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Monday, April 20, 2015

Sparks Fly

I don't care whether one team dominates F1 for a long period of time. I've watched Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull dominate the sport without it ever affecting my enjoyment so Mercedes is welcome to control the sport for the next five years as far as I'm concerned, as long as there is a competitive grid behind them.

I say this because it is not the fact of Mercedes dominating that upsets me, it is that the powers that be have messed with the formula so much, in order to open it up to a wider audience, that what is left is no longer primarily about racing it is about "the spectacle"!

And this is exhibited nowhere better than the fact that sparks flying from beneath the cars at Bahrain seemed to attract more comment than the actual race itself.  The replacement of the old block undertray with a titanium one was nothing more than a cynical exercise to create a "spectacle" reminiscent of the late 1980's/90's.  It would appear to have achieved its stated intent.

It did not however improve the racing.  Watching the highlights programme last night left me in no doubt that there were very few highlights to watch.  I haven't watched the Bahrain GP for four years now because of the political situation in that country but I did watch the highlights last night simply because I wanted to see if the circuit provided a halfway decent race.  It would seem not.

But it did bring home to me exactly why the current formula isn't working for me.  In the old days the team strategies were simple to understand.  Apart from the obvious need to pass the person in front of you the strategies fell under one heading; fuel.

You set your car up to run light or heavy and you made your pit stops accordingly.  You either worked out that a three stop strategy, running on lighter fuel, would get you to the end faster than your opponents or you might gamble that a one stop would get you to the end in a better position than where you started.

It was simple and at the same time fascinating! You could see someone like de Cesaris in a Tyrell starting in 12th and trundling his way around to 5th/6th by doing only one stop.  The car would be out of position for most of the race whilst all those around it flew past time and again, on their three stop strategies, but after the third pitstop, when everyone was on equal fuel levels he'd be sitting pretty with a 10 second gap to the car behind and 12 laps remaining.

As a viewer I could grasp the different strategies and appreciate how they were implemented and I could also appreciate when one of the top teams changed their strategy mid-race.

Pit stops made sense when the cars were being refueled.  The difference in pitstop times between a three stop and a two stop were fundamental to the strategy because the amount of time the car was sitting in the pits was significant.  On some tracks the strategy would be clear because it was obvious that two stops would be 10 seconds faster overall, but on others it was muddled and teams would shift between two and three with the outright speed of the car being the only essential difference.

My point is that I could understand the strategies because I could see them being played out, because I could participate.  The current situation is such that we are not participants in the team strategies because we are not participants.  We are told that Hamilton is fuel-saving and we hear Rosberg being told to manage his tyres, but we are not actively engaged in the team strategies, we are passive, viewing it without really understanding why.

The problem, for me, would appear to be that I cannot engage with the idea of fuel saving in the middle of a motor race.  Fuel saving is anathema to racing, as is tyre management.  Motor racing shoujld be about getting out there and driving the car as fast as it is capable of going until it falls apart around you.  Push the machine over the line if you have to, but don't save fuel or tyres in the middle of a race.

The refueling era gave us the "splash and dash" of cars running to the fumes and then, right at the end, ducking into the pits for a three second splash of fuel to get around the last 5 laps. Fresh tyres on and 15 litres to burn the cars would then swoop out of the pits and hunt down everyone who had overtaken them.  On old rubber they were easy meat.  Their tyres weren't going to fall off a cliff, they were more than adequate to get them to the end of the race, but new rubber combined with a light fuel load was a deadly combination that lead to some spectacular racing: spectacular overtaking and defensive driving.

As Murray used to say - "it's one thing catching them, its another entirely to get by".

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

If I want to watch car, tyre and engine management I can film myself driving to work!

So far this season I have to admit that once again I am not enamoured by the way F1 is going.  To me the races seem very static and immensely boring and, unfortunately it was the same again in China.

You can always forgive Melbourne, because that's where the cars, drivers and engines get their first taste of racing and the cracks tend to show up - as they did again this year.

But when the only excitement - other than DRS enabled overtaking - is Jenson battling his way through the corners with numerous better cars, in a phenomenally bad McLaren Honda, for 14th position then you know that there is something seriously wrong.

One thing that certainly felt, and sounded, wrong was Nico's call to the pits around Lap 20 regarding a slowing Lewis Hamilton up ahead.  The real story for me was not the complaint that Lewis was slowing but rather that Rosberg started complaining that if he couldn't stay 2.5 seconds behind he would get into the dirty air and wreck his tyres!

Nico, leave the management of the car to the team and just go racing!
Photo courtesy of Mercedes AMG Petronas

Instead of complaining about his slowing team-mate why didn't Rosberg take the opportunity to attack and try to overtake? Isn't that what racing is all about? Have I lost something in translation?

And this is exactly what is wrong with F1.  Nico is meant to be a racing driver, not his team-mate's shadow and not a manager.  He's supposed to be trying to win the race ON THE TRACK, not on tyre strategy, not by the dreaded "undercut" but actually on the track.

The excitement of a Grand Prix is watching wheel-to-wheel battles on the track, sparks flying from the undercarriage of the cars as two racing drivers speed downhill into the corner each wondering who will be the last of the late brakers.

If I want to watch car, tyre and engine management I'll film myself driving to work and look at it later!

Formula 1 is meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport, not just the pinnacle of engineering.  It is meant to be a sport. The drivers must compete against each other on the track as well as in the expensive shacks out in the paddock.  It is their responsibility to provid us with an on-track spectacle, the sight of the worlds best drivers battling for position, fighting to achieve everything that can be achieved.

The best of these guys are paid very handsomely by the teams to wring the most out of the cars and we should be seeing that happen every racing weekend.  Instead we are being shortchanged.

We are being treated to the sight of drivers in "fuel-saving mode", drivers "harnessing Energy Recovery", and drivers "managing tyres". We have drivers unable to drive flat out because they have to manage their engines due to the fact they have been limited to 4 engines per season.  

What has any of this got to do with racing? Nothing

Do we remember the furore a couple of years ago that the engine manufacturers were going to quit F1 unless it was made more relevant to their road car business? Well this is the result.  F1 is now becoming nothing more than a test bed for road cars, rather than a motor-racing series.  They got relevance and we lost racing.

I hate to go all Jeremy Clarkson on it but motor-racing is supposed to be fun isn't it? It's not supposed to be about boring, everyday concerns like fuel saving, tyre conservation, or engine management.

I want drivers to drive to the limit. I want the cars to be set free from the artificially imposed shackles of a maximum fuel allowance. I want the teams to design cars that will set an unfettered fastest lap and I want drivers to be encouraged to beat that lap-time. I want Formula 1 to organise its race schedule to reduce its carbon footprint in a realistic way rather than impose pathetic power units on the cars as a public but ultimately pointless sop to the green brigade.

Let's face it, 18-24 cars doing 56 laps flat out around a circuit is having minimal impact on the environment when compared with 12 teams, numerous TV stations, etc, carting their staff and equipment from Billy to Jack by air without considering how they could do it better.

Take of the shackles, release the drivers and the cars and bring me some adrenalin-pumping, petrol-burning, ear-splitting, high-octane car racing.

How would I do it? Simple -

  • Keep the 1.6 turbo - get rid of the batteries!
  • Forget tyre compounds - one dry tyre, one intermediate and one wet.  The slick should be capable of lasting the entire race.
  • Bring back refueling and the option of not having to refuel. Choice is the essence of strategy.
  • Get rid of KERS and keep DRS.
  • Measure the wake of an F1 car at top speed and enable DRS once the following car is within that wake. Let the driver decide whether to open it or not.
  • Penalties must be taken on Raceday they do not carry over to the next race.  Penalties that are not taken on the track are punished financially.  The team pays for penalties relating to the car, the driver pays for driver error, and finally
  • Ban racing on most Tilke tracks - they are too wide, too boring, and do not seem to encourage good racing.

We can only hope that Europe saves F1 again this season, though with F1 failing to save Europe's best, historic racing tracks the days of F1 might well be numbered.