Formula 1 likes to think that it has the fastest cars and the finest drivers on earth. The cars certainly are the fastest and the best of the drivers are the best. If you ask Bernie Ecclestone, there are no other good drivers. But that vaunted superiority is about to get a rude shock. Juan Pablo Montoya is moving to NASCAR. Montoya is by any standard a superb driver, with amazing car control skills. He has won a number of Grand Prix and has beaten the great Michael Schumacher on days when Schumacher had a better car. There can be no sterner test. But success in F1 doesn't necessarily translate to success in this most American form of racing. The cars are very different, the courses are very different, the tactics are different and the good ole boys are really pretty darned good.
From the earliest days of racing up to around 1980 drivers used to move from one form of racing to another rather easily. If you could drive, you could drive. Dan Gurney won five NASCAR races in 16 starts. Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 as a rookie in 1967. A.J. Foyt dropped in and won in 1972. But racing was very different then. In 1967 a Cup car really was a highly modified stock car. Jim Clark and Lotus had shown in 1965 that the future of the Indianapolis 500 was the semi-monocoque, mid-engined design rather than the tube frame roadster, but roadsters qualified as late as 1968.
The simple fact is that back in the 'Good Old Days' everyone raced everyone. It wasn't unusual for an F1 star like Jackie Stewart or Dennis Hulme to compete at Indy or in the Can-Am series. The Trans-Am road racing series that gave the hottest Firebirds their name was populated by some of America's greatest racers. Cars were simply a lot more primitive back then, and with ride-hopping drivers and less developed cars the difference between cars meant a lot less.
Today most drivers don't race in multiple series. There are too many competing races, and sponsors don't want their mega-paid drivers risked running someone else's car. We have never seen Michael Schumacher at the 24 hours of LeMans, though the differences between Group Seven cars and F1 are far less than the gap between a Champ Car and a Nextel cup. F1 and cup cars are completely different. While an F1 and a Cup car both employ V-8 engines producing about the same 800 peak horsepower, similarities end there. The F1 engine displaces 2.6 liters, has electronic fuel injection with traction control and produces peak power at over 18,000 RPM thanks to pneumatics that replace the valve springs. The Cup engine is a 5.8 liter V-8 breathing through a single four-barrel carburetor and produces peak power at 8,000 RPM. The cup car produces a ton more torque, but has to push it through a four-speed transmission shifted on the floor. An F1 car has seven speeds, sequentially shifted like a motorcycle. Its engine is located behind the driver and the near perfect weight balance yields a wonderful natural handling balance. Cup car designers do what they can, but they can't match the balance of a mid-engined design.
But the biggest differences are even more obvious. An F1 car weighs under 1,300 ponds (585 kg) with driver. A cup car weighs 3.400 lbs, without driver. three times the weight of an F1 car. As cutting weight makes you faster everywhere, it's no secret that an F1 car is several orders of mangnitude faster. But the comparison gets even more unfair. An F1 car uses carbon fiber brakes, the cup car steel. Brakes may not mean much at Talledega but on short tracks like Bristol or road courses like Watkins Glen braking means plenty. Cup cars have good brakes, but they're 'more of the same' compared to street cars. Unless you've done a recent bungee jump you don't have a clue what stopping in an F1 car is like. Then you add aerodynamics where an F1 car combines a frontal area less than a fifth that of a cup car with wings and downforce inducing shapes. Because the wings can be adjusted, the handling balance can be adusted with great precision. Enough downforce is produced to allow the car to race upside down at 160 MPH. Which means an F1 car exits a corner carring a big bonus of speed to add to its other advantages.
It's like this, at almost any track you name, the slowest F1 car laps the entire Nextel Cup field in under five laps. That doesn't mean cup cars are bad. F1 cars were born out of competition to build the fastest racing cars possible with little or no technological restrictions. F1 cars have always pushed the technological envelope. Cup cars evolved out of a bunch of guys trying to go racing in their street cars. They owe more to old fashioned hot-rodding than exotic engineering. While the fastest car and driver is allowed to win in F1, NASCAR has always been under the control of the France family. The Frances wanted to maintain the 'the show' which was more about personalities and close racing than outright speed. If someone in NASCAR stand too far out, he gets hammered down right away. In F1 they wait until the off-season.
To bring this into sharper focus, I'd like to concentrate on two characteristics of a cup car in comparison to F1. Aerodynamics and tires.
F1 cars were built for road racing, where any type of turn is to be expected. Stock cars may run a few road courses, but they were built to race on ovals. Ovals are banked, wider and faster, and the fact that all the turns are left widens the useful racing line and permits passing with much smaller speed differentials. There are some corners where passing isn't really possible on a road course, Passing is possible everywhere on an oval. Because all turns are banked, cornering speeds and average speeds are far higher on an oval than a road course. Constant changes in direction narrows the line enough that it is very difficult for two cars to run side-by-side.
That means that while cup cars are far slower than F1 cars, their lap speeds are usually higher simply because the courses are faster. The faster you go the more important aerodynamics become. F1 cars have all those wonderful wings to balance the handling and make the car go faster thorugh corners. These wings work best in clean air, so an F1 car is fastest running by itself. Following too close makes you slower as it takes air off the front wings. But the opposite is true of a cup car. These cars punch huge holes in the air thanks to the their large frontal area and relatively poor aerodynamic shape. It is easier to run right behind someone on an oval and much more rewarding because the air immediately behind a cup car is much less dense. The relative vaccum, or 'draft' can pull a car along behind at faster speeds and give the overtaker a 'slingshot' that aids passing. But the leading car also benefits from the draft because the following car also has to push out of its way and said air will push against the back of the leading car. Both cars go faster. Which in turn means that co-operation between competing drivers is often the best way for both cars to get to the front. Save the competition for the end, when it really matters. A lead doesn't mean as much as it does in road racing.
F1 cars do produce a draft. But their smaller frontal area makes it much smaller, thus less important. In a cup car the ability to 'work with' another driver is paramount, particularly on superspeedways. An F1 car can be slowed by following too closely while a cup car almost always benefits from the closeness of other cars.
The second issue is tires. If you've looked at an F1 car, a Champ Car, or an IRL car you quickly see that the rear tires are significantly larger than the fronts. A cup car's tires vary only slightly like a street car. And the 3,400 pound cup car is relatively undertired as the F1 car at 1,300 pounds has the same contact patch. The size front to rear matters a lot. While it seems counterintuitive for most race cars rear tires actually matter more than the fronts. That is because at racing speeds the rear tires 'hold' the rear end during cornering. Light front-wheel drive cars like my SVT Focus are usually built with visible amounts of negative camber to hold the rear end in a turn. It's like this, if your rear end breaks loose, you spin. When the rear tires break loose racers call this 'oversteer' or 'loose'.
"Loose" is a lot harder to drive than 'push' or understeer which happens when the fronts break loose first. As a general rule, if a race car starts to push, a slight throttle lift can gather the car in and make it go where you want. But if the car breaks loose and spins it's going where it wants. Loose is fast if you can control it, but if you can't the results are often catastrophic. This is particularly true on ovals where the track ends in a concrete wall a meter thick.
The nature of Cup racing makes spins potentially far more dangerous than on a road course. You're running in a crowd becuse that's the way to go fast. The wall is at the end of asphalt rather than after 20 yards of grass and a gravel trap. And your car is big, heavy and enjoys very liltle aerodynamic downforce to help the tire.
This is the situation Juan Pablo Montoya has put himsef into. I have no doubts he can drive the car as well as anyone out there. But he's going to find tire management a much more difficult problem than in F1. He's going to find himself in a crowd when he's used to running by himself. Within said crowd he'll have to find people to 'work with' to get to the front.
That's likely to prove this greatest problem. Cup drivers come up through a very well defined driver development system starting at any one of the many short oval track that dot America. Most drivers come up from within 'the system' and everyone is known to each other near the top. You come up with a rep, and while you still have to prove it on track, you at least came up the same way as everyone else. But here comes F1 hotshot Montoya hoping to show all the hicks how it's really done. They won't want to help him. No matter what they say in public, they'll want him to fail. And they'll do everything possible to help him lose it.
Like bumping. Montoya isn't above a bit of a bump himself, ( he gave one to Schumacher during an aggressive pass at Hockenheim ) but he came up driving open wheel cars. Open wheel cars don't like contact. It's not like they're weak, (actually they're much stronger than cup cars, to the point of being literally bulletproof) but lots of important parts -- like the suspension -- are out there unprotected. Closed wheel cars are much more resistant to bumping. Motoya will get tapped more in his first cup race than he has in his entire career. Expect NASCAR officials to look the other way most of the time becuase he's not one of theirs. Expect his temper to flame and for him to get less slack than Tony Stewart who is a good, corn-fed American driver.
Plus the Good Old boys really are pretty darned good. Every Saturday night thousands of drivers go out at the local level and try and prove it. The best of them find good rides and the best of them go to ARCA, or Craftsmen Truck, then Busch and so on. Even at the most basic level, they'll be racing a front wheel drive car with a tube frame powered by a torque-strong American V-8. At every level the have raced under rules written to maintain close racing. They go to the same driving schools as the road race guys, and the kids enjoy turning right. They aren't the one-dimensional drivers of the old days. The popularity of NASCAR ensures that lots of people start out racing so only really talented people can get to the top.
Juan Pablo Montoya is a superb driver. I remember him out alone, practicing in the rain at Mid Ohio, blowing by my corner staiton at 160MPH with his right foot buried. But NASCAR doesn't race in the rain and they don't race at Mid Ohio. If he sticks it out long enough to earn his place and learn the racing, he might win the championship. But he's not going to come over and dominate. Far from it. Rather, I expect his introduction to 'red blooded American racing' to prove a rude surprise.