7 min read

Behind F1's velvet curtain, and Road & Track's delete button.

A friend sent me a link to an article about Formula 1. “Not sure how this reads to fans of F1, but I thought this was just an exquisite essay,” they wrote and shared a link to an article published by Road & Track magazine. Except the link didn’t go to their website, but to a cached version on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. At first, I thought maybe the article was from a while ago, but no, it was published two days ago on March 1st. Knowing my friend, I thought this could be an attempt to circumvent advertising and all of the invasive tracking that goes hand-in-hand. So I searched for the article titled, “Behind F1's Velvet Curtain,” which produced results linking to the original home on the Road & Track website and a few syndicated versions. Yet when I clicked on each link none of them produced the article. Not partially or otherwise, but instead promotions for other content to disguise the fact that the article has been removed, barely two days after publication. 

The story covers the author’s all-expenses paid trip to the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas in 2023 by invitation from a wealthy team sponsor. The author behind the article, Kate Wagner, is a well-known journalist who covers sports in the form of cycling—think Tour de France. The invitation came from Mercedes Benz sponsor, INEOS, who also happens to be a corporate sponsor of cycling. Without any knowledge of more details, this seems to be the only link between Kate’s work and why she was extended this invitation. She acknowledges that she is new to Formula 1 and has never been to a race before, let alone written about the sport.

In addition to her work as a journalist, Kate is also notorious for her Twitter account (and website) called McMansion Hell where she provides satirical criticism and commentary on the subject of gigantic homes. Her profile page indicates that she is also the “architecture critic at The Nation”—a very liberal publication that also happens to be the oldest publication still in existence in the United States. I know that last bit because I had the pleasure of redesigning a few pages for their website back in the late 2000’s. In addition to all of this, Kate self identifies herself as a “bicycle-loving, card-carrying socialist” in the article.

You might see where this is going.

I have followed Formula 1 since the spring of 2011. At the time I made the decision to relocate to Austin, Texas from Emeryville, California. Meanwhile, plans were announced for the development of the Circuit of the Americas race track and a pending deal to host Formula 1 there. It seemed like a great time to get into the sport even though the event wouldn’t take place for a few years. In those days F1 was very different from what it is today. While it has always been a global phenomenon it’s so, so much bigger today thanks to the acquisition and evolution by Formula 1’s current owner, Liberty Media. Once the Netflix special hit, the sport has skyrocketed in every aspect, including the attraction of more—many more—very famous and very wealthy people. What was once a fringe sport here in the United States has become an expanding national interest.

If you’ve never paid attention to Formula 1 the first thing to know is that it is one of the top exhibitions of capitalism. Not just from the teams, but everybody, every company that is connected to the sport in in way, shape, or form. Money is to Formula 1 what oxygen is to humans. In motorsports (and perhaps sports in general) nothing compares to the amount of money that orbits F1. Kate puts this into perspective through her own assessment:

As pro sportsmen, their practitioners make money, sure—Tadej Pogačar, two-time Tour de France winner, is estimated to be on a salary of around 6 million euros. In NASCAR, Kyle Busch, the highest-paid driver, is reported to make more than twice that—$16.9 million, though he is an anomaly. Many drivers, even veterans like Brad Keselowski, make much closer to top cycling money, itself an outlier. Many who ride the Tour de France do so on paltry salaries of 50,000 euros or less.

Max Verstappen, now a three-time Formula 1 champion, makes a reported $70 million per year.

I could go on and on about money, but I won’t. I think I’ve made the point.

Here’s the thing and why I’m still scratching my head. It doesn’t take a Harvard professor to take a step back and wonder what Road & Track was thinking when they green-lit this adventure. They sent a socialist to one of the most over-the-top celebrations of celebrity, glamour, wealth, and greed on the planet. What in the hell did they think was going to happen? 

To be fair, Kate’s article makes plenty of jabs at the absurdity and stupidity of the pageantry and celebration of wealth, but when it comes to covering the sport itself, her writing is vastly different from most, if not all, coverage I have read on this sport to date—and vastly better.

One thing that strikes me about Formula 1 is its unexpected resemblance to fencing—it is an absolutely poised and disciplined affair. Recently, for my 30th birthday, I took up medieval sword fighting—historical European martial arts, they call it. For the first two weeks we worked on standing in a good medieval stance, always prepared to move. Sword fighting is learned through what are called set plays, specific motions of sword and body combined into one fluid action. But when you watch people who are really good at sword fighting, an ornate, flowing dance emerges from these seemingly disparate parts. Formula 1 is like that. When the cars line up on the grid, everything is totally neat and rehearsed, completely in its place. Tires, people, staff, even journalists. The teams are meted out in perfect sections—they don't call it the grid for nothing. But when time comes for the sprint to begin, team members move in perfect coordination, synchronized. They have stances and footwork. This is most true of the pit crew and the astonishing speed at which they travel through space as one organism, totally practiced in set plays of their own. This was beautiful to watch in real life. The unfurling of the apparatus of the setup, groups peeling back one by one until there are only these alien cars, these technological marvels kissing the ground. Before the heartbeat, they respirated.

When they set off, one by one, first in the sprint, then the first shootout, what struck me was how quiet the cars were. This makes sense to me as someone who once studied acoustics in graduate school. Formula 1, again like sword fighting, is about an economy of motion. Noise is a hallmark of mechanical inefficiency. When mechanical systems work well, they work quietly. Noise at its core is excess energy. In Formula 1 cars, being perfect machines, that energy is redirected where it could be of use.

Despite her novice status with Formula 1, it’s clear that Kate is extraordinarily perceptive, especially in a sport where success and failure are measured in three-one hundredths of a second.

I returned to watching the cars as they started up again, knowing that the drivers were pushing them to their limits, engrossed in their personal kaleidoscope of motion and color. Hamilton was in one of them. In the last shootout, he drove differently than before. A great verve frayed the lines he was making, something we can only call effort, push. Watching him, I understood what was so interesting about this sport, even though I was watching it in its most bare-bones form—cars going around in circles. The driver is the apotheosis of quick-moving prowess, total focus and control. The car is both the most studied piece of human engineering, tuned and devised in lab-like environments and at the same time a variable entity, something that must be wrestled with and pushed. The numbers are crunched, the forms wind-tunneled. And yet some spirit escapes their control, and that spirit is known only by the driver. Yes, we watch this perfect blend of man and machine, but we speak of the machine as though it were not of human origin, as though the machine, being born from science could—eventually, through its iterative processes—sublimate human flaws. The driver, being human, knows this is false. His intimacy with the machine is the necessary missing connection, and even if the machine were perfect, it was made for imperfect hands. But it is never perfect. The gaps in its perfection are where disasters transpire, but also miracles. 

Yeah, you’re never going to read prose like that from Martin Brundle, the Sky Sports F1 journalist who once awkwardly confused Paolo Banchero for Patrick Mahomes during the grid crawl leading up to a race in Austin. Nor will you find such eloquent writing in other Road & Track articles like "Max Verstappen Is Not an Asshole" and "Is Max Verstappen Now Officially an Asshole?" Both articles were published within two weeks, like a side note right out of a Douglas Adam's book.

Though I’m not a “card-carrying socialist,” there isn’t much about Kate’s perspective on Formula 1 that I didn’t agree with. The sport has become an over-the-top celebration of mediocre racing. It’s formulaic—if you will allow the pun—and boring to watch. This weekend we watched the first race of the season starting with the formation lap, the starting lap, and then fast-forwarded to the end, scanning along the way for anything interesting to happen. Nothing did and the outcome was unfortunately uneventful as expected. As more and more money is spent, the more boring (and sometimes ridiculous) Formula 1 has become to watch. More often than not, the only real racing takes place in the middle of the pack and we’re meant to get excited about who places 7th-12th?

Obviously, someone in a position of power didn’t like Kate’s perspective. That’s the only conclusion I can think of as to why the article was pulled within 48 hours of publication. Even Kate’s author profile page on Road & Track has gone missing. Somebody just wants all of this, Kate included, to go away.

This is a shame because in my world this article fits in with two classics of American journalism written by observant authors who were hired to cover events they had very little knowledge about. I’m referring to Hunter S. Thompson’s assignment by Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 race near Las Vegas in 1971, and David Foster Wallace’s epic "Consider the Lobster" written for Gourmet magazine in 2003. From what I know of these two stories, the outcome was not exactly what the publisher had in mind, but the world grew richer through their perspectives. Whatever happened behind the velvet curtin, Road & Track should have done more to defend Kate’s work because frankly, the sport needs more people like her to add depth and prose to an otherwise shallow competition. Not to mention, they sent a socialist to a capitalist party and got nothing but gold.