F1’s bloody nose in Bahrain, can the “show” be fixed?

The first race of 2010 is over and the teams, packed, are moving to Australia for the next event. Along with the teams, there will be a certain amount of disillusionment that will be riding shotgun with them all the way to the Great Southern Land. The ban on refueling, qualifying regulations regarding tire compound usage, race regulations regarding alternate compound usage and the approval of the dual diffuser have all played a large role in soiling the most anticipated season on decades.

Seemingly and entire winter season passe with multiple opportunities to discuss the issue that have become known as “improving the show”. A fan would assume that the sheer brilliance in F1 may have gotten close to resolving these issues but alas, they are dealing with 2009 regulations, politics and outlandish technology in the field of aerodynamics. The elusive art to rediscover passing has been a plague on the sport for the better part of a decade and today’s race was no different. Mercedes GP Petronas driver and 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher weighed in on the issue telling the BBC:

“It’s the start and then after it is just sort of go your pace and not do mistakes,” Schumacher said.

“Overtaking is basically impossible, other than if somebody makes a mistake – Lewis had a little one so Nico was able to pass him, but got back past at the pitstop. That’s about it.

“That’s the action we are going to have with unfortunately this kind of environment of race strategy.

While I have been accused of being a pariah for my desire to keep refueling, I feel it is painfully obvious now why my decision wasn’t based on a love of refueling but more a concern over removing the only vestiges of tactical passing and competition left in F1. refueling may not have been the best answer due to passing-in-the-pits but one would consider the FIA, OWG, SWG and FOM had discovered a solution that would supplant the tactical element of refueling if they banned it for 2010. It seems that is not the case.

Martin Whitmarsh has also suggested that Sunday’s race in Bahrain lacked action and excitement. As the president of the Formula One Teams Association, it comes with a certain amount of gravity to be sure as he explained to the BBC:

“We were one of three teams, that said we should have two mandatory pitstops because we were worried about [people] one-stopping.

“I think we have to re-examine that. But I think if we can now push on Bridgestone to have ‘racier’ tyres, we need a super-soft tyre that is really going to hurt if you take it to 20 laps. You shouldn’t be able to do that with a super-soft tyre and I think even the prime, if it’s a struggle to get it to do half a race distance, then you force [the issue].

“The tyres were much closer in the race than we expected and they determined the spectacle,” he added. “There was no real serious degradation of the tyres, we started the roll of pitstops because we were trying to get ahead of [Nico] Rosberg and everyone started to come in at that point.

“But otherwise, just based on tyre degradation, we could have run to lap 25 or more on the super-soft tyres. If you can do that on the softest tyre, then the primes are just going to romp through for as long as you like.”

The 2010 season could prove to be an exercise in destroying momentum as the world had been on the edge of its seat to see the season begin with no less than four teams capable of reaching the front and a grid replete with the most talent in decades. All of this was passion and excitement was scuttled as the race reduced itself to a too-familiar cavalcade to see which car would fail first. Attrition and tires seems to be the guiding light of the current regulations. Even the positive attitude and youthful exuberance of world champion Lewis Hamilton couldn’t muster the passion needed to defend the current regulations and effect they have on his sport:

“You start with fuel, you do one stop and it’s pretty much a train all the way.”

F1 has seemingly painted itself into a corner that only the likes of NASCAR and Indycar have dared tread. A troubled regulatory system intent on creating more exciting racing and stopping the flow of fans to the exits. The fans are restless and looked for 2010 to be a return to F1 glory and excitement but the regulations have all but insured us this is not and will not be the case.

I have been an adamant opponent of the alternate tire compound regulation since its inception and it seems painfully obvious this reliance on false competitive elements has hampered the series in a negative way. The compounds are either too close or too far apart to and while our friend James Allan feels that close compounds would solve the problem (with all deference to James) I would just as soon see this rule go…immediately. The sport is relying more than ever on the tire compounds for exciting racing and this is all being asked from a company who has already announced their departure form the series.

What have we learned? We know that playing with regulations to enhance “the show” is not the answer. In fact, FOTA, FOM and the FIA should stop calling it a show. F1 seems to be completely adrift from its heritage now more than ever and either we are watching a sport in which the best drivers and cars battle for supremacy or we are creating a European version of NASCAR or the WWA wrestling entertainment program.

I don’t mean to sound naive but Jimmy Clark and Jochen Rindt weren’t competing to improve the show. Senna and Prost didn’t think the sport they risked their lives in was a “show”. Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart were not concerned with the show, they were concerned with beating the pants off the competitors. It is a competition that started amongst gentlemen racers and yes, it has never been the same since Gold Leaf slapped their sticker on the side of a Lotus 49 but can we save the motorsport and competition at the highest level with the best drivers without reducing F1 to “a show” and keeping the entertainment factor where it belongs? Jacques Villeneuve said that the only possible way to bring F1 back to reality is to reduce downforce and rely on mechanical grip. I tend to agree with him. We also need more voices in F1 like JV who are not afraid to call a suspect product what it is, a suspect product.

F1 is an unscripted play and it shouldn’t require a script via regulations to make it to the final act. F1 will write itself if we have the patience and courage to get out of its way and stop demanding the perfect image that cheaply garners the fans attention via manufactured competition through regulatory confinement and specification. Former FIA president Max Mosley would have done well to take my advice, you can’t save everyone…just try to not be around them when they blow up.

Let F1’s reality pull the fans to its breast as it has for decades now and save the silly regulations for other spec series. F1 needs to show its slip and some leg through on-track competition and vocal characters who are willing to be controversial. That will bring fans to the sport. The less F1 becomes a “show” and the more it returns to true competition, the more apt it is to succeed in any economy. Fans want good guys and bad guys to cheer for. They want the fight to take place on the track and if it carries over to the pit lane, so be it. JV fans loved when he would call Schumacher names and Schumacher fans loved it when he would choke David Coulthard and just about everyone loved when Senna punched Eddie Irvine…including Eddie. None of that had anything to do with FIA regulations.

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