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Mexico City, essence and slash-and-burn

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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?

The future:

The present:

(Credit for the screenshots:

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.

Written by James Bennett

July 24, 2014 at 15:43

Posted in F1, F1 history, F1 politics

F1, road relevance and getting the manufacturers back

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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:

6. Hyundai

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

5. BMW

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.

2. Toyota

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.

1. Ford

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

Written by James Bennett

April 25, 2014 at 17:37

Posted in F1, F1 politics, F1 teams

An (updated) F1 manifesto

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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

1) Introduction

a) Background
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.

b) Aims
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

2) Principles
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

a) Overview
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:

c) Engines
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.

e) Tyres
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.

c) Testing
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.

6) Overview
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.

Written by James Bennett

December 20, 2013 at 17:38

Posted in F1, F1 politics, F1 teams

F1’s blame culture

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As you’ve probably already seen, this weekend’s Japanese GP was marred by a number of first lap incidents which led to two cars eliminated, two penalties and lots of instant chuntering on the internet. Such a reaction is typical of any crash in F1 today – anything that happens can be debated instantly because of social media.

What concerns me in particular, though, is the culture that has developed around this. It seems fans are constantly searching for someone to blame for anything that happens. Any crash or collision has to be someone’s fault. We saw this today – Romain Grosjean was in the firing line but Fernando Alonso was also blamed by some for his own demise. I cannot understand either. Firstly, the venomous reaction towards Grosjean seems misplaced and over-the-top – he is a young, inexperienced driver trying to win races at turn 1, which isn’t great but it’s not as though his career is irretrievable. The reigning world champion had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on first laps during his first full season, while even F1 demigod Ayrton Senna was considered wild during his debut year. It’s easier to calm a quick driver down than it is to get a calm driver to go faster.

Alonso, on the other hand, wasn’t really responsible for the accident which eliminated him – it was a classic first corner incident where he was trying to find his way through avoiding all the traffic around him and in the end couldn’t see Raikkonen. Kimi was blameless and so was Fernando. It was just bad luck – a racing incident.

The problem is bad luck as a concept seems to have been forgotten by F1 fans due to their constant search for culpability. A bad pit stop? “Sack the pit crew member responsible.” Gearbox failure? “Sack the guy who made the gearbox.” Driver error? “Give the driver a grid penalty.” I’m not saying I haven’t done this myself – I think anyone who has participated in an F1 forum or has tweeted about an F1 race or commented on Facebook has almost certainly said something reactionary. But some take it a stage further and want someone to be culpable for everything, and that’s a slightly worrying trend.

It seems so long ago that even when drivers spun off of their own volition it would be described as “bad luck”, something that would be laughed at today – witness Perez’s accident and the instant judgement of some to condemn it as his own mistake, something that ought to go without saying. To a certain extent, perhaps I’m just looking at Murray Walker here, who never blamed anyone for anything because he was too nice, and it’s also worth bearing in mind that drivers did make more race-ending mistakes 15-20 years ago and beyond. But even so, I don’t believe that F1 fans were so keen to judge and blame drivers straight away – for one, so many careers would have ended after a season because of driver errors.

As well as social media, the FIA is partly to blame for fostering this culture because of the development of the penalty system. Grid penalties for incidents where one driver takes another out of the race are standard fare, especially if your name starts in S and ends in R and you driver a silver Germanic car. Drive-throughs are common for minor incidents. Bans remain rare, however, with Grosjean’s this year being the first to be handed out since Mika Hakkinen was banned for crashes deemed his fault in consecutive races in 1994 (though it’s worth remembering Yuji Ide lost his superlicense after colliding with Christijan Albers at Imola in 2006, which, to all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of a ban). The penalty system is a recent phenomenon – only with the addition of engine change penalties in the mid-2000s did grid penalties become common-place, and such penalties for driving incidents didn’t really take off until later (the re-introduction of free-for-all qualifying in 2006 was perhaps a factor).

With the amount of penalties dished out going through the roof in recent years, an expectation has developed that penalties should be handed out for incidents of an increasingly minor nature, to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether soon we’ll be seeing penalties for spinning off the track. We like to think that we’re more enlightened than we were 20, 30, 40 or more years ago, and yet I see the whole penalty business as a retrograde development. One could argue that it’s a safety measure to protect onlookers, but ultimately it seems to be there to appease reactionary armchair viewers who now expect punishment for error, in the same way that the public expect criminals to be sent to jail for years for relatively minor offences. If it’s a deterrant, it’s pointless and it’s not working.

Take Michael Schumacher, for instance. Michael is the second most experienced driver in F1 history and yet has received more penalties since his comeback than pretty much anyone else out there (though Maldonado’s giving him a good run for his money). In particular, he has been given two grid penalties this year for taking other drivers out of the previous race. But what’s the point? He’s not going to learn from them, because there’s nothing for him to learn after over 300 GPs. Essentially they were simple mistakes, in that he misjudged his breaking point and smashed into the back of Senna and Vergne, and that just happens sometimes in motor racing. He hasn’t done anything deliberately. He has already been punished by being eliminated from the race. A grid penalty is just additional punishment, and doesn’t restore Senna and Vergne to their respective races in retrospect. The penalties only serve to make qualifying incredibly confusing and ruin another weekend for the driver at fault.

Twenty years ago, such incidents would have been passed off as “just motor racing”, in the same way that Alonso magnanimously summed up his accident today. If it was a regular occurrence, the driver in question would be given a ban, but this was very rare – even in 1994 it would have been considered heavy-handed. That avoided the problems of objectivity, inconsistency and general confusion – the guy who finished qualifying as the fastest driver was on pole, regardless of what had happened in the previous race, which is perfectly logical, as opposed to the guy in 2nd getting pole because the guy in 1st had an accident in the previous race. How do you explain that to a casual follower of the sport? And that’s before we get onto whether or not the stewards’ decision was right in the first place.

It’s time that penalties for minor incidents in F1 are abolished – what do we gain from grid penalties other than a sense of satisfaction that “justice” has been done? This is not to say I want to encourage dangerous driving, by any means, but there are other ways to make it clear to young drivers that dangerous driving is unacceptable – the teams should take more responsibility for this, and the FIA should look into a new system, perhaps something like a “three strikes” rule or license points that would lead to an instant ban after a number of serious incidents, as is the case with UK national racing licenses.

Grosjean will learn nothing from his stop-go penalty today. The only way he will learn is if his team takes responsibility and rests him for a few races with the threat of dismissal if this continues. That’s the way it always used to be, and it’s not as if F1 had major problems with dangerous driving as a result of less punishments dished out – in fact, driving standards have arguably got worse since then, so a stricter approach clearly isn’t preventing overly-aggressive driving.

But the fans should take responsibility too. Drivers are now under enormous pressure not only from teams and sponsors but from people sat at home watching the race getting ready to text Jake Humphrey their views two minutes after the chequered flag has come out. Such trivialities may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but public reaction and the expectation that drivers should be punished inevitably puts pressure on the stewards and the FIA to hand out penalties.

It has become a spiralling scenario – the FIA started punishing drivers, which the fans became accustomed to and pressured the FIA into more and harsher punishments. Where is this going to lead to? Who knows, but I’d rather F1 didn’t go there, because taken to extremes, you could find something to punish every driver. Imagine a grid where every driver had a grid penalty – essentially you’d just have the same grid, which proves the logical fallacy of grid penalties.

PS Corner-cutting and going off the circuit to gain an advantage is a separate issue. I’m specifically talking about collisions and dangerous driving here.

Written by James Bennett

October 7, 2012 at 17:17

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 politics

Keep calm and carry on

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So, F1 has finally sold out – Sky it is for all 20 races next season, with the BBC getting only half in what looks like the beginning of the end for the sport on free to air TV. And I think people are overreacting a tad. I’m not happy either but some of the reactions I’ve seen on various forums have been truly hysterical – “this will ruin my life”, “this is one of the most tragic days for the sport”, “F1 was supposed to be a sport for the people” (I mean what?). It’s only F1, for god’s sake – no one’s died.

For a start, I just don’t see how anyone can automatically assume Sky’s coverage will be awful. Yes, it’s a damn shame Murdoch’s got his grubby hands on F1. But I don’t think that’s a reason to assume we’ll automatically go back to ITV levels of coverage. Sky are going to be competing against the BBC for half the races, so they have to do a good job. If you compare Sky’s football coverage to ITV’s, where they compete for the Champions League final, Sky’s is generally better.

I think Sky are actually more likely to give us what we’ve been crying out for for years – Ben Edwards as commentator, neutral experienced pundits, and balanced professional coverage. It’s the BBC I’m worried about – they are the ones who could both cut back on expense further (coverage from a broom cupboard again?) and/or become ever more sensationalist as they try to get as many viewers as they can for the races they’ve got. Quite a few people have already noticed this year that they’ve been focusing more on the guys at the front and especially McLaren and Red Bull than in previous years. Lotus are the only ones getting a look in at the back. As with Eurosport back in the day, Sky could well become the coverage of choice for the hardcore fan.

But it’s still Sky, which does hurt. I’m lucky enough to have my parents paying for Sky already and I set up Sky Go a few weeks ago so it’s no skin off my nose (if I choose to continue following F1), and I think you have to take all the “I’m not going to get Sky” comments with a pinch of salt as there will be plenty of people who will give in and get it because they “can’t live without it”. But viewing figures will be lower, for both Sky and the BBC. Sky can cope because they make their money from subscriptions, and they’ve now got one of the biggest rivals to football under their control, but I think in a few years the BBC will ditch it completely, once everyone gets used to it being on Sky. As long as Bernie continues to milk his cash cow, they, along with ITV, simply cannot afford F1 any more.

And the thing is this was always going to happen. Take away tradition and the truth is such an expensive, elitist sport shouldn’t really be on FTA anyway, especially when sports like cricket, golf and tennis have all gone the same way. Regardless of its following, F1 always has been and always will be a minority sport for the middle classes and the rich – maybe it’s a sign of my changing interests, but I’d much rather the BBC and ITV spent its budget on the true sport for the people, football.

Written by James Bennett

July 29, 2011 at 11:53

Posted in F1, F1 politics

A change of heart on the new teams…

with 2 comments

So, Mr E reckons that Virgin and HRT are out of their depth, surplus to F1’s requirements and wouldn’t be missed if they drop out, which may happen soon anyway. And I must admit I agree with him.

I was a big supporter of the new teams initiative last year instigated by Mosley. I thought it had potential and that the new teams would be able to cut it (apart from US F1, who were a joke). But after half a season, a year after the initial 3 teams were confirmed, I now believe it was a mistake.

Lotus have been a success story. They’ve got the right people at the helm – specifically Fernandes and Gascoyne who are great ambassadors for the team and for new outfits in general. They’re building a tidy outfit and I think they will go far.

Virgin seem to have drawn the short straw in terms of media attention (Lotus have taken all the British coverage for one), which isn’t good for a team that was relying on PR to justify its existence, and have had numerous niggling problems with their car which means they’re pretty much behind Lotus at this point. Added to that, they don’t seem to be making a great deal of progress. Their future doesn’t look great.

I am increasingly confused about Hispania. They’re starting to remind me of Midland – while Bruno and Karun are lovely guys, I find myself wondering why they’re in F1. Traditionally, minnows are in it for the love of the sport – see Minardi. They have a personality and character. Hispania seem to be going down the classic Kolles path of not having a personality or character. Carabante isn’t it for the love of the sport – I don’t know why he is in it. Their intentions are unclear. As a team, it’s hard to like them. Added to this, they’re in a mess financially and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t make 2011.

But all 3 of them are still way off the pace. This was to be expected at the start of the year. However, I would have expected them to have made greater progress than they have – as it is, none of them have got anywhere near scoring points yet. And of course they have come into F1 on the promise of being able to do it on a small budget, so they don’t have the money to invest on getting up the grid.

I think it was the wrong approach to take. We all know that Mosley did this for political reasons, but he could have at least done something sustainable. What with Renault rumoured to be in money trouble as well and suspiciously few sponsors adorning the Sauber even after 10 races, you have to wonder if we’ll be back to where we were to start with by 2012.

Surely it would’ve been much better had Mosley gone down the customer car route. Take Virgin, for instance – here is a well-known global brand who want to be a part of F1 but don’t want to spend an enormous amount to join in the fun and be seen on the F1 grid. Surely it would’ve been better for them if Manor, instead of going to Nick Wirth to run some cars designed on a computer that have never seen a windtunnel with the prospect of little testing, went to Mercedes and said “hey, can we have a couple of 2009/2010 cars to run this year?”. They’d have had a much better chance of being successful and would have a proven competitive car – yes, it wouldn’t quite be on the pace of the works team (see MotoGP), but it would be more competitive than what they’ve got now. The same goes for Hispania if Carabante is serious about F1.

As it is, Virgin will probably now walk away from the sport pretty soon, another wasted opportunity for F1. While Virgin Racing doesn’t really add much to the series, Virgin as a brand does, and it would be a shame to lose them. And I’m sure there would be other companies that would be interested if customer cars were an option.

I’ve supported customer cars for a while but now I will completely throw my weight behind the idea. I think the idea of every team building their own cars in F1 is now outdated. It has been proven in other series that it is too expensive to have multiple chassis constructors. While I would never want F1 to become a single chassis formula (I would hope that there would be a minimum of 6 or 7 constructors in the field whatever happens, and that new manufacturers would still enter as constructors), the FIA should take the hint. Not only could F1 have a bigger field with customer cars, but it would be a stronger, more competitive field. After all, no one cared when Toro Rosso won a race that it was a customer Red Bull…

Written by James Bennett

July 28, 2010 at 20:27

Posted in F1, F1 politics, F1 teams

F1? Austin, Texas? Don’t make me laugh

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And so my hiatus ends. And I’m glad I can do it on a light-hearted note, after the announcement yesterday that the US Grand Prix will take place at a new circuit in or near Austin, Texas from 2012. Because this instantly jumps out as a doomed scheme. My Gillett-o-meter is off the scale – and this is coming from someone who bought into the Stefan GP story.

There are a number of reasons why I’m sceptical already, 10 of which are listed below:

1) They say they’re going to build a brand new circuit for the 2012 GP. It will almost certainly be as a double-header with Canada, from what I’ve heard, so effectively it’s 2 years from now. And this isn’t the Middle East, where they don’t have laws to prevent slave labour, but equally they will be expected to reach Bernie’s incredibly high standards. So they’re already pushed for time

2) On top of this, they haven’t even picked a site for the circuit yet. They have no land. So they need to buy land. Prices will almost certainly have gone up now the announcement has been made. And of course there are seemingly no plans yet if there is no set location. So how are they going to get it done in time?

3) Then there’s the circuit itself. It is likely to be built in a flat, rather featureless area on the outskirts of the city, and will probably end up being designed by Tilke. And with no motorsport heritage to add, the outcome is pretty predictable. How is that going to serve as an attraction to, say, Europeans who might consider going to Austin instead of Montreal?

4) Where’s the money coming from? They’ve been vague about it so far, other than saying the state or city isn’t going to be paying for building the circuit

5) Who are Full Throttle Productions? Nobody seems to know. They seem to have held only one or two events in recent years quite a way down the stock car ladder. So yet more questions about money will come in here, as well as organisational capabilities

6) Further to this, the Mayor, who was quoted in the initial press release, has now denied knowing anything about it. That’s not good, whichever way you put it

7) And now there’s the location. Yes, Austin isn’t like the rest of Texas. But it’s still in Texas. Who’s going to come to watch? The attendances at Indy dropped off after the first couple of races there, and that was Indy, the capital of American motorsport. Austin has no motor racing heritage, not even NASCAR

8) There are also infrastructure questions. Austin holds one big music festival, and it struggles to deal even with that – an F1 GP would be much, much bigger. Whilst it has an airport which is fine for the teams, it’s not exactly a transport hub, so how do the fans get there?

9) Then there’s the drawback of it being not like the rest of Texas – it’s a very liberal city that prides itself on being one of the greenest cities in the US, which inevitably means the environmentalist crowd won’t be happy, not only at the construction of an enormous circuit, but also the arrival of loads of tourists by plane and then burning more petrol when they’re here

10) And finally, there’s Bernie. Just because he has a deal doesn’t guarantee a race is going to take place at all – we’ve seen that so many times before. He has an uncanny knack of digging his way out of bad situations with little or no damage to his or F1’s reputation, as we saw with the Donington fiasco. He also has an uncanny knack of getting what he wants. There have been suggestions that the Donington deal was only done merely as a blackmailing tool for negotiations with the BRDC over Silverstone, and that he knew Gillett was a dreamer and that the race would never take place. Who would bet on a similar situation here, perhaps with Indy? If he was that committed to this project, why has he been banging on about a race in New York? What about Jersey City and Monticello?

Plenty of questions to be answered here before we get anywhere near finding out how legitimate this really is. I am very cynical already, which usually isn’t a good sign. I support the notion of having a US GP. However, it has to be right, and this doesn’t seem right. This has farce written all over it.

Written by James Bennett

May 26, 2010 at 09:32

Posted in F1, F1 politics