Formula One is called “exciting” today, at long last for some, but not in a way that is recognizable.
Once again in 2011, FIA has engaged in a series of major, off-season rule changes for F1, designed in part, as has been the case since the late 1980s, to end so-called “processional racing” — a general lack of overtaking. The result has been a wild first part of the 2011 season, with a tremendous number of passes, tires that go off after just a handful of laps and qualifying results that have left some of the best cars and drivers at the back of the grid (like Mark Webber at Shanghai). Yet in doing so, FIA president Jean Todt has fallen into the same ill-advised trap as his predecessor, Max Moseley, one that threatens the very soul of this grand sport.
Exciting racing is not typified by the absolute number of passes, but rather by compelling themes or rivalry — both technology and driving skill — that combine to create fan enthusiasm. Increasingly standardized cars are transforming F1 into a series that looks, sounds and acts just about like any other, not the pinnacle of automotive engineering innovation and excellence. Once a proving ground for fundamental developments in the world of motor sports, from downforce to ground effects to carbon fiber to aerodynamics, Formula One is steadily becoming an engineering afterthought in which street cars today enjoy more sophisticated components than do their F1 racing counterparts.
The roots of this change are attributable to FIA’s long-running penchant for outlawing technical innovations in a vain effort to level the playing field for less well-financed Grand Prix racing teams. Last year’s big development was the F-duct, first introduced by McLaren and promptly banned for 2011, which represented a classic case of race engineers finding ways around the sport’s technical regulations to gain an advantage. Also termed a “blown rear wing,” F-ducts funneled air under the wing in order to reduce downforce — known as “stalling” the rear wing — and increase speed. F-ducts did produce ugly car designs featuring high spines running all the way from the air intake to the rear wing, but they were banned not due to aesthetics, rather as a simple power play, replaced by new gimmick, the Drag Reduction System or “DRS.”
DRS wings are known officially as “adjustable bodywork” in the technical regulations:
3.18.2 The adjustable bodywork may be activated by the driver at any time prior to the start of the race and, for the sole purpose of improving overtaking opportunities during the race, after the driver has completed a minimum of two laps after the race start or following a safety car period. The driver may only activate the adjustable bodywork in the race when he has been notified via the control electronics (see Article 8.2) that it is enabled. It will only be enabled if the driver is less than one second behind another at any of the pre-determined positions around each circuit. The system will be disabled by the control electronics the first time the driver uses the brakes after he has activated the system. The FIA may, after consulting all competitors, adjust the above time proximity in order to ensure the stated purpose of the adjustable bodywork is met.
Technical Regulations: 2011 Changes | F1.com. Along with KERS (tried unsuccessfully in 2009 but now back once again), DRS operates in a single zone on the track and only for a car following another by less than 1s, producing a temporary 15-horsepower gain and overtaking moves that the leading driver is all but incapable of resisting.
Some have said it is more the quickly degrading Pirelli tires, also new for 2011, and the huge number of pit stops — some 80+ in the Turkish GP alone, for instance — that have created a new “excitement” in Formula One. The BBC’s Martin Brundle, for instance, believes:
In a normal year, everybody would be complaining that F1 was so boring and predictable, and switching off. Instead, TV audiences are significantly increasing, media coverage is stronger than ever, and the F1 paddock is buzzing ages after the race has finished. This excitement carries to the airport lounges, and in tweets and blogs the following day.
There is an excitement around F1 that I have not experienced except for championship showdowns or major political dramas. The combination of the degrading tyres, Kers (kinetic energy recovery system) and DRS (drag reduction system) rear wing overtaking aid has created much more wheel-to-wheel action, which people have craved for years.
Meanwhile, Ferrari boss Luca Di Montezemolo counters he is not happy with some of Formula One’s latest rule changes and has made yet another lame threat of breaking off to form his own GP racing series.
“We have gone too far with artificial elements,” he said. “It’s like, if I push footballers to wear tennis shoes in the rain. To have so many pit stops — listen, I want to see competition, I want to see cars on the track. I don’t want to see competition in the pits,” he explained. “In the last race there were 80 pit stops. Come on, it’s too much. And the people don’t understand any more because when you come out of the pits you don’t know what position you’re in.
“I think we have gone too far with the machines, too many buttons. The driver is focusing on the buttons, when you have the authorization to overtake. We have gone too far.”
On the other hand, some F1 drivers (below former Minardi driver Alex Yoong) defend the new rules as a way to counter the dirty air syndrome that penalizes following cars in an era of sophisticated aerodynamics:
In motorsport, whether on two wheels or four, there has always been an advantage for the following competitor due to the slipstream effect. Meaning there is less drag when you follow a vehicle as it cuts through the air, affording an advantage to the chasing car. Since wings became more efficient around 20 years ago, this started to change as cars following now had a disadvantage as they did not receive clean air, which allowed their wings to work properly.
So in a way since wings became attached to race cars, the racing has been made artificial as it allows the car in front to stay in front despite being a second or two a lap slower than the car trying to overtake him. That is why we have had processional racing for all these years, until this year that is. The DRS is a device that tries to get rid of the advantage the leading car always had.
Bottom line, Formula One has stepped into the void with DRS, KERS and all the new 2011 technical rules. It’s F1, just not as we’ve ever known it.