Have the 2009 FIA regulations improved Formula 1?

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FIA 2009
Ultimately the Australian Grand Prix was an exciting start to a season rife with speculation, thrill and shocking normalcy-breaking results. Who would have imagined that a team on the brink of destruction would secure funding, bolt a Merc lump on the back and end up dominant at the first race? Who too would have guessed that the main players in a multi-year symphony of domination, Ferrari and McLaren, would be relegated to DNF’s and a best place finish of third? No, this is a year to remember as it has already been unforgettable and we’re only one race into the season.

So the inevitable question might be asked; “has the FIA actually improved formula 1 with the 2009 regulations”? It’s a good question and not an easy one to answer. But let’s unpack it and see what we all think. Can we draw many conclusions from one race? Probably not but we can see the initial impact of the FIA meteor on the FOTA terra firma. It should give us a clue as to what challenges we will see in five days time at the Malaysian Grand Prix and what could possibly be the new “normal” throught the year.

Aero: The aero changes made most of the cars very twitchy throughout the race. Especially with heavy fuel or cold tires. The rear end of the cars, across the board, were squirming dramatically in my opinion. The cars held on to limited grip like staple, strapped, clenched-fist and tongs. Robert Kubica said during the BBC post race interview, if memory serves correctly, that he didn’t think the aero helped BMW pass anyone(I am paraphrasing here). Effectively you have more downforce on the front axle and less on the rear creating serious oversteer and imbalance. With KERS weight, the driver becomes a huge liability due to a lack of ballast to space equally for car balance.

KERS: A few cars ran their KERS systems and it was difficult for me to asses the effect as both Ferrari’s were out, Renault languished only to inherit 5th place, Nick Heidfeld suffered from a first corner clash, heikki was out and Lewis convincingly moved up to fourth (later inheriting 3rd). So perhaps one might say Lewis was our best measuring stick to the success of KERS. During the race, Timo Glock commented that Fernando Alonso was holding him up by using the KERS button to avoid being passed. So the added front-wing downforce was creating oversteer but not promoting prolific passing as the KERS button was used liberally to keep the enemy behind. We can only assume that had Timo used KERS, he could have countered with his own button thus leaving the opportunity down to the car and it’s front wing.

Tires: After 10 years the slick tires returned. This was to provide an additional 20% grip due to a much larger contact patch that was to ultimately be mitigated by the reduction of aero-generated downforce. Increasing the mechanical grip of the car was paramount to the sacrifice of the aerodynamic loss suggested in the 2009 regulations. The expected result was a reduced performance factor in the medium-speed corners as well as high-speed corners and straights. Bridgestone will no longer bring adjoining compounds to a race. You will not see a soft/super-soft combination this year; rather a soft/hard or a super-soft/medium combination.

If you ask me, and you undoubtedly are not, I think this is dangerous, nonsensical as well as antithetical to racing. If a track is ripe for soft and super-soft compounds then you are only manipulating the results by forcing a team to use a hard or medium compound on a track that doesn’t favor it. The opposite could be applied here as well with the hard/soft combination on a track that favors hard/medium. This weekend saw real tire degradation with the option tire and most teams tried to get rid of it strategically. Ferrari opted for their first stint to be shorter and option-tire-eliminating in its scope. If this is what we are to expect by forcing teams to use farcical combination’s of tires and working with Bridgestone to provide a “controlled” tire compound of less than cutting edge; then perhaps the biggest impact on this season will be rubber and not the other oft-championed measures so generously touted by the FIA.

Luca Baldisserri~ “We opted to start on the softer tyres, a gamble that did not pay off today, because, given the huge degradation suffered by both drivers, we had to bring the first stops forward”.

And the truth is on Bridgestone’s web site:

Hirohide Hamashima~
“Bridgestone’s slick tyres and our new allocation philosophy gave competitors a lot to think about and some managed better than others. Tyre strategy was crucial to making up places, and the key to getting a good result here was having a good setup with the super soft tyre as the performance of this tyre dropped off very quickly. The medium tyre was very robust and allowed good strategy and setup options for teams.”

What did you think of the different tyre strategies used?

“This was the first race for teams with our new tyres so there were many different approaches over the weekend. From Saturday’s data we knew that the super soft tyre was around 1.2 seconds faster than the medium over its first flying lap so those who started on the super soft had a good advantage at the beginning. However, those who used the super soft for their last stint benefitted from the improved track surface due to rubber laid during the race. We predicted that the super soft tyre would be around 5-6 seconds slower if it was used from the start of the race until half distance, which is why we did not see many long stints on this tyre.”

So the big strategic gamble for teams is to “think” about setting the car up to use a really quick, highly volatile super soft tire that degrades after 2-3 laps? Are we infants? I say bring back Michelin and let the tire war produce better racing for adults instead of manipulating results through a silly tire management program intended to hamper the teams and add an element of random guess work and results. A show of hands; who feels better that Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault or McLaren had problems with the option tire costing them results and possible points or wins? I thought so.

Cost-cutting:One could argue that the FIA’s cost-cutting measures made it possible for Brawn GP to exist so from that perspective, I say they are a resounding success. In fact, two privateers were leading the grid for the start of the race on Sunday. I think the cost-cutting measures that the FIA and FOTA agreed upon were effective this year and should help next year instead of some poorly assembled and impossible to control budget cap system. Let the teams design a further cost-cutting measure for 2010-2012 and we should have some decent results that are inclusive to the privateer.

There is one issue that could strain the manufacturer’s “play nice with the privateers” concept. Merc is having a good year irrespective but in the past, they lived or died with McLaren’s success. Now they have the same lump in the back of a Brawn GP 001 and it is mopping the floor with the McLaren. This squarely puts the onus on McLaren and would lend itself to seeing Norbert Haug suggest that world isn’t carpeted; McLaren is going to have to wear slippers. In short, he is riding high with a Merc victory this weekend. Manufacturer’s are happy to help the little guy but when the little guy starts beating the stuffing out of them; well, stress could easily build up. Vijay Mallya may be wishing he had a strategic contract with Brawn GP instead of McLaren as they seem to have passed the aero-borne disease to their teams as well. Vijay could have easily just bought the lumps from Merc and left the engineers from McLaren at the front door.

In the endgame it seems, to this pundit, that many of the regulations changes have yet to expose themselves as grand ideas of series-saving scope. Exempting cost-cutting, the other combination of regulations such as no testing during the season, tires management programs, reduced aero, reduced wind tunnel operation, reduced engine capacity or KERS are really cumulative in their impact on the sport. It is my opinion that the regulation changes have done little when scrutinized individually yet when applied cumulatively they have created such a drastic change overall that the big gains, surprises, upsets, upheaval and exciting start to the season is really just a crap shoot of which team actually got the white sheet of paper to render the best application of the individual regulations.

Now before you send hate-email, let us both admit that this is part of it. Getting it right and beating your opponent through superior engineering within the given regulations. But recall, if you will, that the main goal for the 2009 regulation changes was not to throw all the teams off their evolutionary-designed cars that were progressively dominating the little guys or continuing legacies; no the regulations were ushered in for three reasons: to be “Green”, to cut costs and to increase passing. In essence what they have actually done is shaken the F1 can of soda so hard that all the teams have spewed forth in a foam of uncertainty and chaos. Teams like McLaren, who would otherwise be evolving their 2008 title-winning car, and BMW who were dangerously close with their 2008 challenger to fighting with the big two. What I see is a manufactured result from changing the regulations so drastically that the grid is unrecognizable. In short; force all teams to throw out their evolutionary cars that represent the culmination of years of hard work within a certain, relatively unmoving set of regulations and require them to start all over with a white sheet of paper.

You may very well be saying; “so?”. Well, I agree…”so?”. So this is what we can see so far. Out of the three things the FIA were to achieve from their 2009 regulations, I only see one as semi-successful and that’s if you discount the expense that the first regulation objective, KERS, cost to develop. The excitement we all feel about the start of this season has little to do with the FIA’s actual stated objectives for the regulation changes and more to do with the teams being blind-sided with a complete overhaul of the regulations and forced to abandon their evolutionary car designs in favor of a wacky, goofy looking car that is supposed to be “Green”, a prolific passer and cost less. Fail, fail and fail in my book. I get it! Brawn GP is really good and deserves the spot they achieved…I know; so soon you may forget that I championed Ross Brawn’s skills at Ferrari for years and said that his presence at Honda would turn that team around. This is not a rant born from a desire to discount Brawn GP, Red Bull Racing or a resurgent Williams. They are terrific teams and I really like all of them. But not at the expense of McLaren, BMW, Ferrari, Toyota and Renault. Ten cars that constitute the most engineering power and resources in the series, and world for that matter, and you have effectively pulled a Schumacher-wins-to-much-let’s-change-the-points-system gambit to reduce them to also-rans.

I know…who cares? That’s their problem! They should have done better engineering in the off season. They just can’t handle being beat by Williams and Brawn GP. Fair enough. I can’t deny that these are salient points but when the worm turns (and it will); let us not forget the soapbox from whence we stood yelling insults to the largest car manufacturer’s in the world as we flew the flag of the Privateer who’s bravery was a result of being out of range. Who’s resurgent success was a residue of FIA meddling more than finally accomplishing a level of engineering that placed them on par with the leaders of the sport. Ron Dennis once said that it is incumbent on them (McLaren) to raise their game to Ferrari’s level and not lower Ferrari’s level to match their game. Perhaps the financial crisis has changed that sentiment and although not happy with their performance, the big teams are relatively amiable about the whole issue. I am a huge fan of the Privateer and couldn’t be happier with their recent resurgence in the series. Yet i would rather see thsoe gains as evolutionary and through strategic alliances with bigger teams that through drastic regulation changes that skew results. Why? Because I fear their success will be fleeting.

What we have, ostensibly, is a manipulated season by tearing down the foundational work the big teams have laid over the last 10 years and giving the smaller teams an opportunity to instantly be competitive within the “Spec” car parameters and economic engine costs. Fair enough but I find it a bit patronizing to be honest and antithetical to the history of the sport and spirit of the sport. In the end, I am most assuredly wrong because it has done one thing that seems to have captured the imagination of fans the world over and brought dollars into the sport that otherwise were hiding from a global crisis. What is that? It has “improved the show!”. I stand down.

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