Frantic on F1: If F1’s broke, its because they tried to fix it

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If It’s getting to a point now where you find yourself defending your sport everyday as the “casual fans”, the ones that we have heard the big fish in F1 saying they need to attract, are constantly saying F1 is dull. When the new regulations for 2010 came through it seemed a brilliant season was ahead. No more sprinting between stops, drivers had to pass on track! With the driver level we had and the optimism for 4 teams fighting at the top, this had to be a great season.

Wrong? Three races have produced different results. The panic kicked in as Bahrain created a race worthy of a paint drying championship. The wet spiced up Australia whilst the mixed up qualifying saved Sepang. Whats going wrong then? Pit stops were for tyres-only back in 1993 and yet before that year the series seemed to do fine but it was not an overtaking mad house then either. Yet since then things have changed that have made sure that everything is now 100 times harder to overtake. So what is going wrong? Here is my personal take on the whole issue.


Pitlane speed limits.

This is a fundamental change since refuelling was banned. The events of May 1st 1994 sent F1 into shock and seeing strict safety rules in place—one of them was a pitlane speed limit. Before that drivers could enter at full speed with the only penalty being how long the tyres took to be changed.

Now drivers have to stick to the speed limit knowing that 0.01 mph over the limit equals a drive through penalty and a race ruined. The time penalty for stopping now negates any advantage new tyres would provide. By the time they have caught up to other cars the driver has taken more out of his tyres catching up (this added to the aero disturbance, see below) and it makes it all the more harder to pass.

In Melbourne they made this worse by reducing the maximum speed from 100kph (62 mph) to a crawling 60 kph (37 mph) pushing the teams to simply do one stop and not try anything ambitious (One stop was looking to be the norm, this just confirmed it.)

The speed limit gives fewer options for teams to try things or apply adventurous strategies. One way would be to allow the cars to go faster in the pitlane. Now whilst this increases the danger, there are still ways to do this. One solution might be, not allowing the teams to leave the garage to work on the car until it has stopped. Have the mechanics behind the wall the way they do it in ALMS. Also, banning team personnel crossing the pitlane between “prat perch” and the garage” during the race.

Different tracks have different limits so the speed can be increased or decreased on the circuits needs. Naturally this option would be unavailable at tight pitlanes, street circuits such as Monaco or Valencia for example. Yet where the possibility is there, like Silverstone, maybe it is time to think about allowing drivers to go at speed down a pitlane again. If not at full throttle then at least a higher speed than we have so pitstops become more of a tactical option if a team wants to take a chance rather than something to get out the way.

Conservationist’s heaven.

Another criticism is that the races have become nothing more than economy runs where the drivers now save tyres and the car. Yet the regulations have not helped. Personally I was never a fan of the 8 engine format to begin with. Yet this year we see 2 extra races but the same 8 unit limit with 4 race gear boxes. Is it any wonder these guys are conserving race to race? We saw how Alonso trying to use his rev limit for the whole race didn’t help in Malaysia (not to mention other problems he had) but is a driver going to push as hard if he knows that engine has to last another 2 races?

Now as we know F1 wants to keep costs down yet would it hurt to go back to one race weekend engines? If we are to keep the engine freeze a one race engine would allow the drivers to push more having plenty of life in it. To be fair the gear boxes limit has not been a big issue for the teams and the penalty of just 4 grid places compared to 10 for the engine is not as bad.

I do not think that changing the penalty system would work if we kept the engine limit as it is. For instance a financial penalty instead of a grid penalty wouldn’t work. The big teams would happily change a unit for a few thousand dollar fine. On the other hand you would then have a problem for Mercedes, Cosworth, Renault and Ferrari having to supply extra units for teams. Although spreading it out over the whole season makes it easier as there would be no rule that states each driver has to have 19 engines ready to go on the Friday morning of the first round. Not to mention companies like Mercedes are surely big enough to supply extra demand. As for Cosworth, they supplied most the grid in the 60’s so I’m sure the company could still do it today especially in the same engine freeze spec we have now.

Double Diffuser loser.

One group of people that have been quiet is the Overtaking Working Group. Of course when you see that overtaking is not happening and that the cars now generate the same downforce as two years ago, I guess its a failed undertaking on their part. But of course when the regulations for 09 were made none of the OWG members had counted on the double-decker diffuser. Whilst it may have been declared legal (if you think it is within the regulations or not the fact is that it undid the work that was suppose to replace barge boards winglets and any other bits of aero pops ups) and we still have the same aero disturbance problems of years previous.

The teams have all agreed to remove the Diffusers for 2011 but is this too little too late. Why didn’t the teams agree to get them off for the start of European races? You could put your house on the fact the teams would then cry “too costly to redesign” and even “Safety concerns” however I argue that when declared legal last year the teams soon spent the money putting them on the car to give them an advantage. Taking them off would disadvantage them of course and that’s a whole different matter.

Freezing pitstops.

Now I could go on. F1 has got itself into a mess with the engine freeze and it further complicates my earlier thoughts on one weekend engines. The whole tyre issue is another problem. The only reason, as we all know, we have this two compound rule is to keep Bridgestones name in the weekend. With the Japanese tire giant pulling out, they are not going to spend money on new tyre compounds not to mention they have already made tyres for the season and those going to waste is not what they want.

But why not try something a little different? Scrap the two compound rule and instead for Friday and Saturday give the teams just the hard compound to practice and qualify on. Then on race day give the teams the softer compound only to race on. This would let Bridgestone use all its current stock rather than going to waste and the teams would have to guess at which compound to use ans what set up the car needs. A simple switch of the rules that wouldn’t cost the teams any more money just a different way of thinking.

Conclusion.

I am no expert and never claimed to be. But as a fan who loves this sport I worry that it is shooting itself in the foot. My suggestions about engines and diffusers will no doubt cost money. Changing speed limits will no doubt increase danger. But the simple truth is that what we have now is not working. To fix it will equal money. I find it hard to accept the teams crying about costs if in the next second they are talking about bringing KERS back.

The idea that a driver will use KERS to pass is also a flawed idea. If they all have it they will all use it and it will still be a push-not-to-be-passed system. It worked to a point when CART tried its boost button but is it really the solution that will push pass the dirty air a following car hits once it’s a second behind the guy in front? The danger aspect on the pitstops would not sit well with drivers and teams yet these guys are more protected than any other series. As I’ve already highlighted there are simple measure to keep it as safe as possible.

The teams talk about the need to spice the show then they need to all work together and work fast. Two mandatory stops wouldn’t work and it only really serves those whose tyre wear is higher than they like. It doesn’t add to the show as DTM has proved unless you are lucky enough to have made both stops when the safety car is out (See Hakkinens final win in DTM.) The teams in my view have to remove the double diffuser now and then agree to have a single unit and not pull another trick against the “spirit” of the rules. That’s where the teams do have to decide what they want. To help F1 or themselves because if they don’t they are only going to break it more.

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