Op ed: Two cheap ways to “spice up the show”, without gimmicks

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I bid you welcome to one of my crazier F1 opinions – many of you will probably disagree with me.

For fear of patronising every soul reading this, F1 is no longer the pure pursuit of lap times it initially was. To be painfully honest, it probably hasn’t been at any point in my lifetime.

But as a matter of fact, I’m cool with that.

In the modern age it’s understandable for financial reasons, necessary for safety concerns, and probably imperative to promote competition. If the new teams are struggling now, imagine the situation if they were entering into an old-school, no-holds-barred F1 free-for-all, with 2010 money and technology added to the mix.

Let’s focus on the competitive angle – because that’s seemingly been the overriding thrust of regulation adaptations of late, and is set to remain that way.

Refuelling (or not), KERS (or not), grooved tyres (or not), one-lap-wonder qualfiying (or, mercifully, not), knockout qualfiying, Q3 rule anomalies (be it fuel strategy, tyre compounds, or whatever else), engine parity and freezes, a ban on winglets, changes to wing sizes, new car weights, lengths, widths — the FIA, FOM, FOTA, the OWG, MacGyver, and a crack team of primates with typewriters have introduced, tweaked, removed and reintroduced no end of gimmicky regulations designed to “spice up the show”.

All this folly to try to let the teams cling to the obvious enemy of competition – downforce. But we all know that seriously limiting downforce would never happen. That could turn the grid upside down, and would render useless the thrust of decades of paddock R&D. The possibility of a cost-cap showed us all too clearly what happens when you threaten the big teams with a real shake up; shouting matches, bluffing contests and general anarchy, all followed by a return to the status quo with much egg on virtually everyone’s faces.

So, if we can’t touch the wind tunnels, what is fair game? How to promote wheel-to-wheel racing without gimmicks?

Armed only with my engineering ignorance (a disclaimer I feel compelled to make in this post), I think the answer is simple. Devolve.

Here are my two suggestions on how to spice up F1 no end, to put more emphasis on driver input, to encourage overtaking and – best of all – to do it without incurring any extra costs that would hamper the little guys.

1. Manual gearboxes

This is perhaps my favourite hobby-horse. Bring back fully manual gearboxes, including a clutch pedal, of course.

It’s so simple – but it would tick so many boxes. There’s an emphasis on driver skill, massive scope for human error, and it would probably force a certain back-to-basics approach with regards multi-function steering wheels, brake bias adjustors, f-ducts, and even left-foot-braking. Braking zones would be extended, corner speeds slowed, and the major variable in the equation would be driver skill – no gimmicks, no frills.

And if the young guns can’t do it very well, or have rarely raced with a fully manual car, then they’d just have to learn — or fail. Frankly, if you’re not comfortable with a gearstick, you don’t deserve to be in F1.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing the semi-automatic and later seamless-shift transmissions in F1, pioneered by my beloved Williams, no less. It’s probably the quintessential modern-day example of F1 directly changing the production car industry for the better. It was, and is, an awesome invention.

But now every Ferrari can shift faster than you can blink, and even some of the most run-of-the-mill road cars are adopting the technology. Been there, done that.

Now, I feel the time has come when the paddock can pat itself on the back for a job very well done, and return to an admittedly defunct technology that will encourage better racing. We all know F1 COULD use the technology, that it’s the technology’s genesis even, but why not simply say they can’t use it any more?

After all, they COULD build a 300mph V12 monster, but they’re not allowed to.

2. Brakes

190mph to 60mph, 7th gear to 2nd, all in what distance? 70, 80, 90 metres? According to a now outdated book of mine, an F1 car goes from 60 to nought in 17 metres. That’s simply way too short, and I’ll bet it’s shorter 6 years later. No wonder passing’s so difficult!

Again, the road car industry uses carbon brakes. It’s been done. Why not rethink what’s used in F1 in order to lengthen the braking zones and give greater scope for out-braking someone.

While David Coulthard gets in a stew about the 8kph top speed differential between a Red Bull and a Lotus, he’s conveniently forgetting the vast speed differentials caused by the other pedal. Are they not a greater danger? And a greater detriment to competitive racing, for that matter?

We are Devo

I hear you, I hear you:

‘This is slowing F1 down. It’s the pinnacle of motorsport, the pinnacle of technology, it’s R&D on a racetrack, and that’s the whole point. These suggestions would kill the essence of the sport…’

The concerns are also in my mind.

But are they valid nowadays? Have they ever been valid since Bernie Ecclestone (the wizard that he is) developed a car two seconds per lap faster than anything in the field, and then shrewdly saw that there was more long-term value and pit-lane influence to be gained by withdrawing it – voluntarily – after just one race than by continuing to win with it?

F1 is R&D on a racetrack within its own regulations, and these are becoming ever more restrictive. So, instead of all this gimmicky nonsense that I listed ad nauseam above (sorry, really, I’m nearly finished now, I promise), why not make a couple of simple, cheap, somewhat old-fashioned regulation changes designed to put greater emphasis on driver performance, and to help make overtaking easier?

For me, it sure beats moveable rear wings, KERS, ‘safe’ and ‘aggressive’ (or ‘rubbish’ and ‘rubbish’) tyre compounds, and all this other nonsense slated for 2011 and perhaps 2013.

All it would take from teams and drivers is the bravery to face a greater human challenge in the races, and the willingness to watch the lap times drop back down by a few seconds – when we all know they could probably go at least 5 (or is that 15?) seconds quicker anyway if the regulation lid were truly lifted.

For me, it all boils down to one very, very plagiarised question:

Are we not men?

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