In 2006 the late Dr Sid Watkins, the British neurosurgeon who led Formula 1’s on-track medical team between 1978 and 2004, published a paper in the journal Clinical Neurosurgery about the forces faced by drivers in this most elite of motorsports.
Cornering forces beyond four times that of gravity mean that drivers need to develop their neck and shoulder muscles to keep their heads from being ripped off. “However”, wrote Watkins, “the most dramatic effects of the stresses are on the cardiovascular system. In addition to muscular physical effort and G forces, there are added burdens on the heart rate from vibration, thermal loads and emotion leading to pulse rates of up to 200 beats per minute.”
In short, Formula 1 is so extreme that drivers’ bodies are always on the verge of exploding.
Of course, that makes F1 the brass ring for anyone who takes their driving seriously. It is where talent, reflexes, sheer luck and cubic kilometers of cash collide to separate truly great drivers from merely awesome ones. And it is the ultimate engineering challenge, where squadrons of big brains conspire on the narrow challenge of rounding the world’s best racetracks ever more quickly.
But F1 cars are not unregulated monsters. They are built to excruciating specifications dictating everything from engine size and overall weight to how sponsorships signage appears. And according to the regulations your F1 team must campaign two cars, so if you are in for one, you are in for a pair.
An F1 car, including its driver, must weigh no less than 642kg (1,415lbs), be powered by a naturally aspirated, four-stroke V8 engine that uses four valves per cylinder and does not exceed 2.4 litres of displacement. That engine also cannot exceed 18,000rpm. Everything from the metals it contains to how it gulps down air is severely prescribed. Despite these persnickety regulations, such a mid-mounted engine might send 900 horsepower through the mandated seven-speed transmission.
Think of it this way: a 2013 Honda Accord LX sedan weighs 3,192lbs and is powered by a 185hp 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine. That means each horse in that Accord needs to pull 17.25lbs. In an F1 car, there is one hp for every 1.57lbs. An F1 car’s power-to-weight ratio is consequently almost 11 times that of a best-selling family sedan’s. What’s more, F1 cars also carry a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that adds a momentary electrical punch of about 80hp for passing manoeuvres.
F1 cars are not drag racers, mind, but given the right spur, they should bolt from zero to 60mph in about two seconds and run the quarter mile in around eight. Top speed is likely around 250mph, though there are no tracks on the F1 race circuit where they can run flat out. On the Monza circuit during the Italian Grand Prix, F1 cars run about 210mph down the long straights.
F1 drivers, usually compact of build, are comfortable on the ragged edge and can instinctively feel every individual element of the car at work – the downforce from the wings, the grip of the Pirellis and the slip of each clutch plate. It is a sensory overload their minds have been trained to process and aggressively translate into precise steering, braking and throttle adjustments.
Top F1 drivers are paid well, too. According to Forbes magazine, Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso received $29 million from the Italian team in 2011. But there is no F1 driver who could afford to go it alone.
Forbes added that during 2012, the Red Bull Racing team, en route to capturing its third consecutive constructor’s and driver’s championships behind Sebastian Vettel, spent at least $160 million to run the 20-race schedule. Other sources put the figure closer to $200 million and a few claim it can be as much $400 million. Ferrari is usually the biggest spender in F1, with a generally acknowledged annual budget of at least $300 million.
So no, even if you had the talent, you could not afford to go racing in F1 on your own. (Except you, Sultan of Brunei, and thanks for reading BBC Autos, your majesty.)
Compared to an F1 car, the $2.4 million-plus, 1,200hp Bugatti Veyron Super Sport looks affordable. But the Veyron weighs more than 4,000lbs and uses all-wheel drive to remain stable and secure on the road. It is also too hushed to offer anything approximating the rawness of an F1 car.
But the V8-powered, 500hp Ariel Atom V8, on the other hand, does at least hint at what it is like to drive a street-legal, open-wheel racer. “Legal”, however, should not be conflated with “comfortable” or “reasonable”.
The mid-engine, British-designed Atom itself has been around in some form or another for more than a decade, so its exoskeleton design – the steel tubes that make up its structure are exposed – is already almost iconic. There are no doors, no windshield and no roof, nor storage space of any kind, and there is barely room for a driver and a modestly sized passenger. Without human freight it weighs 1,213lbs – or more than 200lbs less than an F1 car.
Given the risk of eating bugs and anything thrown up by surrounding traffic, a helmet is a must. An Ariel is built for driving, after all, not commuting.
For most of its history the Atom has been available with Honda K-Series or General Motors Ecotec four-cylinder engines making around 200hp, or around 275hp with the help of a supercharger. But the V8 model represents an unhinged leap beyond that.
The 3-litre Ariel V8 is actually a product of Hartley Enterprises in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it started life essentially as two four-cylinder engines sourced from Suzuki Hayabusa superbikes, separated by a 75-degree, V-shape block. Developmental evolution has obscured the engine’s Suzuki origins, but it still screams like a Hayabusa – all the way up to a 10,500rpm red line. And its 500hp is channelled through an air-shifted, six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox.
With its adjustable pushrod suspension, big rear wing, exposed structure and F1-style air intake, the Atom V8 looks like a street-bound racecar and performs like one, too. Top Gear’s James May drove one in 2010, and it easily defeated a Lamborghini Gallardo and Lexus LF-A in a race from zero to 100mph and back down to zero.
The Atom V8’s power-to-weight ratio is twice as good as that of the Veyron’s – and at 2.46lbs per hp, not far off from that of an F1 car. In fact, the manufacturer claims, it will accelerate to 60mph in 2.5 seconds. Yes, the Atom V8 lacks the aerodynamic downforce and ridiculously sticky tires of the F1 car, but in a game of inches, it is about as close as a mere enthusiast will get.
Now for the bad news. Ariel only built 25 of the Atom V8s and quickly sold all of them for about $225,000 each. Purchase one used, however, and consider yourself a member of one of the luckiest – if looniest – fraternities on earth.
‘Legal’, however, should not be conflated with ‘comfortable’ or ‘reasonable’.