F1- Change for Change’s Sake Doesn’t Always Equal Progress

Formula 1 seems set for a raft of changes come 2017. We’ve been waiting to say that for a while now. Meetings were held about meetings. Fan surveys were undertaken. Results declared. This then would be the year we started to see the changes we wanted to get F1 back on track. Or would it?

Imagine the scene. Sat in a meeting for days, it wouldn’t be the done thing to go back to the F1 paddock for testing and not have some announcements to make. What was the one thing that maybe wasn’t the priority? Qualifying. What has suddenly got a revolutionary overhaul? Qualifying.

There was a theme that appeared in both F1 Fan Surveys. No artificial methods of tightening things up. Improve the spectacle but don’t do it through gimmicks. Yet take a read through the list of changes for qualifying and it reads more like a 2016 update for the Mario Kart inspired F1 Race Stars.

f1_race_stars_5

Q1: 16 minutes. Slowest driver eliminated after 7 minutes. Then one driver every 1 min 30 seconds until the end of the session. 7 go out. 15 go through to Q2.

Q2: 15 minutes. Slowest driver eliminated after 6 minutes. Then one driver every 1 min 30 seconds until the end of the session. 7 go out. 8 go through to Q3.

Q3: 14 minutes. Slowest driver eliminated after 5 minutes. Then one driver every 1 min 30 seconds until the end of the session. 2 drivers compete in the final 1 min 30 seconds.

Are we that short of attention spans now that we need to ensure at least one or two cars are circulating every minute? It’s not even that bad an idea, comparatively.

Time penalties based on Championship standings is. The theory being that the leader of the Championship would have the most severe penalty of 4 seconds added to their time. Thankfully this idea seems to have left the moment somebody had a cup of coffee and realised this was utterly farcical. Although it could be a case of “Frighten them with the penalty system so they accept IT’S A KNOCK OUT”

Even Bernie wants to change it: ‘I would keep qualifying as it is. The guy who is quickest would still have his number of poles recorded for history. But then he could start, say, 10th based on his pole and where he stands in the championship. We are looking at exactly how we could do it.

‘The guy who is third fastest in qualifying would start, say seventh or eighth. That is better than totally reversed grids because all you get with them is the man at the back getting past the slower guys at the start of the race. This way makes it competitive between guys of similar speed. It won’t be easy to get past people.

‘The big thing is that it would create debate. I would say, “I think the pole man will win for this reason or that”. You say, “No, I think so-and-so will win because…” That’s what we need. I don’t know if we can get it through in time. We’ll see.’
So of all the things Formula 1 needed to work on it would seem that the teams and Bernie feel that qualifying is the one thing that they can change. Qualifying, probably the thing that works best in the sport as it is, since it was change to its Q1, Q2, Q3 format. Instead the possibilities are a reverse top 10, an elimination system lifted straight from a computer game, or success based time penalties. If it isn’t broke then break it? That’s not how it went.

There were other points of interest in the fans surveys, which seem increasingly pointless. 50% no longer watch Formula 1 live because of the switch to Pay TV. Is this the reason we’ve yet to see figures released for the 2015 season? If it was dropping off before then Hamilton wrapping things up at the Austin GP won’t have helped.

60 said they wouldn’t be attending a GP and 62% of those said they wouldn’t because it was too expensive. It would seem Bernie wouldn’t pay to go either: “I wouldn’t spend my money to take my family to watch a race. No way. What’s the point when you pretty much know that Lewis Hamilton will probably put the car on pole and more likely than not win the race, and the other Mercedes will be on the podium?”

Interestingly 50% of those polled said they would pay for live streaming of F1 races. Although given the sport is tied in to lucrative Pay TV deals and maybe that very deal makes it difficult to move away from that structure. Meanwhile in large parts of the Motorsport universe we can watch 24 hours of racing for free, anywhere we go, on any device. Times move on. Even Moto GP streams content, despite their BT deal.

What fans did want was:
The best drivers.
More competitiveness.
More technical freedom.
Faster tyres or a tyre war.
Simplified aero.
Cutting edge F1.
Don’t make F1 two tiered.
Drivers to be open with fans.
Drivers to push forward safety.
Drivers to have active role in regulation and sporting changes.

Manor MRT05

We’ve seen the arrival of HAAS open up more opportunities for young drivers, with the inevitable moving of seats when Grosjean signed for them. Renault now have Magnussen and Palmer on board, and Manor’s link up with Mercedes has seen Pascal Wehrlein take a seat. If only McLaren could form a partnership with Sauber, Stoffel Vandoorne might not have be left without a seat.

It’s very early days in testing but there is hope that we will see a more competitive season ahead. We even got a glimpse of the cars on a faster tyre. Sebastian Vettel has been fastest on the first two days. His best of 1:22.8 being 1.8 seconds faster than Nico Rosberg’s pole time at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix. Keep in mind though that Seb was on the new Ultra Softs and Nico’s pole was on mediums. Even still, Seb was within a tenth of Nico in testing on Tuesday when on the same tyres, and we couldn’t say that during testing last season. Of all the changes that have been mooted, imagine if we had a top 10 Super Pole, where the drivers got one shot on a set of Pirelli Ultra Softs. One mistake could see the fastest driver start down in 10th without the need for a reversed grid or artificial methods.

Seb SF16 D2

Moving on to the latter points, given that it is what we have seen updates on, it gets to something I feel very conflicted over. Driver safety and the open/closed cockpit debate. We need to look at all the changes that Formula 1 has made in the wake of Jules Bianchi’s accident. We’ve seen the return of higher cockpit protection and the introduction of a virtual safety car. Big steps in increasing driver safety and the case of the virtual safety car an F1 alternative to the like of a Full Course Yellow or Code 60 that oval and some endurance racing has. Taking the onus off the driver when there is an immovable obstacle or safety vehicle on track. These steps in their own right should not be underestimated, but we still arrive at the divisive final step.

Formula 1 as we know it has always been an open cockpit series. It is the pinnacle of that type of racing. From FVees to FFords. From FRenault to GP3 and GP2. All of these classes are open cockpit and open wheel. Advances made in Formula 1 often filter down to the lower formula and this is where I become conflicted. Even the Formula 1 drivers are conflicted. Take the differing views from Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo.

NH: “Single-seater racing, it was always open and in my eyes I would like to see it remain open.”

Having won at Le Man last year Hulkenberg is well versed to discuss open and closed cockpits but he thinks sportscars is different.
“Sportscars, they have ended up like this. But there is no problem to drive with a windscreen.”

Clear cut from Hulkenberg. This is single-seater racing. It is the nature of the sport. The inherent danger in the system. Ricciardo doesn’t agree.

DR: “However it is styled or designed, just to have that extra little bit, our head is the only vulnerable bit. With Jules and then Justin, it is silly now, a bit of tradition for what in the end?

“F1 has seen a lot of changes over time, in 2009 the cars looked pretty ugly at first and everyone got used to it and now they are normal.”

“If it is the halo or something similar, I think within a race or two people will start to think it looks normal. It takes nothing away from the driver. It is not going to take away any courage or something like that. For me, it is a simple little benefit we can gain from. No one wants to see another fatality basically, so if we can minimise risks then why not.”

Halo alone wouldn’t have saved Jules Bianchi, and that is why other changes have also been made, but it may well have saved Justin Wilson. My fear on a cage like structure like Halo is that it becomes something else that can go wrong or fail and become a leading edge. Halo has been deemed the best solution, the best compromise, and it seems set to be implemented in 2017. It’s also something that may spawn similar reincarnations like the HANS device did. Never again then would we see something as tragic as young Surtees at Brands Hatch.

I’d go further though. I’d like to see Red Bull’s proposal for a closed canopy, which Horner claims would also be implementable for 2017. Because I’d like Formula 1 to use it like drawing a line in the sand. Make the cars closed cockpit and then stop neutering the racetracks. Leave us Monaco, Spa, Monza (Without adding any more chicanes). Focus safety on the cars survival cell, and don’t create any more neutered racetracks with acres of tarmac run-offs.

Button Vision F1
Progress? (Artwork by Andries van Overbeeke.)

Rant, I mean chat, to you later.

Slán

Daithí