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MARCH 1, 1995

Enlivening Formula 1


Last year was a dramatic season for Formula 1 racing - but for all the wrong reasons: fatal accidents, cheating, fire and politics snatched the headlines, while out on the circuits the racing was anything but exciting. Michael Schumacher dominated, winning nine of the 12 races he took part in (although one was taken away from him afterwards). The season ended with two storming races in Suzuka and Adelaide and so - because F1 has such a short memory - the tedium of the midseason has been forgotten. This year has been much the same - with little in the way of excitement up front.

F1 is a wonderfully exciting spectacle - even without close battles. If you go to see a F1 race for the first time you will come away shocked by the awesome spectacle: the speed, the violence and the noise of the sport is extraordinary. But television diminishes the impact to such an extent that Grands Prix now lull viewers to sleep after a big Sunday lunch, the droning of the engines broken only by the occasional eyelid-lifting squawk from commentators who are trying to make the show more exciting than it really is.

With the media spotlight on F1 because of the dramas last year the sport's faults are under scrutiny and there is no argument that there isn't much real racing. Despite having the best drivers in the world, overtaking is very difficult with the current machinery. Most of the passing in F1 nowadays is done in the pits.

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 stands for technical excellence and portrays itself as the cutting edge of automotive technology. The best teams win. Innovation leads to success and success to money, which can be used to research new breakthroughs. The top teams get bigger and better. It is now 10 seasons since anyone other than McLaren or Williams won the Constructors' championship.

The F1 teams have a huge amount of power in making the rules but in the last couple of years they have found themselves in conflict with the governing body of the sport - the FIA. Led by British lawyer Max Mosley, the FIA is now forcing the teams to accept change. Mosley bullied through a ban on electronic systems and forced teams to use smaller tyres. He is continuing that fight in 1995 and the cars are slowing down.

The disruption necessary to force through change upsets the F1 sponsors but they have to accept that change is perhaps necessary.

"We applaud the FIA's initiative of trying to describe a vision of the future," says Marlboro's Walter Thoma.

According to the official TV figures, Formula 1 is healthier than ever and there does not seem to be a shortage of top-line sponsors for the winning teams. Everyone else has to struggle. Three teams - Lotus, Larrousse and Simtek - have gone out of business in the last six months and no-one seems to worry.

The fact remains that F1 cannot survive with only a handful of cars and in the last year has started making changes which look suspiciously like moves towards "show business" racing. But is it enough? What else can be done?

Limiting technology

Reducing the importance of expensive technological development - such as aerodynamics, combustion shapes, fuel brews and research into exotic materials - would reduce budgets considerably and thus mean that poorer teams could be more competitive.

PROS: The gap between the teams would narrow and therefore the racing would be better.

CONS: The big teams would spend their money on research in other areas and, as this season has proved, it is virtually impossible to control such things as computer technology. Even if computers can be inspected at the end of races there are still programmes which can be made to self-destruct when a car turns off its engine.

Levelling performance

Formula 1 was closer in the 1960s because almost all the teams used the same Ford Cosworth DFV engines. The arrival of major motor manufacturers such as Renault, BMW, Honda and Porsche increased the competition. 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. Some team bosses support the idea of sharing technology. In recent years McLaren has sold its electronic systems to Footwork and Benetton has supplied Larrousse and Simtek with its gearboxes.

PROS: More teams would be closer to the top teams.

CONS: Buying technology is like copying another car. You have to be a pioneer to actually win.

Changing the circuits

If the cars cannot be made more competitive with one another, perhaps the circuits could be altered to make overtaking easier for the drivers using the existing machines.

PROS: Races could be more interesting to watch.

CONS: Rebuilding racing circuits is a hugely expensive business and that money has to come from the circuit owners, who have little to gain from the changes. Given the speeds now being attained by cars, safety at such places has to be enormous to avoid the possibility of a car flying into a crowded spectator area in a wheel-over-wheel accident, this means that 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.

Kicking out the manufacturers

There are some in F1 who would argue that without the motor manufacturers the advantages of engines would be reduced as small companies such as Hart, Cosworth, Ilmor and Judd would supply teams thus closer racing.

PROS: The level of competition in F1 would drop because there would less money involved and less pressure to succeed.

CONS: Formula 1 does not want to lose Ferrari - its most famous team - and all the teams would have to buy their engines. It would also lose a huge amount of motor industry investment if the car-makers were not involved. Major manufacturers wanting to use F1 to train their engineers - rather than as a purely marketing tool - would use engine preparation companies as a disguise for full-blown factory efforts.

Creating a V8 formula

One way of bringing the competition closer together would be to make everyone use the same configuration engines rather than the V8s, V10s and V12s being used today.

PROS: The difference in engine performance would be limited and thus the competition closer.

CONS: The big manufacturers currently use V10 engines.

Stage management of races

There are many ways in which F1 races could be stage-managed by officials. These could include the use of pace cars, yellow flags and refuelling to ensure that the action stayed close while retaining the current race format. More radical suggestions include handicapping and reversed grids.

PROS: The racing would become much more spectacular.

CONS: Such ideas are against the fundamental principles on which F1 was built. They undermine F1 because, even with artificial means of creating excitement, Grand Prix racing could not be as entertaining as touring car racing 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

There are various examples around the world of touring car racing and even single seater championships adopting the idea of having two short races rather than one long one.

PROS: You have the cars closer together for shorter periods of time and therefore the action would be more intense.

CONS: It would be more dangerous as drivers have less time in which to mount their challenges.

Better presentation

F1 is very spectacular when you watch it from trackside but this is not always translated to the TV viewers. F1 needs to improve its television coverage by introducing its own directors and crews and ideas at races all over the world. This would mean a much slicker show with none of the mistakes made by once-a-year local broadcasters.

PROS: F1 television coverage would be better and thus would attract more viewers and sponsors.

CONS: Transporting an entire F1 TV unit around the world would be expensive and there would probably be union problems with local broadcasters.

Doing nothing

Some F1 team owners argue that by keeping the regulations the same for several seasons means that teams work their way forward until they reach a limit of development. As each month passes the smaller teams get closer to the big teams.

The answer to the problem

In politics they say that the most effective form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. Democracies are very good for the morale of the population but they never work very well. Formula 1 is - in part at least - a democracy because the team bosses have considerable power to make the rules. This is a bit like the athletes in the 100 metres Olympic Final getting together and agreeing that in future they will only race over 95m.

Rules do not get changed because a rule will always be seen to favour one team or another and they will never agree on how best to look after F1 in the longer term. The decisions should not be made by those with vested interests. In other words, the FIA should govern the sport and the teams should follow the rules they are given!