Damon Runyon wrote that sailboat racing was as exciting as watching grass grow. After the Grand Prix of San Marino in Italy this year I decided that F1 is as exciting as watching time-lapse photography of grass growing: vastly faster, momentarily fascinating, ultimately tedious.
The momentary fascination is the sound of V10 piston engines turning at turbine speeds. At 18,000 rpm-yes, 18,000 rpm-the titanium connecting rods actually stretch enough that the slight elasticity has to be taken into account lest the demitasse-size pistons smite the heads. That's an explosion of fuel in each combustion chamber 150 times every second. When you have listened just once to a full field of such engines winding up for the green light, you're probably two years closer to needing a hearing aid. What you hear on the Speed Channel's TV broadcasts of F1 races is a wimpy whisper of actuality.
In the time it takes a good sports car to accelerate from zero to 60, an F1 car will be doing 150-on its way to 220-mph road-course straightaway speeds. The top F1 teams develop their cars in rolling-road wind tunnels, and the downforce their aerodynamics generate is so enormous-up to 5,000 pounds-that the cars could easily race upside down on an inverted track, if the corners weren't too slow. Even more impressive than its 2G acceleration force is an F1 car's braking force, which can reach a near-incomprehensible 4Gs. If a 170-pound driver's six-point harness were for some reason to fail under braking, he'd be slammed against the steering wheel with a force of more than half a ton.
Yet what a bore. It's a culture thing. Americans demand more drama. We want a 45-to-42 seesaw Super Bowl; Euros are happy with a 1-zip World Cup game after an hour and a half of footie. F1 fans feel that the best car on the track should win the pole position, should therefore be first through the first turn, never be passed, and finish first. And if the tens of thousands of screaming, flag-waving, airhorn-farting Europeans at the track in the northern Italian city of Imola might have wished for a bit more action-there were just two passes of consequence during the entire race, one of them in the first few hundred yards of the first lap-for them the outcome of what was essentially a high-speed parade was still satisfying. The two hugely powerful home-team Ferraris were one-two in the same order in which they'd started, the Williams BMWs on slightly less effective tires were three-four ditto, and everybody else was a supporting player.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.