What’s the Difference Between Formula One and Nascar?

By Susan Hickson, Co-Founder and Creative Director of CMC Motorsports

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What’s the Difference Between Formula One and Nascar? From the outside, it can look like all racing is the same. Technically, at the most basic level, they are all about cars going really fast in a loop. But the mildest scratch beneath the surface of Formula 1 or NASCAR shows a rich world of differences that make each of the motorsports interesting, exciting, and fun.

What’s the Difference Between Formula One and Nascar?

Formula 1 vs Nascar: The Cars

Just looking at the actual cars, you can already see differences between NASCAR vs Formula 1. The “Car of Tomorrow” sedan chassis used by NASCAR is meant to be highly related to the cars that automakers sell to the public. The driver is enclosed and the wheels are right beneath the chassis itself. In fact, aside from all of the branding, it would not be so absurd to see one of those cars on America’s highways. But you’ll never see anything like a Formula 1 car on any regular road, with their open wheels and cockpit.

NASCAR vehicles are a modified version of a “stock” chassis from either Chevy, Ford, or Toyota. (Although it’s a largely American sport, Japanese cars like Toyota have been an integral part of the American car market since before NASCAR’s inception.)

In Formula 1, however, teams have to build their own vehicle. F1 cars are optimized for the atmosphere, with sharp noses meant to slice through the air in order to reduce resistance. They’re not pretty, and they certainly wouldn’t fit a family of four, but boy are they fast.

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Not that either kind of car is slow. The average speed of a Formula 1 car is 233 MPH, while a NASCAR vehicle is “only” 200 MPH. That ends up creating a little bit of the contrast between the strategy for driving in each kind of race, discussed below, but, especially as a live viewer, the 33 MPH difference doesn’t alter the effect of cars zooming past.

The slight F1 speed advantage can be attributed to both their aerodynamic design and their weight, which is another difference between NASCAR vs Formula 1. NASCAR automobiles weigh 3,250 pounds, whereas Formula 1 vehicles weigh less than half that amount at about 1,500 pounds.

And that weight is carried by two different kinds of engines. NASCAR uses a gasoline-powered 5.86-liter V8 engine which has to be refueled at pit stops during races. Meanwhile, Formula 1 cars have a 1.6-liter V6 Turbo engine, which is all you need for the much lighter vehicle.

As NASCAR modifies a “stock” car from popular automakers, their vehicles are relatively cheap at $25 million each. Formula 1, with all of its optimization and technology, is a little bit pricier: a team of two F1 cars costs up to $470 million. However, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)  which governs Formula 1, is putting rules into effect starting in 2022 that will lower the cost of building them and level the playing field for manufacturers.

Formula 1 vs Nascar: The Rules

The difference between Formula 1 and NASCAR is also clear in the rules of each race, although not all of them are immediately visible to the newest fans.

NASCAR tracks are all ovals, and stock cars only ever turn left. Meanwhile, Formula 1 tracks can be any kind of shape as long as they eventually form a loop, and they involve all kinds of twists and turns, so F1 cars can turn in either direction.

NASCAR bans telemetry, and once you’re on the track in a stock car, you better hope that your team has made it as optimized as it can be. You can adjust your strategy and your outlook, but you can’t adjust the automobile itself. In Formula 1, however, laptops and measuring are perfectly fine, and an F1 driver has no problem tuning their vehicle in the midst of a race.

Speaking of things that are banned, Formula 1 cars aren’t allowed to touch while racing. (Not only is it against the rules, but it would be deeply dangerous.) In NASCAR, grinding up against competitors is not only allowed, it’s an expected part of most teams’ strategies.

While both NASCAR and Formula 1 both include pit stops to keep the vehicles physically going for the whole race, the reasons for them vary. NASCAR races are much longer, so they need to stop at least a few times to refuel and re-tire. Formula 1 rules state that a car must use at least two of the three available types of tires, which necessitates at least one pit stop for that.

Refueling, however, is not part of the Formula 1 pit stop equation. It has been banned during the races since the 2009 season for cost and safety reasons. (That rule, however, is potentially being reconsidered for 2021, according to the FIA president, Jean Todt.)

Formula 1 cars can make it through a race without refueling in part because the races are so much shorter than NASCAR races. NASCAR involves over 330 laps around their track, while Formula 1 is typically only about 185 miles. In time, that means NASCAR can run about four hours, and Formula 1 lasts one and a half to two.

One of the other big time-based rule differences between Formula 1 and NASCAR is how much the time actually matters. Like baseball, NASCAR doesn’t have an official clock, so the race is run until all of the laps have been completed. However, Formula 1 is sometimes called after two hours, regardless of how many laps have been finished.

Also time-based, but on a much bigger scale, the length of the season differs between the two organizations. NASCAR has at least 36 races every season, and that number can go up to 38 if you count the All Star race and Bud Shootout. Formula 1, on the other hand, only has 19 races each year.

Both of those seasons lead to one driver being crowned the “champion,” but the way that title is achieved is drastically different. Although both NASCAR and Formula 1 operate on a points system, in NASCAR, the points determine who qualifies for the playoffs at the end of the year, and then the winner comes from that narrowed field of 16 drivers over the course of several series.

Formula 1, however, decides its champion based solely off of points. That champion is determined when it is mathematically impossible for any other player to earn enough points to overtake them, although they aren’t awarded until the FIA Prize Giving Ceremony after the conclusion of the season.

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Formula 1 vs Nascar: Strategy

Between the length of each race, the design of each kind of car, and the rule differences, drivers employ wildly different strategies to win races in Formula 1 and NASCAR.

Formula 1 is usually pretty straightforward – the fastest car typically wins. It’s why teams are willing to pour so much money into research, development, and engineering, and it’s why Formula 1 cars are all so aerodynamically optimized. Formula 1 is known for being a highly scientific, technical sport for exactly this reason.

There are a few good plays a Formula 1 driver can use to even their odds, though. One is undercutting, in which a well-timed pit stop lets a driver change from a slower, softer tire to a higher-performance, medium one. That gives them a better lap time in a key moment, and can help them overtake and pull ahead of opponents who are still running on worn, soft tires.

Many techniques like that, however, require the driver to already be at least close to the front. If a driver didn’t do that well in qualifying and winds up beginning the race in the back, it’s often unlikely that they’ll manage to make it to the front and win.

In NASCAR, however, even the absolute last car at the starting line can come in first at the finish. Since each chassis is not as aerodynamic, you can use physics and strategy to come out on top in a way that just isn’t possible in Formula 1.

Grinding against other cars to slow them down and speed yourself up is totally acceptable in NASCAR, even though it’s banned in Formula 1. Driving directly behind other cars and using the slipstream to speed up a few miles per hour is a typical NASCAR move (although the air pocket vacuum also speeds up the car in front a little bit) but it’s considered dangerous with the build of the Formula 1 cars.

All of this makes for a much more unpredictable race in NASCAR. For instance, in 2011, there were true overtaking moves about 80 times over the course of the entire Formula 1 season. In NASCAR, there was a lead change 88 times in just one race.

Formula 1 vs Nascar: The Fans And The Business

The variation here between NASCAR and Formula 1 is the difference between big business and prestige. Formula 1 certainly makes good money, earning $1.5 billion every year. But that’s only half of NASCAR’s yearly earnings, at $3 billion worldwide.

But where those earnings go is somewhat reversed. Lewis Hamilton, the highest earning driver in Formula 1 and current reigning champion, earns about $40 million per year, whereas the top NASCAR drivers receive less than $10 million in salary and bonuses.

Formula 1 had four million people attend races in person in the 2019 season, while NASCAR attracted 3.5 million people. Formula 1 may have slightly more viewers in person, but it’s a much more international sport. Races happen all over the world, including two in North America. NASCAR, however, takes place almost entirely in the United States. And even in the United States, it’s almost considered to be a “regional” sport, local to the South.

And finally, from a business perspective, NASCAR is a self-governing organization, and it’s devoted entirely to the sport. Formula 1, however, is only one part of the FIA, which also runs several other motorsports organizations.

Formula 1 vs Nascar: Other Differences

Because there’s no need to refuel, only change tires, the average Formula 1 pit stop is only 2.4 seconds. NASCAR takes a “whopping” 12 to 16 seconds to fix up the automobile. However, especially towards the end of the race, sometimes the pit crew will only change out two tires and add fuel, or even just throw a little extra gas in the car  and not change out tires at all in what’s known as a “splash and go.” With less to do, those take less time than a full NASCAR pit stop.

Although both organizations run on a points system, the winner of each NASCAR race receives 40 points. Formula 1, by contrast, only awards 25 points to each race’s winner.

As we look from past to present, we still see differences. Particularly in the immediate present, with their approach to COVID-19 testing, or the lack thereof. NASCAR has largely left the onus on the teams and drivers to keep themselves safe in an effort to not waste COVID testing kits, while Formula 1 is regularly testing those involved with the sport.

While Formula 1 and NASCAR are clearly distinct motorsports, there’s still a lot for mutual fans to enjoy about each of them. Following both seasons is a great way to appreciate more of the science and art of car racing. Whether it’s through the prestige of Formula 1 or the quantity of NASCAR, you won’t go wrong sitting down to watch either one.