A recurring discussion between people who are passionate about motorsport but also frequent among those who do not usually follow racing revolves around the question of which are the fastest cars ever, considering the categories of the whole world. The short answer is quite well known: those of Formula 1, which is also the most popular and followed category, especially in Europe.
There long answer includes clarifications and clarifications regarding the criteria taken into consideration when it is said that no racing car can currently go faster than a Formula 1. Generally the reference is to the average speed in a single lap on a non-oval track: no other car it manages to cover it in a shorter time than what a Formula 1 needs. This does not mean, however, that there are no categories that are able to reach higher maximum speeds.
IndyCar machines, the main US championship for open-wheel cars, reach maximum speeds of 380 kilometers per hour: the highest ever, among those achieved in any category of four-wheeled machines. In fact, these measurements generally exclude Top Fuel dragster, those long and tapered vehicles built for acceleration races on short straights and which can overcome 500 kilometers per hour, but which in fact do not run laps.
The fastest racing speed ever recorded for a Formula 1 is 372.5 kilometers per hour, obtained in the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix by the Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas driving a Williams. But in general it is quite rare for Formula 1 cars to exceed 360 kilometers per hour on straights, which is 20 less than an IndyCar car. The main difference is that a Formula 1 car is faster overall and, more importantly, it is faster in the corners.
Despite some severe limitations imposed by a new regulation in force from this year, Formula 1 cars are the result of decades of fierce competition in the development of ailerons, diverters, gas exhaust systems and other expedients necessary to exploit the air flows in order to ensure greater adherence of the machines to the road surface and, consequently, of a higher speed. The IndyCar championship, on the other hand, has historically developed towards a greater sharing of set-ups and parameters between the different machines, leading to a greater leveling of performance.
The typical IndyCar tracks, because they are more suitable for that type of cars and instead completely absent in the Formula 1 championship, are the oval type circuits: on that type of tracks the cars can in fact use very “unloaded” setups – those that they allow less resistance to air flows – and spend more time in higher gear. But there are also IndyCar races on non-oval tracks.
A useful example is the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, where both an IndyCar and a Formula 1 race were held in 2019. 186.349 kilometers per hour, while the pole position time in Formula 1 was 1: 32.029 – about 14 seconds faster – and with an average lap speed of 206.374 kilometers per hour. On the other hand, on the oval tracks of IndyCar, such as the famous Indianapolis 500, the pole position (which is established by the best travel time of 4 consecutive laps) exceeds an average speed of 320 kilometers per hour.
The fastest lap ever in qualifying from a Formula 1 car it was obtained in 2020 by the Mercedes driven by the British driver Lewis Hamilton in the Italian Grand Prix, a track known for its high average travel speed (the time in which you keep your foot crushed on the accelerator, in other words). Hamilton maintained an average speed of 264.363 kilometers per hour: he covered a track of nearly six kilometers (5.793) in a 1: 18.887.
Beyond numbers and data, the perception of how fast Formula 1 cars are in curves and chicanes is easily obtained even by observing them closely, as spectators of a Grand Prix, and much more effectively than is possible through filming. television, in which the perspective appears more squashed.
A recent item up Autosport, one of the most authoritative motoring magazines in the world, has tried to compile a ranking of the main motorsport categories using a large amount of data relating to the lap times obtained in 2021 on tracks on which cars of different categories, including North American and Japanese, compete. A substantial part of the data concerns tracks located in Europe: the circuit of Catalonia in Spain, that of Monza, that of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, the “Paul Ricard” in France, the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the circuit of Zandvoort in the Netherlands.
From the calculations of Autosport, the category that was fastest ever after Formula 1 – albeit with a significant gap, estimated at around eight seconds per lap – was the Super Formula. It is the most important Japanese car championship for open-wheel cars, for a long time known as Formula 3000 and then as Formula Nippon. It is a category that leaves the teams limited freedom in the development of the chassis, all produced by the Italian company Dallara, which is also the sole supplier of the cars of the IndyCar, Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula E championships, among others.
After IndyCar, which is in third place but with a delay of almost 12 seconds per lap compared to Formula 1, the fastest was Formula 2, a “one-make” championship: the chassis are supplied by Dallara and the engines by the French company Mecachrome, which between the 1980s and the 2000s also participated in several editions of the Formula 1 championship.
Formula 2 cars can reach top speeds of around 335 kilometers per hour: it is a category also known as the transition phase of many of the strongest drivers who then arrive in Formula 1.
The fastest cars after Formula 2, according to the ranking of Autosport, were those of 500 horses of the Super GT, a Japanese category dominated by Nissan, Honda and Toyota (but also McLaren, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin compete) and in which the ability not to wear the tires counts a lot. It is the most important category of Gran Turismo, cars derived from models approved for road use – therefore suitable for traveling long distances – but designed to reach much higher speeds.
The first North American category in the ranking – the Daytona Prototype International – is also the first to include Le Mans Prototype (LMP) cars, two-seater prototype machines built exclusively to compete in endurance races (endurance) like the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Compared to a similar ranking compiled in 2016, the gap between the Formula 1 cars and all the others, he points out Autosporthas greatly increased: one of the reasons is the remarkable development of performance in Formula 1 favored by the introduction of some new features in the 2017 regulation.