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It’s time for change

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We have reached a turning point. The reaction from yesterday’s Bahrain GP was a turning point. For the first tim ever, it seems the drivers, the teams and the people in the know were united in their disapproval of the events (or lack of) of the race. They can now see that there is a major issue at play. Some of us thought, naively, that getting rid of pit stops would force drivers into making passes on track, because previously they just waited for the stops. In fact, they weren’t waiting – it was simply too difficult – and this has now been exacerbated by the fact that the drivers have to protect their tyres to last most of the race and that means not attempting to overtake the car in front.

F1 thus finds itself in a real quandry – what to do next? In the short term, we have to wait a few more races yet – the teams were generally being conservative this weekend and may choose to go more aggressively in the next couple of races. But if we’re in the same situation by the time we hit Europe and the infamous (for its knack of producing extremely dull races and little overtaking) Catalunya circuit, changes are needed.

But what changes to make? Well, the problems seem to centre around the tyres right now, as the drivers are protecting them A mandatory second stop would allow the drivers to be more aggressive on the tyres, but the fans now see that as introducing another artificial element, which is what has got us in this place in the first place, and it would eliminate strategic variety. Making the tyres less durable would allow that, but Bridgestone aren’t willing to stick their neck on the line to do this – no one wants to intentionally make tyres that don’t work. They could make their tyres more durable so that they don’t overheat in the wake of the car in front, but that would cost more money. They could bring more tyre compounds to allow strategic variety but again, that would cost more money. And so on and so forth…

Whatever solution is brought in, it has its flaws. I would advise an extra mandatory stop as that is easily achievable. It’s artificial but it’s the only real way without making changes halfway through the season to the tyres themselves, which the teams wouldn’t like, as they’ve just spend months designing their cars around the tyres they’ve got now. But that should only be a temporary fix – they should then look to make changes to the tyres for the following year, hopefully under a new supplier (and hopefully that supplier will be less conservative than Bridgestone).

But you have to wonder – with all these changes over the last decade and more correlating with backwards steps in the quality of racing, is it time that, once and for all, they started from scratch? A clean sheet of paper. A massive overhaul. I mean, if you think 2009 is radical, this is a lot more. Get back to the roots. There are too many rules, too many restrictions, too many artificial complications, too many technological advancements and interferences. Many things have been invented that can’t be uninvented

Many will say it is a contradiction to want a pure formula and good racing. People want too much from the sport – they want the best drivers in the fastest cars and no artificial flavourings but that, in theory, leads to boring races. But I don’t think it needs to be like that. There just needs to be some fundamental principles going out of the window. They need to completely (I mean start again from the very beginning) re-write the F1 rule book in time for a specific future season, preferably 2012, in time for the new Concorde Agreement.

The first consideration, above all else, has to be the racing. We need to understand why it was good in the past and why it isn’t now. That is surely too much for one young person like me to know – it would take masses of research by the best brains in the sport. And I would say that they would have to be independent – designers and aero experts that are not contracted to F1 teams. People like Gary Anderson, who recommended before the 2009 season that diffusers should be banned totally and that the aero rules hadn’t gone far enough. Get guys in from other series that do produce good racing – I know Dallara are involved with HRT, but people from their IndyCar, GP2 and GP3 departments, the latter being, for my money, the best-looking racing car out there at the moment. We need freelancers to set the technical rules, not designers for the F1 teams, because when drawing up their new rules, they may already be thinking of ways to get around it. That mentality has to go. Overtaking-friendly rules must remain that.

Aero has to be the focus of the restrictions, as it is obvious that the cars have too much aero grip. Removal of aero grip should put the emphasis back on the driver and his talents – mistakes are the number one cause of overtaking moves, so these cars must not be easy to drive. Things like diffusers should join winglets, bargeboards and funnels on the banned list. But it’s important that we don’t restrict too much as the cars have to look different – I disagree with those who say all the cars look the same, because they clearly don’t, with some having high noses and some having low noses, and so on. The fronts of the cars in particular should be distinctive – in that sense, it doesn’t matter as much if the rear of the car essentially ends up standardised. Standard design rear and front wings would thus not be a problem either.

I don’t want a completely radical new car design, like the Delta Wing IRL proposal. That car just looks ridiculous. Aesthetics should also be an important factor, as there needs the car needs to conform to and yet define the image of F1. It needs to be a slicks and wings racer, so if anyone has any ideas about banning wings, they should go – F1 cars of days gone by have overtaken fine with wings, as have cars from other series, so wings are clearly not the problem. What we need is something that looks like the GP3 car – the wings are basic and in proportion with the car, there aren’t any funnels or winglets, and it flows beautifully. It looks like a more modern update of a 1990s F1 car – simple, but effective. Those are the proportions that should be aimed for. And there’s plenty of space for advertising too, so the marketing departments of the teams shouldn’t be too unhappy, even though that should always be a secondary importance – the racing is the most marketable thing of all, so that should take priority.

Engines must come under scrutiny as well. The IRL’s approach has been good on this – they’ve got together a number of leading manufacturers and allowed them to define the new-for-2012 engine rules. F1 should do the same. They need to put together a set of engine regulations that are both cost-effective and also not restrictive and help the racing. The current engine rules, placing a premium on not using as many engines through the season, are forcing some drivers and teams to be conservative, turning down their engines before the end of the race. Plus the teams are only allowed to use V8s. The problem is lifting the restrictions would theoretically increase costs, so the solution is to decrease the costs of making the engines. Whilst this may prove slightly controversial, the easiest way to do this would be to just use tuned road car engines of varying formats, with no exotic materials – cheap to produce, a variety of formats, a variety of different fuels (how about diesels or biofuel-powered engines, or even hybrids?) and perhaps stretching the limits of reliability too, which is something else that we need to see. And no rev limits, restrictions on the number of engines to use over a season or anything like that.

The cost has to be seriously considered, not just for the engines but for everything. Whilst we all want good racing, it has to come at a reasonable enough cost to allow manufacturers and privateers to compete on a level playing field. Budgets have to be small with measures in place to prevent manufacturers spending enormous sums of money. A cost cap would be the best approach. Last year this didn’t work because the manufacturers objected, but we only have 3 manufacturers in F1, one of which is only in by name. If the cost cap was reasonably defined and done with the consent of Ferrari, Mercedes and other manufacturers willing to invest (as the IRL have done with their engine rules), it would work.

There are plenty of areas where costs could be saved whilst improving the racing. There are generally too many electronic gizmos and connections back to the pits that manage every element of the car. This should all be stripped away – e.g. no pits-to-car and car-to-pits telemetry, and a vastly reduced number of things the driver can adjust whilst on the move. It should just be that the driver drives the car, and that’s it. The driver should not be told to break 5 metres earlier by his engineer – he should have to figure this out for himself. The driver should not be able to adjust his fuel mix – there should be just one and that’s it, and if they want to save fuel, they do it in the traditional way. I’d even go as far as to suggest manual gearshifts with a clutch, to increase the human element. There’s a massive amount of saving to be made here, not just on the car but in the pits as well – the teams would be much smaller. I don’t particularly want to see people losing their jobs but unfortunately it’s a necessary evil, as teams are too big right now.

Components in general should be a lot more basic. There should be a general ban on exotic materials. Gearboxes should go back to being manual, as I said, with no restrictions on the number to use – they should just be cheap and easy to produce, like the engines. Brakes should revert to being made out of steel, rather than carbon fibre, to increase braking distances, with moves made to prevent better steel brakes that are pretty much just as good as carbon fibre ones being made. It should be possible to outbrake the car in front – at the moment, this is a lot more difficult than it used to be. Road car-based brakes, as well as other components, could be a possibility. Suspensions should also be made out of steel and should be more basic, reverting to how they were in the 1990s. In general, there should be a move from away the complex and the mechanised, again putting the emphasis on the driver.

I am also a believer that customer cars should be reintroduced. Whilst there should be at least 8 slots on the grid reserved for those that build their own cars, it should also be possible to buy customer cars from them (as well as engines, of course) at a cheap price. This would be limited to updated 1 year old cars to safeguard the smaller constructors. There should also be provision for an FIA-approved standard cheaply-available chassis and engine from an outside contractor such as Lola or Dallara, Cosworth or Judd. The customer teams would be able to mix and match their chassis and engines.

Tyres are another important feature to be looked at, as demonstrated this weekend. A tyre war would be good but it could only work if it’s cost-effective. It should be cheap to produce a large amount of tyres. In that sense, it benefits all if many tyre manufacturers are involved, because they then can spend less because they’ll have less tyres to make, so a number of manufacturers should be involved in discussions from the beginning, such as Bridgestone, Michelin, Goodyear, Yokohama, Pirelli, Avon and other smaller firms such as Kumho and Hankook. There should again be a freeing up of the rules, and I also think they should bring more compounds to a race. Ideally, there would be 4 – a qualifying supersoft that’s only good for a few laps, a soft, a medium and a hard, along with an intermediate and a wet. All should be available to the teams over a race weekend and they can use whichever they want whenever they want – this will allow a greater variety in race strategy. The tyre war and more options will greatly increase the number of variables, which makes up for refuelling still being banned. And finally, the only markings on the tyres should be the logo of the tyre manufacturer – it should be impossible to tell each compound apart. There needs to be a level of intrigue and mystery about it.

The sporting regulations need altering as well, the most important being the format of the race weekend. Again, a back to basics approach is needed. Most TV channels now broadcast practice in some form or other, so there is no longer the old excuse for not having Friday qualifying. So what I propose is an hour practice on Friday, followed in the afternoon by an hour of qualifying in the same position as Free Practice 2, and then another hour of qualifying on Saturday. And that’s it. As we saw with HRT this weekend, particularly poor old Karun Chandhok, it is much harder work to start from scratch with little practice running. Less practice would force the teams to do more work in qualifying, removing the age-old excuse for not having it – that the teams don’t do any running for much of the sessions. The amount of available track time would decrease by 2 hours. And there should be no post-qualifying parc ferme – the teams should be allowed to make changes to their car after qualifying.

The points system for this year was progress but I think it could go further. Points from first down to last, as well as for pole and fastest lap would be an improvement. But this isn’t necessarily a priority, as I acknowledge that many would be unhappy with this. But racing rules should be more clearly defined – we have had too many controversies relating to drivers cutting the track, so there should be a clear definition of what is legal and what is illegal. The stewards panel should be made up of experienced figures – the ex-driver addition is a positive step but it can be improved. These should be from a pool of these experienced figures who can participate.

My final change to the sporting regs is for entries to be unlimited (as customer cars would allow it to be possible to run an F1 team on a true shoestring budget) and on a race-by-race basis, allowing smaller teams to do as many races as they want and also allowing guest entries, who could pick up a customer car and enter their local grand prix. Prize money would be allocated to teams in a new F1 teams championship instead of on the constructors championship. There should also be less restrictions on liveries – why should each car in a team have to carry the same livery?

Testing is something else that needs focus. Whilst I believe the testing ban is working in some ways, drivers that do not participate in races are not getting the mileage. So whilst the testing ban should remain in place, perhaps with a test mid-season if needed, there should be rules about non-racing drivers, i.e. something like that the teams have to use 3 drivers for every group test they participate in and that these drivers have to do so many kilometres, unless there is a specific problem with the car on a particular day and the team gets dispensation from the FIA after the event. The post-season young driver test should also remain. Other additions would be that the venues for the tests cannot be on the following year’s F1 calendar, preventing them gaining a setup before they get to the race held there, and that the tests are broadcast live, probably via a webstream on the official F1 website, with the F1 national broadcasters able to broadcast highlights programmes covering each group test after it is finished.

I don’t think circuit design needs to be changed that much – most circuits on the calendar provide good racing for other series, and will provide good racing for F1 if it’s sorted out. Ultimately, if costs are brought down enough, I’d like to see more races in general. We should have 20 races next year – I’d like to see that increased to 25 if possible, with a longer (in terms of days/weeks/months) season, to compensate for the lack of testing. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem if costs are reduced enough in other areas. The additional races should be in countries that “deserve” them, i.e. they have a motor racing heritage and/or an automobile industry – countries such as Russia, South Africa, Argentina, and, most importantly, France and the USA. Facilities won’t have to be as grand due to the vastly decreased numbers the teams would be bringing. But this should be more of a future aim – like the points system change, it is not an immediate priority. However, one change that is needed now is to reduce the ticket prices. With costs going down for the teams, they should also go down for the fans – it is only fair. F1 races, and even other sessions, are way overpriced right now.

The FOM also have to carry their weight, in that regard and also in other areas – general consensus from the fans is that it is yet to step into the 21st Century. And so my final request is it to do so. There is a great demand for HD, so introduce it, whilst looking into future progressions such as 3D. There should be an increased focus on the history of the sport, as there is not enough of that now if you compare with a series like NASCAR, whose broadcasters are constantly reminding the viewers of past events. And how about not giving away exclusive contracts? We in Britain used to have coverage from the BBC and Eurosport, one of which was more mainstream coverage and the other was more specialist. Something like F1 Digital+, without the enormous subscription, would be possible. The same goes for things like video games – where we used to have both the Sony PS2 and the Europress Grand Prix PC games, we only have the Codemasters game – an improvement on the past, when it was just Sony’s, as it is now multi-platform, but there is surely more scope. How about an F1 management game? In fact, the FOM should relax its licensing more – we need more officially licensed books, games and other merchandise. And a venture onto YouTube with classic archive footage would be nice too. The FOM have been improving in this regard, but they could go a lot further – there is a market there that could be tapped and they could make a lot more money than they already do.

So, to conclude, this is my vision of a simpler, cheaper but more exciting F1:

– cars that are cheap to build, better-looking (based on the GP3 car) and, most importantly, allow good racing, with greater emphasis on and control to the driver. The car design rules are set by independent designers

– road car-based engines, perhaps turbocharged, with a variety of formats and fuels, and less restrictions. The engine rules are set after discussions with several manufacturers

– simpler internal components, such as gearboxes (manual), brakes, suspension and electronics, with no telemetry or in-car adjustments, as well as some standardised external components such as wings, but with each individual car remaining distinctive

– the provision of 1 year old customer cars on a limited basis (i.e. 8 teams on the grid have to be constructors), as well as an FIA standard chassis and engine available at an affordable price

– a number of tyre manufacturers producing tyres, with a wider choice of compound, less restrictions and no markings so that it’s impossible to tell the compounds apart

– less race weekend running, with a return to a more traditional 2×1 hour qualifying format and only a single hour-long practice session

– definitive racing rules that don’t allow different interpretations for things like gaining an advantage cutting a corner

– removal of restrictions on entries, with race-by-race entries, unlimited entry for each race, and no livery restrictions, allowing the teams to decorate each of their cars differently

– changes to testing including forcing the teams to use 3rd drivers, a restriction of venue to non-calendar circuits, and broadcasting on the internet

– a potentially expanded calendar with more races, but only in relevant countries and in the future

– reduced ticket prices for the fans, and a general improvement of the fan experience across the board, with more officially-licensed merchandise like video games and a generally more relaxed attitude

And the whole thing has to be a long term plan. The rules must be set now and stuck by. If it is 2012 the rules are for, the rules must be stuck by until 2017 bar the odd minor tweak. That way, there are no constant rule changes, no quick-fixes to issues, a long term commitment and stability for the years ahead. Because ultimately, what will bring good, competitive racing and reduced costs is stability.

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Written by James Bennett

March 15, 2010 at 21:40

Posted in F1

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