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In a swirl of debate, the pun settles the matter: Formula One is shooting for the Moon.

I’m in a standard college classroom with 30 or so high school students who have left the desks with the placards that indicate their identities and formed into the sort of chattering clusters you find at a lively party. It’s a little before 10 p.m. on a Friday in late April, and the kids are tackling the first of several crises they’ll face as delegates on the Formula One committee at the 2023 Cornell Model United Nations Conference in Ithaca, N.Y.

The moderators — three college seniors who cooked up this scenario and have taken the teacher’s desk at the front of the room — have just informed the students that F1 has made a non-negotiable decision to stop investing in locales badly impacted by climate change and that it is canceling the contracts for the grands prix in Miami (due to flooding), Monaco (heavy rain on dangerously narrow streets) and Qatar (extreme heat).

“It is up to you,” one tells the delegates, “to decide if and with what tracks you will replace them in future calendars and how to address future concerns about race cancelations, whether it be weather, war or protests.”

The students cheer for the suddenly spiced-up debate and swiftly vote to move into an unmoderated caucus. Buzzing, they assemble into little groups, some spilling into the hallway, and start hashing out the repercussions of the race cancellations and potential responses.

Of the hundreds of high schoolers at the conference hosted by Cornell University, these 30 are doing something different. Standard Model UN fare has students represent countries, taking on their interests as they hash out global approaches to issues such as famine, human rights and nuclear disarmament. They study beforehand and write position papers. They propose and debate resolutions to improve the world and their place in it.

The students I’m spending the weekend with are on one of the conference’s specialized committees, where they do the same kind of work in settings that are worlds away from the United Nations. Cornell’s conference includes the Fortune 500, the 19th Century Crimean War, the Avengers’ fight against Ultron, and Formula One.

On the F1 committee, the students have been randomly assigned a range of identities, forming a mix of drivers, team principals, various countries and power players like the FIA and Aramco. The conference started Thursday, and before the Friday night crisis, the committee spent a day working on two fundamental issues: reducing F1’s contributions to climate change and making the sport’s drivers, venues and fans more diverse.

As I float between groups, I hear suggestions for replacement grands prix in Portugal, Hoboken, N.J., Ithaca and Nashville. Monaco’s representative (in a baby blue sports coat and tie) argues for extensive upgrades to the Monte Carlo track. The girl representing the United States sketches out her idea for an indoor track for Qatar. It resembles New York’s spiraling Guggenheim museum. (Respecting the spirit of the conference, I’ll stick to their delegate names.) Toto Wolff, wearing a black dress and white Nikes, points out that any driver who goes off track on an upper level there “will die.”

One student suggests the Moon. Another argues for Mars. A third puts it together, calling out: “The Moonaco Grand Prix!”

In this small group, a few guffaws precede instant consensus. The pun’s too good to pass up. Wolff grabs her notepad and gets drawing.

Riding a surge of popularity among young Americans and replete with political and economic drama, F1 has become a trendy topic for Model UN to take on in recent years. Since 2020, at least half a dozen conferences in the U.S. and Canada have included F1-focused committees.

Cornell’s iteration of the idea came from Jade Williams, a freshman member of the school’s Model UN club, which organized the conference. (Model UN is significantly more popular at the high school than university level, drawing in many participants because it looks good on college applications.) Williams got into F1 thanks to a high school macroeconomics teacher who talked a lot about the sport and showed her class a movie about Ayrton Senna. She suggested F1 as a committee, thinking it fertile ground for debates around how an always-evolving sport should look in the coming decades. It proved a hit: Just about every high school club that signed up for the conference requested a place on the committee, said Secretary-General Akosa Nwadiogbu.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Propelled by Netflix’s “Drive to Survive,” F1 has generated a massive new fan base in the United States of late, one much younger and more female than ever. You can see the results of that boom in the race-watching parties at American sports bars, in Daniel Ricciardo’s invitation to the Met Gala, in Toto Wolff (the real one) landing a gig teaching at Harvard Business School. A bunch of Model UN students gaming out the little-seen economics and politics of the sport just might be the single oddest manifestation of F1’s newfound popularity. So I made the three-hour drive north to Ithaca to check it out.

As I arrived in Room 219 of Ives Hall on Cornell’s campus on Friday afternoon, I mentally shot back 20 years, to when I joined my high school’s Model UN club. (Along with helping me get into college, it’s the reason I can pinpoint the moment I learned there’s a country called Slovenia.)

I remembered the particular mix of enthusiastic participants and those suffering through it, the boys in mismatched suit jackets and pants, the supreme awkwardness of 30 random high schoolers thrown into a room and asked to solve problems. After introducing myself, I joined the one kid in the front row. He was representing Aston Martin’s Mike Krack, a name that solicited giggles all weekend.

The Model UN nuts and bolts came back to me, too, if more slowly. The committee was moderated by Katherine Cornett, Shaun Roberts and Margaret Woodburn, three Cornell seniors who became F1 fans via “Drive to Survive.” They set the agenda, ran the proceedings and kept the students mostly in check. The delegates’ goal is to jointly write and pass (or block) directives that address a suite of concerns and advance one’s own own objectives. Delegates follow a parliamentary procedure, with strict rules for who talks when and what happens how. Some debates feature short speeches by sponsors and opponents. Others involve question-and-answer sessions.

Over the weekend, the F1 committee churned through dozens of proposed directives. In their first session, they banned the use of self-driving technology and fully electric cars (“Recognizing the need to protect the roots of F1” and “Preventing the destruction of F1”), mandated rethinking the race calendar and logistics to limit carbon emissions, and capped the number of teams at the current 10.

The “Diversity in F1” directive came from Lewis Hamilton, represented by a tall, thin junior with dyed red hair, wearing a blue tie, white button down and gray slacks. Hamilton’s great sports love is baseball — we commiserate over the Mets — but he’s gotten into F1 through the comedy podcast “Tiny Meat Gang,” whose title he reveals with a flush of embarrassment. One of the hosts talks about F1 a lot, and Hamilton decided to give it a try. It’s a signal that F1’s growth has eclipsed the “‘Drive to Survive’ effect,” with new fans finding the sport through all sorts of avenues.

Some directives are passed in minutes, while others get bogged down in the weeds. The debate about Hamilton’s directive — “Recognizing that F1 has a history of White, male, upper-class drivers” and meant to fund a young racers program that corrects for the imbalance — involves whether the phrase “additional funding will come from F1” should be changed to “encourage the FIA to provide additional funding” (yes) and whether to include funding upgrades for tracks in developing nations (nope). And while this is where I start scrolling through Twitter, it’s also where this fantasy version of F1 gets closest to the real thing. Like with any political entity, it’s easy to agree on the big-picture stuff. It’s in the details that things get sticky.

Other debates get testy, even if nobody bangs a shoe on their desk. Discussing a proposal to keep historic tracks on the calendar, James Allison (in a blue jacket, black pants and mullet; he’s happy when I inform him he’s been promoted that very day), dismisses Monaco as dull.

“So is Monza,” someone in the back calls out.

The kid representing Monaco isn’t an F1 fan — he binged “Drive to Survive” in preparation — but he is a ham. He cries back, “You clearly know nothing about F1!”

Cornett the moderator steps in to quell the uproar: “We will be nice.”

Moving around the room, I find a mix of fervent F1 fans, the mildly interested and those figuring it out as they go along. Each participating high school decides which students do which committees, so some delegates landed here more or less at random. Charles Leclerc has never watched F1 and didn’t pick this committee, but she’s having fun. Alfa Romeo representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi is used to more serious, typical Model UN committees. While she doesn’t care about racing, she finds this change of pace “a breath of fresh air.”

Others got the spot because they like the sport or sports in general. James Vowles (who later abruptly switches roles to George Russell, explaining, “I love George Russell”) has been watching since he was a kid — his dad was a mega Ayrton Senna fan. Vowles/Russell is working on his own sports podcast and plans to study sports media in college. He’s glad he got this spot since he missed out on last year’s committee about the MLB lockout.

And some seem to simply love Model UN, whatever the topic. Pirelli spends time between sessions getting everyone to sign his placard, a memento from his final conference.

For all they inhabit their personas, the delegates offer plenty of reminders that they are, in fact, high schoolers. There’s the persistent conflation of the words “amenable” and “amendable” (as in, “Would the delegate be amendable to this amendment?”), the not knowing that the Baku GP and Azerbaijan GP are the same race, the egregious misspelling of “avoid.” Most damning is the drama that erupts after Friday’s dinner break, when Lewis Hamilton openly accuses Monaco of cajoling the boys into voting down all the girls’ directives. The moderators step in here again, warning that they’ll watch for vote patterns that look more like high school than F1 politics.

Come Saturday morning, the energy is notably more unruly than earlier, the chatter about the previous night’s hotel hijinks more resistant to the bangs of Cornett’s gavel. By this point, the delegates have spent eight hours together in this room, and most have found new friends. They even start exchanging real names. The session begins with directives about cost caps, sustainability and making F1TV Pro free for students. Still, everyone is clearly waiting for the big one.

At last, the Moonaco debate begins.

The directive covers various details, but the plan’s core is to recreate the Monaco track on the Moon in a facility that mimics the atmosphere and gravity of Earth. “This follow (sic) a similar structure to a Moon Colony,” the directive notes, as if that were something that existed.

Bucking the tide of enthusiasm, Hamilton thinks this is nonsense. Recognized by the chair, he starts his offense: “Umm, I’ve got a lot of questions.” He asks for a cost estimate. Toto Wolff pegs the total expense at around $10 trillion. Mike Krack asks about jurisdiction and funding sources (answer: some combination of Aramco and Jeff Bezos, triggering a lengthy debate over whether Bezos would do such a thing). Valtteri Bottas wonders what will keep the construction workers from floating away into space (they’ll be tethered).

The crazy thing about all of this is that once you accept the bit about the Moon, you hear a well-grounded discussion about the intricacies of a sport stuffed with conflicting interests. The students propose and vote on a series of amendments, hashing out funding, transport, track design, television rights, questions of international law and more. The idea of Moonaco simply injects the conversation with fun. Nearly every delegate is actively involved. Decorum repeatedly breaks down as they yell over each other, tossing out challenges, ideas and compromises.

The amendments settled, Cornett moves the group into voting. “All those in favor?” Roughly three-quarters of the delegates raise their placards. “OK, this motion passes.”

Moonaco’s boosters cheer.

This is what the moderators hoped for, Roberts tells me. Not so much the yelling and interrupting but the enthusiastic participation. The kids are here to learn, Roberts says, and that’s what they’re doing. They’re debating, thinking, finding and creating common ground. Sometimes, being silly helps.

I’m not sure the weekend has won over any new F1 fans. But the irony is the make-believe highlights the realities that have just as big a role in shaping the sport as what happens on the track. The true fans know that. Now these kids do, too.

As the weekend nears its close, the moderators decide it’s best to bring things back to Earth with one more crisis. Ripping an idea from that week’s headlines, they announce that Elon Musk’s rocket, contracted to transport the drivers to the Moon, has exploded.

And so the debate turns to the next directive: “Never Another Moonaco.”

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(Lead illustration: Chester Holme for The Athletic)



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