Comparing CART and Formula One


 by Mark Cipolloni
October 29, 2001

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For over 50 years the top level of international motorsports has been Formula One.  Although the Indy 500 has always been the biggest race (since 1911), long ago Formula One surpassed the popularity of Indy Car racing.  Until CART made a concerted effort to break out into the international racing scene, the world was always looked upon as F1 territory and Indy Car racing viewed purely a domestic series.  However, race fans around the world have begun to take notice of CART, and naturally the comparisons started.

The F1 crowd has always looked down their noses at Champ Car/Indy Car racing, perhaps they felt threatened.  Maybe it was because Indy Car racing grew up out of the most powerful nation in the world, the USA.  Maybe it's just human nature, but people like to take pot shots at the leader.  Perhaps it is because F1 drivers have enjoyed better success in Indy Car racing than the reverse. 

For years F1 drivers would come to America and cherry pick its greatest race, the Indy 500.  However, it never was possible for American's to cherry pick a 'big' race in F1 because there isn't just one big race; you had to win the entire series and the world championship, a difficult feat indeed.  Very few drivers have successfully competed in both CART and F1. 

Generally drivers have enjoyed more success moving to CART after a successful career in F1, rather than the other way around. Three exceptions in recent years are 4-time CART/IndyCar champion (65, 66, 69, 84), Indy 500 winner, and  Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti, who won the F1 World Driving Championship in 1978 driving for Lotus; 1995 CART champion Jacques Villeneuve, who won the 1997 F1 World Championship driving for Williams F1; and 1999 CART champion, and 2000 Indy 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya who has already achieved one win and numerous poles in his rookie F1 season.

Are F1 drivers better than Indy Car/Champ Car drivers?  Are F1 cars better than Champ Cars?  Perhaps that question will never be answered as long as CART and F1 are two separate series played before a worldwide arena, but I decided to do a comparison of the two series, one the pinnacle of open wheel racing in Europe, the other the pinnacle of open wheel racing in North America, and let you decide which is better.

Similarities Differences
General Philosophy of Competition

Champ Car

F1 Car

F1 is there to show what is possible of a car manufacturer or a car builder. How far they can go with it,  how much technology you can put into a car.  CART is more about the sport of racing.  There's less emphasis on technology and more emphasis on driver ability and teamwork

The regulations in F1 are more geared toward producing the fastest car man can create.   In CART, the philosophy is more about getting the most out of a far more restrictive rule book, where races are won and lost on the race track and not in the design shop.  In F1, the teams do everything in their power to find performance gains, constantly pushing the performance envelope higher, almost at an exponential rate. CART's regulations are relatively static and competing CART teams purchase engines and chassis from third party manufacturers where there are escalation caps for costs.  There is less research and development in CART. However, each F1 team is required by the rulebook to design and development all aspects of their car. Very few elements of the car are purchased from third parties.   This leads to greater innovation and diversity in the technology applied in F1.  F1 has a total of 12 teams/car manufacturers competitively working on different solutions, compared with the 2 chassis and 3 engine suppliers in CART. This higher level of technology development in F1 requires larger teams with a wider range of diverse skills (to design, manufacturer, test and race the cars), and much larger budgets.  Whereas a top 2-car CART team spends no more than $20 to 30 million per year, a F1 team can spend upwards of $200 million.
The Chassis/Suspension/Brakes/Bodywork
Appearance wise, modern F1 and Champ Cars are defined by their chassis. Both share the following characteristics: 
  • They are single-seat cars 
  • They have an open cockpit 
  • They have open wheels -- there are no fenders covering the the wheels 
  • They have wings at the front and rear of the car to provide downforce 

They position the engine behind the driver's compartment (called the cockpit), and drives the two rear wheels only.  The transmission sits behind the engine and directly forward of the rear wheels in a transverse arrangement.  Both have front and rear wings for downforce that can't be adjusted by the driver during the race.  In fact the driver can't adjust any surface of the car from the cockpit.  Electronic measurement and data telemetry between the car and the pits is used to monitor and control car performance.  Both use similar suspension geometries, i.e. pushrod actuated shock/spring combinations that lay horizontal in the car.  Both use 4-wheel disc brakes with a set of calipers and brake pads per wheel

In a sport where designers go through great pains to shave 5 or 10 lbs of weight from a car, an overweight Champ Car with driver weighs 1750 Lbs, some 400 Lbs more than a F1 car with driver

Because Indy Car racing started out as strictly an oval racing series, the cars were constructed to deal with the higher speeds and G-forces that are generated on the banked oval circuits.  With driver and fuel, Champ cars weigh approximately 800kg (1750 Lbs), some 200kg (400+ Lbs) heavier than F1 cars.  F1 cars race only on road circuits, and don't crash into concrete walls too often, hence do not have to be as beefy so-to-speak.  Champ cars are slightly longer and wider but have close to the same wheelbase.  Because they are lighter, F1 cars are generally more nimble - quicker around corners, especially tight ones. This is primarily due to lower weight, but also to the fact their engines are V-10's that rev up faster, which helps them get up and out of a corner quicker.  Champ Cars excel on the fast ovals. They have the advantage of additional traction and downforce because they employ ground effect aerodynamics in their underbodies and run on slick tires, both currently banned in F1.  Champ cars use slick tires, F1 cars grooved tires (to limit cornering speeds).  F1 allows expensive carbon fiber rotors on all circuits, CART only on high speed ovals (to reduce un-sprung weight)  for better braking performance coming into pitlane from a very high speed.  In F1, both team cars must have the same sponsor and look the same.  In CART, sometimes the cars are decked out in the same livery from the same sponsor, but many times each car carries a different sponsor.  F1 is very conscious of appearance and promoting the 'team' concept (like in most sports where the entire team wears the same uniform).
The Engines
Like most racing series, the engines used in both series are 4-cycle internal combustion power plants.  Both engines are in a 'V' configuration and employ multiple intake and exhaust valves per cylinder.  Both engines use high grades of Aluminum and other exotic metals, but F1 is a lot more lenient in that regard.  The engines and transmissions are stressed members, meaning they are like an extension of the chassis/tub, with the rear suspension mounted to them and transmitting torsional, shear and bending forces from one corner of the car to the other.  Fuel and air are delivered by means of fuel injection systems that are controlled by sophisticated computerized engine management systems.  In F1, engine manufacturers are more aligned with specific teams, and in some cases, such as Ferrari and Toyota, the team produces both the car and the engine.  In CART all engines are leased from the three (formerly four) engine manufacturers (or at least they will be leased up through 2002.  The rules after that have yet to be announced).

Both engines are water cooled with the water and oil radiators mounted in the sidepods of the car. 

Champ car engines are limited to 2.65 Liter capacity, F1 3.0 Liter. Champ cars are limited to 4-valves per cylinder, F1 cars 5. F1 cars run on low-lead high-octane gasoline (petrol), whereas Champ Cars run on high-octane Methanol.  Champ car engines produce up to 900HP, F1 engines currently up to 850 HP.  However, because Champ Car engines are turbocharged , they would produce well over 1,000 HP if not for almost annual reductions in turbocharger boost pressure, i.e. the the force by which the air and fuel mixture is forced into the combustion chambers. F1 engines are naturally aspirated, meaning the air and fuel is not forced into the engines, but sucked into the cylinders by the vacuum that is created when a piston is in a downward stoke while the intake valves are open. The HP output is similar from both engines, but the Champ cars do it at a lower RPM (16,500 to 17,000 RPM) than F1 engines which peak at around 18,500 RPM.  Because F1 cars have 10 cylinders to a Champ Cars 8 cylinders, the mass of the F1 engines pistons and pushrods are smaller, hence they can rev faster and higher (ask any engine designer, the lighter the pistons the higher they can rev them w/o the pistons/rods/crank self destructing). In CART the fuel tank can hold a maximum of 35 US gallons, while in F1 onboard fuel capacity is theoretically unlimited.  It's up to the design team to determine which is more important, the added weight of carrying more fuel, or the reduction in the number of pit stops afforded by a bigger fuel tank.
The transmissions in both cars sit just in front of the rear wheel; centerline in a transverse configuration.  There is no limit to the number of forward gears on either car and both must have a reverse gear.  The exception to this being that CART does not require a reverse gear on oval tracks.  F1 transmissions typically have 7 forward gears and Champ cars 6 or 7.  The driver never uses the clutch on upshifts in either series, but in CART some drivers do use it for downshifts.  Both cars are capable of standing starts, but a F1 car has what is called launch control, to help get the car off the line with a minimum of wheel spin. Gear shifts in CART are done semi-manually.  The gearbox is a sequential unit where the driver shifts by pulling back on the gear shift lever each time he wants to go up a gear, and forward on the lever to shift down a gear.  Champ cars do employ shift-without-lift technology meaning a driver never has to lift off the accelerator while changing gears while up-shifting. A sensor on the gear shift mechanism knows when the driver is pushing or pulling on the lever and it sends a signal to the cars engine management system to reduce power for a split second between gears.  Did you know that F1 transmissions are so sophisticated they shift themselves? It's more than just your regular automatic transmission though.  The cars go out on Friday, pass a beacon transponder at the S/F line (which synchronizes everything) and do a few laps in anger with the driver shifting the transmission with the paddle levers.  From the data collected from those few laps, the computers, with the map of the circuit in memory, knowing the speed of the car, the throttle percentage, brake pedal pressure, etc, will automatically shift the transmission the rest of the weekend.  The driver just sits back, turns the wheel and brakes and accelerates.  Fascinating technology, but how long before we no longer need the driver?
Both cars carries fuel in a fuel cell located behind the driver. This cell is made of a flexible Kevlar and polymer material -- it is more like a bag than a tank. Inside the bag is a sponge-like substance that gives the bag its shape. The bag is designed to withstand a crash without rupturing -- rather than rupturing, it flexes and changes its shape. The idea behind the sponge is to hold the fuel so that, in a severe crash, it does not spray over the driver, other cars or the track.  Whereas a Champ Cars fuel cell can hold no more than 35 gallons, there is no such restriction in F1.  The exact size of a F1 fuel cell is a highly guarded secret. Champ Cars burn methanol fuel. Methanol is a form of alcohol and has several advantages over gasoline in an engine. Methanol can run at much higher compression ratios, meaning that you can get more power from the engine on each piston stroke. Methanol provides significant cooling when it evaporates in the cylinder, helping to keep the high-revving, high-compression engine from overheating. Methanol, unlike gasoline, can be extinguished with water if there is a fire. This provides a nice safety feature. The ignition temperature for methanol (the temperature at which it starts burning) is much higher than it is for gasoline, so the risk of an accidental fire is lower. 
Pitstops and Refueling
Both series use pitstops to add fuel to the car and change tires if needed.  Both use single probe refueling devices.  The pitlane has a speed limit in both series for the safety of the crewman on pitlane servicing the cars.

Both series use single-point refueling probe

F1 allows an unlimited number of pit crew members over the wall during pitstops.  CART allows just 6 (one at each corner of the car to change tires, one refueler and one air jack man).  Champ cars have onboard air actuated jacks that lift the car with pressurized air during pitstops, whereas F1 cars are lifted with hand jacks , one front and one back  Fuel is fed into Champ cars by gravity, whereas in F1 it is forced into the car under pressure.  Whereas a Champ car must get 1.85 miles per gallon, a F1 car has no such fuel restrictions.  Hence F1 pitstop strategy is usually made by how much weight you are willing to carry vs. the time you gain or lose with more or less pitstops; whereas in CART, conserving fuel is the name of the game.  In F1 the driver usually drives 100% the whole race.  In CART it's usually a fuel conservation contest until the last pitstop.  Each car in a Champ Car race has its own pit crew, whereas in F1 the same crew usually services both team cars, though usually never on the same lap.
Both series run wide, soft compound tires.  The rear tires are wider than the front tires because they put the engine power down to the track surface.

Grooved F1 tire left, slick Champ Car tire right

With slick tires even if the car is not perfect, you can get a really good lap out of the car. You can over push the car a little bit. With the grooved tires in the Formula One, if the setup is wrong, the tires grain quickly and you lose grip really quick, so you need to have a really nice balance in the car so it works together with you. It's a bit more complex.
Driver Skill
The cars in both series are hard to drive because they are so fast.  A good driver can do well in both series, but there are some subtle differences.  Because CART races on four different types of circuits, it requires a bit more diversity to win consistently.  Because F1 cars are much lighter, everything happens much faster than in a Champ Car.  Hence F1 tends to be a young mans game, where by 35 years old your career is probably done.  In CART, you won't win on the road courses too often once you reach 35 years old, but your oval track successes can continue well into your 40's.  Ovals are less busy, hence driver hand and foot movement takes a back seat to smooth driving, i.e. as little steering correction as possible. Juan Montoya best described it recently - "Mentally in F1 a driver must be a bit stronger. You've got to be a lot stronger mentally in F1 than in CART because in CART the atmosphere is a lot more friendly. Driving the car itself is very similar. In the car you've got to push it to its limits.  Both cars are very physical.  Outside the car is very different.  In CART everybody talks to everybody, everybody is friendly. In F1 you don't even cross a word with anybody. You're there by yourself, and you've got to work with the team around you."  However, CART's oval races do tend to require a sort of mental toughness in their own right - the speeds are higher and the dangerous concrete walls are always there.  Driving around in circles can almost be hypnotic at times, one lapse in concentration can result in a crash.
Except for CART's 500 mile events, races in both series last about 2-hours long.  Both series start from 22 to 28 cars per race, and of course the object of the game is to get to the finish line first.  Both series race in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, the USA and Brazil. F1 races are primarily based in Europe, CART in the USA.  Both series are equally international, and both are recognized as World Championship Series by the FIA.  While overtaking in both series on road courses is difficult, you tend to see more overtaking in CART than in F1.  Part of this can be attributed to the longer braking distances in CART because the cars are much heavier and use steel brake rotors. Whereas the extra 400+ Lbs of weight works against a Champ Car on a road course in terms of sheer performance, it helps to make the races a bit more entertaining to the fans because longer braking distances increase the chance for overtaking.  Since most of the passing on road courses is done under braking, the longer brake zones help. F1 allows almost unlimited off-season testing.  In CART, to save cost, each team gets a very limited number of test days, and they must pick and choose when and where they test wisely. F1 races 16 or 17 times per year, CART 20 to 22.   F1 races start from a complete stop, sort of like a drag race, in a staggered 2-row formation.  Champ car races begin from a rolling start in rows of 2.  To qualify for a F1 race your time must be within 107% of pole position time.  In CART it is 110%.  Both series use Friday's of each weekend  as purely a practice day. Drivers practice again on Saturday morning and qualify on Saturday afternoons. On road courses both series hold similar qualifying sessions, whereby a driver's best lap during that 30 minute (CART) or 1-hour (F1) session counts as their qualifying time.  In CART, when they race on ovals, the drivers gets only two qualifying laps, the best one counts and it's done with no other cars on the track.  On road courses, qualifying is done with many cars on the track at the same time.  Getting a clear gap in traffic to turn a hot lap can sometimes be hit or miss.  Drivers only earn F1 championship points for the top 6 finishing positions 10-6-4-3-2-1 in the race.  In CART the top 12 finishers score points 20-16-14-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1, plus 1 point goes to the driver who wins the pole, and 1 point to the driver who leads the most laps during the race.  

With $200 million per year team budgets (compared to CART's $25 to 30 million), F1 represents the pinnacle of motorsports.  However, when it comes to bang-for-the-buck, CART delivers more in the way of entertainment to the paying customer - the fans, by virtue of its better on-track presentation, i.e. passing and wheel-to-wheel, side-by-side action.  Perhaps a British journalist put it best after this years inaugural CART race in Rockingham, England.  Andrew Baker wrote in the London Daily Telegram "YEARS from now, graying petrolheads will bore their grandchildren with tales of the day at Rockingham Motor Speedway that changed British motor racing for good."

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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