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Decisions From the FIA

The good news is that the FIA has been able to ban traction control in F1 from 2008, thanks to the introduction of the standardized Microsoft/McLaren ECU. Anything that removes driver aids from the cars and puts more emphasis on the skill of the driver has to be applauded; it remains to be seen whether the ECU will have other unexpected effects such as our screens suddenly freezing with 404 errors and teams having to phone Redmond to register their software after an engine change.

Tyre

To prevent us getting too excited, however, the FIA has balanced this by not approving other proposed rule changes – slick tyres will remain a no-no, the width of the cars will not be increased and there will be no reduction in the minimum weight limit. Ah well, I guess we’d become spoiled if allowed to have everything we wanted.

Some surprise has been expressed amongst F1 watchers at the failure to implement these changes. It all makes perfect sense if you look at it from the FIA’s point of view, however. Take the survival of the awful grooved tires, for instance – now that Bridgestone seems to have settled for using one of the grooves for its painted indication of the softer tire, it would be unfair to take that away from them so soon. They might have to do the obvious and paint a ring around the sidewall otherwise and that would be following the lead of Champ Cars (oh, horrors!).

But seriously, there is one thing all the rejected proposals have in common – they would make the cars faster in the corners. And we know that is anathema to the FIA with their determination to keep speeds within manageable limits. After all, we all know (don’t we?) that speed is what causes accidents. Perhaps we could end up with a scenario rather like California’s car chases, where the cops follow dutifully along behind the getaway car as it cruises the freeway at the speed limit. Now there would be a spectacle to delight nannies all around the world!

Formula 1 is a sport of balances – balance between car performance and driver skill, balance between technological advance and spectacle, balance between speed and safety. Concentrate too much on one aspect and another will suffer. And safety needs to be put in its rightful place – important but not the be-all and end-all.

The current generation of cars is about as safe as it is possible to make them but there will always be a chance of something completely unexpected happening (like David Coulthard deciding to park his RB3 on your head). That is the definition of accident – something occurring that has not been foreseen and therefore not guarded against. We can chase our tails for eternity trying to think of the most unlikely events and then making sure that cars have defenses against such things, but we will never beat Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

It is time to accept the very high standard of safety already achieved and allow racing to have its turn. Give us back the slicks and let the cars be wider and lighter – let’s see some racing, for Pete’s sake!

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The FIA Nails the Flexi-Floor Problem

Well, it seems we are going to find out just how much difference to lap times the flexi-floors make. Autosport magazine has a very revealing article reporting on the FIA’s response to McLaren’s suggestion that they be allowed to fit the same system that Ferrari are using to enable the floor of their car to flex at high speed. Predictably, this has galvanized the FIA to action and they have replied that they will test for moving floors with such devices removed.

Charlie

Charlie Whiting, FIA F1 Race Director

Bang goes Ferrari’s little tweak. Which is what McLaren wanted all along, of course. There will be those who say that the tweak should be allowed, that this is just the designers introducing new technological ideas and that McLaren are only looking for ways to handicap Ferrari. But that would ignore the fact that this particular tweak is deliberately designed to circumvent the rules. If the tightening of the test does interfere with the Ferrari’s competitiveness, then its speed to date has been thanks to an illegal modification and McLaren are quite right to protest.

The idea of moving the floor to increase or decrease aerodynamic efficiency is not new; clearly, the FIA test for this is to prevent it happening. So this is not a case of a brilliant technological innovation being killed by spoilsports. The engineers are aware of the effect of a moving floor but have not employed it before, knowing that it would be illegal. It is no great step of the imagination to design something that will resist the known force used in the FIA test but to move when higher forces are applied.

What amuses me most about the saga is the way in which McLaren “sought clarification” on the tweak. They did not protest the Ferrari but asked whether the FIA would allow a device intended to pass the test but function at higher forces. I can almost hear Charlie Whiting, the FIA’s head of the F1 technical department, spluttering as he wrote in his reply:

“Quite clearly, any such device would be designed to permit flexibility and is therefore strictly prohibited by Article 3.15 of the Technical Regulations.”

This from the same man who passed the Ferraris as perfectly legal at the Australian Grand Prix. It seems that McLaren know from experience that, to get a fair ruling from the FIA where Ferrari are concerned, you must suggest that you are going to do the same thing as the Italian team.

It may be that removal of the device will have no great effect on the Ferrari’s performance, in which case McLaren are going to have to work that much harder to get on terms with them. But, if the tweak has had something to do with the Ferrari’s superiority so far, its removal can only be good for the sport. We might still have the closely-fought season that we have all been hoping for in that case.

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Does the FIA Need Stability Control?

There is some talk of stability control being introduced into F1 in the future. This, of course, is a direct result of the manufacturers being involved in the sport – already they have used such systems on production cars and it makes sense for them to get their own private testing ground, F1, to help them develop the idea further.

FIAworld

This should be anathema to anyone interested in seeing F1 continue as a sport; the fans look forward with hope to the standardized ECU as a means of getting rid of traction control and now it emerges that the FIA is talking to the car industry about allowing stability control in F1. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the way in which the FIA has sold its soul to big money in the form of the manufacturers. Stability control will do much more than traction control in reducing the influence of driving skill as a factor in races – it will make the driver a mere passenger without opportunity to demonstrate his skill. Where is the sport in that?

It is quite apparent that the aims of motor sport and car manufacture are mutually incompatible. The primary intent of F1 must always be competition between drivers and nothing the FIA can do or say will alter that fact in the minds of those who care about the sport. The manufacturers, however, are in F1 only to demonstrate to potential customers that their designs are the best – a marketing exercise, in other words. They do not care about the sporting aspects and would be betraying their company’s interests if they did.

The irony lies in the fact that, as the cars become laden with driver aids in the cause of “relevance to the production of road vehicles”, the fans will drift away because the human element, the drivers, are no longer competing in any meaningful way. Once the viewing public has dwindled to the point of insignificance, the manufacturers will leave and put their money elsewhere.

At which point we might, just might, get our sport back, if there is anything left to salvage. My fear is that a governing body as blind to the obvious as the FIA is showing itself to be will find a way to make things even worse.

In a way, it is good that these matters are becoming apparent now, rather than later. As sanity at last begins to make an appearance in the global warming debate, the FIA’s commitment to “green-ness” will be shown up for the subservience to the manufacturers that it is. Once their credibility as a governing body is destroyed (and it is fairly rocky already), it might become apparent that the only change that is needed is in the way F1 is governed and by whom.

Hopefully, that will happen before all the idiotic rule changes they have lined up can come into effect.

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Flexible Floors – The Plot Thickens

I see that BMW are also under suspicion of having a flexible floor on the F1.07. Which makes it harder to believe the dismissive “Oh, Ferrari always gets accused of cheating when they’re fast” statement from the red brigade. Let’s wait and see what the FIA have to say on the matter, shall we?

BMW F1.07

BMW F1.07

It is interesting that it is BMW who are accused along with Ferrari; they were also suspects in the flexi-wing saga of last year and I begin to wonder if they have a mole in the Ferrari camp who passes along all the latest tweaks. Industrial espionage in F1 – who would have guessed it?

But mention of moles reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to point at a rather entertaining occasional column on GrandPrix dot com. It is called simply The Mole and is well worth a read, especially if you’re British (some of the humor is very English).

To return to The Amazing Moving Floor Scandal, however, it strikes me that the idea might be related to Ferrari’s much-questioned longer wheelbase this year. All the other teams have gone for shorter wheelbases (although I seem to remember reading somewhere that Honda are another exception – hmmm, could that be an explanation of their poor performance so far?). It is just possible that Ferrari discovered that the flexi-floor worked really well with a long wheelbase and so went against standard theory on the Bridgestone tires. Which would argue against BMW adopting the system since they have a short wheelbase – except that they could have found that it still gives them a measurable performance advantage.

All conjecture, of course, and I am no engineer – I just like to look at possible motives behind all these upsets in F1. And, as long as I’m doing that, we could consider what would happen if the FIA decide that the floors are illegal and must be changed. That could really mess with Ferrari’s performance, as we saw with the Renault handicapped by the banning of mass dampers in 1976 – design your car around a certain tweak and you’re in big trouble if it is suddenly made illegal.

But I suppose the fuss will die down and be forgotten in due course. And, whatever Ferrari and BMW are doing, you can bet that everyone else will be by the end of the season.

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