I am the rare American who follows Formula One, tennis, and European football, although these sports have a more global following than any traditional American league. In the U.S., I often set my alarm for a predawn hour to catch a race or match.
Formula One (F1) is widely regarded as the most glamorous and expensive of all sports. While it has been a wish of mine to attend a race, the likelihood of that coming to pass seemed more remote than attending a Super Bowl or Final Four because of the immense travel involved. Formula One’s 19 races are located on 19 different countries, spanning five continents. My current travel itinerary was not geared toward any sporting event, but when I was reminded that the second Formula One race was in Malaysia, I revised my flight to stay in Kuala Lumpur for the weekend.
I immediately checked the prices and was relieved to discover that the Malaysian Grand Prix is the least expensive event on the Formula One calendar. The Monaco Grand Prix is the most expensive. All I had to do was purchase a ticket and research the logistics of getting to and from the event site.
The Malaysian Grand Prix is held in the city of Sepang, 60 kilometers directly south of Kuala Lumpur. Sepang International Circuit is also right next to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, so I took the airport train to and from the speedway.
If you are an American reader, then the appeal of Formula One may sadly be lost on you. While NASCAR is popular in the United States, it has little appeal outside the country because its drivers are almost all American, and all the races are in humdrum locations like Daytona Beach or Dover, Delaware. By contrast, Formula One drivers come from all over the world and are in James Bond locations, such as Montreal, Monaco, and Singapore.
Formula One drivers are paid highly, which makes sense since there are only 20 of them. My favorite pilot, Sebastian Vettel is more than $30 million per year in his new contract with Ferrari. The sport’s sponsors are of the highest prestige: Rolex, Emirates, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, etc.
To someone not acquainted with auto racing, one may mistake a NASCAR or especially IndyCar with a Formula One vehicle. This indifference would be equivalent to conflating the street versions of these racecars, for example, a Toyota Camry vs. a Ferrari 458.
NASCARs drive primarily on boring ovals, often for several interminable hours, averaging 688 kilometers for a scheduled race. A Formula One race averages 305 kilometers in length and has the good sense to have a time limit so that it finishes in well under two hours. Formula One circuits provide more than a dozen challenging turns, requiring both the driver and car to be athletic enough to handle forces up to 5g.
A normal street car can nearly rival a F1 vehicle in terms of top speed, but top-line speed is less important than cornering and acceleration. An F1 car will rarely get the opportunity to hit a theoretical 300 kph because each circuit has so many turns. Even the slowest Formula 1 car can go from 0 to 100 mph and back to 0 in under 5 seconds!
A NASCAR driver can look out of shape and be in his 40s. A Formula One driver is in his 20s and looks like a traditional athlete.
Another key difference is that NASCAR has 43 cars with lots of bump-drafting and spectacular crashes. Formula One cars are the most agile land vehicles in the world. Even a slight bump in the wrong part of the rear could send a car airborne. Then, there is the practical matter. A NASCAR is almost made to be obliterated. They are financially disposable in that they cost less than $200,000, which is less than a street Ferrari. A NASCAR engine may run $50,000.
Fromula One’s expenses are startling. A single engine can run $15 million. A big-budget team like Ferrari will spend more than $200 million per season on engines. The engines and Pirelli tires are built to leave nothing on the table, or track. It is a lot of money to spend for a car that cannot drive more than 4000 miles in a year. Furthermore, the tires fall apart after a few dozen miles, and the engine may collapse after fewer than a thousand miles.
To give you a sense of how every edge is wrung out of the equipment, I can offer you a quick example with Qualifying, which takes place on Saturday. Unlike other forms or auto racing, overtaking is limited in Formula 1, due to the track layouts and punishing car differences. Therefore, starting position is paramount. The first round of qualifying runs for 18 minutes and eliminates the six slowest cars. You may think that given a set amount of 18 minutes, one should post as many laps as possible. A typical lap is less than 2 minutes.
However, the tires and engine degrade so fast that a driver may post a fast lap on his first go-around. Instead of continuing to post times, the team will immediately kill the engine and shelve the car, going so far as to put the tire covers back on and roll the vehicle back into the garage! Then, the driver remains in the car while the entire team monitors the competitors’ times in case pressure mounts to post a better qualifying time. The driver may go out for another lap or two. This happens every Formula One weekend.
When a normal person drives a street automobile, he may not even be needing to shift gears due to the presence of an automatic transmission. A Formula 1 car’s steering wheel alone is mind-boggling, reportedly costing $50,000. In addition to its primary function of steering the car and changing gears, the wheel also has a 4.3-inch LED screen so the driver can monitor a few telemetry statistics since it can be difficult to hear the engineers while buzzing around the track.
Not infrequently, drivers will lose contact with their staff so that they may be driving in the dark, so to speak. With the steering wheel, the pilots are also in charge of controlling: fuel-to-air ratio, brake pressure, brake balance, differential settings, torque curve, pit signal, ignition timing, transfer of oil from auxiliary to main tank, drag reduction system (DRS), fuel rate consumption, etc. Each driver is pressing a paddle or button 4000 times per race. Their reaction times, while absorbing absurd amounts of information and driving nearly 300 kph and navigating hairpin turns, are world-class.
When watching the drivers flow smoothly around the track, they look effortless and calm. Sometimes, the engineers will ask the drivers for data from their steering wheel. Defying death while driving, pilots sometimes get annoyed at being asked to retrieve data while they are doing their primary job. In that way, they are no different than office workers around the world. At the race I attended, the engineer was trying to provide Lewis Hamilton with information, when the driver cut him off, “Don’t talk to me through the corners! I nearly just went off!” Hamilton would finished second behind Sebastian Vettel, although the Brit is still the favorite to win the title.
When first seeing the cars during Qualifying, I got goosebumps and rose to my feet. I had expected that earplugs would be given out, but an overhaul of car configurations a couple of seasons ago drastically reduced the engine noise, which annoyed some traditionalists. There is even an electric-car version run by the same organization of Formula 1, in anticipation of the future. At those races, the cars are silent.
It is tough to describe how magnificent attending a Formula 1 weekend is. Many fans were sporting gear of the powerhouse teams, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz. Many flags were waving. We got a thunderstorm that delayed Qualifying by 35 minutes. Unlike NASCARs, Formula 1 cars generate so much downforce that they can drive in fairly hard rain, with two special tires manufactured for that purpose.
I found it amusing how fans were cheering, despite the cumulative noise being negligible compared to the loud engine roars. In other sports, the athletes would hear their crowd support but not at a racetrack.
There was constant commentary, which I originally thought was laughable but actually found useful for when I could catch a word. Even still, the race is hard to follow since there is so much action happening out of view, no matter where you are sitting. There was a monitor placed that I glanced at, but it could have been much larger, and the glare and quality did not help matters. I was following the @ feed since it was so timely.
I marveled at how some people could follow the action without the benefit of Internet use. The cars move at an alarming speed. Moreover, the 10 teams each have 2 identical cars, so one needs binoculars to identify the helmets. In auto racing, being close enough to the action where you could identify the helmets with the naked eye would be dangerous. Even from where I sat, it seemed to me that a car could fly over the double fence, and land in my area, 120 meters away.
The weather broke triple figures Fahrenheit both days I attended. Sitting in the shade helped immensely. The drivers are on an even hotter track. The cars are not air-conditioned.
Every little edge is extracted in Formula 1. Pilots sit as low as possible to minimize aerodynamic drag. Even the car is polished to shave off any imperfections that could cause the slightest of wind resistance, in addition to shine the car for television.
This Formula 1 experience was unforgettable, and it was pleasantly inexpensive, given my circumstances. There are many other aspects of Formula 1 that I missed out, mainly the hobnobbing with rich people at fabulous parties, but the actual event lived up to my built-up hype. Sebastian Vettel is my favorite driver, and he claimed what the media termed a “shock victory” in a tense race, so the action was riveting throughout too.
Ticket for 3-day weekend, including Practice, Qualifying, and Race: $43
Buses and trains to/from the track: $33 (shuttles at the track were free and necessary due to long distances and humid heat)
Uber to/from the train station: $13
No concessions purchased although I smuggled a 1.5-liter water bottle in both days. The prices were elevated, but this is Malaysia so even in a captive environment, a can of Carlsberg beer was only $4.
Total cost: $89
Average time to/from racetrack: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Time spent at circuit on Qualifying day: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Time spent at circuit on Race day: 3 hours, 20 minutes
Time spent in area for post-race Korean pop concerts: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Total entertainment time: 7 hours, 30 minutes
Now that is what I call travel hacking! Twelve dollars per hour for a full weekend of world-class entertainment.