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.

That Mercedes DRS…

Despite the FIA having ruled that the Mercedes AMG Team’s innovative DRS system is legal, some teams are asking the FIA to reconsider their decision.  The Mercedes DRS, when activated, exposes ducts on the rear wing which channel air the length of the car to stall the front wing, to give a greater speed boost than a standard DRS.  The most vocal of  the teams lobbying against the legality of this system seem to be Red Bull Racing and Lotus, who disagree with Mercedes’ and the FIAs interpretation of the rules and want to see this system banned.  So what’s all the fuss about?

The Mercedes system is estimated by some to be worth around 0.5 seconds per lap in qualifying where use of the DRS system is unrestricted.  Half a second doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of Formula 1, where the top 10 in qualifying might be covered by 1.5 seconds or so, 0.5 seconds is a considerable amount.  Indeed, if you add 0.5 seconds to Michael Schumacher’s qualifying time in Malaysia, the lead Mercedes would have dropped from an impressive third, just a couple of hundredths of a second off second placed Jenson Button, and a tenth and a half off Lewis Hamilton in pole position, down to sixth.  Add that same 0.5 seconds to Nico Rosberg’s time in Q2 and he would have come very close to elimination, scraping into the Q3 top 10 shootout by around a tenth of a second from Pastor Maldonado’s Williams.  Given that Mercedes’ race pace is actually quite poor – both cars have dropped back quite quickly in the two races so far, and the team have only scored a single point (Schumacher’s 10th in Malaysia) – it’s easy to see why this DRS system is so valuable to Mercedes.  Without it, they would not have track position at the start of the race and, given their poor race pace, scoring points would be even more unlikely.  Given Mercedes’ poor race pace, though, why are the other teams so eager to see the system banned?

I believe that the answer to this last question can be found when looking at which teams are protesting most vociferously about the Mercedes DRS system:  Red Bull Racing and Lotus.  Looking at qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, it is these two teams that have been most affected by the extra 0.5 seconds that the Mercedes DRS system is said to provide.  In Australia Schumacher out-qualified both RBR cars, but would not have done so with an extra 0.5 seconds added to his time, and came very close to out-qualifying third placed Romain Grosjean in the Lotus.  In Sepang, Schumacher out-qualified, thanks to his extra 0.5 seconds boost, both Lotus cars and both RBR cars.  If Nico Rosberg had been able to replicate his team-mate’s form, the position would have been even worse for RBR and Lotus.  So, in my view, the Mercedes DRS is disadvantaging Red Bull and Lotus the most; it puts them in a false track position at the start of the race and means that they lose time trying to pass the Mercedes cars – Rosberg is a good starter, so usually makes up positions off the line – and fall away from the two McLaren’s.  This is a particular problem for Red Bull, whose race pace is especially strong.  So, should the Mercedes DRS system be banned?

It’s at this point that we get in to a discussion about the rules, which can often be pretty impenetrable, especially to those of us that are not technically minded – myself included.  On this occasion, though, I think things are fairly clear cut and I find myself agreeing with the FIA’s opinion thus far: The Mercedes DRS system is legal.  The relevant rules are articles 3.15 and 3.18 of the technical regulations.  Article 3.15 states that, other than the DRS system (covered in article 3.18) “any car system, device or procedure which uses driver involvement as a means of altering the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is prohibited”.  Article 3.18 outlines the DRS system and restricts the “driver adjustable bodywork” to the upper flap of the rear wing only.  So, in simple terms any driver operated system than affects the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is banned, other than the DRS system.  In order for the Mercedes enhanced DRS system to work, all the driver needs to do is operate the standard rear wing DRS that all the teams have.  No other parts of the bodywork are moving or being adjusted by the driver.  In my view, this means that the Mercedes system is totally legal.  Will the FIA maintain its previous position on this system and continue to agree that the system is legal?  And, if so, will RBR and Lotus decide to protest the results at the next race in China?  Only time will tell, but the only constant in the world of Formula 1 seems to be controversy.