NEWS FEATURE

Putting the Racing Back into F1

The 1998 Formula 1 season has not been very interesting to date. The two McLaren-Mercedes have dominated and only Michael Schumacher's victory in Argentina has dented the unblemished McLaren record. Race fans around the world may appreciate the McLaren efficiency but it is not making for fascinating TV viewing - unless, of course, you have trouble sleeping...

The more experienced observers will tell that motor racing was always like this but that the increased exposure to the sport and the modern trend towards instant gratification means that everything has to be all-action and people have to talk in sound bytes. And yet soporific sports like golf and cricket survive on television.

So is there really a problem for motor racing or is the sport simply not being presented in the correct fashion? Do the regulations need to be changed to make overtaking easier or will the suspense of a possible move keep people glued to the screens?

There are plenty of conflicting opinions but not much in the way of fact. The FIA says there is no need to change things.

"There has been a feeling that overtaking should not be too easy," says FIA President Max Mosley. "Much of the drama comes from the fact that overtaking is hard and it matters who comes out of the pits ahead."

Mosley does not want to change the rules because that forces the teams to spend more money without any guarantees that the racing will be better. In 1996 the governing body invested a considerable amount of money in a windtunnel programme at the Honda windtunnel at Imperial College, London, running two models nose-to-tail in the tunnel to find out how to make the cars less aerodynamically sensitive when running close together. The study found that it was almost impossible to have modern cars running close to one another. When one car runs close to another the one behind suffers a serious loss of downforce and loses grip which means that inevitably it drops back. This is not just a problem in Formula 1 racing. It exists also in Formula 3000 and in Indycars. The recent CART race at Rio de Janeiro gave a very graphic demonstration of this when Greg Moore sliced in front of Alex Zanardi to grab the lead. Zanardi lost downforce and slid right out to the edge of the track. By the time he had recovered and fought back the race was over.

Some people argue that the only way that racing can be made more exciting is to remove all the wings and thus reduce the downforce. This has safety implications because the sidepods provide very useful crushable structures in the event of side-on impacts. They are also, of course, billboards for the sponsors and have a commercial importance.

One thing which no-one disputes - unless they have visited F1 races too often - is that when you go to a race it is not boring. A first-time visitor to an F1 race is left shocked at the awesome spectacle: the speed, the violence and the noise of the cars is extraordinary. Television diminishes this impact to such an extent that Grands Prix lull viewers to sleep with only the occasional eyelid-lifting squawk from commentators who are trying to make the show more exciting than it really is.

F1 bosses want to improve the racing, but they do not want to become what they call "a show business formula". They point to NASCAR stock car racing in America as an example. The NASCAR rules can be changed overnight if someone gets too far ahead; the cars are virtually identical - to such an extent that what is a Buick one year can become a Chevrolet the next with only a quick change of bodywork. Races are stage-managed with yellow warning flags and pace cars to keep the cars together. But the formula works.

The racing is hugely popular, everyone has a chance to win races and everyone involved makes money, not caring too much about the concept - so dear to F1 folk - of "pure racing".

F1 is in the process of deciding whether it stands for technical excellence and whether it wants to be able to claim to be the cutting edge of automotive technology or whether it should be a circus.

The problem with technology is that the big teams have more than the little teams. This is clearly demonstrated in the fact that with the exception of Benetton's win in 1995 (which was largely due to Michael Schumacher) no team other than McLaren or Williams has won the Constructors' title since 1983 (Williams has won seven, McLaren six).

But the march of technology and the yawning spectators has not stopped the increase in audiences and each year F1 becomes healthier than ever. There is no shortage of sponsorship these days for the big teams and the arrival of big money from television contracts means that the existing 11 teams are all funded to a greater or lesser extent by TV money. In some cases this amounts to as much as 40% of the budget of a team.

There have been moves towards show business racing with the introduction of the "Safety Car", 10 stop-go penalties and the reintroduction of refuelling. But is it enough? Is it too much? What else can be done?

STAGE-MANAGEMENT OF RACES

There are many ways in which Grands Prix could be stage-managed by officials as races are in the United States of America. There could be more use of the Safety Car to close up the field to ensure that the cars remain close together. There are more radical ideas such as weight-handicapping and reversing grids. Horse racing has long survived using handicapping techniques and F1 has a minimum weight limit to ensure that expensive materials are kept to a minimum so that all the cars can race at around the same weight. In horse racing the competitors are not rewarded for being fast as everyone starts in a single row, rather than on a grid. Putting the faster runners at the front of a grid does not help the show but reversing the grid undermines the fundamental principles on which F1 is built. It is about excellence rather than show business and it will always suffer by comparison to touring car racing if it follows the show business route because single-seaters can never be as entertaining because of the safety aspects of the sport. If you are going to create show business racing you would not choose a single-seater formula to do it.

SHORTER RACES

In recent years many kinds of racing have adopted the idea of running two shorter events rather than a long race. This means that you have the cars closer together for shorter periods of time and therefore the action is more intense. As such it is more dangerous as drivers have less time in which to make their moves and would take more risks. The adoption of refuelling is actually quite similar in effect as a race consists of sprints between pit stops.

LEVELLING PERFORMANCE

Formula 1 was closer for a period in the 1960s and 1970s because almost all the teams used the same Ford Cosworth DFV engines. The cars were not very technically advanced and aerodynamics had not really be applied to the machinery and so kit-cars were produced and the racing was close. The arrival of major motor manufacturers such as Renault, BMW, Honda and Porsche in the early 1980s upset that equilibrium and since then the relative performance of the teams has been dictated largely by the amount of money they have had for research and for hiring the best brains. There are some in F1 who would argue that without the motor manufacturers the performance of engines would be closer. The problem is that Formula 1 does not want to lose manufacturers because they bring money. One way to level performance is to insist that engine manufacturers be willing to supply more than one team. Ferrari is currently doing that with Sauber but in order to win you have to be a pioneer which is why Sauber is looking for a supply of Mecachrome engines next year.

CHANGING THE CIRCUITS

If the cars cannot be made more competitive with one another, there is an argument that the circuits need to be changed to make overtaking easier. It is no coincidence that the most exciting CART race every year is at Cleveland, where the races race on the wide runways of Burke Lakefront Airport. This means that cars can run five, six or even seven abreast and there is plenty of room to overtake. The drawback is that in order to avoid the possibility of cars flying into a crowded spectator area, circuit owners have to increase run-off areas and thus push spectators further away from the action, while at the same time increasing their prices to pay for the work. As the F1 circus already demands a vast sum of money to go to a track circuit owners have nothing to gain from alienating paying spectators and so are opposed to change. The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, who are making the most out of the sport, do not seem very interested in reinvesting in the sport but they could buy up tracks and make the necessary changes or build totally new facilities.

After the FIA aerodynamic studies in 1996 the Technical Working Group concluded that the only way to make overtaking easier was to bring back more challenging corners so that the most skillful drivers could gain an advantage.

LIMITING TECHNOLOGY

Formula 1 has so many limitations at the moment that there is a danger that they are in danger of driving away manufacturers which want to use the sport to train engineers. The other day, in an unofficial survey at Britain's Royal Automobile Club Motor Sports Association staff were shown a photograph from McLaren illustrating the various formulae with the team was involved. The RAC people were asked to identify the F1 car and EVERYONE picked the Formula 3000 because it looked more like an F1 car should... Aerodynamics are already very restricted but F1 is about packaging and so the big teams invest in other areas of research to find advantages which results in devices such as McLaren's steering brake and the regenerative power systems which have been under development in recent months. The FIA has banned these.

MAKING THE CARS MORE DIFFICULT TO DRIVE

There is an argument that the more difficult the cars are to drive, the more advantage a team can gain from having a good driver. The 1998 cars are certainly not easy but there are not nearly as many mistakes being made as was predicted before the season began because the value of finishing races means that the drivers do not take extra risks. Making cars more difficult to drive also means that experienced drivers will have longer careers and young exciting young drivers will have less chance to break into the sport. The other problem is that there is currently only one major talent in F1 - Michael Schumacher. The other drivers are all highly-skilled but Schumacher is the only one with a little extra - which is what makes him so popular and what draws in the crowds. Teams need to find new stars...

BETTER PRESENTATION

Formula 1 is very spectacular when you watch it live at the track but this is rarely translated to TV screens because in order to minimize cost cameras tend to be located above the tracks with a wide sweep of vision. TV coverage would be a great deal better if cameras were down at car-level and viewers could appreciate what was going on. In-car cameras development has also been stagnant for a long time with no moving cameras at the moment and there has been no development of driver-to-viewer communications. Bernie Ecclestone has built an incredible TV facility to produce a show with six different channels which enables viewers to see all the action. Often there are good battles down in the field which conventional TV does not show. Bernie's TV is expensive pay-per-view television and at the moment there are very few viewers. As pay-per-view becomes more widely accepted this will grow but there will be resistance from some fans.

DOING NOTHING

Some team owners argue that keeping the regulations the same is the best thing one can do to make good racing.

"What happens when the regulations change," says Ron Dennis of McLaren, " is that it plays into the hands of the strong teams because they have more resources and technical expertise to throw at the problems. In other words when there is a cost implication it favors the top teams. The best way to have competitive motor racing is to have total technical stability."

The fact that McLaren is dominant is due to several factors. The team has done a great job and all five elements of the package are good: engine, tyres, chassis, drivers and team. F1 is a cyclical business and McLaren has had to fight back from the depths of 1995 and 1996. At the same time Renault has pulled out and so Williams and Benetton are inevitably suffering - not just in terms of engine power but also with the psychology associated with a team in a slide. David Richards is in the process of reversing that problem at Benetton while Frank Williams knows that it will not be until the arrival of BMW in 2000 that the team can have the same hunger and enthusiasm as it has done in recent years. It takes time to build a winning package. Ferrari should be more competitive than it is but there are always organizational problems with the team because its policy of paying vast sums to hire the best men mean that there are always internal stresses and strains at Maranello. Jean Todt and Ross Brawn have gone a long way towards solving that problem but it is not sorted yet. Prost, Arrows, Jordan, Sauber and Stewart all have big ambitions but do not have the packages necessary to challenge McLaren. They will be closer next year.<\#026>

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