The Fascination of Formula One: A Turbulent Sunday Drive in the Armchair

On Sundays when there is a Formula One race, millions of people sit glued to their TV sets. For example, when Michael Schumacher crashed in Silverstone, more than ten million people watched the event live. Do people watch Formula One purely for the sake of sensationalism? Why does this sport have such tremendous appeal? A team of psychologists from the Cologne-based rheingold institute sought answers to these questions, putting 45 Formula One fans "on the couch" for two-hour depth interviews.

The rheingold analysis uncovered five basic reasons for the great appeal of Formula one.

1. Formula One as high culture: the dream of perfection and control

Formula One is connected with the dream of a better more perfect and more reasonable world. In the ideal case, there are no mistakes and no human weaknesses in Formula One racing. A relentless effort is made to make people and cars as perfect as possible. The best designers are employed to construct cars that perform optimally in the races. For days the ideal strategy is worked out. For weeks teams train to change tires and fill fuel tanks in a matter of seconds. As one fan put it: "Everything meshes like a piece of machinery; nothing is left to chance. Every hand movement is planned and practiced down to the last detail."

Fans are thrilled about this "super-world." They admire the triumph of perfect technology. They hope that the technology of these speedy cars will later be incorporated in their own automobiles. The drivers, too, are regarded as modern, nearly perfect supermen. The fans are excited when the pilots act like machines not displaying any emotion or making any mistakes. "Theyre like robots; they cant show any weakness. Its almost superhuman, because they have the utmost control, self-discipline, and concentration. If they lose control they can die."

And even though the technical problems and human errors in the actual races explode this dream, true Formula One fans firmly believe that everything will function perfectly in the next race.

2. Formula One as non-culture: battle scenarios and the incessant desire for potency

Formula One is connected with a twofold fascination: in addition to the ideal of perfection and control, viewers are fascinated by the non-culture that can erupt at any moment. Many respondents said without any compunctions that when they watch Formula One races they secretly wait for a crash. The polished, glamorous world of Formula One can suddenly turn into an archaic, bloody battle scenario reminiscent of the film Ben Hur: explosions, mass accidents, annihilated cars, mutilated bodies. Formula One forms a counterpoint to the viewers normal, ordered, routine daily lives. Its a life-or-death matter, and the drivers assert themselves without worrying about losses.

When viewing a Formula One race, one feels the presence of tremendous, primeval power, as drivers accelerate wildly and take their cars to the hilt. "Its like 100 thousand volts of electricity. They floor the gas pedal. Go full speed ahead without a thought." Such a culmination of potency almost never takes place in everyday life. In day-to-day life the laws of resistance prevail. If a driver accelerates according to his whims, he can get pulled over by the police or caught by radar. Or a passenger can put a damper on ones craving for unbridled power with harsh words. Things are completely different in Formula One. The drivers let it all hang out, take the cars to the limit, and accelerate without worrying about others. Therefore Formula One despite its rules is reminiscent of a primitive way of life devoid of traffic regulations and restrictive laws. In a Formula One Race, the psyche can tap this devastating potential for a brief moment.

3. Fear-fascination: a tightrope walk between glory and death

There is no mediocrity or averageness in the world of Formula One. Near-perfection on the one hand, and unbridled potency on the other, produce extreme and clear results. The price of a life devoted to Formula One is either victory and glory or death and destruction. Viewers follow this tight-rope walk between glory and death with a strange fear-fascination. They are enthusiastic about the glorious victory poses, the excessive Champagne binges, and the triumphal marches. But at the same time they remember the mutilated face of Niki Lauda and the fate of Ayrton Senna. Thus despite the fascination, Formula One viewers wouldnt want to trade places with the Formula One pilots. They are happy to be watching the drama unfold in the comfort of their armchairs.

4. Schumacher & co. as models offering recipes for success

Spectators wouldnt want to change places with the Formula One pilots. Nevertheless, the drivers are models for the fans. "There are a handful of guys you can look up to." The drivers and the big racing teams such as Ferrari, Mercedes, and Jordan represent simple models for life and formulas for success. Not only with their driving styles, but with their overall demeanors, the drivers embody the notion of success. Every Formula One fan has a favorite driver, who is a kind of guiding light for his own life. And with each race, ones own favored recipe for life and success is put to the test.

Schumacher is considered a "winner type with a killer instinct." "Schumacher combines extreme ambition, hard work, discipline, and German persistence with an almost unfettered obsession with success." "A madman. Obsessed yet at the same time poised."

Häkkinen is regarded as Mr. Reliable. "Hes Mercedes in the flesh. Everything he does is solid. Good handwork." "Hes quiet, calculating, and reserved; very nice and kind, but also a bit boring." "No scandals, no tantrums, no emotional outbreaks." The entire Mercedes team is cool and unemotional. Perfect planning and cool calculation are thought to be their secrets of success: "A Mercedes drives as though it were on tracks. Even a woman could drive one''"

Villeneuve is thought to be the offbeat rebel. "Hes an unorthodox, colorful guy who breaks rules and conventions." "He shows me that one can be successful even if one doesnt always conform."

5. The race as virtual reality: orgiastic participation with no risk

Like soccer or boxing fans, every Formula One enthusiast has a favorite he roots for. But more so than fans of other sports, Formula One aficionados enter an indescribable state of sensory intensification. They fuse with the ear-shattering sound of the engines and are literally carried away by the all-encompassing orchestration of sound. The howling and vibrating of the engines is transferred to their own bodies. "Formula One is not a world of thought, but a world of sound. When I hear the engines wail, I drift away. My wife has a fit when she hears that Im watching Formula One."

At the same time, the viewers own experiences and driving skills promote the fiction that he is taking part in the action. The fans do not feel like passive spectators. They enter a virtual reality where the boundary line between observation and true participation fades. Sitting in their armchairs, viewers race along with their favorite drivers, shift up and down, lean into curves, and floor the accelerator. They share the drivers fate, fevering along with him, sweating, trembling, suffused with emotion. "My blood pressure rises; I stay glued to the screen, not even leaving to go to the bathroom."

A fascinating trick of Formula One is that it gives spectators the authentic feeling they are taking part in the race, but poses no danger to them. The viewers take a turbulent, but risk-free, drive in their armchairs.

© 2015 rheingold