Located off of Texas State Highway 130, the Circuit of the Americas is a motor racing track just minutes from the capital city Austin. For more than a decade, Formula 1 has visited the track for an annual race as part of 22 Grands Prix comprising a lengthy racing season.
Just last month, I drove past the circuit en route to Lockhart for some long-awaited Texas barbecue. When I looked through the car window, I saw nothing ceremonious. Hills browned by dust carved out a flat for empty stands and worn asphalt. In that moment, the glitz and glamor of Formula 1 racing was boiled down to a simple drive to survive.
Formula 1 racing found its footing in the 1950s, when single drivers were saddled into open-wheeled formula cars delicately shaped for achieving aerodynamic speed while limiting turbulence. But unlike many other motorsports, Formula 1 awards both drivers and constructor teams when determining a world championship winner at the end of the season. Last season, these two titles (regrettably) went to Max Verstappen and his respective Red Bull Racing team.
To spare you my personal Formula 1 biases, I promise that is …maybe… the first and last dig toward Verstappen and Red Bull Racing.
In its early years, Formula 1 was mainly viewed in car fanatic circles and kept from the purview of the general public.
As the sport saw its rise, Grand Prix events were stretched into weekends of lavish parties and celebrity appearances. Whether the masses gather by Monaco’s crystal bays or Singapore’s storied high rises, Formula 1 has undoubtedly become a global spectacle.
Whether the masses gather by Monaco’s crystal bays or Singapore’s storied high rises, Formula 1 has undoubtedly become a global spectacle.
Much of the sports’ recent appeal to broader viewership has been attributed to Mercedes AMG-Petronas driver Lewis Hamilton, who has tallied a record seven world championships since initially beginning his career with McLaren Racing in 2007.
In response to this newfound global fascination, Netflix released the first season of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which detailed the 2018 Formula 1 season in a reality-television-esque style. Each episode focused on specific teams and their respective challenges encountered throughout the season. Since the show’s debut, each season has paralleled the Grand Prix lineup of the previous calendar year.
My first dip into the Formula 1 pool was through this series, and I have since found myself waking up at odd hours to watch races highlighted by quick pit stops and sparks flying into television cameras. However, the races alone don’t reveal the sheer production and manpower that goes into engineering each car in time to be ready for race day. The series encapsulates this thoroughly.
Each team is captained by team principals who oversee both driving and construction in preparation for the season’s start. Within a team, such as Lewis’ Mercedes AMG-Petronas, two riders are managed by personal engineers that fall under the purview of the team principal. Outside of personal attendants, between 300 and 1,200 personnel are responsible for making sure that both cars are ready by the time engines are revved up on race day.
Through this tangle of people and automotive parts, there are personalities and problems that clash on the track for every race.
While famous Formula 1 rivalries between Team Principal characters such as Christian Horner and Toto Wolff have often usurped front page headlines, it is perhaps more fascinating to understand the discord that exists within teams meant to present a united front by the time a Grand Prix day arrives.
In the most recent season, one of the main storylines surrounded struggles faced by Guenther Steiner’s Haas Racing Team in regard to finding drivers that matched the competency of their constructors. After releasing Russian driver Nikita Mazepin due to his country’s invasion of Ukraine, Steiner struggled to find a replacement on such short notice.
Steiner eventually hired Kevin Magnussen, a former Haas driver, with the belief that his newfound maturity could suit the competitive car. By the time the Bahrain Grand Prix rolled around, Magnussen was ready to accompany Mick Schumacher as the joint face of Haas. While Schumacher undoubtably contains the racing passion of his legendary father, Michael, he repeatedly failed to finish races and cost Haas more than $4 million in damages.
As the story goes, Magnussen quickly overtook Schumacher and became the 2022 Haas golden boy. Tensions mounted and by the time the season came to a close, Mick Schumacher’s name was not enough to be welcomed back to Haas in 2023.
Recent events demonstrate how each of the 10 Formula 1 teams quickly fight to find the best pair of drivers possible each year. One wrong turn or miscalculation can lead to a life permanently lived outside of the paddock.
Furthermore, teams will almost always select one driver as the primary, leaving the secondary driver to constantly struggle to maintain their seat and stare down an early retirement. Camaraderie can quickly be overtaken by competition, driving stakes between teams and costing constructors’ championships.
Camaraderie can quickly be overtaken by competition, driving stakes between teams and costing constructors’ championships.
This cutthroat inner conflict has become the status quo so much that divergence from the norm devolves a team into further turmoil.
For years, Red Bull Racing has refused to delegate the number one driver position to Max Verstappen, leaving his teammate Sergio ‘Checo’ Pérez hungry in the wings. Perez was handily able to mount victories against Verstappen in Monaco and Singapore, leaving many critical of Red Bull for refusing to definitively back one driver over the other.
By the time the São Paulo Grand Prix rolled around, Verstappen publicly ignored intercom pleas to defend Pérez from encroaching Mercedes drivers and cost the Red Bull duo a potential podium finish — once again revealing that chaos and conflict often occur in the paddock more frequently than on the race track.
While these aforementioned conflicts are specific to different teams, drivers and principals, it is naive to assume they do not exist throughout the entire Formula 1 community. Coupled with the imminent fear of hurtling toward a barrier in an open-wheeled car at more than 300 kilometers per hour, the stakes could not be higher.
I have greatly enjoyed my exposure to Formula 1 over the past year, and have found myself respecting the sport even more as the lavish layers have been peeled back before my eyes. While one can certainly appreciate the champagne sprayed on each Grand Prix victor as the finish line is crossed, we must acknowledge how it, too, washes away the blood, sweat and tears that truly mark the sport.
As the Circuit of the Americas will inevitably play host to the Formula 1 community this coming October, I hope to watch the track illuminated by not only the glowing Austin lights, but by the burning drive to survive.