Wednesday, March 17, 2010

F1: The lessons from Boring Bahrain and my future rule changes


There is a scene in the Monty Python movie 'Life of Brian' when the impatient crowd, their faces covered by traditional garb and, very obviously, women wearing long fake beards, prepare with apparent relish for the stoning of some poor, innocent soul.
The rabbi announces the victim is guilty of taking the name of the Lord in vein but the high pitched screaming of "stone him, stone him" makes the rabbi suspicious.
"Are there any women here?" he asks. To which the reply in (suddenly) very deep voices is "no, no, no".
And that was the way it was in Bahrain (ironically). And will be later in the season.
Everyone wants to join in a jolly good stoning, Later in the year when it has all panned out the nay-sayers will put on their deep voices and nod sagely.

After a single race large sections of the sport are reacting like Chicken Licken, claiming the sky is falling in on F1, Armageddon is, apparently, upon us. It's all over.
Suddenly Bernie Ecclestone's phone is burning red hot as those with little faith, and less intelligence, turn to the sport's messiah for comfort and redemption, afraid their fragile little houses are all about to collapse.
It's all hyperbole of the most ridiculous kind.

Yes, Bahrain was boring, perhaps the most boring starts to the season I have seen in years.
But the key word there is not "boring" but "start".
Before the opening race we all talked of a new dawn and now we are disappointed the dramatic changes have not provided the silver bullet to all the sport's woes.

One sage, who should know better, even decided to blame Max Mosley, the ex FIA president.
Apparently he alone is responsible for the fact that the race in Bahrain was an utter failure.
Very helpful and very F1: blame the one person no longer involved.

So what's to be done?Well the answer is complicated. As usual, at the most basic level, some teams did a great job and others didn't do their homework so well.
Red Bull are obviously on to a winner, Ferrari too.
They are well ahead of the rest but that could just be at circuits with lots of medium and slow speed corners.
Well done, incidentally, to Nick Heidfeld, who in isolation was able to spot the qualities of the Red Bull racers so absolutely.
McLaren have the edge on the long straights thanks to their Hokey-Kokey design but lack downforce in the twistier sections.
The one second gap between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is concerning but they are still in the game.
Mercedes haven't had the rampant start they had hoped for but then they suspected as much after the Barcelona test.
A few last minute bolt-ons added in the two weeks before Bahrain and a secret run-out at an airfield in England were supposed to get them back in the game.
It didn't, but Ross Brawn is too smart to stay second (third? fourth?) for long.
On a personal note that means Herr Schumacher is going to have to fight for any glory that comes his way rather than be handed it on a plate (aka 2000-2004).
And if that continues will he carry on racing or retire (again)?

The reality overall is that, as usual, the sport expected too much, too soon.
Over the years there have been too many changes in direction, too many last minute additions and subtractions.
The double-diffuser, mass dampers, KERS, active suspension, grooved tyres, narrower tyres, slicks and points changes to name but a few.
The sport is not in crisis despite what some say - but what it should stop doing is lurching from one set of changes to the next.
Stop living on a procession of knee-jerk reactions hoping radical change year on year will suddenly yield the ultimate conclusion.
It might. But the chances are it won't.

Bernie Ecclestone is right in one sense. The teams have to be taken out of the equation.
Let them SUGGEST changes, be involved in the evolution and discussion but only have the power to make SUGGESTIONS and not have a final say or a power of veto in the shape of things to come.
My good friend Giorgio Piola, who really does know more than a thing or two about the details of car design, suggested that a former designer should be appointed in making the rules and governing the sport.
Race director Charlie Whiting is really a man with his finger in a giant dike these days, trying to regulate the widest imaginings of more than 300 designers.
Piola suggests the help of someone like John Barnard, an ex McLaren and Ferrari designer, responsible for some of the most beautiful F1 cars ever built.
I think he's got a point.
Ex world champions (Prost, Hill, Mansell, Fittipaldi for example) are finally being bought in to help race day stewards, so what about a designer for the governing body to assist the likes of Charlie and Peter Wright?

But more to the point; what is specifically wrong this season?

Firstly, as I said, it's a new era, new rules and, as always with change, some teams get it right and some get it wrong.
But the differences will narrow with every passing Grand Prix.
McLaren and Jenson Button, for instance, were too conservative in the race.
They believed the tyres would not just degrade slowly but fall off a cliff once the rubber was spent.
Actually, they believed their own PR: play it smooth and the race will come to you. Sadly, it didn't.
I'm not sure how they got it so badly wrong because those on the other side of the same garage thought differently.
And team bosses have one thing right, too; there needs to be talks with Bridgestone to create a tyre that will last, perhaps, 10 or 15 laps and not the entire distance.
Bridgestone are understandably concerned what it might do to their reputation if commentators talk of exploding and worn out tyres so they have created something that lasts. It's a thorny issue, especially in an age when F1 already faces a dilemma with no tyre supplier for 2011.
My feeling is that Bridgestone will stay and teams start paying for what they use rather than getting it for free.
In plain terms we want a 'rubbish tyre' formula; but what tyre manufacturer would be willing to get involved in that?

And perhaps ban pit stops altogether too. Or require them to be a minute long as a penalty for wearing out your rubber.
That would encourage drivers to race on worn out rubber, see the cars slip sliding, pilots sawing at the wheel, the back jumping out, struggling out of control, a wild race machine on the limit of its capability.

Full tanks is the answer too. Definitely.
Regardless of what the nay sayers cry. Calling for mandated second stops, in my opinion, is not an option. That would be a return to 2009 and the era of the fabricated show.
We need F1 racing, Not a return to F1 chess. Now that pit stops are reduced to a minimum keep it that way.
Pit stops are fake drama, a way of turning the focus to the pits because the racing doesn't cut it on the track.
It would be like turning the focus of a stage show to the way the scenery is changed just because the acting is rubbish.
Directors don't double the amount of scene changes - THEY IMPROVE THE ACTING.

Ultimately the truth is that if we took today's 24 drivers and put them in 24 Formula Fords, Formula Firsts, or even Fiestas the entertainment would dramatically improve.
So the problem in this case is not the drivers but the cars and the circuits.
And it's painfully evident that every time the rules are changed you move away from the ideal of close racing.

Change creates extremities; big winners and big losers.

It takes years to get close to parity again and before it does the rules change once more.
Yes we need change - but we need to be thinking now about 2015 as well as 2011. Build a car now according to the 2015 rules, test it and report back to the FIA.Not do as we did this year and the last and the one before that.
Finalise the rules eight months before the first race and wonder why those with all the money come out on top.
These days, thanks the extent of the media attention as turned F1 into a knee jerk formula and that has to stop.
Somewhere along the line we need to take Chicken Licken out the back and put her in front of a firing squad.
Yes, we may have a problem this year but wait until Spain to make a final ruling.
The real problem is not the next race, the current season or the next one. It's the whole way rule-making is approached.
Change the way regulations are decided and you automatically alter the results you get.
Don't start from what we've got and how to make it better. Start from the ideal and work back. And do it in good time. Have a five-year plan not a five minute plan.

The ingredients are right this year but they may just need some slight refinement rather than throwing out the whole damn concoction.

By Byron Young


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