Formula 1- NASCAR’s ‘gormless’ cousin

Editor’s Note: I was just thinking, which is never good, and decided that F1 either needs to find a future or get back to its past. I then decided to do a little brainstorming with the F1B community. Remember, no idea is stupid because we’re just brainstorming here. throwing out outlandish ideas to see if we can find an interesting direction (ok, this is kind of a dumb idea but what the heck, maybe it’ll start a good conversation). I’ll start…here goes:

What does Formula 1 owe society? Anything? I’ve become more convinced over time that the DNA of F1 is at risk of being completely changed with constructs such as high degradation tires, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), Energy Recovery Systems (ERS), engine size reductions, double-point races, racing and qualifying format changes and much more.

Are we betraying the core precept of Formula 1 from, say, 1967? Are we chucking it all out of the window due to this quirky concept that F1 is merely entertainment wrapped in the giftwrapping of competition?

It’s difficult to say what these constructs will ultimately do to Formula One but what if we looked elsewhere for direction? What if we stopped confusing ourselves with the notion of entertainment and started amusing ourselves with the spirit of competition? What if F1 truly was an incubator for some of the world’s most innovative road car thinking?

F1 has made a dramatic change to its regulations in the hope of getting more carmakers interested in the series. After Toyota, Honda and BMW left the series, we were left with Ferrari and McLaren as the manufacturer representatives and thankfully Mercedes felt it might be a good time to throw their hat in the proverbial ring. These changes are banking on the allure of a V6 Turbo engine format and it may be paying a few dividends as Honda will make its return to F1 in 2015 as a supplier of engines to McLaren.

However, Formula 1 is no place for rapid prototyping but it could be a place for inspired innovation to achieve exponential technology development in the spirit of competition. What does a winner of the F1 constructor’s championship get? Around $90 million give or take? What if I told you a handful of teams spent $100 million to win a prize of $10 million?

You see, things have become complacent in the world of F1 just as they had in the continuation of spaceflight. When the X Prize Foundation asked competitors to create a manned suborbital spaceflight, they offered $10 million as the prize but over $100 million was spent on new technologies in order to achieve it. SpaceShipOne hangs in the National Air and Space Museum and it does so for a contextually paltry award of $10 million. Such is the spirit of competition.

The competition set very concrete objectives that would be innovative and advance technology. The program would also be best served if it created an industry to continue after the competition was held—which is exactly what X Prize’s suborbital competition did.

Perhaps F1 should consider what their future DNA will look like. Does handing $90 million to the winner do much more than sustain its own self-interest and preservation? I’m fine with that but what if it could be much more? What if F1 could become an innovation incubator for humanity’s greatest advancement in road car technology and power plant performance?

Today the National Ignition Facility announced that they have officially achieved a world’s first by creating nuclear fusion. That’s energy’s Holy Grail. My visit to Shell in 2013 exposed me to a phalanx of engineers and brilliant people laser-focused on energy development for global demand and yes, sustainability. Perhaps these new technologies can be the future focal point for F1’s power plant innovation?

What if F1 became a competition not only on track but off the track as well? What if Formula 1 was a name for technology innovation and became the “Intel Inside” of road car standards? It would be sort of like saying that that your Cadillac was developed on the Nurburgring but without the James May stigma that is attached to it.

Red Bull Racing had the resources to get into F1 and spend its way to the top where the payout offsets the massive spend it commits to each year. Williams, Sauber or Caterham aren’t going to be able to spend $300 million per year over the next five years in order to get their team to the front in the hopes of getting a payday in the neighborhood of $90 million. So in essence the formula isn’t sustainable from that perspective.

If Formula 1 opened technology up and allowed Williams to use their most creative hybrid systems, Ferrari to use their massive engine might and Mercedes to use their incredible engineering as well as McLaren’s fanatical attention to detail and performance, perhaps F1 could become more than just “the show”.

Peter Windsor once called NASCAR racing “gormless racing” and I can understand why. Battle barges circling tracks with one dog-eared appeal of winning the race for the chase or whatever they call it these days. Formula 1, through ever-tighter restrictions, runs the risk of becoming NASCAR’s gormless cousin if they don’t allow new and innovative ideas.

Why place a limit on cylinders in 2014? Why not create a competition that demands 850hp from an engine that uses one third less fuel flow rate than 2013? Is that even possible? You may think so no but then landing on the moon wasn’t possible either. Creating nuclear fusion wasn’t possible either. If a team could make an engine with 12 or 4 cylinders that could produce 850hp at a third less fuel flow, why stand in their way?

What if the competition was intended to create aerodynamic downforce of X pounds at under 100mph? Like the Michelin Green X Challenge in ALMS, what if the competition was to create tires that could withstand F1 punishment but decrease rolling resistance and increase fuel mileage by 5-10%? These innovations could also produce some interesting racing to be sure.

Perhaps the prize money could be collected through an affiliation of carmakers that would then share the technology amongst them at the end of the year? Or, what if the technology competition winner could sell the technology to the carmakers? In short, what if there was more to play for than just your own bacon?

Admittedly, this concept most likely wouldn’t work because Ferrari or Mercedes isn’t in the business of participating in competition such as groups from, say, Stanford or MIT. They compete to sell cars. Red Bull participates to sell energy drinks and merchandise. Having said that, Ferrari once said they sell cars in order to race…my how times have changed—then again, F1 needs to change too. Either look forward or get back to the basics but whatever you do, stop doing the silly crap and claiming fans want “the show”. This isn’t NASCAR but it is teetering dangerously at the doorstep of gormless…thanks Peter.

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