresh tires.

Again, I’m not experienced enough to explain everything that happened, so I’m going to give you a different sports analogy: Let’s say the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns were playing in the NBA Finals, only it was Game 7. The Bucks have a 12-point lead with a minute left and are cruising to a victory and NBA title. Both teams have cleared the bench because the game is over. But, instead of it being over, Orlando Magic big man Mo Bamba sprints onto the court and injures himself doing something completely unrelated to the championship game. The Suns immediately sub their starters back in but the Bucks weren’t able to get theirs back in on time, so their bench is still in the game. While the game is paused to get Bamba off the floor and wipe off all the blood and body parts the league decides that the Bucks’ lead that was just 12 points is now only one point. Also, the Bucks can’t bring their starters back in so they’re at a huge disadvantage. The Bucks’ bench fights valiantly, but ultimately the Suns’ starters outscore them in the final minute and win the title because apparently the events of the first 47 minutes didn’t matter because someone from Orlando did something stupid and held the game up. I know, not a perfect analogy, but that’s how it felt. I was catatonic after that and it’s still hard to discuss.

Since I’m cheering for Lewis I guess that means I don’t want to see Verstappen win. I sure as hell respect his skills even though I think he’s a spoiled brat. The talent he possesses is something that I can’t easily comprehend because I don’t know racing well enough yet to understand it. I don’t know how two guys can be that much better at racing than 18 others. I know the cars have a lot to do with it, but I have a feeling if you put all of the drivers in equal cars it’s still going to somehow come down to Hamilton and Verstappen. Verstappen is set to dominate the sport for the next 10-15 years if he plays his cards right, but here’s exactly what I think of him for better and for worse: He’s Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. He seems to possess a power that none of the other drivers have. He also knows it, so he’s a petulant brat. Much like Anakin, he has a leader/mentor that tells him things that bring out the worst in him. Yes, I’m comparing Christian Horner to Emperor Palpatine. I can think of no better example than the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. Instead of racing Hamilton man vs. man and car vs. car within the confines of the track, Verstappen employed tactics that can be called gamesmanship at best, and dangerous and reckless at worst. He flew through sharp turns while being overtaken, braking far too late to stay on the track, forcing Hamilton to either relinquish his track position or collide with him, which only benefitted Verstappen because he was in the lead for the championship. He wasn’t able to beat Hamilton straight up, so he resorted to bullshit that crossed the line. That’s not racing or sporting. It’s exacerbated by the fact that he has an absolute weasel for a Team Principal in Christian Horner. Horner should be keeping his young racer within the rules, but instead he pours more fuel on the fire and says things that only bring out the worst side of Verstappen. Again, he’s the Emperor Palpatine to Verstappen’s Anakin.

Let’s focus on Horner for a while longer. When Horner first appeared on Drive To Survive he seemed harmless enough to me. I didn’t like him, but I dismissed it as, “Well, it’s racing. Somebody has to be the ass hole. I guess it’s him.” Then Daniel Ricciardo left Red Bull. He obviously left because he was a former race champion who was being forced to play second fiddle to Verstappen and he either didn’t want to compete with him or was afraid to. I lean toward the former, but that’s beside the point. Verstappen was Horner’s Chosen One already in 2018. After Ricciardo we had Pierre Gasly. Gasly was young – 23 years old – when he was thrust into the Red Bull spotlight as Verstappen’s #2. He didn’t respond well, at least not initially. A lot of crashing and underperforming. Instead of helping and motivating his young driver, what I saw out of Horner was a lot of behind the scenes backstabbing. How many times did we see Horner in conversation with others that sounded something like, “Man, if Gasly could get it together we’d be in good shape. That kid is killing us.” Very on-brand, Christian. Instead of helping his young driver and forming what could’ve been a formidable 1-2 of Verstappen/Gasly, he replaced him with Alex Albon. All Gasly has done since getting demoted out of Red Bull is kick ass for Alpha Tauri, consistenly overperforming for them. It was more of the same for Albon. Horner finally found his willing #2 in Checo Perez, a journeyman driver who was without a team and likely on his way out of F1. To sum up, Horner just seems like the kind of guy I wouldn’t like. He uses people. He never found a camera or microphone that he didn’t like because he clearly loves the attention. Everything he does seems to be about getting what he wants and he doesn’t seem to care who he stabs in the back or what rules he has to break to do it. He reminds me of a wrestling heel, except that in professional wrestling the drama is fake and this is very real. He’s been encouraging the worst in Verstappen just so he can call himself a champion again. Congrats. I guess it worked. Ugh.

Now that I’ve gotten my extreme hot takes out of the way, let’s have some fun with quick hit stuff instead. Again, these are the random ramblings of an ignorant novice:

Here are some terms that I’ve sincerely used in sentences in the past six months that I didn’t know existed prior to 2021: Drag reduction system. Slipstream. Chicane. Grid. Virtual Safety Car. Paddock. Pit lane.

I love the worldwide element of F1. Every race is also a geography lesson. Every driver comes from somewhere different. I sort of wish there was an American driver, but even if there was, I wouldn’t just cheer for him by default. I also enjoy the early morning start times. Races often take place early on a Sunday morning (qualifying early on Saturday morning) here in United States Central time, so I can be done watching a race by 9:00 in the morning and still have an entire day. I have watched qualifying and races from a duck blind, a deer stand, and a hotel bed in Seattle WAY too early in the morning. I’ve watched entire races in my living room and been done before the rest of my family has even gotten out of bed. While that’s obviously not what attracted me to the sport, it’s a lovely benefit.

I’m not yet to a point where I can name individual tracks, but I can say that my favorite track this year was Monza in Italy. That seemed like the perfect combination of straight line speed, chicanes, hairpin turns, and areas for overtaking. I look forward to getting a few years of F1 fandom under my belt so I can say things like, “Remember what happened at Spa in 2022…” I’m not that good at recalling specific tracks yet so my conversations with Dave sound more like, “Remember that one race…”

That said, I’ve started going back to watch the season recaps on F1TV. You can go all the way back to 1970, so that’s what I did. Imagine my shock and horror watching the 1970 recap when I watched points leader Jochen Rindt crash into a wall in qualifying and DIE?!?!! Rindt was leading by so much that he still won the season despite dying with five races to go. During coverage of the Dutch Grand Prix the announcer said something like, “Then black smoke appeared on the horizon and a hush fell over the crowd. Piers Courage was dead, but the race must go on…” Wait, what?!? First off, there was actually a guy named Piers Courage, and that alone is amazing. More importantly, he died in a race and all the narrator said was, “The race must go on.” That shit is ice cold. Those dudes were hardcore. No disrespect to the deceased, but I’m really going to enjoy watching these and learning some F1 history.

There is one person in Formula 1 who truly terrifies me, and that man’s name is Lawrence Stroll. He bought a fucking team so his kid could race. That’s not to say that Lance Stroll isn’t deserving. That’s yet to be determined (although basing it purely on his 2021 season he doesn’t look great). If Max Verstappen is Attack of the Clones era Anakin Skywalker, Lawrence Stroll is Empire Strike Back era Darth Vader. Has he smiled, ever? I have been waiting all season for the headline that Aston Martin CEO/Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer was found at the bottom of a river because his team is underperforming. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of jokes about poor Otmar having a pavlovian reaction and pissing himself whenever he sees Lawrence Stroll’s name on the caller ID. I keep waiting for the Drive To Survive scene when Stroll pulls the ultimate power move and says to Otmar, “You’re as clumsy as you are stupid,” before coldly murdering him in front of his eventual replacement. Then he would definitely crack a smile.

When I’m not cheering for Lewis Hamilton my team is McLaren simply based on the fact that I really enjoy Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris. I know nothing about McLaren as an automaker other than they manufacture some absurdly expensive cars, but I just dig their drivers. I was riding high midway through the season when McLaren was firmly in 3rd place in the constructor standings and Lando Norris was somehow in 3rd in the driver standings. Then, for reasons I’m far too ignorant to understand, they fell off. Ferrari has easily passed them in the standings and Alpine was even looking more dangerous late in the 2021 season. I hope the 2022 season sees my guys Daniel and Lando back in the spotlight.

After a season of watching I’m thinking I may officially adopt Williams as my team. I know enough to know that they have a rich history in F1, but they are currently in a years-long slump. I look forward to seeing what Latifi and Albon can do for them next year. I need an underdog to adopt and right now I feel strongly about Williams.

I have nothing else to say right now other than I’m thankful to Dave for talking me into yet another new obsession…one that lured me in for 10 months, then ripped my heart out. Dave has brought together a burgeoning community of Formula 1 fans and it’s fun to bump into people at work and have something new in common. I’m also thankful to people in the F1 community for being welcoming to a legion of bandwagon jumping newbies who are only here thanks to Netflix. I could see hardened old F1 fans saying things like, “The sport was great until these Drive To Survive ass holes showed up.” If that’s happening, I haven’t seen it. I listen to podcasts and read a lot online and everything I’ve seen has been welcoming and actually grateful for the newfound enthusiasm for the sport. Special shout out to the guys at the Missed Apex podcast, my favorite source for F1 talk. Missed Apex was recommended to me by…you guessed it…Dave.

I’ve been a NBA, NFL, and MLB fan for as long as I can remember. I don’t think anything in professional sports will top the feeling I had in July when my beloved Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA title in 50 years. That said, when I opened my present from my wife on Christmas morning it wasn’t anything Bucks or Packers. It was a Lewis Hamilton hoodie. I’m all in on F1. The 2022 Lewis Hamilton revenge tour can’t come fast enough.

2 Comments

  1. It’s not often that I read an essay that is me almost to a T! I’ve had the EXACT same experience with F1 for my first year watching due to Drive to Survive, right down to explaining to other F1 fan that while they may be sick of Lewis, for me, he’s brand new and practically the perfect athlete and ambassador for the sport. Minor quibbles would be that I prefer Ferrari to McLaren and am probably adopting Alfa Romeo as my underdog team, because I’ve got a soft spot for Bottas. Otherwise, 100% on point. I hated that ending every bit as much as I’d grown to live the sport!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things I’m most looking forward to next year is seeing Bottas with Alfa Romeo. I’ve been wondering if he’ll still compete at the level he has been or if he’ll fade into obscurity. If he’s still competing at the same level I’ll admit that I’ve been underestimating him for the past year.

      Like

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