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Television and F1 Practice Sessions

While watching the free practice sessions for the US GP yesterday, I heard the commentators broach the subject of Friday practice. They went on to mention that Bernie Ecclestone would like to do away with these first two sessions altogether.

This is quite understandable when we consider the undramatic nature of these sessions. Teams send out their test drivers to verify their settings and see if there are any problems, some of the race drivers might take a lap or two to put a time on the board, but no-one is really trying to break any records; lap times from these sessions are meaningless. Since the engines must last two races, nobody wants to put too many miles on them at this stage. And this makes things pretty boring for the viewers.

But hold on a minute – hasn’t anyone noticed that practice was not always like this? There was a time when practice was as fraught and nail-biting as the race.

In the seventies, when I first started watching the BBC’s televising of Grand Prix, I thought they were missing a huge opportunity by not showing the practice sessions. A large part of the viewers’ enjoyment of the sport comes from knowing the background and understanding what is going on – only then can the true drama of F1 be revealed, the constant adjustments to lower lap times, political machinations behind the scenes, the eternal competition between brilliant engineers as well as top drivers. Without this the races must seem high speed processions of very similar cars in a circle. And it’s practice that gives the viewer a chance to see more of the hidden battle for speed.

Years later, when at last television began to broadcast practice sessions, I was confirmed in my view. Now we could see the teams beavering away to find those last few tenths of a second to move perhaps one more place up the grid, now we saw the frantic haste of the last pit stops for adjustment as the time ran out. And, on the track, we were treated to drivers going to the absolute limit of their ability in their attempts to improve their grid spot. In those days, times from both Friday and Saturday counted towards the grid.

Pit work

Then the FIA stepped in and began a series of rule changes that effectively destroyed the show. They limited the number of tires that could be used at a race, thereby ensuring that teams had to run fewer laps in order to conserve their tire allotment. Then they insisted upon engines not being changed, at first for one race and then two; suddenly everyone was reluctant to use their engines any more than they had to. And they did away with Friday qualifying, in the process reducing it to a bedding-in session without much meaning for the spectators.

The result is what we have today: two sessions where the teams are not really competing against each other, tracks that stay empty for much of the session, and only brief glimpses of the star drivers in the last few minutes. How fair is it that, having reduced Friday to such a meaningless parade, Bernie should now turn around and suggest getting rid of it?

I understand that the FIA is concerned about costs and it is right that they should be. But not every cost-cutting measure of the past has had the desired effect, especially when we allow that the retention of a viewing audience is just as important in that this is where the money comes from. Surely it is time that the FIA examined their rule changes and admitted that some mistakes have been made. Is it really that impossible to find ways of reducing costs without destroying the entertainment value of F1?

Now that it seems F1 will be going to a standard tire and homologated engines (also a contentious issue but it will happen because the FIA say so), there seems no justification for limiting Friday practice in the way that it has been. The extra costs involved in returning to Friday qualifying would be tiny in comparison to a team’s outlay for each race. And once again we would be treated to two days of intense struggle for the top spots on the grid.

So don’t do away with Fridays, Bernie – just give them back to us!

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