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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".