It's not often that F1 and NASCAR are sources of contention amongst their respective fans. It does exist, but the two racing formats are so fundamentally different that the primary hangup is typically an argument over which one is more fun to watch. In terms of speed, however, there isn’t much to argue about.
F1 race cars are faster than NASCAR’s racing machines, both in overall speed and acceleration. The top speed of an F1 racecar is 235mph while NASCAR’s are 212 on a good day. As far as acceleration, an F1 racecar can reach 200mph in 9 seconds, while NASCAR can only reach 160mph in the same time.
The thing is, both of these race car types are so fundamentally different that it doesn’t make much sense to compare them. It's like comparing a crotch rocket with a turboprop airplane. Not only are the cars drastically different, but the racetracks and styles are also drastically different as well.
The way the race tracks are designed for NASCAR and Formula 1 are nearly as different as the two cars, with a few exceptions. Because of that, these two racecars have gone in two very different directions in terms of design, body styles, size, chassis, engines, tires, handling, and more.
The first and most glaring difference between the F1 and a NASCAR is the power-to-weight ratio. The F1 is far lighter with a roughly equivalent engine. The design of the F1 takes advantage of that dynamic on top of taking advantage of the immense forces that are constantly applied to the vehicle and driver.
In an F1 racecar, a driver can experience forces of ti 6.75 Gs, which is enough force to bruise ribcages and septuple the driver’s perspective weight. The worst part is, that these forces can change on a dime, from negative to positive as the F1 is put through its paces on the racetrack.
NASCAR doesn’t typically deal with forces that are that extreme but that’s because they don’t stomp on the brakes nearly as much as they do in Formula 1. Due to the nature of most NASCAR tracks, the brakes aren’t much of an issue for tight, 90° or higher turns.
NASCAR vehicles are also a little heavier but take just as much advantage of aerodynamics as an F1, with both vehicles experiencing a strong amount of downward force. NASCAR sticks with a wide rear spoiler and shells designed to tunnel through the air to take advantage of aerodynamic forces.
Formula 1 racecars focus more on aerodynamic down forces in turns than they do on straightaways. The entire shell of an F1 racecar has subtle designs that channel or take advantage of air forces that pass over the vehicle.
The profile of an F1 car’s spoilers is subtly different as well. They are designed to operate like an airplane wing that has been flipped upside down. The result is a car that takes advantage of the air in every position on the track and with the entirety of the vehicle’s shell.
The way the racetracks and cars are designed in both the NASCAR and Formula 1 formats, the former is dedicated to driver skill and victory while the latter is wholly dedicated to team victories. That makes F1 a whole lot more strategic in terms of the entire team working together to secure a victory.
That doesn’t mean that there is no teamwork in NASCAR—far from it. It just means that the driver in NASCAR races is more of the focal point. A NASCAR driver’s entire goal, especially on the larger tracks, is to reach maximum miles per hour and never press their foot on the brake pedal.
In Formula 1 racing, a driver has to deal with things using a lot more finesse and split-second timing.
Pit stops in NASCAR are much slower, with a heavily enforced speed limit through the length of the pit stop area. That’s because a pit stop in NASCAR racing is more complex and involved than it is in F1 racing.
That mostly boils down to how the tires are changed, the engine is configured, and the way they fill up the gas tank. Many times, a Formula 1 race can be completed in its entirety without a single pit stop.
Also, most pit stops in F1 racing are designed to strategically change tires to match the potential changes in road conditions. Pit stops in F1 are much faster and they can be in and out in a few seconds where you might miss the entire tire changing sequence if the camera is not on them.
It's easy to see why the Formula 1 racecar is faster, as it weighs less than half of what a NASCAR weighs. A typical NASCAR vehicle weighs around 3,250lbs while a Formula 1 racecar weighs about 1,500lbs.
But does that make much of a difference when comparing their engines? A NASCAR engine is a 5.86L V8 while the F1 racecar has a 1.6L V6 Turbo. However, the difference is the power-to-weight ratio and the F1 wins the battle where that ratio is the great balancing scale between the two.
However, considering the fact that the 5.86L V8 is tasked with whipping a car around a race track to the tune of 200mph, at the highest RPMs considered to be safe, for hours on end, and with twice the body weight, is a pretty impressive performance all on its own.
Formula 1 racing and NASCAR racing have a few things in common as well. F1 racecars are essentially all the same, across the board. This is true of NASCAR stock cars as well, with one minor exception.
There are different models of stock cars on the track, including Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. While all of them have to conform to the same NASCAR rules, in terms of chassis, engine, etc, all of them have things that are exclusively based on their model in their overall design.
For instance, a Chevy NASCAR has a 5.86L V8 engine and a Toyota stock car has a 5.86L V8 engine. But, the components that go into the vehicle’s chassis, shell, and the engine may be Chevy and Toyota components respectively.
In other words, these aren’t generic models and engines in any sense of the word and you can tell the difference between a Toyota, Ford, and Chevy stock car on the race track just by looking at them.
Now that we’ve established what gives the F1 racecar a slight edge in overall speed and an enormous edge in acceleration, do either of these cars get to exploit their full capabilities on the racetrack, or do the rules minimize their capabilities?
There is one, major separating factor/rule that once again gives F1 a leg up. Once your stock car is on the track in NASCAR, that’s it—you can’t make any kind of adjustments to the vehicle. In Formula 1, laptops and other devices are used to tune the vehicle when possible.
In Formula 1, the cars aren’t allowed to touch each other on the track while in NASCAR, it's kind of expected, though frowned upon. NASCAR almost exclusively takes place on completely oval tracks, except for Charlotte Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International.
In Formula 1 racing, it doesn’t matter how or where the turns are or what the track looks like, so long as it completes itself at the same location where the cars begin. NASCAR tracks are also steeply banked as a matter of physics.
While F1 race cars will rarely ever reach their maximum speed, due to the complexity of the tracks and the rarity of the straightaways, NASCARs are maxed out almost all of the time, necessitating an oval track and a banked design, so they don’t fling themselves off the road.
NASCAR races are also much longer, with long and sometimes elaborate pit stops. The engine in a stock car on the NASCAR level has to be extremely dependable, as the driver and team need it to perform at maximum output, maximum heat, and maximum RPMs (all within safety zones, of course) for hours on end.
The engines in a Formula 1 racecar have to go through another kind of torture, which is the torture of stop-and-go traffic, except this, is at an extreme level. RPMs are maximized and dropped constantly, there is braking and accelerating constantly, then there is the occasional straightaway for the maximum level of performance.
The entire point of this boils down to the fact that these are two drastically different kinds of racecars operating under equally different circumstances and requiring a vastly different level of performance.
F1 is definitely the faster race car, both in terms of top speed and acceleration. However, the way the tracks are designed in Formula 1, the cars aren’t going to reach their peak speed performance very often. In NASCAR, on the other hand, max speed is the name of the game.