Ever since he dyed his hair blonde on the way to winning the 1997 F1 World Championship, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve has been a non-conformist. He’s also always told it like it is. Jacques’ view of the radical new technical rule changes for 2014 thus deserves some serious reflection. (Listen below.)
They started going the artificial way, to try to create a fake show, imposing tire changes and different tires and then DRS where you press a button and you can overtake somebody else. And once you start going down that route, you can’t stop. You just have to make more and more and more of it, so now we have double points for the last race, and what’s the next thing that will come?
Villeneuve says he “really doesn’t get” modern Formula One. We agree. The use of gimmicks like DRS to reduce “processional” races and artificially increase overtaking, the selection of rapidly degrading Pirelli tires to force more pit stops, and the increasingly officious assessment of drive-through and grid-position penalties were bad enough. For the new 2014 season, however, Formula One has taken another step into the never-ever land of entertainment, not true sport.
The revised rules for the this season are among the most substantial and jarring technical changes in F1 history, second perhaps only to the emergency measures Max Mosley and FIA mandated after the tragic death of Ayrton Senna 20 years ago in the 4th race of the 1994 season at Imola, Italy. Most strikingly (but not most significant), the new regulations for 2014 stipulate a chassis with the nose tip at a height of 185mm, significantly lower than before. Many of the teams have, as a direct result, chosen a so-called “anteater” solution in this area, keeping the nose as high as possible for as long as possible to maximize airflow under the car before achieving the required height with a dramatic — and truly ugly — sweep downwards.
Then there are the new specifications for engines. Changes to the “formula” in F1 have over the decades of course encountered a number of major season-to-season changes. Witness the original ban on turbos after 1988, and earlier the luckless British teams like Lotus after F1 increased displacement to 3.0 liters in 1966 and the UK motor works could not respond well for nearly two seasons, for instance. But this year, as Williams’ CTO Pat Symonds observes, “We’ve gone from a slightly hybridized normally aspirated engine to a fully integrated hybrid power unit with novel technology at its heart.” F1’s new engine rules were described as “completely unnecessary nonsense” by Bernie Ecclestone last week, and the dissenting voices have only grown louder as drivers complain about a speed deficit they feel will rob F1 of its sparkle. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil said:
We have lost downforce, around 20-30 per cent from last year, and now also the tires are one step harder. It makes it more difficult all the time. It is a shame because F1 is a bit too slow at the moment. From the engine side it is very powerful, so we are not down on the power side, it is nice to drive and nice to have a turbocharger. But from the aerodynamics, I think we have to step up a little bit, because F1 should also be quick in the corners.
Almost half a century has passed since the FIA doubled the maximum engine capacity and caused a revolution in the pecking order at the top in Formula One which helped seal the reputations of Jim Clark, John Surtees and Graham Hill. Long gone are the classic Ferrari 12-cylinder monsters and the mammoth, 10-cylinder engines revving to 20,000 RPM that ruled F1 in later decades. Last year’s already meager 2.4 liter V8 engines, which produced 750 bhp with another 80 bhp available for six seconds a lap from the KERS battery system, have been pensioned off in favor of tiny, turbo-powered V6 1.6 liter motors, mated with two extra energy recovery systems available throughout the race. They’re less powerful but more energy-efficient, at least when they work. While Renault has had the most problems, Red Bull has contributed to its own reliability issues by not making proper allowance in their characteristically aggressive Adrian Newey design for the heat the power units generate.
The FIA’s desire to impose on motorsport an ethos of ecological responsibility has led to a radical new engine mated to ERS units outputting massive electrical power and tied integrally with the internal combustion turbo. Just as 1966 was a new dawn for motorsport’s premier league, 2014 will see — and has already witnessed in Australia — a shake-up in the grid order in ways beyond the experience of all but the most venerable of F1 aficionados. Not everyone is up to speed.
Not in his wildest nightmares could Sebastian Vettel have imagined such a torrid winter testing program as he and his Red Bull team have endured in preparation for the defense of the title. Vettel’s new Red Bull Renault RB10 barely left the garage all winter as his squad wrestled with the demands of trying to integrate their incredibly complicated new power unit into a chassis that design genius Adrian Newey had taken to the maximum and beyond. The new power unit regulations — calling them engines isn’t enough anymore, they’re that different — have caused headaches for every design team on the grid and not everyone has been able to solve some major issues.
And them there is the aerodynamics, the sine qua non of F1 for the past 15 or so years. Rear wings have been narrowed so far they look like mere bolt-ons, and the reduction in downforce has created ultra-twitchy machines. Aerodynamicists have little space on the car within which to work. Take a look, for instance, at the new front wings.
— Matt Somerfield (@SomersF1) March 14, 2014
That’s just an astonishing degree of complexity, all the result of quixotic efforts to equalize a playing field that historically has rewarded the most technologically ingenious. No more. These new cars sound distinctly odd — with a far lower pitch from a mandatory 15,000 RPM limit — and whiz and pop annoyingly when the electric power kicks in. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo says he’s never had as many emails on his desk complaining and saying “this isn’t Formula One.” Australian GP chief executive, Andrew Westacott has already threatened legal action, saying the quieter cars detracted from the “sexiness” of the race and that he did not need earplugs in pit lane at the start of the race, describing the sounds as being “like harpsichords in a chamber orchestra.” They’re way slower, some 10s in Melbourne alone, a medium-speed street circuit, with huge speed reductions forecast for fast circuits like Monza and Spa-Francorchamps. That’s no longer epic, more the stuff of (really expensive) karting contests.
As Mark Fogarty commented in The Sydney Morning Herald, F1 may be “dying a quiet death”:
It might not have been the day formula one died, but on Sunday at an Australian Grand Prix that was lackluster by most measures, it began what could be a terminal illness. The sound of the cars was dreadful, the racing was somnolent and the spectacle completely underwhelming as Nico Rosberg confirmed Mercedes-Benz’s pre-season favoritism with an easy season-opening victory.
F1 authorities, along with the teams, have to urgently address the failings of the radical new regulations that have neutered much of the cars’ traditional visceral appeal.
“Neuter” is an appropriate word. We’ve observed with much regret in recent years that the sport is not no longer F1 as we’ve known it. With its technical and power soul neutered, Grand Prix motor racing under this season’s new regime may not even be worthy of being called F1.