It's that time again -- time to smell the high octane and burning rubber, feel the surge of adrenaline, and experience the thrill of seeing the world's best drivers in the world's best cars, driving on the greatest motor racing circuits in the world.
No, I'm not talking about NASCAR.
If I told you Formula One is the most popular racing series in the world, you probably wouldn't believe me if you're an American.
Here in the U.S., NASCAR is by far the most popular form of racing, obscuring everything else. You might say NASCAR is the fourth major American sport, and no one would really dispute it -- except maybe some jealous hockey fans.
But NASCAR means little to anyone outside of the United States.
Our only analogy to Formula One is our own open-wheel racing leagues, CART and IRL, also collectively called Champ Car racing. American open-wheel racing has been a sad state of affairs since the IRL was created out of a dispute with CART. The feud split the sport in two in the early 1990s, created two marginalized sports, and fragmented a fanbase. Open-wheel racing has never been the same since, and NASCAR has capitalized on their troubles.
It's hard to believe that with NASCAR's popularity at an all-time high, there's another form of racing that's even bigger, but one in which, like soccer, America isn't a dominant force.
It's the first week of March, and we've already had the first two NASCAR races of the 2005 season. But the NASCAR Nextel Cup cars are off this weekend, and race fans can look forward to the first Formula One race of the 2005 calendar -- the Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne.
Formula One has perhaps the most storied history of racing aside from the Indianapolis 500.
Some of the greatest names in all of racing come from Formula One history -- Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna, Graham Hill, Michael Schumacher -- the list goes on and on.
Seven-time world driving champion, Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, is the favorite to win the title again this year, and his rivals aren't viewed as challenging his dominance anytime soon.
But F1 does have several rising stars, including Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso, who should all at least make the race for second place interesting.
This season brings a host of rule changes designed to make racing more difficult for the top teams. New rules include the following:
- Cars will run on harder-compound tires to prevent tire degradation.
- No tire changes will be allowed except in emergencies (i.e. blown tires and bad weather).
- Front wings have been raised to take away some downforce.
- One engine must last for two races. This rule was implemented to prevent the top teams from stockpiling engines (at great cost) for qualification and possible attrition.
These are among a number of rule changes Formula One has brought to bear in the last few years to hold down the cost of competing in the series. The top teams have budgets and logisitical capabilities far outweighing those of lower tier teams, and the race results tend to reflect that disparity. On balance, the rule changes made have been good for the sport, and should help make the racing more contingent on the skill of the drivers than the builders.
The Australian Grand Prix typically provides an unpredictable start to the season, with most teams still trying to dial in their cars, and with drivers tuning their skills for the long season. Although Albert Park is technically a street course, it's very well laid out and isn't claustrophobic. It will make for one of the more interesting races of the year.
If you like racing but haven't seen F1, do yourself a favor and check out the race Saturday night U.S. time. For those of us addicted to speed, Speed Channel is there for our fix.