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Following the Storm

March 22, 2010

Following last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula 1 received a rather large amount of criticism from the fans, teams, drivers and media alike for what was quite a dull main event.
While many relevant points have been made regarding how the new rules may have stifled overtaking, the sport must stop short of knee jerk reactions by introducing new regulations that may only produce contrived racing conditions beyond sensible reason.
In January, Bernie Ecclestone commented that shortcuts could be introduced to Formula 1 in order to spice up the racing (I wrote about his suggestion here); possibly because he foresaw that there may be processions during the season. Some sections of the media and fandom wrote off shortcuts as nonsense sprouted by an out of touch money hog, while others went into an epileptic fervour when confronted by the suggestion.
Regardless of their ultimate intention, Ecclestone’s comments were made, people reacted and the quote was quickly forgotten when pre-season testing commenced two weeks later. Headlines were written and Formula 1 was in the news once more during the January lull; however it is doubtful that many thought the shortcuts story would return – yet like the Olympic medals idea that Bernie has been peddling occasionally, it came back like a bad rash. However, there was a method to the medals idea and as far as Bernie may be concerned, it eventually gave him the result that was wanted.

For those that don’t remember, the medals idea was initially suggested by Ecclestone just prior to the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix and is thought to have been a move against the then Formula 1 points system of 9-6-4-3-2-1 from first place to sixth respectively. Crucially only the eleven best results counted towards the championship standings and the 1988 title was won by Ayrton Senna, despite Senna scoring eleven points less than team mate and rival Alain Prost. Whatever the machinations that Ecclestone employs, it had the desired effect and from 1991, all results counted and the points for a win rounded up to 10. The moment the chequered flag dropped in Bahrain, stories of shortcuts and other controversial ideas reappeared in the media, but rather than take them literally, this may well be a push to get the sport to move quickly to try to fix the overtaking problem. Give an extreme proposition and those on the inside may come up with more amicable solutions…
Apart from shortcuts, another idea that has cropped up since the end of the Bahrain race is that of two mandatory pitstops per car. Although this might sound like an intriguing idea on paper, it is more than conceivable that this enforced strategy will produce racing that is just as boring in practice as the current regulations. When such strategic restraints are placed upon the teams, it is highly likely that they may end up pitting their drivers within one or two laps of eachother – in essence, the rulemakers may end up replacing one stalemate with another. Considering that one of the potential results of removing refuelling would be to also shake up tyre strategy, enforcing such specific strategies on teams could in turn make every race utterly predictable in every way and it is this very end game that Formula 1 must avoid at all costs.
There was also the notion the Bridgestone should bring ultra-soft tyres that would easily fall apart seems utterly daft and completely pointless and may surely only incur bad press for the Japanese company. In motor racing circles, Bridgestone ooze excellence, whether it be in Formula 1 and its related feeder formulae or in the US under its Firestone/Firehawk branding and it is not and entity that prides itself on producing sub-standard material because the sports own regulations are faulty.

These suggestions, comments and ideas ultimately ignore the main issue of top flight motor racing; namely aerodynamics. All of the fancy quirks and minor rule changes pale into insignificance when compared to the power of a cars’ aerodynamic wake. For so many years, drivers have been rather vocal about the dirty air of the car in front preventing passing, yet it is the one element that the FIA have struggled to contain and it looks like the issue may continue to elude them for some time – despite the banning of the controversial double-diffuser from 2011.
On James Allen’s blog last week, he received “a note” from former Williams and Toyota aerodynamacist Frank Dernie about the aero problem and while Dernie made some valid points about the reduction of aerodynamic downforce not making it easier to pass (as seen with the exclusion of the skirts in 1982), the consideration of the dirty air that the wings create was largely ignored, but how can this issue seriously be address? The racing manufacturer, Swift may have a partial answer with their 2012 IRL chassis proposal.
In December 2007, Swift Engineering announced that the new Formula Nippon chassis would contain an element called the “mushroom buster” – essentially taking the under-wing concept also seen in the GP2/05 and the Toyota Atlantics series up until recently a step further. Swift’s chief designer Chris Norris commented in the manufacturer’s proposal that “…whatever our final (…) concept design, Swift will incorporate its new pioneering technology to improve passing…
The term “mushroom buster” is in reference to the shape of the aerodynamic wake that a car produces. Norris claims the ‘busters’ will “…sweep up the wake behind the leading car without harming the handling of the following car. We have already effectively utilised Mushroom Busters in our Formula Nippon car design, the 017.n and believe we can take this technology much further…” It is a theory that Formula 1 may need to consider as the current route of aerodynamics of the cars appears to lead the quality of racing further and further down a dark alleyway.

The poor perception of the Bahrain event was not helped by some sub-standard TV direction. While there may not have been much overtaking up front, there were still a solid number of moves for position below the top 10; mainly from Renault’s Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil of Force India. Both these drivers spun from their mid-pack positions at the first corner and fell to the rear of the field and for much of the rest of the race, the duo picked up places by either forcing their way through on track or by nabbing positions during the pitstops. Unfortunately viewers rarely ever saw it, because – for obvious reasons – the TV direction was to the front of the field for that was where the real “action” was. If anything, the refuelling may be a blessing in disguise for Formula 1, for it has exposed how little on track passing there actually is in the series – this time it will not be masked by pitlane “action”.

Of course, this could all be academic – should the Australian Grand Prix be a good race, then the Bahrain race will be put down to it just being a singular poor event and like the 1999 Spanish Grand Prix and 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix will be consigned to the history books as epic blips on the map. With all the talk from the organisers and rule-makers of Formula 1 about spicing up the spectacle, you would think they could draft regulations that will allow for some sort of competition and overtaking; thereby actually providing a spectacle.

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