Formula 1 - Sport or Business?

Tuesday 21st June, 2011
You're probably wondering why a guy who spends his time writing about eco and emissions would be writing about Formula 1. Those who know me a little better will know that I'm not actually an anorak wearing environmental nutter. I like people to choose the greener option, but not by sacrificing fun. There's no harm in people driving a bit fat limo or 2 seat sports car, if that's what they want, but there are environmentally friendly options available in all sectors. Even F1 has learned to cut waste to a minimum and, in reality, its fuel saving and weight reducing techniques are helping eco cars all over the world. Anyway, enough about that nonsense, we're talking about F1!

With the European Grand Prix in Valencia fast approaching, I find myself casting my mind back to the amazing race we had in Canada a couple of weeks ago.  A race which found Jenson Button making no less than 6 trips through the pits, 5 for tyres, and saw a large proportion of viewers look at themselves in the mirror and wonder why they were cheering for Michael Schumacher. For many, this was the best race in months, perhaps years. I can't think of a more exciting race since that moment where Timo Glock spun off in the rain to give Lewis Hamilton that point he needed to take the championship.

I've been looking back into mind into what factors actually contributed to this being a good race and how the results panned out how they did. It's quite bizarre when you think about it, so I thought I would share some thoughts.

Following the addition of DRS to the rules, F1 has become a lot more like an arcade driving game. When playing games like Daytona or Sega Rally, there is a function that allows the losing car to go a bit faster. If they take the lead, they slow down and the player who is now behind gets the speed boost. This makes it all a lot more fun, but rather lacks realism.

Since F1 became all about downforce and aerodynamics, a major issue has been overtaking in the turbulent air behind the car in front. This led to loads of viewers switching off as they claimed that there was no overtaking in F1 any more and they weren't far wrong. It all became about the strategy of refuelling. Modern tyre compounds were lasting so long that they even had to force each driver to use both sets of compounds during a race, the "hard" and the ironically named "option" tyre which is compulsory. All this led, in many cases, to the winner being pretty much decided in qualifying and only a fluke prediction by a team computer could change the result, by doing a leapfrog in the pits when a 2nd place driver emerged from the pit into a gap in the traffic.

DRS has changed all this, giving any driver who is up to 1 second behind the car in front to engage an arcade style speed boost which basically gives the driver in front no hope at all to defend. This season, DRS has allowed Marc Webber to cock up in qualifying but come all the way from 18th to a podium place and, even more visually, allowed Jenson Button to come from the back in Canada to take a win.

There's no doubting that Jenson had a fantastic drive but, ultimately, it was the car that got him there. One by one, the slower drivers were overtaken as Button hit that DRS button and boosted past. Of course he couldn't use the button without being within one second off the car in front but there were numerous factors that allowed this. First he was on the right tyres at the right time - after the collision with Hamilton, he pitted and put on the Intermediate tyres which were initially giving him a four second advantage over surrounding cars. This allowed him to easily fly through the cars at the back of the field but, in reality, how well was he going to catch those up front and could he do it in time? After all, Vettel was driving a pretty perfect race from pole. Of course, JB's prayers were answered when another safety car came out and then the race stopped for rain.

After the restart, Button was in a strong position after the pack had been grouped together and, when DRS was re-enabled, he was able to use his boost again to pass more cars. Vettel still had a good lead though, having flown off on the restart.

We saw Schumacher move up to 2nd place as the drivers ahead tripped over each other but, despite showing amazing skill, his slower Mercedes got wasted when the guys behind were able to just push their DRS button on the straights. All this happened way ahead of Button until he clipped Alonso and spun him into an unsafe position on the track. Another safety car bunched the field up again, allowing Jenson to be within that one second gap once more and use his DRS to full effect. Finally, he'd be behind Vettel with a major speed advantage on the straights and the pressure of all this creating an unforced error from Sebastian.

Ultimately, Jenson had the fastest car on the track. Predicting a wet race, McLaren had put an enlarged rear wing design on his car; compromising their qualifying times but allowing a major increase in downforce during the lower speeds of a wet race. This allowed the car to be faster than those around on the turns, allowing JB to get within that critical one second gap and then engage DRS for the overtake. If the race is long enough, the fastest car will always catch up and the sheer number of laps driven in F1, along with the continual safety car sessions, made this the case in Canada.

As much as DRS has made F1 more fun, we're now in a place where the guy up front can cock up and still have a major chance of winning as long as he's in the right car. We're even in a position where we could probably do away with the blue flags for cars being lapped, and just let the DRS do all the work. In reality, it has become less about the driver and more about the car. The rules and regulations now allow the constructors' championship to more accurately reflect each car but the drivers' championship now feels a bit redundant. Vettel is leading in a big way because, on a dry circuit, he's in the fastest car. If one of the other guys slips up, the DRS allows them to pull the positions back. In the old days, Schumacher would have easily been on the podium in Canada as the other guys just couldn't have got back past him as his driving skills would have prevented it and the car behind, although faster, didn't have enough of a speed differential to get past.

So which is more fair? The faster cars get stuck behind slower drivers because they are just about fast enough to block the road ahead? Or the guys behind have this magic DRS button to boost past on the straights, taking all the challenge out of it? For me, it's feeling less like a sport and more like a tactical business, but it's still fun to watch.

What could be a winner, and we almost had in Canada, would be to split the F1 race into 2 or even 3 chunks - but awarding points for position at the end of each one. This would be a lot like the BTCC races and they could even have a 3rd race with a reverse grid in a similar fashion. This would allow teams with early mechanical failure to repair it for race 2, would have allowed Hamilton to rejoin in the 2nd session etc.

I really don't know what the real answer is, and I'm still enjoying the season so far, but I just can't see marginally slower teams like Renault, Ferrari or Mercedes having a good season under these current regulations. It will reflect their car's performance but not necessarily the skills of the guy behind the wheel.

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