Images used in the spirit of fair use
In historical terms, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has contributed very little of note to F1 history. The Mexican Grand Prix hosted the season finale in the 1960s, back when the world championship was something of a sideshow that only an exclusive number of races were part of, but it dropped off the calendar after the 1970 race due to safety fears associated with the large crowds. It returned in 1986, hosting seven further races before dropping off again after 1992.
The circuit itself was never really regarded as a classic, being bumpy, twisty and located in the middle of one of the most crowded, polluted cities in the world. But the popularity of circuits evolves over time. A circuit built in the 1960s (or even more recently) would often begin its existence unpopular because it was being compared to the alternatives, this being a time when road circuits and the likes of the Nurburgring Nordschliefe were still hosting grands prix, but by the 21st century, it’s a relic of the past, with the Nordschliefe, old Spa and many others consigned to the history books.
Even if you look at the circuits of the 1980s, you can see this transformation. The Hungaroring and the new Nurburgring were initially despised, to the point where the latter disappeared off the F1 calendar for a decade. But now, the Hungaroring receives credit for being something different on a calendar largely consisting of modern identikit circuits, while the Nurburgring is considered favourably to the truncated Hockenheim.
In addition to this, what makes a circuit popular has changed over time. Fast technical sequences of corners are popular now but that’s not to say they always have been. For example, Suzuka wasn’t regarded as a great circuit when it first appeared on the F1 calendar because it was too tight and twisty, but today this is regarded as a positive boon, the circuit’s raison d’etre.
The Mexico City is a good example of this. It had one great corner, the fearsome Peraltada, a 90-degree right-hander linking the back straight with the start/finish straight that was slightly banked until fairly recently. But the rest of the circuit was regarded as unremarkable. Looking at it with modern eyes, though, and it is an interesting circuit – a long straight leads into a tight sequence of corners, followed by another straight, a technical section, and then a fast, flowing series of esses that would really test a modern F1 car, before the back straight and the Peraltada.
It has everything a modern F1 circuit would want – fast sections, slow sections, long straights and overtaking opportunities. Add in the historical aspect and a thriving following thanks to the rise of Sergio Perez, and surely there’s no downside to the announcement that F1 will return there next year…
Well, until seeing this. Yes, there had been subtle hints that the circuit would have to be altered – Hermann Tilke had been contacted a year ago – but to this extent?
(Credit for the screenshots: http://forums.autosport.com/topic/194344-mexican-gp-confirmed-for-2015/)
So what’s the problem? It’s not that the proposed layout itself is inherently bad – it looks like an interesting circuit. And it’s not exactly that different from the overall silhouette – it’s pretty similar.
But look closer and every corner has been changed in some way. Some of the changes are fairly minor – a tightening here and there – but the overall result is a circuit that’s quite different from the current one. What was once a flowing circuit with smooth curves is now a bog standard modern circuit with sharp corners joined by straights and the token very slow hairpin sequence. I appreciate that safety is a problem but was all this necessary?
Turns 1-3: All tighter, with Turns 2 and 3 particularly tightened to singular apexes from smooth curves. Why? It’s beyond me. There are no safety concerns associated with this – they are slow corners.
Turns 4-5: Turn 4 tightened to a hairpin, Turn 5 also seems slightly tightened. This again is not safety-related – instead, it’s more likely to be to create overtaking. Also the massive new grandstands next to these corners probably have something to do with it…
Turns 6-8: Turn 6 might be the only corner to just about get away unscathed, but its character is fundamentally changed with Turns 7 and 8 being bypassed by a straight, with another new grandstand plonked on top of the old corners, which again is your likely explanation for the changes.
Turns 9-13: Every single one of these corners looks like they have been tightened to not far off a single apex. What was once a series of constant arcs will instead look like a series of different corners seemingly designed to be similar to the sort of sequence we get in every modern F1 circuit, particularly Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. In fact, looking at the overall circuit, this will leave Mexico City looking very much like a flat Austin, albeit with slightly less tarmac run-off and slightly more character.
Turn 14: The Peraltada will be bypassed with a route through the large baseball stadium inside it, as Champ Car did in the mid-2000s. But unlike Champ Car’s route, which consisted of three 90-degree corners, F1 (which of course has to go one step further, because it’s F1) includes a tight hairpin and another corner coming out of it, seemingly designed to slow the cars down a little bit more. The old corner will remain and will probably be used by other series, as is the case now.
These changes will be billed as necessary for safety, but that seems a bit hollow to me looking at what they’re actually going to do. One of the bizarre things about this is that there isn’t actually that much run-off on the outside of most of these corners even after the changes, particularly the Esses. This is following the recent trend in modern circuits of not having the barriers too far from the track (see the fast section at the Valencia “urban circuit” or some parts of the Yeongam circuit, host of the Korean Grand Prix) – F1’s “run-off is needed” policy has always been inconsistently applied, which makes me suspicious.
The reason for the changes can be found in the mentions of “new grandstands” and tightening corners to slow the cars down a little bit more. The grandstands are there to pack more people in, no doubt at a premium rate compared to general admission. The slower corners are there to slow the cars for the cameras, so that they get good shots of the adverts and sponsors’ logos. Of course, these are usually included in modern circuits under the pretence of safety or “compromising setup”, but in this case in particular, it seems egregiously excessive.
The changes to the circuit aren’t about the circuit – they’re there for F1 and its various parties to make more money, sold under the false pretence that they are necessary when they clearly aren’t. In this case, it’s not even subtle.
Obviously there are genuine safety concerns. For one the Peraltada isn’t particularly safe in its current form because there’s no run-off on the outside and expanding that would be very difficult due to the presence of a road behind it. But it wears thin when you look at the proposed layout of the Esses and you see very little run-off anyway, or when you look at other modern circuits and see less safe corners that were allowed to pass. The changes to the Esses smack of change for the sake of change – making it “modern”.
And that’s what troubles me in particular. Changing or updating an old circuit is by no means a new thing, but there are a lot of examples in recent years in particular – the Osterreichring, Hockenheim, Fuji, Silverstone, and now seemingly Mexico City are the most prominent. These are always billed by F1 as returning to an old venue, even though the layouts of these circuits are often very different. The Osterreichring (or A1-Ring and Red Bull Ring as it became), Hockenheim and Fuji were particularly different, bearing little resemblance to the circuits they once were.
What F1 is effectively doing is giving you an essence of the past – it’s not quite the old circuit but it’s in the same place and includes small parts of it so it could be it. It’s as if they treat it as a modern interpretation of the past, even though these circuits were still the present for many series outside the F1 bubble. Fuji aside (sort of), it was only F1 which required these circuits to be changed, but every other series that uses them will be affected by this.
But the reason the issue of essence and modern interpretation is important is because it can be applied to a lot more than circuits – it can be used as a way of describing the sport as a whole. F1 today is obsessed with its history, fetishising its past. Everything that happens today is compared to the past. Everything is put into context of the mythology of the sport.
Modern culture as a whole is like this. There is less effort to create great culture these days because it is considered that it cannot be great itself, so instead everything has to refer to great culture from the past, an “interpretation of”, a “homage to” or “satire of” something. F1 in particular seems to have fallen into this trap. F1 in 2014 has become a sort of warped homage to the F1 of 1968 or 1991. The Mexico City circuit of 2015 will be a warped homage to the Mexico City circuit of 1968 or 1991. It’s all a shiny artifice.
The problem with warped homages is that they aren’t the real thing. I know most viewers won’t care and will watch in regardless – to be fair, I probably will as well – but the more circuits that go into the knife to be “modernised”, the more F1’s actual historical basis is irreversibly eroded.
I appreciate that small changes have often been made over time, including at Mexico City prior to its 1986 return, but as with the famous brush (i.e. “it was my great-grandfather’s brush, though my grandfather changed the handle and my father changed the head”), how many actual links to the past are there?
To put it another way, here is the proposed 2002 F1 layout for Brands Hatch which eventually fell through, from Guido di Carli’s circuits website:
As you can see, while it retains the essence of Brands Hatch, it’s radically different. Would it really be Brands Hatch with the fastest corners slowed, the trees cut down and the pits moved? It would be in the same place and retain a couple of notable features, but surely it would be hollow and superficial.
And yet while this would be considered quite shocking, it’s also reality. F1 has allowed its actual circuits to be changed to an extent where they are also similarly unrecognisable from their previous versions, often only for financial gain and to the detriment of the facility as a whole.
And then consider how things like DRS and energy recovery have been added to F1 cars in order to facilitate great racing, to recreate the mythical great racing of the past. Consider how double points have been added to the last race of the season to ape the drama of past title deciders. Consider how the Lotus brand was basically resurrected to provide a fictional link to the past (something I was originally favour of, which I regret).
Trying to recreate the past is futile, especially using such half-arsed methods. The past is gone. Some may argue that for that reason it’s pointless complaining about the loss of the “old” Mexico City circuit, and other former versions of circuits. It’s a fair point, but it ignores that the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is still here and still being used by series. As recently as 2008, the circuit (including the Peraltada) was considered safe and up-to-date enough to host A1 GP and the NASCAR Nationwide Series – why does F1 require such ludicrous special measures?
The point is the circuit is about to be desecrated not for the reasons that they will give, but for making money. And yet the organisers won’t make money from it – F1 venues lose money on grands prix, because it all goes to FOM. It’s F1’s slash-and-burn policy in action. Knowing Mexico’s volatile history on the F1 calendar, it’s not unfair to suggest that in five or ten years’ time, the circuit will be abandoned by the circus again, having extracted all the revenue it can. The regeneration will most likely all be for very little, but the old circuit will be lost for good.
The problem is F1 itself. It is in the middle of a profound identity crisis but those running the show are only interested in short-term financial gain. They are happy to provide a cold, diluted, sterile series which provides a plastic inauthentic sample of what it was like once upon a time, and to provide this, they take advantage of naive regional governments, billionaires and circuit owners prepared to make a Faustian pact with them, leaving a trail of struggling white elephant circuits in their wake.
This is clearly unsustainable, because there are only so many rich people and countries in the world prepared to bankroll a grand prix, and the more you piss off, the less “untapped markets” there will be. Meanwhile, the longer it goes on, the more authentic sites of historical importance will be irreversibly altered in the name of “progress”. It’s a mess, and it’s sucking the rest of motorsport into this whirlpool too. The longer those running F1 continue to chop and change their minds over what they want it to be, the more damage will be done.
Another year, another period of melodrama and discussions about why F1 is or isn’t on the decline. This year, F1’s Strategy Group has come up with a bunch of silly ideas about how to make the cars look more spectacular (sparks, glowing brake discs etc), as if that would somehow be a silver bullet to F1’s problems.
Leaving aside the inherent issues with two other silver bullets dominating the 2014 season (which can’t be helped and will eventually be overturned; it’s always the way in F1), it all feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You could make the cars all look and sound like the Ferrari 412T2, the most glorious creation ever to emerge from Maranello’s windtunnels, and yet it would make no difference.
F1’s biggest problem at the moment is money – or rather the lack of in some key areas. It’s funny that a sport that charges the spectator over £100 to attend one of its events can be struggling financially, but it’s because all of the revenue goes via the commercial rights holder, and not that much comes out the other end. It’s why Bernie Ecclestone has mounted an enormous personal fortune while a number of teams are on the brink of financial ruin, including a recent race-winner and former champion in the shape of the Enstone-based team currently known as Lotus.
Financial problems for F1 teams is by no means a new phenomenon; teams collapsing was a frequent occurrence in the 1990s. The problem is this time F1 does not have the strength in depth. In the 1990s, teams collapsed because there were too many of them to begin with; it was Darwinism in action. But there would always be enough left or arriving to keep the grid at a healthy size. This time, if two or three teams collapse, the sport will likely lose a significant chunk of the midfield – and for good.
If Sauber, for instance, disappear, there is little prospect of them being replaced by a similarly-competitive team, and their top-of-the-range facilities at Hinwil, Switzerland will be lost to the sport for good at a time when no one has the money to build a new one. Any loss of a medium-sized or large team now would probably permanently damage the sport.
While F1 will soon gain at least one, if not two new teams in the next couple of years, it is unlikely that they will be battling for podium finishes any time soon, as evidenced by Caterham and Marussia’s struggles since joining in 2010.
At the heart of the financial woes of the likes of Lotus and Sauber is the decline of F1 sponsorship. Prior to the global financial crisis, front-running and midfield F1 teams could find title sponsors who would provide a big chunk of the budget, and they could bank on a lot of smaller sponsors to make up any deficit. But it was noticeable as early as 2008 and 2009 that F1 teams were losing many sponsors, both large and small, and were unable to replace them.
I doubt many people would have predicted that five or six years later teams would still be struggling to find backers. Even McLaren, one of F1’s best-known and most successful teams, was unable to find a title sponsor for this season after Vodafone’s departure from the sport. Luckily for McLaren, though, they have the arrival of Honda to look forward to next year, which should ease any concerns they have.
This itself highlights arguably the lack of the most important title sponsors of all: car manufacturers.
Over the course of 2008 and 2009, F1 lost three of the biggest manufacturers in the world in the shape of Honda, Toyota and BMW, all of whom ploughed millions into the sport every year. F1 has since been left with just three large manufacturers: Mercedes, Fiat (as Ferrari), and Renault, who themselves have scaled back their involvement.
2009 marked the end of the era of manufacturer domination, which had lasted since the late 1990s and had seen budgets skyrocket to incomprehensible levels. It has proven very difficult to return to a different state: technology cannot be ‘uninvented’, and the hi-tech facilities inherently cost a lot to operate, so you cannot just reduce budgets back to the level they were twenty years ago, especially when Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes have continued to spend big regardless of the collapse of their rivals.
Attempts have been made to kerb spending but usually a way is found around them, or they are just blocked altogether, as demonstrated recently when the FIA dropped their plan for a cost cap in the face of opposition from F1’s biggest spenders. It is clear that they are never going to allow parity with the smaller teams; it would be like trying to force Roman Abramovich to only give Chelsea the same budget as Cheltenham Town.
The alternative solution, rather than reducing everyone’s budgets to the same level, is to find a way of boosting the budgets of the teams struggling financially, and in the current climate, the only way this is going to be possible is to attract the manufacturers back to the sport. With the exception of a uniquely generous corporation like Red Bull, the manufacturers are the only companies who can and, if encouraged, will invest heavily in F1.
F1 has taken steps to try and entice manufacturers back into the sport; the new smaller, more efficient turbocharged engines introduced this year are meant to mirror trends in road car engines, while energy recovery systems were also meant to be environmentally-friendly technology to be used in road cars. But the sport could and should go much further.
Many F1 fans object to this principle, arguing that what F1 cars should ultimately be is pure thoroughbred prototypes. But this ignores the reality of the current climate, where financial and environmental concerns are at the top of the agenda. You are never going to find companies who would back someone to make a car that is only meant to go fast around a circuit 20 times a year and is of no relevance to the outside world. Motor racing in the twenty-first century has to have the facade of road relevance at the very least.
This isn’t to say F1 should be about getting twenty Vauxhall Adams together and thrashing them around a track; if people wanted to see that, they would flock to their local racing circuit every time there’s a track day on. The public want to see fast cars that look and sound good and will create exciting in action when in the hands of the best drivers in the world. But there has to be a balance struck.
In any case, an entirely thoroughbred formula probably wouldn’t be very exciting to watch, as evidenced by period between 1992 and 1993 when F1 was dominated by Williams and many of the races were processions of unspectacular cars wired up to the brim with the latest electronic gadgets, including active ride suspension, anti-lock brakes and traction control. There has to be a limit on the lengths you can go to with an F1 car.
And then there’s the cost issue, and the attraction of the formula to manufacturers. When BMW announced their departure from F1 in 2009, they said they would be willing to return if F1 became more road relevant. And while F1 has made some concessions to this, it has not made a major visible push.
Ironically, the wishes those fans who want a more open formula and a more competitive, innovative development race between teams, harking back to the 1990s, may ultimately be satisfied by more road relevant technology in F1.
At its core, F1 was an engine formula but engine development remains incredibly restricted, even when designing new engines as was the case for this year. The engine freeze has led to an increased focus on the cars themselves, which has probably had a negative impact on the sport.
Instead, the solution may be to restrict development of the cars and move the focus back to the engines; after all, very few road cars benefit from front and rear wing development, but all of them have an engine. And the way to do this would be to have engines based on those found in road cars.
Of course, they would have to be heavily modified; we have already seen how controversial ‘disappointing’ engines can be this year. The only restrictions should be the size, that they would have to be based on a road car engine, and that they would have to have a turbocharger attached (even if not found on the road car version). But this would still probably be much cheaper than developing one from scratch, as well as being more relevant to road cars.
This would be an incredibly enticing package to road car manufacturers; the two main hurdles to their involvement would be removed. With restrictions on development also gone, F1 will once again be an engine formula, sacrificing very little for greater support. As an added bonus, fuel supply should also be opened up: why exclude diesel, hydrogen, LPG and other alternative fuels when they are becoming an increasingly important part of road car development? Sports cars and touring cars have embraced them; so should F1.
Ultimately, this is what F1’s Strategy Group should be discussing. Dressing up the cars in fancy clothing or adding double points for the final race will only ever be temporary, plastic solutions. If F1 wants to move forward as a sport, it has to fundamentally change. Otherwise it will look increasingly out of step and out of date in a world of very different concerns and priorities to the one in which it was established back in 1950.
The six most important manufacturers F1 needs to entice:
F1 has lacked Asian manufacturer involvement in recent years since Toyota and Honda pulled out, and even before that, it had been largely Japanese. Hyundai, now the fourth-biggest manufacturer in the world, have long been rumoured to make an assault on F1. Their motorsport involvement has largely been limited to rallying, but their influence is growing in Europe and North America, as well as being powerful in their home country, South Korea
The German company’s shock withdrawal in 2009 came after a successful second period in the support, firstly with Williams and then with Sauber. Their return would add enormous credibility due to their status as one of the world’s most popular car brands, particularly in the luxury sector. Their current focus is on the DTM, the German touring car series, which they returned to in 2012.
4. General Motors
F1 has long been fascinated with the American market, in part due to its reluctance to embrace F1. Though they are no longer the giants of the industry, GM are still the second-biggest car manufacturer in the world, and remain the owners of the Opel, Chevrolet, Vauxhall, Buick and Cadillac brands. GM has never been involved with F1, but has recently returned to making IndyCar engines and is also the dominant force in NASCAR. Until recently, it was also the leading manufacturer in the World Touring Car Championship.
3. Volkswagen AG
VW AG are another giant corporation who have so far steered clear of F1, despite enormous success in motorsport: VW marques have won 13 of the last 14 Le Mans 24 Hours, and Volkswagen is the current dominant force in the World Rally Championship. But the corporation, which owns Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Skoda, SEAT, Bentley and Bugatti, as well as the famous Auto Union name and the Ducati motorcycle company, has so far avoided entering F1, though some of its brands have been involved in the past.
The world’s largest car manufacturer entered F1 in 2002 to much fanfare and with a gigantic budget, but in eight frustrating seasons, the team never won a race and withdrew at the end of 2009 despite a successful season. The former F1 base is now being used to prepare the company’s Le Mans prototypes. The Toyota brand is enormously valuable and well-respected around the world, and there is unfinished business in F1.
Having dropped to fifth in the manufacturing rankings, you could be forgiven that the Ford brand has taken something of a hit in recent years, but the famous Blue Oval is still an enormously powerful symbol. It is also intrinsic to F1: the Ford Cosworth DFV engine remains the most successful F1 engine of all time, winning races between 1967 and 1983, and the company remained a vital supporter of teams lower down the grid well into the 1990s.
But the Ford name has not been seen on the grid since 2004, when the company withdrew after a disastrous winless spell owning the Jaguar team. Only Ferrari have started more races as an engine supplier than Ford; Renault will almost certainly pass the American marque with their 524th start at the next grand prix to move into second. F1 just doesn’t feel right without Ford.
Images used with the spirit of fair use
Sad news today – Brian Hart, the former Formula One driver and founder of the eponymous engine manufacturer, has died at the age of 77. Hart’s engines were a feature of the grid from 1981 to 1986 and 1993 to 1997, and though never successful, they played a small but important role in the period, helping the likes of Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello to their first successes at the top level of motorsport.
Hart engines first appeared in F1 in 1981, with the new Toleman team making its debut at the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. The Hart 415T was the only turbocharged engine in F1 not to be made by a manufacturer. Derek Warwick was the mainstay of the driver line-up for the first three seasons, and helped them progress from backmarkers to regular point-scorers. In 1982 at Zandvoort in the Netherlands, he picked up a fastest lap, and later went on to run an impressive second at Brands Hatch before the halfshaft failed. After the 1983 season, he switched to Renault.
Hart engines are indelibly associated with Ayrton Senna, who took his, the team’s and the engine’s first three podiums in 1984, his first season in F1, driving for Toleman. At Monaco he was lying second and catching leader Alain Prost, setting the fastest lap in the process, when the race was halted due to rain, with half-points awarded. It later emerged that Senna probably wouldn’t have finished the race as he’d already damaged the car.
Senna left the team at the end of the season for Lotus, and it would be another decade for a Hart-engined car finished in the top three. However, Teo Fabi, Senna’s replacement, took the company’s first pole position a year later at the Nurburgring. In 1986, Ted Toleman sold the team to Italian clothing company United Colors of Benetton, who were already the main sponsors. It was renamed Benetton and went on to become one of the most successful teams in F1 history, winning the 1994 and 1995 F1 world drivers’ championships with Michael Schumacher, before further championships in 2005 and 2006 as Renault with Fernando Alonso. The team is now known as Lotus F1.
During this time, Hart also supplied engines to British minnows RAM and Spirit, and the ambitious American team Haas. The 415T last appeared at a race in 1986, before Haas switched to a Ford turbo.
Both the next Hart podium and pole position came from another Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, who finished third for Jordan at the Japanese circuit of Aida in 1994, and went on to take pole at Spa-Francorchamps later in the year. Jordan had switched to the new Hart 1035 engine in 1993, bringing the company back into F1. However, after a successful 1994, Jordan became the works team of Peugeot.
Hart instead switched to supplying the Footwork Arrows team in 1995. Gianni Morbidelli (on the right) took Hart’s last podium at Adelaide that season. He was one of only eight classified finishers in the race.
The partnership continued into 1996 with few results, in part thanks to the ineptitude of this guy, Ricardo Rosset. Tom Walkinshaw, the new owner of the team, opted to switch to Yamaha engines for 1997 as he welcomed reigning champion Damon Hill to the team.
The last official Hart engine participations were in 1997 when Italian minnows Minardi used the engines. The company was bought out by Walkinshaw, who had quickly chosen to ditch Yamaha, and in 1998 and 1999 a Hart engine design appeared on the grid branded as an Arrows V10.
Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz picked up the last significant result for a Hart-designed engine at the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix, finishing fourth and sixth in the gorgeous but slow Arrows A19. After failing to woo manufacturer backing for the engine, Walkinshaw abandoned the plan and switched to Supertec engines for 2000.
Two pole positions, two fastest laps and five podiums is a good return considering they were often up against the might of the big manufacturers like Renault, Honda, Ferrari, Ford and Mercedes. Along with Judd and Ilmor (now owned by Mercedes), they were one of a small number of private engine manufacturers competing in F1 who were relied upon by the numerous small teams that soon died out as F1 became increasingly professional during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hart may not have had enormous success but he played an important role at the back of the grid, where efforts were rarely noticed.
Images used in the spirit of fair use
Tom Kristensen testing the distinctive but slow 1997 Minardi at Catalunya. Images uploaded in the spirit of fair use
I’ve been re-reading Autosport’s Top 50 Drivers Who Never Raced In F1, which they published in July. For me, it’s the best thing they’ve published in years – genuine insight into some of the greatest talents who never quite reached the top level for one reason or another. Some never made it due to finance, others due to injury or death, and some just due to circumstance.
However, there’s a clear divide there between those that were almost certainly going to race in F1 but for circumstantial issues, such as Gary Hocking, Jean-Luc Salomon, Christophe Bouchut and Sebastien Loeb, and those that were on the periphery but never quite made it, such as Dario Franchitti, Laurent Aiello and Tom Kristensen, who heads the list. I do wonder about some of the latter in particular – many drivers get rated as “lost talents”, but often there are reasons why they didn’t make it. If a driver like Kristensen, who I greatly admire and is clearly one of the greatest sportscar and touring car drivers of all time, didn’t make it, is it genuinely because of money/circumstance? Because ultimately if he was a brilliant driver who could have won F1 grands prix and championships, would he have slipped through the net?
That’s probably the only way in which the list fails. Yes, it’s nice to think there are drivers out there who were robbed of a good chance to succeed in F1 just by a set of coincidences, but do we really see Kristensen, Franchitti and Gary Paffett as potential F1 champions in an era dominated by Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso and numerous other talented drivers? These guys probably achieved far more in their respective fields than they would have in F1, where it’s more likely that they would have ended up tooling around in the midfield for two or three years before ending up exactly where they came from.
However, there are some interesting cases where things might have been different. Gerry Birrell is the obvious candidate here, because he was lined up for a genuine front-running drive for the 1974 season – in place of Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell, alongside Francois Cevert. However, both prospective drivers were killed in 1973 (in frighteningly similar accidents), giving Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler second chances in F1, which ultimately led them to successful careers.
Milngavie’s Gerry Birrell
It’s difficult to pick apart where exactly a Cevert/Birrell partnership would have led Tyrrell, as certainly they would have spent the real 1974 regrouping after the loss of both of their drivers. Cevert in particular was a talented driver and would undoubtedly have won more races had he lived. Scheckter was able to jump in the 1974 Tyrrell and challenge for the title despite less F1 experience than Cevert, so it’s conceivable that the Frenchman could have been champion that year, ahead of Fittipaldi and Regazzoni.
Birrell is more difficult to fathom: his record in the lower formulae wasn’t fantastic but he was improving, the people who knew him or remember him racing speak highly of his abilities. Depailler was incredibly talented but wild and erratic. If Birrell was a bit steadier, perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing. He was 28 at the time of his death, and would have been 29 at the start of the 1974 season, but breaking through at that age wasn’t as rare as it is today: Carlos Reutemann made his debut in 1972 when he was nearly 30 and yet still raced in F1 for ten years.
Had Tyrrell won the championship again in 1974, maybe they would have had a much more stable decade instead of the decline they actually faced. That said, the innovations of the late 1970s, particularly ground effect which Tyrrell were slow to master, are probably what ultimately sent them into a tailspin into the 1980s which ended with their demise in 1998.
As for Scheckter and Depailler, who knows – maybe they would be the subject of “what-if” articles like this…
Jamie Green is another interesting case from a more recent time. When I first began to watch him race, he was making progress in the DTM in 2006 but unable to eke out a maiden win. “Oh, he must be another of those British bottlers then,” I thought. He did eventually win races in the DTM but has never quite translated this to a consistent season, which has hardly erased that perception.
However, looking at his results before then, I’m feeling a bit sorry for ever thinking that. In 2004, he won the Formula Three Euroseries by a massive 52 points while driving for ASM, with seven wins and six further podium finishes. Yes, he was driving for the dominant team and had Mercedes backing, and it’s still not quite the level of domination Lewis Hamilton achieved the following year (when he beat allcomers by 78 points, having won 15 out of the 20 races) but that’s still very impressive.
Green had been marked out before then as a future star, having won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for young drivers back in 2002 (beating Adam Carroll in the process) and thus earning himself a test with McLaren. In 2003 he finished runner-up in British Formula Three behind current F1 medical car driver Alan van der Merwe, before moving on to the DTM-supporting Euroseries in 2004.
As the Autosport article explains, ASM were keen to sign him up for their new ART Grand Prix operation for the first season of GP2 in 2005. However, Green’s backers were unsure of the new formula and decided to place him in DTM instead, thus consigning him to a career in touring cars. It’s difficult to escape from there: only Paul di Resta has jumped from the DTM to F1 in recent years, and even he had to perform miracles to do that. Di Resta was probably one of the reasons why Green didn’t get out of there: not only did the Scot suddenly become Mercedes’ favoured Brit, but his feats only made Green’s lack of wins in his first two seasons look disappointing.
Jamie Green’s only F1 test came at Silverstone for McLaren in 2004, alongside Alex Lloyd and Lewis Hamilton
The F1 what-if becomes intriguing if you know what happened next in GP2, though: ART hired Nico Rosberg and Alexandre Premat, whom Green had beaten comfortably in F3, and Rosberg went on to win the championship, earning himself a Williams drive and a successful F1 career. Had Green’s backers been braver with the new series, it’s conceivable that he could have earned himself an F1 drive. Even if it’s not the Williams drive, there are scenarios where he could do well, such as testing for McLaren for a year in 2006 before taking the seat destined for Lewis Hamilton in 2007.
So actually, despite initially dismissing Green’s placing at number 14 in Autosport’s countdown as “pro-British/current driver bias”, an alternative history where he would be a future F1 race-winner is actually more plausible than some of the more renowned drivers placed ahead of him.
I could go through each individually and talk about how Jason Watt probably would have been no more than an Alex Wurz-type figure or Al Unser Jr would have done no better in F1 than Michael Andretti, but that would take forever. I may delve deeper into them in the future. However, for now, there are a few in particular that intrigue me.
Firstly, there’s Greg Moore. You could dismiss the continual mythologising of the great lost Canadian as simply being because he died young and was heading for a top drive in 2000. There’s a case to be made that he wasn’t as good as has been made out in the years since, that the IndyCar split may have cost him in the long run, or that he was too much of a risk-taker to be successful (a similar argument has been made about another lost Canadian, Bertrand Fabi).
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that F1 teams were interested. The GrandPrix.com archive has the odd story on him being linked to a potential McLaren drive in the late 1990s in place of either Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard, while the Autosport article suggests he had prominent admirers in F1 in the shape of Jackie Stewart and Jean Todt, both team bosses at the time. It’s easy to see the attraction: a good-looking young Canadian with natural driving ability who would satisfy both fans and corporations. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Moore could’ve been handed a deal to drive a race-winning car around this time.
An evocative image of the late Greg Moore in the wet
Jorg Muller is another interesting case. I have the 2000 ITV F1 season preview book, and Muller is listed as the Williams driver, with his testing experience and BMW links being cited as reasons for his choice. He was also a damn good driver, though, as proven by his Formula 3000 championship success in 1996. However, winning F3000 was as much a curse as a blessing, as far as F1 was concerned, and Muller was beaten to the drive by Jenson Button; in fact, he fell behind Bruno Junqueira (who I’m surprised didn’t make Autosport’s list, by the way) in the pecking order before that too.
Jorg Muller testing the Williams-BMW test mule
Had Muller got that seat, it would have been a bit of a safe, boring choice compared to young Button, who went on to be a revelation during the 2000 season. However, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have done a solid job. He has been a consistent performer in touring cars and sportscars for BMW in the years since. It’s doubtful that he would have been a world champion like Button was, which sort of proves Williams right (except that they didn’t hang on to him), but at least it would have given him a shot in a competitive car, and he may have gotten closer to Ralf that year than Button did, which may have given him a shot at a decent career in F1. It also raises the question of what might have happened to Button had he not got his breakthrough drive.
Incidentally, it’s good to see Marc Hynes, who beat Button to the British F3 championship in 1999, back in a competitive drive, this time in the BTCC.
There are other intriguing stories there too. Paul Warwick was very quick, and though one could question the impartiality of his brother if you really wanted to cynical, I don’t think Derek is the sort of person who would necessarily exaggerate. My gut feeling is Paul would have been successful in F1. And though they might read as excuses, the stories surrounding Laurent Aiello, James Courtney and Rickard Rydell seem plausible enough to suggest that they were also good enough to race to a reasonably high level in F1. I hadn’t heard the story behind Rydell’s British F3 campaign and I like it. Rickard’s such a nice guy off the track that it makes sense that people didn’t think he was enough of a racer, even though he later went on to prove he was as much of a racer as anyone under a tin top.
Touring car star Laurent Aiello was given a McLaren test at Estoril in 1994 due to his links with Peugeot
The IndyCar guys make for a nice story too, although I have my doubts. As I hinted earlier, I suspect Unser Jr didn’t have the focus for F1. It’s interesting to learn that Paul Tracy had potential deals for Benetton for 1995 and 1996, but the former was a seat alongside Schumacher and the latter would have been in his wake, so it’s probably better than he didn’t take them. I’m dubious as to whether Dan Wheldon would have done an awful lot in the BMW Sauber, Franchitti didn’t have a competitive ride offered to him, and there’s little evidence to show whether or not Stewart would have done well. However, the explanation in the article for Brack doesn’t cover the fact that he did a few F1 tests and was Ligier’s official test driver in 1996, but I doubt he’d have been more than a midfield runner. In fact, you could say the same about most of them: Power, Dixon, De Ferran. Of all those listed, Rick Mears strikes me as the one most likely to have been successful in F1, especially considering that it was Brabham offering him a deal.
Paul Tracy also had his only F1 test at Estoril in 1994, and was quicker than Lehto and Verstappen
Ultimately F1 is all about having the right car at the right time. Having a car to begin with helps, but there are countless cases of drivers dropping in and out of F1 because the competition for seats from the midfield back is so intense and, as Damon Hill once said, you have to keep proving yourself race after race. While I enjoyed the article, it’s an awkward subject to write about because the vast majority of extremely talented single-seater racers capable of winning the F1 championship didn’t slip through the net, usually because it’s so bleeding obvious that they’re good enough that they will attract the backing or that teams will hire them even if they didn’t have it. The cream always rises to the top. Anyone who misses out on F1 due to any reason other than death or injury almost certainly didn’t have that x-factor necessary to make a real success of F1.
So when Tom Kristensen or Dario Franchitti say they have no regrets about not racing in F1, they are telling the truth.
Dario Franchitti’s shambolic test at Silverstone for Jaguar in 2000 probably wasn’t a fair reflection of his ability, but he retires with a stack of honours
I wrote this manifesto back in 2010 after a disappointing season of on-track action and continued financial pressure on the teams; many of the points were developed from an earlier blog post I wrote after the Bahrain Grand Prix, focusing on the quality and sustainability of F1. Little has changed since: the addition of DRS has increased overtaking but has failed to solve intrinsic problems with the cars themselves and has been branded “artificial”, and the financial situations of the teams has got worse, with Honda being the only manufacturer opting to join the sport in the years to come. The points largely still stand, and the references have been updated to make them more relevant. This is still my vision of what F1 should be.
Images published in the spirit of fair use
First and foremost, it is important to state that we are in a golden era of Formula 1 motor racing. The last few championships, since the end of the years of domination by Ferrari, have been stellar and will be remembered as some of the greatest in the history of the sport. Before I begin my criticism, it is important to acknowledge this – it is largely constructive criticism, not a long-winded rant about how awful it is.
However, this does not justify the status quo. Nothing is perfect, and there is always the need to keep improving the finished product for the fans. There is room for further expansion, and there are some significant flaws. While F1 is no longer in a particularly unhealthy state, this has little correlation to what we have seen on-track – the sequence of manufacturer withdrawals (Honda, BMW and Toyota, with Renault scaling back) came during, in my opinion, two of the best seasons in F1 history. F1 still lacks investment, with several teams struggling financially, and there are only three manufacturers supplying engines in the sport, with Honda returning in 2015. Thus, there is a need to attract more companies to invest in F1, particularly manufacturers and multinational corporations to make large-scale investments.
The most frequent complaint about F1 is the quality of the racing. Before I begin, I must make it clear that overtaking should be inherently difficult at the highest level and I would not want to make it “easy”, as has often been the case since the instruction of DRS and the degradable control tyres from Pirelli. Without those changes, it would be very difficult to pass the car in front, leading to uninteresting, processional races. Such occurrences are an inevitability in F1, but that is not to say efforts should not be made to try and limit the number of races that end up being boring. The changes made from 1998 to 2010 to try and facilitate more overtaking largely failed, though I will not to fall into a trap of comparing to the past.
I do not want to compare to the past because what is important is whether F1 is entertaining now or not, and whether it would improve if a particular change(s) is made. F1 has a long and proud history but how “good” it was in the past should be an irrelevance. There is a lot of rose-tinting among F1 fans, but we must accept that the sport has moved on, for better or worse – implementing ideas from the past solely because they supposedly made the racing better should be avoided unless there is good reason to do so. I am looking to create an F1 for the 21st century, not recreate the F1 of the 20th century.
Though I see a great need for stability in F1, as opposed to the constant annual rule changes at present, I believe changes are needed to improve the show, and I will set out what changes I believe are needed, though obviously I am just an armchair spectator, so I don’t think of my word as the gospel truth.
My proposals will be set around and all relate to a number of key aims that are central to my vision of what F1 should be:
- F1 should focus on the fans, as they are the most important thing in the whole of the sport, therefore the show should be the most important element of the sport
- F1 must be financially justifiable and sustainable in order to attract further investment
- A combination of both of these mean the ultimate aim is for F1 to be better value for money
- F1 must remain F1
It is absolutely vital that F1 shall remain F1. It must remain true to its original defining principles, those that make F1 unique and attractive to the massive audiences it attracts every year. If these principles are eroded, F1 will cease to be F1, so in that sense, it must remain pure.
However, there are also some misconceptions. F1 is often seen as the “pinnacle of motorsport”, which is a twisted view of motorsport hierarchy. F1 is indeed the pinnacle of single seater racing, especially since the decline of IndyCar. But not every driver begins their racing career with the ultimate aim of reaching F1. While not as large, sportscars, GTs and touring cars have their own pinnacle series with a separate pyramid to the single seater world, and on the other side of the Atlantic, NASCAR is a much greater influence than F1 and could probably justify being the pinnacle of North American motorsport as a whole.
But despite this, F1 must remain the pinnacle of global single seater racing. It must have the fastest, most challenging open wheel cars in the world in order to maintain its place and its popularity.
F1 must also remain a multi-chassis formula, as this is what sets it apart from the majority of other single seater series at present. While other series have had multiple chassis in the past, economic circumstances have dictated that it wasn’t viable, but F1, as the pinnacle, can justify this. However, that is far as it should go. Some may go further and suggest that every team must build a different car, and that all the cars must be significantly different. But this was never part of the foundations of F1 – the formula of Formula 1 was primarily an engine formula, and there were certainly no restrictions against customer cars until the 1980s, so I do not see it as necessary to keep this as it is, as I shall explain later.
F1 cars must also be aesthetically pleasing. Over the years, the development of the F1 car has changed what they look like greatly, but this has gradually stabilised with various rules restrictions, and thus an image of what an F1 car should look like has formed. F1 cars should thus still fit this basic template – a slicks and wings racer. You will not find any proposals from me suggesting wings should be banned, because I don’t believe it would fit what F1 is all about in the year 2014, nor do I believe it would make any difference to the racing. Aesthetics also includes how the cars look on-track – they must look spectacular and not effectively drive “on rails” – and sound. These must be taken into considerations when defining the technical rules, as they are as important as the quality of the racing itself – no one wants to watch ugly cars.
F1 races should also stay roughly the same length – about 305 km (apart from Monaco). This makes it considerably longer than its feeder series, and not too long that viewers become bored and without straying into endurance racing territory. F1 was initially an endurance racing formula, though a pure endurance format would not be attractive enough to the public or broadcasters.
3) Proposed technical regulation changes
In accordance with the initial aims, my primary objective is for a technical rules package that will create better racing, will appeal to the fans, and make F1 more cost-effective. The general overview of this is to improve racing by shifting the emphasis within F1 development from aerodynamics to engines, as it is aero development that stifles racing and engine differentiation will improve it, and a move to far less expensive, less complex internal components, in particular the electronics but also focusing on gearboxes and brakes.
My primary inspiration was the Grand Am Sports Car Series of North America (which becomes the United SportsCar Championship in 2014), and their Daytona Prototypes. The DP regulations have the a basic principle of severely limiting the external development of cars but leaving enough space to make the cars visibly unique, with the most significant focus being on the engines – in fact, with the names of their cars, they reverse the traditional format (traditionally it is Chassis-Engine, e.g. McLaren-Mercedes) in order to give precedence to the manufacturer (Engine-Chassis, e.g. BMW-Riley). The engines themselves are based on blocks from road car engines. As a result, it is a very competitive series with many close, exciting races.
I believe a system based on the Daytona Prototype system would work because it would be very cost-effective and allow close racing, but not stray from F1′s principles. It would mean greater restrictions in some areas than at present in order to reduce unnecessary cost and help encourage exciting racing. The reduction in cost from such restrictions would allow greater freedoms in other areas. This is similar to the direction taken by the IRL for IndyCar. The name of the plan which eventually led to the development of their DW12 chassis is ICONIC – “Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective”. F1 would do well by adopting a similar line with future rules development.
The IndyCar rules themselves are similarly influential. While it is officially a single chassis formula, the chassis is just that – a basic chassis – with the intention of companies developing separate aero kits based around this chassis in the future. This is a very cost-effective approach while allowing competition to go ahead. Engines are also small (V6, 2.2L) and cheap, but they are also turbo-charged and will be nearing F1 engines in power. 3 engine manufacturers signed up for 2012, the first season utilising the new rules, though Lotus later withdrew.
b) Aerodynamics and Bodywork
As I have already said, I believe the emphasis in F1 development should move away from aerodynamics. It should be heavily restricted. There are three very good reasons for this:
- Liberal aero development is a considerable factor in the difficulty of overtaking in F1
- It is very expensive, requiring features such as CFD supercomputers and windtunnels to develop
- It is much less relevant to the road car industry than other areas of F1 development
I propose that this restriction of aero goes as far as some areas of standardisation. This will not be popular with some elements of the F1 fan base but I believe allowing some areas of the car to be developed continually is at odds with their demand for better racing.
In particular, what I propose to be standardised are the front and rear wings, and the area around the rear of the car, i.e. around the diffuser. Taking each individually, it is evident that considerable development has gone into front wings, with small, highly-detailed sections on the outside. This would be better restricted, or rather outlawed completely, in order to limit costs – front wing development is in no way relevant to the automotive industry as a whole.
The rear wing and rear end should also be standardised for this reason, but also, and primarily so, because they are the biggest producer of wake turbulence or “dirty air”, the whipping up of air from the rear of the car which makes following another car very difficult for the car behind, which is a major factor in restricting overtaking. Diffusers, one of the great problem areas for this and a constant source of loophole exploitation in the current rules package, should be banned completely. This will mean a lot less grip at the rear of the cars, which should not only make them easier to follow, but also more challenging to drive and more spectacular to watch.
However, it is only these key areas that should be standardised. Each car must be different and that must be noticeable. Most areas of the car should remain free for development as long as they do not have much of an impact on the racing, though as I am not an aerodynamicist, I will leave the exact details for the professionals – specifically to a committee of independent designers (i.e. not those employed by the teams) which would be created to manage these affairs.
In terms of the rough dimensions of the car, this will be dictated by aesthetics. I am not a fan of the current generation of cars’ wing sizes – I don’t find them particularly attractive, they didn’t fully achieve their aim of making it easier for the car behind to follow, and the wide front wings are potentially dangerous if two cars collide due to the tendency to launch one into the air. I recommend more traditional-looking wing proportions in order to appeal to the fans. Cars would be roughly the same size as they are now but would look simpler – in terms of this, and the scale of the cars’ features, I would personally like to see something similar to the original GP3 car, as shown below being tested by Mark Webber back in 2010, which was 329 mm/13 inches shorter than current F1 cars. Note the simpler wings and suspension layout:
With the emphasis moving away from aero, it will go back to engines. Engine development is far more relevant to the automotive industry than aero, and I believe a shift in emphasis would attract manufacturers back into F1 if made cost-effective enough. For one, this will mean the end of some of the restrictions on development, such as the freeze on development and the rev limit, the latter in particular being another factor limiting overtaking.
But totally free engine regulations would inevitably lead to highly developed and expensive prototype engines, which would not necessarily be very good for the sport as a whole. So, in order to maintain cost-effectiveness, and to attract vital manufacturer support into F1, I propose a shift to road car-based engines.
Initially, I follow the Daytona Prototype principle of having a road car engine block, with some parts allowed to be modified and approval of the engines required before being used in F1. However, the DP engines are highly restricted and equalised, and they are also very big – up to 5.0L. The former is not the direction I wish F1 to go in (though some form of homologation is likely) while the latter is not the direction manufacturers want would F1 to go in – the car industry today is moving towards smaller engines with turbos, as shown by the change of Super 2000 regulations from 2.0L to 1.6L engines in recent years, and indeed F1’s own change to smaller 1.6L turbocharged V6 engines in 2014.
Sticking with 1.6L turbos makes sense, as it is a common engine size for road cars manufacturers. However, the key difference is the road car engine base – the development of these instead of prototype engines would greatly reduce the costs, and you could probably still get a huge amount of power from them after development. The aim is to get as many manufacturers as possible producing engines for F1, from the giants of the industry such as Toyota, Ford, General Motors, BMW and VW, to smaller manufacturers such as Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Proton, in order to provide a range of different engines of different formats.
Similarly, unlike in the 2014 F1 engine rules, there would be no restriction engine layout – manufacturers will be use whatever configuration they want, as long as it’s from a road car. A further aspect of this is the use of alternative fuels, such as diesel, LPG and biofuels, all of which have been used in motorsport series outside F1. Innovation, variation and environmental justification – that is the core.
d) Gearboxes, brakes, electronics
The need for cost reduction and road relevance continues to other areas of the car. Gearboxes are a key area and a lot of development has gone into the seamless shift semi-automatic breed of ‘boxes in the last few seasons. However, they are very expensive – the FIA now have restrictions on how many can be used, with grid penalties in place for changing them. For a start, this will be abolished, as I hope the costs will come down enough for this to not be necessary.
This will come from reverting to “traditional”, more manual gearboxes, perhaps road car-based. And as well as costing less and having more road relevance for most of the manufacturers this new rules package is aimed at, there is another major positive – it is far more challenging to use. It would add an extra variable for the drivers, with up- or down-shifting mistakes leading to the vastly increased potential for overtaking.
The electronics of F1 cars as a whole should also be much simpler. There has again been a lot of development in this area recently, a lot of which serves little relevance in the “real” world. Simplification of the electronics, including the banning of features such as pits-to-car and car-to-pits telemetry, the adjustment of fuel mixes from the cockpit and many of the launch systems, would be far more cost-effective.
The indicator of the extent of this would be the steering wheel. Current F1 steering wheels are crammed with buttons and switches – the target would be wheels more like those of the late 1990s. To demonstrate, on the left is the wheel of a 1997 McLaren, while on the right is the 2010 wheel used by the same team – the target is a wheel like that on the left:
I should also not forget KERS, which has been a feature of F1 on and off since 2009. I am supportive of this from the perspective that it has perceived environmental benefits and is an innovation that will trickle down to road car users. This is again a positive as far as the manufacturers are concerned – indeed, BMW cited “sustainability and environmental compatibility” in their departure statement in July 2009. However, I am not a fan of it in its current power boost format, which is both gimmicky and restrictive. A new method of using KERS would have to be created, possibly as something constantly in use instead of at selected moments.
As with other aspects, the aim for tyres is for them to be more cost-effective. In the past, Michelin has suggested the introduction of the lower profile tyres they produce for Le Mans Prototypes, but I am not convinced this would be the right move.
The key thing, though, is for competition between manufacturers, something cheaper tyres would allow. A tyre war between two or more manufacturers would provide another variable that could potentially lead to more exciting races. It is not as if there are no manufacturers interested in F1 –Michelin, Cooper Avon, Hankook and Continental were revealed by Bernie Ecclestone to have shown an interest in becoming the F1 tyre supplier back in 2010 before Pirelli won the tender. No doubt you could also add Goodyear, Dunlop, a returning Bridgestone, Yokohama, Kumho and others to a list of potential suppliers in a tyre war as well – just look at the number of manufacturers in sportscar racing, where there are fewer restrictions.
And although it is a sporting regulation, I am also not a huge fan of the requirement to use two sets of tyres during a race. I would prefer a system of a large gap between compounds, with each driver picking a particular compound at the start of a weekend, which would not be distinguishable from the other compound to the viewer at home. More variation in tyres, i.e. more than two compounds, would potentially be a positive move as well, perhaps with the reintroduction of special qualifying tyres, but this would depend on cost-effectiveness.
4) Proposed sporting changes
a) Format and calendar
The F1 World Championship format and calendar as it is now is fine and does not need to be changed. However, I have my own personal views about the ideal format the sport should take, and it does not include a championship as we know it. This is the idea I have christened the F1 Tour.
I believe that in its purest form, F1 should take a format similar to tennis and golf – no coherent championship but a series of many events over the course of the year linked by a rankings system, with the ultimate goal being, in the case of F1, to be number 1 driver or team. A championship is effectively an artificial construct that proves little – the champion is rarely the driver who has performed best throughout the year. Removing the championship would not be against F1′s principles because F1 is a formula – Formula 1 itself existed before the creation of the World Championship for Drivers in 1950, and non-championship F1 events took place as recently as 1983.
Therefore, the emphasis should shift towards individual events and winning races. The rankings would be a sideshow – if Rafael Nadal should try to win Wimbledon just for the sake of winning Wimbledon, then Fernando Alonso should try to win the Monaco Grand Prix for the sake of winning the event. This would remove pressures at the end of a season for protecting points leads, and would also limit the need for teams to use team orders. There would, however, be regional or continental mini-championships with bonus prize money on offer.
Prize money would be allocated publicly with an increased emphasis on individual event, as in NASCAR, rather than on the constructors’ championship at the end, while points for the rankings would vary according to the “grade” of the event, the most prestigious races being of a higher grade and thus worth more points, as is the case in tennis and golf.
Points would be given for all starters, and there would be points on offer for pole position, the fastest lap, leading a lap, leading the most laps and maybe others. It would be more representative of performance than at present, as it would be a ranking system rather than a championship. There would also be two rankings – a continuous ranking overlapping into the next season, and a start-to-finish ranking within a year, perhaps also with the addition of mini-rankings for events of a certain grade or continent.
The official 2014 F1 calendar will take place over 37 weeks, from 16th March to 23rd November, and so I think it would be possible to have as many as 40 events in a season over a similar period. The NASCAR Sprint Cup has 36 championship events and 2 non-championship races over a slightly longer time span within the year (it starts earlier than F1), so it shows it can be done as long as costs are kept down. The human cost should also be taken into account with less restrictions for entry lists (see below) and the option for rotating the driver line-up. One other way of doing it on a larger scale would be for each team to essentially have two race teams within their organisation, but then this would drive up the cost considerably.
The races themselves, in addition to the current venues, would ideally include many traditional F1 heartlands and classic venues, countries such as France, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa. But also there is a need to embrace new markets. The expansion of the calendar would hopefully mean less of a need for grand, expansive facilities, as the calendar would inevitably have to include circuits that don’t have such facilities. Safety is an issue and certain compromises would need to be made but not to the extent of jeopardising the lives of the drivers and spectators.
b) Entry lists and customer cars
As mentioned above, entry lists would have less restrictions with the F1 Tour. Entry would be on an event-by-event basis, rather than fixed at the start of the year, allowing the teams to enter as many races as they want and change the driver line-up as much as they want.
In order to prevent too much of a human cost and promote variety, drivers themselves would be restricted to about 20-25 races a year, meaning the top teams, who would be encouraged to enter more than that number of races to gain more prize money (the system would be geared towards this being the case, even with the “lesser” races), would have to use different drivers. Suddenly you have a lot more opportunities for young drivers, especially with competitive machinery.
Added to this, there would be no limit on the number of teams entering a race. With the vast decrease in the budget needed to be competitive in F1, this would hopefully mean a lot more teams will be able to enter F1 races, particularly encouraging one-off entries such as leading American teams in the North American events. This would be possible via a freeing up of the entry regulations, and in particular the introduction of customer cars.
Customer cars are not against F1’s defining principles, as they have been present from the beginning until the early 1980s, when they disappeared with F1’s drive for increased professionalism among the teams – likewise, the possibility of entering only 1 car into a race was removed in the early 1990s, something that would also be allowed once again.
Jo Siffert wins the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch driving a Lotus-Ford entered by Rob Walker Racing Team. The team won nine championship races without ever building their own car.
With the decreased costs, it would be very affordable to “buy” an F1 car. What would be best is a system whereby the constructor loans the customer the car(s) for a period including a testing session and race weekend, allowing constructors to supply many teams without building too many chassis. A customer team would not be at much of an advantage as they still have to set the car up correctly, but the cars would also be more basic and thus easier to manage.
Issues surrounding prize money would have to be resolved in a different way. There would likely be a split of the money between the team and the constructor (whereas a constructor entrant would get the prize money for both, thus maintaining the benefit of being a constructor), without making it unprofitable for either party, and there would also be the introduction of a teams’ ranking alongside the constructors’ ranking.
There would be less restrictions on testing under the F1 Tour, but arrangements would be more complex, as the rules would be engineered to allow the irregular entrants more testing during the season so that they can get up to speed.
However, as a rule (and this should be in place in general, not just F1 Tour), testing at F1 venues (or at least on the layout used by F1) would be banned, as it is another hindrance to the quality of the racing due to the teams working out an ideal setup before arriving for the race weekend.
d) Weekend format
Aside from F1 Tour, the weekend format should still be tweaked, with a general principle of less practice time. The 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix showed the impact practice has – with all pre-race session disrupted by rain, the teams had not dialled the car into the circuit, creating more exciting racing. A perfect setup means the car is easier for the drivers to drive, less spectacular for the viewers, and hinders the racing – take away the time they have to set up the car and it becomes more challenging.
Therefore, I propose cutting practice itself to just 1 hour on a Saturday morning. However, this is not as considerable as it looks, as I propose a move back to a more relaxed qualifying format of a free-for-all hour on a Saturday afternoon – the reason for this is that I am not a fan of the current format, as while it is exciting, I find it too regimented and restrictive, and I’d rather see all cars get the maximum opportunity. The excuse for not having such a format – that teams never went out for most of the session – is removed by the fact that they’d have to be out there developing their car setup due to the lack of practice time.
The irregular entrants and smaller teams would also have the benefit of an extra hour of pre-qualifying on a Friday – this would remain in place even if there were 28 or less entrants. Pre-qualifying would now be more sustainable due to the decreased budgets, the removal of Friday practice, and the fact that F1 TV coverage has moved on since the previous days of pre-qualifying. 28 cars would advance to qualifying (including those that would not be present for pre-quali) with a further 2 dropping out after the end of Saturday qualifying, with no restriction on who those 2 cars would be.
A pre-qualifying race between the smaller teams could also be arranged for significant events with many entries, again giving extra publicity. This would be especially needed at Monaco, likely to have many entries but limited space in the paddock.
5) The fans
The fans are the centre of F1. Without them, there would be no point to F1 – investment from corporations comes because they want to sell their product or work to someone, and without that investment, F1 would be dead. So it is within F1’s own interest to please the fans. However, despite a few fan surveys, they’ve not always remembered this.
The main focus should be keeping them happy by maintaining and improving the show here and now. As I said, we should forget notions of trying to make it what it once was, because you cannot turn the clock back. While there are many types of F1 fan who find various aspects of the sport particularly interesting, they are all united by one common desire: for exciting racing and races. Therefore, that is the priority. This should overrule the desire of many fans for a “pure” F1 (albeit what many want isn’t actually that “pure” anyway), something that clashes with the desire for better racing – you cannot have free aero regulations and good racing in such a competitive, cut-throat sport today, because Pandora’s box has been opened. Precedence must be given to the show.
That is the primary justification for my proposals. I am aware that not everyone will agree, as some will think I’m removing too much from F1’s core. But as I’ve explained, I don’t believe I am doing that, as it stays true to the defining principles of F1 over the years – most of what I’ve suggested should be removed comes from later additions, and in some ways I am suggesting going back to a purer form of F1 with the emphasis on engines, and making the cars more challenging to drive and hopefully putting more back in his hands.
But beyond this, there are other things that can be done to improve the experience of the fans, concerned with the presentation of the sport to the public. In terms of race attendance, ticket prices are very expensive – they should be decreased, and hopefully cost decreases across the board will make this possible. In TV, Formula One Manangement and the broadcasters need to continue making innovations.
It is in the field of licensing and merchandise, though, that requires the greatest attention. FOM has quite a draconian reputation in this area for their requesting of YouTube videos containing classic F1 footage to be removed, and yet they provide no alternative other than the season reviews. Why not produce more online content around classic footage as the BBC and Sky Sports have successfully implemented? Why not sell DVDs of full classic races? These would be very popular.
Further to that, the F1 license for video games is an exclusive one, currently held by Codemasters. But this was never the case in the past – back in 2001, Europress released Grand Prix 4 as a parallel to EA Sports’ F1 2001, acting as a more advanced game for experienced gamers. So why not this? Why not offer the license out for an F1 team management game? Football is a great example of how this can work – while the Premier League do take down videos as frequently as FOM, they are a lot more flexible with their licensing in other areas. The management games like the Football Manager series paralleling the more official FIFA games is a good example of this.
Alongside social media, FOM don’t do enough in these areas and it would be great if they could make more of a push in this direction and generally be more fan-friendly. The fans would appreciate it and it could make them money, not just directly but indirectly by encouraging more new fans.
In conclusion, I believe I have created a model that, if initiated, would make F1 a much stronger series. With a great reduction in the cost of building cars, teams will have a much greater chance of making a profit. An emphasis on engines, in a cost-effective manner, will encourage investment from manufacturers, who are key to the growth and continued success of the sport. And with a much more fan-centric approach, prioritising racing, aesthetics and the quality of the show as a whole, I hope it would strengthen F1’s fan base.
In response to my aims:
F1 should focus on the fans, as they are the most important thing in the whole of the sport, therefore the show should be the most important element of the sport
New technical regulations in order to try and encourage more exciting racing, a greater number of races on the calendar, and improved accessibility and presentation of the sport are all part of my proposal. And importantly, I have not strayed too far from F1’s guiding principles, so I hope many fans would not feel betrayed by this.
F1 must be financially justifiable and sustainable in order to attract further investment
The important thing is not necessarily cost reduction but cost-effectiveness. I have proposed the removal of some expensive features of F1 cars that have little relevance to the automotive industry as a whole, and other changes consider road car technology, so that even if there is considerable investment in development of these elements, there will be a trickle-down effect to the normal road car user. The inclusion of KERS and the potential for alternative fuels also adds perceived environmental benefits. This makes F1 sustainable and justifiable to the manufacturers, and would hopefully encourage more to join or rejoin F1.
A combination of both of these mean the ultimate aim is for F1 to be better value for money
An improved sport and show with a decreased cost and increased cost-effectiveness and sustainability is certainly better value for money, and would secure its future long-term.
F1 must remain F1
While some may argue that I have taken away too much, I believe I have stayed within F1’s principles – the cars would still be very fast, spectacular, and aesthetically pleasing; it would remain a multi-chassis formula (even with the introduction of customer cars); and the races would still be the same. Indeed, the shift of emphasis from aero to engine would move F1 back towards its original core, as it was primarily an engine formula when it was first developed, and the simplification of the electronics would make it more of a drivers’ sport once again.
Is this taking F1 backwards? In a technological sense, yes, but I see that as for the progress of the sport as a whole – it is as “purist” as the current rules, with their multitude of restrictions on how many engines and gearboxes each driver is allowed. It is purist from a driving perspective – and the fans care more about the drivers and their driving than the teams and their development of technological advancements. But it still does allow for some innovation, particularly in the engine department.
What I am proposing is not something buried in the past. This is F1 for the future. While the manufacturers ended up with too great a role in the sport and left it for dead when they wanted out, their support is crucial – F1 cannot survive as a solely independent sport in the 21st century. It is a business as well as a sport, and thus it needs to be justifiable from a business perspective – of course, the fans do fit into this, as they are needed. But F1 has to be made more financially sustainable. There is so much waste in F1 – too much unnecessary spending on items of little relevance to the rest of the world has sent budgets through the roof. They are coming down, thanks to the Resource Restriction Agreement and proposed budget cap, but they could go further.
They could also go further to improve the racing – each time they make a change, they only look at part of the problem, instead of tackling it totally head on. To improve racing, F1 needs radical change instead bit-part solutions every year, skirting around the problem. A clean sheet of paper is needed and largely that is what I have proposed, while staying within the confines of what an F1 car should look like in the eyes of the majority of fans.
But the most important thing is stability. Every year, there are rule changes – this year saw the refuelling ban, last year saw a overhaul of aero rules (that didn’t go far enough), and next year sees the reintroduction of KERS. The goalposts are constantly moving; the teams and drivers constantly have to adapt to change. What needs to happen is a set of rules to be drawn up which cover all areas, like my proposals, and then need to be stuck to for a number of years without significant change. That way, you will keep the development costs down, and the racing will improve – and that should be F1′s holy grail.
Inspired by a thread on a discussion forum, I’ve come up with a much better 20-race calendar than the 19-race calendar F1 will be using next year, free of many of the charmless circuits that the circus visits this year. Yes, this does mean sacrificing visits to lucrative areas Bernie Ecclestone wants to tap into, but I think for most people, it’s more important to have interesting races at historic venues with character – so no Shanghai, Yeongam, Buddh or Yas Marina circuits to be found here. But I will be keeping it fairly realistic, sticking to (or close to) the safety requirements the FIA stipulates – so no Nurburgring Nordschliefe or Le Mans either.
Images are used in the spirit of fair use
Round 1: 16/03 – Brazilian Grand Prix – Interlagos
Back when I started following F1 in the 1990s, Brazil used to be the second stop on the calendar after Australia. Before that, it was the season opener. While the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo has done a fine job hosting the season finale or penultimate race, I’d rather see it at the beginning of the season. It’s a great circuit, one of the few to not be completely neutered down the years, and the unpredictable climate has led to numerous wet races, including the infamous 2003 race won by Giancarlo Fisichella in a dreadful Jordan-Ford.
Round 2: 23/03 – Argentine Grand Prix – Potrero de los Funes
Argentina’s round on the calendar has always been held at the Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez in Buenos Aires, with races held on the longer, faster layout in the 1970s and early 1980s, and on the twisty, narrow layout, derided as a “go kart circuit”, in the 1990s. It would be a logical host again, but it would be far more special if the race was held at the spectacular Potrero de los Funes circuit in San Luis Province, which runs around a lake in the mountains. It has been updated to modern standards and has hosted rounds of the FIA GT1 World Championship, so would just about be adequate for F1.
Round 3: 06/04 – Bahrain Grand Prix – Sakhir
Of all the modern circuits designed by Hermann Tilke, the Sakhir Circuit is perhaps the one with the most redeeming features. It doesn’t have the most challenging layout but has always produced good racing (except for the one race held on the long circuit in 2010, one of the most tedious races in F1 history), and it is uniquely set in the middle of the desert, making it immediately identifiable. While the reasons for it being on the calendar are, let’s say, questionable, it would be wrong to deny the Middle East a spot on the calendar entirely considering this is a world championship, and I’d rather this than Abu Dhabi.
Round 4: 27/04 – San Marino Grand Prix – Imola
Despite being heavily modified after the infamous 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Imola remained one of the most popular venues on the calendar until it was unceremoniously dropped from the calendar after the 2006 race. It has since undergone further changes, with a new pits complex and start/finish straight bypassing the old Variante Bassa. Unlike most modern circuits, it has elevation changes and things to see beyond the circuit walls, which makes up for its lack of overtaking places. It’s also guaranteed to get a good turn-out from the tifosi, who will attend to cheer on their local team, Ferrari; the circuit is named after the team’s founder Enzo and his son Dino.
Round 5: 11/05 – Spanish Grand Prix – Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez hosted the Spanish Grand Prix from 1986 to 1990, before being replaced by the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. But it is best known in F1 history for being the venue of the 1997 European Grand Prix, which saw Michael Schumacher try and fail to take Jacques Villeneuve out of the race in an attempt to become world champion for the third time. The circuit was banned from hosting F1 races after that after the mayor invited himself onto the podium, but it still hosts occasional test sessions. The reasons for the ban are trivial and no doubt could be bypassed if necessary, and it’s a more interesting venue than Catalunya and the Valencia street circuit, which has also hosted F1 in recent years.
Round 6: 25/05 – Monaco Grand Prix – Monte Carlo
The race at Monaco is traditionally considered the jewel in F1’s crown. By rights, it should have been abandoned decades ago for being far too unsafe, and it is the most difficult circuit to overtake on. But this is Monaco – a densely-populated tax haven in the south of France beloved by the wealthy, and because of this, the sponsors love it too. The rich and famous line up on the narrow grid every year, soaking in the atmosphere, before allowing the drivers to thread their way through the streets between the unforgiving barriers for 78 laps in the greatest driving challenge today. Yes, this reads like something Murray Walker would say, but every cliché is accurate – Monaco is an incredible spectacle.
Round 7: 08/06 – Canadian Grand Prix – Montreal
The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, named after the man who won the first race at the circuit in 1978, usually throws up one of the most entertaining races of the season. It’s another circuit which flirts with the regulations, with very little run-off area between the circuit and the concrete walls that line it. It’s one of the few circuits where you can really trash an F1 car these days. There is no better example than the final chicane, which has claimed numerous high-profile victims down the years, to the point where the concrete wall on the outside is known as the Wall of Champions.
Round 8: 15/06 – United States Grand Prix – Indianapolis
Look, I’ll admit it: I don’t like the much-hyped Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Yes, it has a few nice corners and a hill, but like most of the other modern circuits on the calendar, it lacks that je ne sai quoi. Instead, I’d rather see the race at a genuinely historic venue, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosted F1 on its road course layout from 2000 to 2007. The racing was usually good, only for the event to be blighted by the farcical 2005 event when all the teams running Michelin tyres (that’s all bar three of them) were forced to withdraw. It has since been modified for bikes, and will again change to host IndyCar this year. Alternatively, the race could be held at the New Jersey street circuit if they bother to finish it.
Round 9: 29/06 – French Grand Prix – Paul Ricard
The Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France hosted the French Grand Prix from 1971, when it was considered one of the most modern circuits in the wall, to 1990, when it was replaced by Magny-Cours, a flat, featureless circuit in the middle of nowhere. Paul Ricard was bought at the turn of the century by Bernie Ecclestone, who funded a conversion of the track into an ultra-modern testing facility. In the last few years, it has begun hosting races again, and a return to the F1 calendar has been mooted. For me, this could only be on the classic layout, using the full length of the Mistral Straight to test the engines and the fast Signes curve to test the bravery of the drivers.
Round 10: 06/07 – British Grand Prix – Silverstone
Though I am no great fan of the new layout, Silverstone is a must for the F1 calendar. The former airfield hosted the very first F1 World Championship event back in 1950, and has been the permanent host of the British Grand Prix since the famous 1987 race, when Nigel Mansell overtook Nelson Piquet late on to win in front of a passionate home crowd. It remains one of the fastest circuits on the calendar, with the Maggotts/Becketts complex rated amongst the most challenging in F1, while the new arena section provides the circuit with the overtaking opportunity it perhaps lacked in its previous form.
Round 11: 20/07 – German Grand Prix – Hockenheim/Nurburgring
The German spot on the calendar currently alternates between two of the most famous circuits on the calendar. However, both are shadows of their former selves. After Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in 1976, the 14-mile long Nurburgring, arguably the most challenging circuit in the world, lost its spot on the calendar to Hockenheim, famed for its flat-out blasts into and out of the surrounding forest and the atmospheric stadium section after it. The owners of the Nurburgring then decided to build a new circuit next to the old one, similar in character but on a much smaller scale, and it hosted races in 1984 and 1985. However, it proved that you cannot replicate 14 miles in just 3 – it was immediately unpopular. However, in the 1990s, it returned and has gradually become established on the calendar. However, the owners of Hockenheim also decided to truncate their circuit, reducing it to a short Tilke-designed sprint between various hairpins and stadium sections. Both are no longer as magical as they used to be, and have been in serious financial trouble in recent years, but with Sebastian Vettel dominating F1, the German Grand Prix remains a fixture.
Round 12: 27/07 – Hungarian Grand Prix – Hungaroring
The Budapest venue was one of the least popular venues on the calendar for many years. One of the first circuits designed on a computer, the first F1 circuit to the east of the Iron Curtain was initially considered far too twisty and dusty. However, in the three decades since, what was once considered a weakness has now become its strength; with F1 circuits becoming increasingly about high speed corners, the Hungaroring has become increasingly unique and has thrown up many surprise results, including Jenson Button’s first win in 2006 and Heikki Kovalainen’s only win in 2008. The race here remains one of the most interesting of the year, despite the lack of overtaking.
Round 13: 24/08 – Belgian Grand Prix – Spa-Francorchamps
After the summer break, F1 returns with a visit to one of the greatest circuits in the world. Despite increasingly forgiving run-off areas, Spa remains one of the great challenges in F1, and includes arguably the two most fearsome high-speed corners – Eau Rouge and Blanchimont. The elevation changes are astounding and would surely be illegal if being built today, while the weather is genuinely unpredictable. It’s also the longest circuit on the calendar, with just 44 laps in a race.
Round 14: 07/09 – Italian Grand Prix – Monza
Monza is another unique circuit, being one of the oldest circuits on the calendar and the last of the true high-speed circuits left. Only here will you find the almost-vertical rear wings fitted to the cars to reduce drag. It’s also heavy on the breaks, with three low-speed chicanes after long straights. The circuit is enveloped by trees and contains the crumbling relic of the concrete oval, abandoned in the 1960s. The tifosi help make it one of the most atmospheric venues on the calendar. It’s a special place.
Round 15: 14/09 – Austrian Grand Prix – Spielberg
The circuit formerly known as the Osterreichring and the A1-Ring returns to the calendar in June 2014 as the Red Bull Ring, after it was bought in the mid-2000s by the drinks company’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz. It last hosted an F1 race in 2003, before it was forced out by the increasing Asian presence on the calendar. Though the Hermann Tilke-designed layout, which was constructed in 1996, isn’t particularly challenging in contrast to the frighteningly fast old circuit, it was always great for overtaking, and as it is in roughly the same place, it retains some of the character of the Osterreichring – the Styrian Mountains make for one of the most spectacular backdrops in world motorsport.
Round 16: 28/09 – Welsh Grand Prix – Ebbw Vale
From one mountainous circuit to another – albeit one that hasn’t actually been built yet. Yes, it’s self-indulgent, but when has there been a better time to consider the possibility of F1 in Wales? I’m confident that the Circuit of Wales will be a great venue for motorsport. F1 seems very unlikely at this stage but it is being built to the highest possible standard, and the layout looks great, especially if you factor in the elevation changes. The high altitude will also add in another factor for the teams to consider, and an F1 race in Wales in autumn will inevitably have a high probability of rain. Until it’s built, the European Grand Prix would be held at Brands Hatch or Donington Park in this slot.
Round 17: 5/10 – Portuguese Grand Prix – Estoril
Back on familiar turf here, with the venue that hosted the Portuguese round of the championship from 1984 (where it decided the championship in Niki Lauda’s favour by half a point from Alain Prost) to 1996, after which it was dropped for failing to improve its facilities. It has since done so, and is also now far safer than it once was, albeit with the loss of the first two fast corners. Nonetheless, it’s still recognisably Estoril, and while the list of successful Portuguese F1 drivers isn’t particularly long, it’s not as if we haven’t had a second event on the Iberian peninsular as a whole. The Algarve Circuit in Portimao perhaps might get a shot in alternate years too.
Round 18: 19/10 – Singapore Grand Prix – Marina Bay
Of all the circuits added to the calendar in the last decade, the only one that I’ve taken to is Singapore, because it’s the only new circuit to have been designed old school style. It’s a proper street circuit, unlike Valencia which has been purpose-built for the occasion and might as well be a permanent circuit. It has walls and buildings next to the road, markings on the tarmac, and even a tunnel. And it was also the first venue for an F1 night race, which adds the final touch to one of F1’s greatest events.
Round 19: 02/11 – Japanese Grand Prix – Suzuka
Honda’s Suzuka Circuit has been relatively unchanged since it was built in 1962 as a state-of-the-art testing venue. Designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz, the Tilke of his day (but better), it features a rare crossover and some thrilling corners, including the double-apex First Corner which often causes a first lap collision, the Snake, Degner, and 130R, the super-fast left-hander at the end of the Back Stretch where Allan McNish trashed a Toyota in 2002. Back in the day, you could spot Suzuka straight away with its distinctive pits complex (now replaced by an equally-striking building) and the slightly different filming technique used by Fuji TV, which gave coverage a slight haze. Today, you can spot Suzuka straight away because it’s one of the most famous venues on the calendar.
Round 20: 16/11 – Australian Grand Prix – Adelaide
This might prove controversial, as Albert Park is one of the most popular venues on the calendar and has become the traditional season opener. However, a decade and a half or so ago and Adelaide was the traditional finale. Both circuits were/are hard on the cars and challenging to drive. But I’m giving the edge to Adelaide because it was that little bit tougher. Races would often run closer to the two-hour limit, and very few cars would finish. However, it also had a charm all of its own – the race was borne out of the need for the so-called City of Churches to revitalise its image, and they threw everything at it. Melbourne has so many sporting events that the Australian Grand Prix almost seems to be an after-thought. Sensational Adelaide, with its blue, yellow and red branding, created a unique image which Melbourne hasn’t quite yet replicated. I’d include both if Australia could sustain two races, but it can’t, so Adelaide will get the nod.
We all love overtaking in F1, right? We all love the great moves – the ballsy wall-of-deaths, the daring dummies, the late lunges. And we don’t like to processions where one car is sat behind another and can’t overtake. So it made sense that the FIA should make overtaking easier. The problem is there are two separate issues there, and while one has been solved, another has been made comprehensively worse, to the detriment of the sport.
Today’s Indian Grand Prix summed up just about everything that’s wrong with DRS. The DRS zones were on the two main straights, the start/finish straight and the following back straight. This made slip-streaming relatively straight-forward, especially when the gearing was set up for top speed, as Ferrari did. The vast majority of the overtakes in the race were DRS-assisted.
People who see raw overtaking statistics as the answer to every entertainment-related question ever proposed wouldn’t be bothered by this but there are a couple of points that would be missed by that. There is little entertainment value in seeing one car drive past another with ease at the flick of a switch – sure, it could potentially make a race interesting by releasing a car to chase another, but I don’t know anyone who gets excited simply by a slip-stream move. Alongside this, with it being so easy to overtake, the cars soon sorted themselves in order of pace, leading to a largely processional race, in which the only intrigue was centred on how many places the Red Bulls could potentially lose with reliability problems and how Pastor Maldonado could take himself/someone else out of the race.
Overtaking is not the be-all and end-all. The context of and in the race is vital. The moves that are remembered aren’t remembered simply for being overtakes – they have important contexts in the battles for race or championship, and/or they are remembered for bravery. There’s nothing brave about a DRS overtake, and they often spoil the tension. Sometimes one car being stuck behind another can be fantastic to watch – the finishes at Imola in 2005 and 2006 are a great example of this.
The other problem with DRS is that it’s masking other serious issues with overtaking. Since its introduction, it seems people have forgotten how bad the cars are at following other cars through corners, though it was clearly evident today through the fast sweeps of the Buddh circuit. This is certainly a problem that isn’t getting any better. The availability of DRS as a shortcut to working an overtake has simply led to a concentration of all the moves on the DRS zones. To an extent it doesn’t matter if the races are good regardless, and some of the races have been very good this year. But it does mean that the so-called “art” of overtaking is being lost – instead of working an overtake through a sequence of corners or with an act of pure bravery, drivers are happy to sit back and wait for the DRS zone. The challenge is now staying within a second of the car in front once you reach that line – easy enough if you’ve got the faster car.
I don’t believe, like some, that F1 has become less pure solely because of the ability to push a button to go faster – it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But the way it has been set up, the knock-on effect it has had, and the environment within which it has been introduced has given F1 a blander, slightly less authentic feel. DRS, in the majority of cases, seems to have had a similar effect to the reintroduction of refuelling – it’s put the emphasis back on lap time, gaps and pace: the things that are intangible, that you wouldn’t know unless the graphs and commentators told you.
Vettel dominating F1 once again wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the racing was entertaining – though he dominated last year, reaction towards the 2011 season was broadly positive. But the reaction to the past few races has been largely negative.
But on a personal level, I’d go as far as to say F1 has rarely wowed me since DRS was introduced. There have been a few exciting races but the vast majority of races, even the decent ones, have felt slightly hollow. This year has been the first in a long time where I’ve willingly missed races. I’ve barely seen any of qualifying. I just cannot get myself excited for F1 any more. On the one hand, a lot of the time it’s not very entertaining – on the other, changes are being made for the purpose of making it more entertaining, which I don’t think is totally within the ethos of a motor racing championship. It’s all a bit Hollywood. Should the quality of a grand prix effectively be determined by how long the DRS zone is? Because that’s essentially what has happened on several occasions – both being too long and too short.
As with rallying, F1 has been diluted, reduced to a few basic component parts, and jazzed up to make it seem more fun. I guess this may be just getting old but I do feel there is a more fundamental issue here. It’s no longer a stretch to see the FIA and FOM taking the jazzing-up further – the sprinklers and shortcuts mooted in the past no longer seem ridiculous in the context of go-faster buttons. The more rules that are added, the more discourses develop, and F1 becomes irretrievably very different from what it was meant to be and became popular by being, something that was understood as recently as 10 years ago but has been lost in continual attempts to “improve the show” – that it’s supposed to be 24 fast cars racing each other to see which one completes the required distance first.
When the champion was Farina or when the champion was Schumacher, that basic principle remained the guiding factor – now the guiding factor is what F1 people think normal people enjoy. This does seem to be at odds with DRS, since that has been “popular”, but refuelling was initially popular too – the novelty soon wore off. The novelty will wear off with DRS too.
But then I think F1 may now be lost to the marketeers and the businessmen anyway. I’m aware I’m out of step with what many others think. I know nothing can bring the past back. But that doesn’t mean I have to go along with the smelly rotting carcass that’s left. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I don’t like what I’m seeing. But I may have to get used to that.