The wrong formula

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely that you’re a Formula 1 fan.  A fan of thrilling racing, overtaking, battles for the lead and the championship.  A fan of motorsport at it’s very best.  That’s what F1 is all about, after all; it’s the pinnacle of motorsport.  Or, at least, that’s what it should be.

Vettel takes the chequered flag at the Circuit of the Americas

Vettel takes the chequered flag
at the Circuit of the Americas

Sadly, Formula 1 has become increasingly dull.  At the weekend we saw the now four time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, take his eighth consecutive victory.  As usual, he was pretty much unchallenged at the front and the win was comprehensive and straightforward.  As usual, we heard team radio messages to various drivers urging them to conserve their Pirelli tyres.  Yes, that’s right, team radio telling drivers not to push to the maximum for fear that they might wear out their tyres.  The overtaking that we did see either happened at the start or was largely achieved with the assistance of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid. Is this really what we want racing to be like at the pinnacle of the sport?

I should be clear that none of this is Vettel’s fault.  He’s clearly a great driver, who has the privilege of driving cars that have been the class of the field for the last four years.  Indeed, but for the Brawn double diffuser in 2009, there’s little doubt that Vettel and Red Bull Racing would have won five consecutive world drivers’ and constructors’ championships.  No doubt, future generations will look at the record books and marvel at the German’s achievements.  No doubt, his fans love his complete dominance of Formula 1.  For the rest of us, though, be we supporters of other drivers, or just fans of great racing, Vettel’s dominance is a real turn off.  What’s the point of watching a race when the outcome is all but certain?

An example of a coanda exhuast on Jenson Button's McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

An example of a coanda exhaust on Jenson
Button’s McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

The change in regulations in 2014 brings with it a huge opportunity for F1 to become exciting again.  Non-Vettel/Red Bull fans are living in the hope that other teams and drivers will raise their games for 2014, and that the absence of the exhaust technology that Red Bull has mastered will level the playing field somewhat.  I very much hope that it does, but even then there are other things that need to be addressed, chief among them the Pirelli tyres.

Again, I should preface my comments by saying that I don’t think the Pirelli are solely to blame for the problems that we’re now seeing.  They must, though, shoulder some blame.  When Pirelli entered F1 in 2011 they were asked to make tyres that degraded more rapidly than the Bridgestone rubber that had been used previously.  Typically races run on Bridgestone’s during the time that they were the sole tyre supplier, following the banning of refuelling, were one stop races, lacking in much excitement.  Then the Canadian grand prix of 2010 came along, with multiple tyre stops as the rubber degraded more quickly, we had an exciting and tough to predict race.  “This is the answer” thought the FIA, “faster wearing tyres produce better racing”.  So that’s what Pirelli were asked to produce.

Pirelli's 2013 range of tyres

Pirelli’s 2013 range of tyres

And that’s what Pirelli have produced.  I would argue that they have taken their brief too far, but they have certainly done what the FIA asked them to do, and with very limited testing, too.  What the FIA didn’t consider, though, was that rapidly degrading rubber is fine when it’s not the norm.  When it’s unexpected it will produce racing that’s exciting.  The problem is, though, that everyone knows that the tyres wear out quickly.  So, instead of pushing their cars and themselves to the limits – as they should be doing at the pinnacle of motorsport – they concern themselves with not overstressing their tyres.  They’re not pushing hard.  They’re not driving on the limit.  They are protecting their tyres to try to achieve the optimum race strategy.

As a result, we don’t see much exciting wheel to wheel racing.  There are no race long battles for the lead.  Formula 1 in 2013 has become what the FIA had hoped to avoid – dull and uninteresting.  If the FIA wants races with multiple pit stops it would be far better to have harder wearing tyres – tyres that drivers can really stress and push to the limit on – and mandatory pit stops.  That would be better from a marketing point of view for the tyre manufacturer, and better for the sport.

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

F1 is not really helped by DRS, the other big change, along with Pirelli tyres, at the start of 2011.  DRS, to be fair, does help overtaking by reducing drag.  As you probably know, it can only be used at set points at each track and only when a car is within a second of the car ahead of it at a set detection point.  The problem with it is that it’s completely artificial.

We’ve become so used to DRS now, though.  I find myself watching a DRS assisted pass during races and thinking, “great pass” or “good move” when it’s anything more than someone just driving past someone else in the middle of a straight.  These aren’t great passes, though.  They are manufactured and artificial.  A far cry from the truly great overtaking manoeuvres of the past that we now see fewer and fewer of.

As I’ve written about previously, instead of dreaming up devices to artificially boost overtaking, the FIA need to concern themselves with addressing the aerodynamic rules that make it difficult for Formula 1 cars to follow each other closely.  Resolve that, introduce mandatory pit stops and request harder wearing tyres, and we might see Formula 1 racing that’s exciting again.

Of course, not much can be done if one team or driver is just better than the rest, as we’ve seen over the past few seasons with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing.  As I’ve said, it’s up to others to raise their game to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in 2014.  They need some help from the rule-makers, though.

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

At the moment, the FIA have got the balance completely wrong.  And when you add the ridiculousness of the driver market into the equation, the situation looks even bleaker.  Increasingly, teams need drivers to pay their way, rather than earning their drives on the basis of talent alone.  There are a few exceptions to that rule, most notably McLaren’s recent promotion of Kevin Magnussen to a race seat in 2014, but others aren’t as lucky.  The best example at the current time is Nico Hulkenberg.  It looks increasingly likely that the talented German will be overlooked for a leading drive at Lotus because of his lack of sponsorship cash.  Hulkenberg has performed wonders whichever team he has driven for in the past, but that’s not enough nowadays.

Instead it looks likely that the Lotus drive will go to Pastor Maldonado and his bucket-load of PVDSA sponsorship.  The Venezuelan is quick on his day, but crash-prone, erratic and prone to red mist.  As we saw in Austin, he’s also petulant and a poor loser.  Certainly not a driver that’s worthy of  one of the top drives in F1.  Indeed, but for his sponsorship money I doubt he would have ever secured a drive in Formula 1.

I’m not sure what can be done about the rise of the pay driver in F1 but this, together with the lacklustre on track action does not make for a healthy sport.  This is not the right formula for success.  As they’d say in Star Trek, the F1 of 2013 “is Formula 1, Jim, but not as we know it”.  Nor as we want it to be.

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4 thoughts on “The wrong formula

  1. Great article!

    I think the phrase “What the FIA didn’t consider, though, was that rapidly degrading rubber is fine when it’s not the norm. When it’s unexpected it will produce racing that’s exciting. The problem is, though, that everyone knows that the tyres wear out quickly” summarizes the main problem in present-day F1. The problem is that if the tyres become more durable again, races will be dull processions as we saw in 2010, so I fully understand you desire to introduce mandatory pitstops – the very same thing was proposed after the first race after the refueling ban, the 2010 Bahrain snorefest.
    However, I don’t think a lack of pitstops is the main problem. In 2010 the two-compound rule ruined the show – I would like to have seen mixed strategies with some drivers pitting for new tyres at some point, while others were trying to complete the full race-distance on one set of tyres. That would have led to great battles to the checkered flag.
    In fact, in 2010 we got the worst of both worlds: we did have pitstops, but we did not have mixed strategies. Still races were decided (or screwed up) in the pits, while the order usually remained the same. Unfortunately, I think that’s what F1 will look like if we were to introduce mandatory pitstops and more durable tyres.

    I started watching F1 in 1997. It was a great season, partly because of the high attrition rate (many blown engines), but also because of the Goodyear-Bridgestone tyre war. The Goodyear tyres were usually pretty vulnerable, they were prone to overheating and some skill was required to make the best use of them. But they were not as fragile as the Pirelli tyres of today and drivers were not nursing their tyres all race long. Instead, there was plenty of on-track action and a lot of pitstops. I think that’s how F1 should be: without tools like DRS, but with in-race refueling and noticeable, but not extreme tyre wear.
    An important advantage of in-race refueling is that teams have to choose the strategy in advance, instead of anticipating the other teams’ pitstops, which kills strategic variation. In fact, I think it would make Vettel’s task harder: too much fuel and he might be caught by a lighter car, too little fuel and he has to pit early, with the risk of being stuck in traffic. At least the likelihood of him leading the race every single lap decreases.
    By the way, I don’t think the refueling ban has improved the safety – in my opinion the risk associated with wheels coming off after a pitstop (remember Hungary 2010 and Germany 2013) is higher than the risk of a pitlane fire – for example, Verstappen’s infamous pitlane inferno in 1994 was because his team cheated with the fuel valve, so that incident is not entirely representative. Refueling was quite save in my opinion – at least when the teams stick to the rules.

    I hope 2014 will be more exiting. Possibly reliability will be an issue, but I doubt it. Hopefully I will be pleasantly surprised. 😉 I also hope the tyres will be slightly more durable and that the more powerful KERS is a great overtaking tool, so we don’t need DRS anymore, although I like the concept. What about DRS being used at the beginning of a straight?
    Fortunately F1 is going to change, just as it did in 2011, which was a great season until everyone got used to the tyres and DRS started to annoy. So at least next season is something to look forward to. The first half of the season will probably be great fun, something we desperately need after this disappointing season.

    • Thanks!

      Aside from the safety issue, I think that the problem with refueling is that there’ll always be an ‘optimum’ strategy that all the teams will have worked out on their simulations. In reality, while some teams might take a risk and try something different (as occasionally happens with the rapidly degrading Pirelli tyres), it’s likely that they won’t stray too far from that optimum = processional racing.

      I think that reliability is likely to be a bit of an issue next year – certainly that’s what people seem to be saying – so that may well mix things up. ERS will certainly be important and if the rumours about Mercedes having a big power advantage next year are true, then we’re at least likely to have a different front-running team.

      I live in hope for a better spectacle in 2014…

  2. When one team or driver is dominating the sport and when the attrition rate is so low that all retirements are in the first lap, races are boring and there is not a lot strategy can do to spice up the show. So I hope the balance of forces is not shifted towards one team in 2014 and that the turbo engines will blow occasionally. It is still very difficult to predict what’s going to happen next year – will the (supposedly) stronger Mercedes engine compensate for the Red Bull’s (supposedly) superior aerodynamic package? And what about fuel consumption (limit)? Will it benefit the weaker engines?

    Regarding the strategies: in fact there is not much difference between tyre and fuel strategy. Nowadays teams are monitoring tyre wear to come up with the right race strategy and usually everyone is doing the same thing, which is mainly conserving the tyres in order to minimize the number of pitstops.
    In theory, there is always an “optimal strategy”, but in practice, success depends on the ability to avoid traffic. Nowadays, races can be ruined when drivers are trapped behind slower cars after their pitstop. In the past, races were ruined when drivers were trapped behind “heavier” cars. In both cases, choosing the right strategy is important, but in my opinion it was more difficult before the refueling ban, because the teams had to come up with their race strategies in advance, so it was more likely to go wrong.
    I admit that racing was fairly boring in the early 2000s, when tyres were durable and everyone was trying to pit as late as possible, so there was no action at all in the first 40 laps or so. The 2003 qualifying rules improved the show, but less durable tyres would probably have done the same: forcing drivers to pit earlier and more often. I’d love to see Pirelli-like tyres and refueling, especially when there is a large difference between the two tyre compounds, see, for example the 2009 Monaco Grand Prix.

    One last thing that puzzles me is: last year there were some drivers (Grosjean and in particular Pérez) who managed the tyres better in the race, which delivered them some surprising podium finishes (Canadian GP, Italian GP). This year, nothing like that has happened, even though the new tyres were much softer. I cannot understand why.

    • On the last point, I can only guess that the other drivers have gotten more used to the tyres and have learnt to better manage wear.

      It’s hard to predict what’ll happen next year. As long as we get some better racing and more unpredictable results I’ll be happy enough!

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