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Compound Confusion

So far, I have said nothing about the plan to make Bridgestone identify the two tire compounds to be used in races this year by having a blob of paint smeared on one or other of them. This is mainly because I really don’t understand the whole business.


Best of buddies – Mansell and Piquet

For a start, what is the point of forcing the teams to use both compounds in each race? Since everyone must do this, it seems like a pathetic attempt to introduce more artificial strategy into racing – as if we didn’t have enough already. And it will very quickly become clear whether it is best to use the soft tires at the beginning of the race or the end and all the teams will react accordingly. Not much room for nail-biting stuff there.

Then there is the silly business of whether there should be visual indication of which compound each car is using. I am told that this will make things more exciting for the fans since they will be able to see at a glance which cars are on softs and which on hards. And everyone seems to agree that this is a great idea – or it appeared so until until this morning, when I read a post on Formula 1 Linksheaven that questions the motivation behind the sorry business. I particularly liked the following statement:

The casual fan does not give a damn what compound a driver is using. The CASUAL fan can’t tell whether it’s Liuzzi or Speed gone by in the Toro Rosso. So this wont enhance their enjoyment of a race. And the hardcore fans will likely not want their beloved sport to take a further step away from being the cut-throat world that it is.

I would go even farther and suggest that the dedicated fans too will not care once it comes down to it. They understand that these things even themselves out in the race and that any excitement created by them is artificial and temporary only. What really matters to us is that there be as little interference by regulation in the races as possible – the attraction of F1 is competition between the best drivers and cars in the world and there is no need to “spice up” the show with idiotic and pointless requirements inserted by a governing body obsessed with TV ratings and convinced that we are all so moronic that only a circus will keep us amused.

As an example of just how much we care about tires, consider the British GP of 1987. Everyone remembers it as the race in which Nigel Mansell passed Nelson Piquet to win after having been twenty seconds down; some even consider it to be Mansell’s greatest race. The fact that Mansell was so far behind because he had changed his tires late in the race and that Piquet’s tires were shot is quietly forgotten. In fact, all that race proved was that a car on new tires is quicker than one on worn ones – big revelation.

No, we don’t care about tires and any attempt to re-introduce interest after having ensured that there will be no competition between tire manufacturers is a matter of wanting to have your cake and eat it. There are arguments for and against tire wars in F1 but, having decided to standardize on one manufacturer, the FIA should leave it at that, instead of monkeying about with details in the hope of preserving a vestigial interest in tires.

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The Overtaking Myth – Part 2

If you accept that there is about the same amount of overtaking in F1 as there has ever been, has this harmed the sport? Has it ensured that the fans drift away in their thousands? You know it hasn’t; F1 is more popular now than it has ever been, rivalling football as the most-watched sport in the world. From being a niche interest of dedicated petrol-heads, it has become a major player in the global viewer stakes.


Schumacher closes in on Alonso, Turkey 2006

If F1 is so boring, why do people continue to watch it in such huge numbers? The answer has much to do with television, of course; make the sport available to anyone with a TV and the spectacle will do the rest. Our perception may be that there is no overtaking but the reality is that racing at the cutting edge is gripping, with or without overtaking. Only those who were never going to be captured by the sight and sound of F1′s glorious and bewinged speed machines and the tussle between supremely gifted drivers can resist a Grand Prix.

Some of the greatest races have happened precisely because there has been no overtaking. Think of the Spanish GP of 1981 and Gilles Villeneuve holding back a train of six cars that were all faster than his slowing Ferrari. All true F1 fans recognize the skill it took to keep those cars back for lap after lap and to win in the end. And then there was Monaco in 1992, when Senna held Mansell back after his late pit stop for tires. The race is memorable in that Senna succeeded and Mansell never managed the overtaking manouver that looked inevitable.

We need to admit that overtaking is not what makes F1 racing exciting. There are moments of great overtaking manouvers (F1 Fanatic has picked out his fifty favorites – but I thought he said there was no overtaking…) but the real drama is the battle between talented drivers in closely matched cars. One of the highlights of 2006 occurred in the Turkish GP, when Michael Schumacher closed in on Alonso and challenged him for the lead. We were all fascinated by the struggle between two such gifted combatants in the best cars of the year. And did it matter that there was no overtaking, that Alonso stayed in front to the flag? No, we knew we had witnessed the essence of F1 – real competition between the best with everything at stake.

I am not saying that F1 does not need overtaking; my point is that it already has plenty and tinkering with the rules in an attempt to artificially make overtaking easier is always counterproductive. The FIA has been trying to increase overtaking for twenty years now. The result? Nothing has changed – it is still just as difficult to pass in a GP as it ever was. Meanwhile the restrictions on the designers have increased to the point where there is no room for ground-breaking innovation – we deal in thousandths of a second when looking at lap times. And still they talk of even more restrictions “to make passing easier”. Will we ever learn?

I have not finished. In fact, this has been such an enjoyable rant for me that I shall continue tomorrow. Now that I have mentioned the FIA, let’s have a closer look at their tinkering in this matter of overtaking in my next post.

To be continued…

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The Overtaking Myth – Part 1

Ask any casual viewer of televised F1 races why they don’t become fanatics for the sport and you will most probably get the answer, “They’re too boring – there’s not enough overtaking.” In the FIA survey of fans’ opinions last year, the lack of overtaking was cited as one of the areas in which F1 could improve. Even the FIA itself is convinced that this is something they have to get right for the sake of the sport’s future. In an article entitled Overtaking: Too much or too little?, F1 looks at the problem and makes suggestions for its solution.


Montoya and Schumacher

It seems that just about everyone is convinced that more overtaking would be good for F1. Ever prepared to take a contrary view, I have my doubts, however. Rather than just accepting the myth of a lack of overtaking in F1, we need to take a step back and get some perspective on the matter. For a start, let us consider whether there has ever been a great deal of overtaking in the sport.

Believe it or not, overtaking has always been as rare (or common) as it is today. In almost all seasons in the past, there have been cars and drivers that would gravitate immediately to the front and stay there. This is inevitable in a sport where technical excellence is rewarded with better performance and the best drivers naturally want and get the best equipment. Look at the drivers Mercedes chose for its all-conquering cars of the fifties – Fangio, Moss and Kling, the best drivers of the era. Then in the sixties, Lotus becomes the car to have and guess who gets it – Jim Clark. The story is repeated through every decade: the best cars get the best drivers.

The net result is that overtaking happens rarely at the front. It is more common further down the field but less noticeable, since few fans care about anything but who is leading. Television directors are the same.

Lead changes are a different matter entirely; just as these days changes in position happen most frequently in the pit stops (and who can get excited by superior pit stop strategies?), historically they were brought about by mechanical failures. We hate to see a great driver lose the reward for his efforts through bad fortune but it is a fact of life in F1 and always will be.

The truth is that what causes boring races is technical superiority. In most seasons there will be one car that is quicker than the rest and whoever gets it is going to win unless something breaks or circumstances make a nonsense of his pit strategy. So McLaren build a car that dominates for a few years and put the two quickest drivers of the time into it – guess who wins all the races. The only interesting aspect of those years was wondering whether Senna and Prost would push each other off again.

Sometimes two contructors get it right in the same year; then we have a situation like the season just ended in which we actually have a struggle for the championship. Of course we prefer such times – we watch because we want to see competition, after all. But you cannot legislate for such situations – they happen when they happen, that’s all.

So my first point is this: overtaking in F1 is no more rare today than it has ever been. If it seems less common, it is because we are confusing lead changes with overtaking – and unreliability played a much greater part in races of the past than it does now. Take any year and tot up the genuine passing manouvers in the races; you will find that there is little variance between the years.

Having made that point, I find that this post is becoming a good deal longer than I had intended. There is much yet to be said but I shall leave that until tomorrow. Apart from anything else, this might ensure that you come back to see what other windmills I will assail in my madness…

To be continued…

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Pat Symonds on Customer Cars

Renault’s engineering director, Pat Symonds, has added his voice to those expressing doubts about the idea of customer cars in F1. Like Mario Theissen of BMW, he feels that the legalizing of customer cars in 2008 will create a situation where there are only six manufacturers running two teams each and that the championship could be manipulated as a result.


Pat Symonds

But just a cotton-picking minute there – that’s two representatives of the manufacturers who fear that their companies will exploit the new rule to favor one driver, thereby winning the championship. Apart from the fact that this is unlikely since, if one manufacturer does it, they all will and that will cancel out any advantage they might have gained, why is it the potential manipulators who are suggesting such a scenario? I hear no complaints from the small teams who apparently face such a dismal future as the pawns of the big guys.

It seems to me that there is more going on here than meets the eye. The potential for devious tactics is not the real reason for the manufacturers’ doubts – that is just an excuse to justify their objection to the rule change. We must look elsewhere to find the motivation of the manufacturers, methinks.

Is it possible that they have looked at the history of F1 and fear the inventiveness, speed of reaction and dedication of small teams? To supply a chassis and engine to a customer team and then find that their customer has devised a tweak that makes their version of the car quicker would be unbearably embarrassing for a manufacturer. It is not beyond possibility.

So let us say that the big boss takes a walk down the pitlane and instructs his customers that, from now on, they must let the supplier’s lead driver win or the supply of chassis and engines will dry up. Well, we all know how leaky F1 teams are – it would not be long before the news made its way to the press and the resulting row would be far more embarrassing to the manufacturer than losing an occasional race to its own products. The Norberto Fontana revelation of last year may have been squashed very quickly by Peter Sauber but doubts linger in many minds, I’m sure.

The argument doesn’t float. In reality, the manufacturers don’t want their task of winning to be made even more difficult by the addition of small teams with competitive cars. It is hard enough already to beat the other manufacturers without having to consider the challenge of customer teams as well.

The suggested collusion by manufacturers raises another possibility that has not been mentioned. If they are prepared to stoop to such underhand dealing, what is to prevent them getting together and deciding to share out the championship between them? It would ensure that no manufacturer enjoys a long period of domination and hogs all the publicity as a result; if they take it in turns to win and get the marketing benefits, everyone is happy and avoids the possibility of never winning, something that they must all dread.

The fact is that the presence of small teams in F1 actually makes the possibilities for collusion much less. They would not be a part of any share-out of the spoils and will ruin any such attempt merely by competing to the best of their ability. And the customer car rule is the one remaining lifeline to such teams – without it they will be consigned to a Minardi-like existence, scrimping and scraping to get enough money together to continue for one more season.

So I’m sorry, Pat, but I just don’t believe you. You have one thing right, however:

“If you say that in 2008 you can do it (run customer cars), then does it really matter about things being pushed forward a year,” he said. “Many other rules have been pushed forward a year, is it really a big deal?

“On that basis, you would say it is a storm in a teacup. But it is easy for me to say that from a Renault perspective. If I was Spyker, I would not be at all happy about it. Rules are rules.”

Spyker may be complaining about the Toro Rosso and Super Aguri cars for the coming season but I haven’t heard that Colin Kolles objects to the 2008 rule change. Maybe that’s because he knows that Spyker haven’t the resources to compete with the really big manufacturers and might have to buy in a customer chassis themselves in future. They are already buying engines, after all.

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