Thursday, 10 September 2015

My guide to making #F1 great again

I love Formula 1.  I still watch every race (live, whenever I can – or recorded and following a painstaking effort not to find out anything about what happens beforehand if necessary) and I will continue to do so.  But I can't deny that, in some ways, it's not as thrilling as it used to be.

I am not going to go into a discussion here of which era of F1 was 'the best'; I have already written about how fruitless it is to compare actual statistics across different eras of the sport, so attempting to come to an objective conclusion as to when the sport was 'best' would result in little more than many hours of wasted prattle.

But so that we are clear, for me the 'best' time for F1 was in the late '90s and early-to-mid '00s.  "But Schumacher dominance!  But boring!  But wahh, wahh, wahh…!"  Nonsense.  Shut up.  In the decade between (roughly) 1997 and 2007, we were privileged enough to see Formula 1's greatest ever driver at the very peak of his considerable powers, schooling a field of drivers which included most of those whom we now consider to be the most talented on the grid – as well as being treated to races which were exciting (but organically exciting, rather than scripted by Bernie and cajoled into being 'exciting' like an episode of a soap opera) and cars which were actually fast.

So I am going to set out a few points here which I think would elevate Formula 1 back to that level of excitement and intrigue.
1)  Faster cars
Former Red Bull driver Mark Webber said in a recent interview that F1 cars should be on 'a different level' from other categories.  Pointing out that GP2 cars (the category below F1), and sportscar racing both tend to have very similar lap times as current F1 cars – and that all the F1 lap records were set five to ten years ago, with the current formula 'miles away' from those sorts of speeds – Webber, described the situation as 'not right'.

I agree.  The modern F1 cars are simply not quick enough and not challenging enough for the drivers.  When I say 'faster' cars, I mean genuinely quicker in terms of raw pace.  More 'overtaking aids' or other fanciful gimmicks simply won't cut it.

The creeping advance of car design gimmicks over actual horsepower has made cars less challenging for drivers, and races less interesting to watch; ten years ago, genuine defensive driving skill meant that good drivers could keep a much quicker car behind them for a significant number of laps – and this in turn meant that strategy was even more important.  Planning pit stops, for example: get it wrong, and your man will be stuck losing time behind a slower car for goodness knows how long!  In modern F1, it doesn't matter, because with DRS he will simply breeze past competitors within a couple of laps and be on his way.

DRS allows cars to be 'shuffled' into a predictable order quickly, even after incidents or pit stops.  Maybe the actual number of overtakes performed on track has increased as a result of the introduction of DRS, but the quality of the overtaking has almost certainly decreased, as drivers no longer have to rely simply on their own racecraft to make a move on a rival stick.  Removing artificial gizmos like DRS will mean drivers and teams pay more dearly for mistakes, and skilful driving carries a greater reward.
2)  Tyres that work
Let's stop hiding behind the euphemism that the current specification of Pirelli tyres are 'deliberately high-degradation' or something.  Let's call them what they are: rubbish.  Deliberately so, yes – but they are still rubbish.
"Hey, let's make the cars have engines which are designed to blow up half-way through a race!" 
"I know!  How about a front wing assembly which may or may not fall off the car at any time, and the driver never knows if his wing will remain intact for the full length of the Grand Prix or not?"
Ideas like these would be laughed out of court.  (Or so I sincerely hope, at any rate!)  So why do we put up with this sort of idiocy when it comes to tyres?  Formula 1 is supposed to represent the very pinnacle of driver and engineers skill, but also the pinnacle of technological advancement; having any part of the car which is actually designed to fail is pretty stupid.

The rubbish tyres were brought in as part of an attempt to 'make the racing more exciting'; they have done anything but.  Racing is now dominated by tyres.  Discussions about tyres, inquiries about tyres, analysis of tyres.  Tyres, tyres, tyres.

Drivers no longer push their cars or themselves to the limit, or race as hard as they know they could or as hard as they would like to.  They are terrified of the rubbish tyres, and the majority of racing strategy is now concerned with managing tyres, conserving tyres, etc.

Does it seem like I'm saying 'tyres' a lot?  Yeah, well that's what every Grand Prix weekend is like, now.  And it gets pretty 'tyring', doesn't it?  (See what I did there…?!)

Once again, this wasn't an issue ten years ago.  Back then, we had a 'tyre war' – more than one tyre manufacturer supplying teams, and teams could choose who to go with, which promoted better tyres as the tyre companies competed for the teams' business.  Maybe this is nostalgia talking, but I would love to see that return.

Which teams would actually choose to run the current models of Pirelli tyres over, say, a more durable Michelin alternative?  Pirelli would have to raise their game, and provide better tyres if they didn't want to be shoved out of the sport completely – and then maybe we would have racing which wasn't so focussed on tyre management and gingerly eking out the life of one set of Pirellis for as long as possible…
3)  A complete overhaul of penalties, and their application
This season, penalties (and particularly grid penalties) have become ridiculous.  Once again, misguided attempts to 'make' F1 'more exciting' have ended up harming the quality of the racing, and shifting the focus of a race weekend away from wheel-to-wheel action and more towards petty technicalities and minutiae.

I am certain that stringent overregulation is hurting Formula 1.  Restrictions on testing and engine development, and ridiculously harsh punishments for changing engines or gearboxes, only exacerbates the difference in quality between the cars at the front of the field and those lower down the order.  Uncompetitive teams are forced to remain uncompetitive because they can't develop their engine package, and are punished for fixing issues on their cars, pushing them even further behind and making racing less close and less interesting.

At the Belgian Grand Prix a few weeks ago, McLaren were given grid penalties totalling 105 places.  This exorbitantly pernicious move meant that an already struggling team had to write off their race before it had even begun.  I'm sure there were people in the McLaren garage thinking they may as well not have bothered to turn up in Belgium at all.

Of course the rules are the rules, and need to be applied fairly and consistently to all.  We can't expect the FIA to make exceptions for a team because we feel sorry for them.  But this rule, and the associated punishments, are clearly counterproductive – this is making racing less competitive, less exciting, and instead encumbering the sport with restrictive overregulation.

And speaking of applying the rules fairly, can we get a definite clarification about the 'track limits' rules, please?  The rule is concerned with 'gaining an advantage' by going outside the limits of the race track (as defined by the white lines at the side of the circuit – not the run-off areas), but it is unclear exactly how that is interpreted by the FIA, or by the stewards.  The only time this rule is really applied is when one driver overtakes another by going outside the track limits – he then has to give that place back, as he deemed to have driven unfairly (which is absolutely correct).

But overtaking is not the only way a driver can 'gain an advantage'.  If a driver is consistently going outside the track limits in order to prevent another car from overtaking him, that is every bit as unfair as overtaking the car ahead by driving off the circuit – and yet we see far fewer punishments for this infringement.

Even if there are no other cars around, a driver can still 'gain an advantage' on lap time, which will then affect strategy in terms of pitstops and tyre life; consistently running wide (cutting a corner) over several laps might gain a driver a second or two in time (as well as meaning he has to use his brakes slightly less, therefore putting less wear through the tyres and preserving their usable life for a lap or two longer) – and that could be the difference between emerging from a pitstop just ahead of a rival driver, or just behind him.  If we are going to punish drivers for using more track than they are allowed to, then we should do so consistently and fairly – not just when overtaking is involved.

One other point about penalties I would like to make is that the current trend of using time penalties after the race has finished seems to me to go against the ethos of F1.  Formula 1 has never been time trial racing – it is about drivers fighting with each other on the track.  In theory, you might think there is not a lot of difference between having twenty seconds added onto your overall time after the race has finished, or having to drive through the Pitlane during the race (which will cost you roughly twenty seconds of laptime), but this is a mistaken way of thinking which ignores the fact that drivers are not just racing against themselves or against the clock, but against each other.

If you are twenty seconds ahead of your nearest rival, and you get a twenty second time penalty, you only have to push a little harder in the closing laps of the race to ensure that even after your overall race time is adjusted to reflect the penalty you are still ahead of your rival by half a second or so.  If you have to take your punishment on track, before the race has finished, it thrusts you into a battle for places which was previously twenty seconds behind you – it forces you to race your rival, your the clock.  There is a fundamental difference between time penalties and penalties taken during the race, and Formula 1 needs to revert to the latter.
4)  A 'hands-off' approach from the bosses
Following the three steps laid out above will make Formula 1 a much closer, more exciting, more challenging sport, and will bring racing back much more in line with how it seemed in the halcyon days of my youth.  But none of it will matter if the current attitudes of those in charge of the sport remain unchanged.

In general, I feel like those at the top – Bernie Ecclestone in particular, and the FIA – are far too meddlesome and interfering in their approach to running F1.  Constantly tweaking and tinkering with the formula, always trying to foist some new unwieldy gimmick on the teams designed to 'make' racing 'more exciting' – this intrusive officiousness is strangling the sport we love.

I have written at length before that I would genuinely rather races were 'boring' than that they were 'made' exciting artificially, and I stand by those views now.  I think some of my previous writing on the topic bears repeating, in this context…

If a driver, or a team, is dominating proceedings, then well done to them.  This isn't a 'problem', nothing has to be 'done about it', it is an example of somebody performing well – which is what sport is all about.  Attempting to peg back the best performers in the field is the same as rigging the results; it is false – not a true reflection of the relative qualities of different drivers and cars, but a record which has been tampered with to be 'entertaining'.

Until the people in charge of Formula 1 learn that the most important thing is sporting integrity and accuracy – not 'excitement' or 'entertainment' – then we are always going to be faced with racing which is tainted by artificial rubbish.  Bernie et al simply need to 'let them race'.  Stop interfering, stop meddling, stop trying to force every Grand Prix to be 'a classic' full of 'drama' and 'excitement'.  Just let them be what they are.

It is too late for the 2016 season.  That will be another year of gimmicks, overbearing regulations, and harsh but inconsistently applied punishment.  But team bosses will be meeting soon to discuss changes to the sport for 2017 and beyond – I hope they talk sense.

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