There are two problem areas in F1: costs and the perceived quality of the racing. The first is fairly obvious and almost dramatic by now. Several major car manufacturers (Toyota, BMW, Honda) left F1 during the financial crisis, and only one new manufacturer has joined since (Mercedes). The last time F1 tried to expand the grid ended in complete disaster: of the three new teams, two have gone under and the last remaining one went through receivership and barely made the grid this year with a car that's so slow it wouldn't even be in the points in GP2. Force India and Sauber are in dire financial straits, and Red Bull is publicly threatening to withdraw. Everyone agrees that the financial state of the sport is untenable, but no-one agrees why, or what should be done about it.
The other point is fuzzier, but arguably shows in falling TV numbers and empty grandstands. The perennial complaint is that Formula One is "boring", which is something that's been said since the nineties at least. Like the financial situation, there's no agreement whatsoever on why the racing isn't as good as it could supposedly be, much less what ought to be done to fix it. Personally, I'm of two minds on this: we've been seeing some really good racing lately, although I do admit having fallen sound asleep during the Spanish GP. I'm also not convinced that the dearth of spectators at some races is so much due to the quality of the product on track as the obscene ticket prices, driven by the gigantic fees levied by one Mr. Ecclestone, who's unsurprisingly very keen to blame the quality of the racing. But clearly there are some problems that ought to be addressed.
The drivers, apparently, aren't at all happy with the state of the sport either. This, from Coulthard, is key:
They might not say so publicly, but I know that the current drivers are all a bit disillusioned with the current F1 because the cars are so slow compared to previous years, and the drivers are so far within their ability levels during the races.
“I’m talking on behalf of the drivers at the front of the grid because they can’t say what they really feel. But I’m talking to them now. I’d love someone to do a stat on race pace with the 2015 race compared to the mid-2000s – probably Montoya would have lapped Seb in Malaysia three and a half times! But people aren’t looking at this. In the past, the limitation over the back part of the track in Malaysia used to be balls and how fit you were. Now its ‘save your tyres.’”
Never mind that nonsense about testicles - it's a disgrace that fast and talented female drivers like Simone de Silvestro and Alice Powell can't attract sponsorship - because the point is sound: from a driver's perspective, F1 today is not about pushing yourself to the limit at the pinnacle of motorsport, it's about being particularly skilled at saving tires and fuel. There's really no two ways about this: that's fucking ridiculous.
Why is this? Because of past attempts to fix F1. This is what makes any talk of fixing the sport now so difficult: much of the trouble F1 is in right now stems from things that have been done in the past to make the racing better. What guarantee do we have right now that the changes being mooted won't do the same? Nor can we simply imagine that going back in time to when F1 was "proper" is the answer - not least because we're never going to agree when that was. We have to be aware that change may very well make things worse; in the precarious financial situation F1 is in today, ill-conceived sweeping changes seem more likely to destroy the sport than rescue it. At the very least, cost-cutting has to be paramount. Otherwise the better racing will come at the expense of half the grid going bankrupt.
To me, the biggest issue is the one highlighted by Coulthard and Webber: F1 isn't about pushing the limits of the drivers any more. The reason for this is simple: perceived problems in the quality of the racing have been addressed by gimmicks. Pirelli was brought in to make comedy tires for the cars that would degrade artificially quickly. This was done to give us more pit stops, more variable action on track and whatnot. You can argue we've got that, and this is no criticism of Pirelli as they've come in and done exactly what was asked of them, but it's also taken the edge off the driving. The tires also make one of F1's biggest problems much worse, because they make overtaking much harder. The aerodynamics of an F1 car are so finely tuned that the downforce the cars generate is drastically reduced when they're running in "dirty air" behind another car. The airflow to the various aerodynamic elements is disrupted by the car in front, and the trailing car loses grip. This also makes tire degradation much worse, and with the comedy tires, it means that drivers have to hang back and conserve their tires rather than attack the car in front.
To fix this problem, the DRS was introduced. The euphemistically named Drag Reduction System is a rear wing that can be opened on designated parts of the track to reduce downforce and increase straight-line speed. It is completely idiotic. As I said ages ago, the idea of the DRS is based on the notion that overtaking by itself is always exciting and makes for better racing. This is the same kind of nonsense you sometimes hear in hockey, where they claim that more goals means better games. Utter rubbish there, and also in motorsports. A DRS overtake involves no driver skill whatsoever: it simply meams that whenever a car that's faster on the straight finds itself behind a slower car, the faster car will receive a free overtake in a special overtaking zone and speed on by. In other words, the DRS sorts the cars into order by speed more efficiently. It guarantees that if a faster car finds itself far behind the race lead, it has an easy passage up the pack by making DRS passes of everyone in front. There is just no way that makes for better racing.
The real problem with DRS is much more profound. We introduce a gimmick (comedy tires). The gimmick makes something worse (overtaking), so we introduce another gimmick (DRS) to fix the problems with the previous gimmick. This is such a terrible way to run a sport that words fail me. I'm genuinely scared that in order to "fix" F1, they're going to come up with even more gimmicks. Certainly Mr. Ecclestone's suggested some that are simply far too stupid to even contemplate. Every gimmick takes F1 further away from racing, and makes it that much more difficult for the casual fan to follow or understand.
I firmly believe that the era of gimmick tires needs to end. It's beyond ridiculous that the most vital skill needed for a driver to succeed at the top level of motorsports is tire management. The DRS also needs to go. Introducing completely artificial trickery to create false "excitement" is a complete waste of money and effort that cheapens the sport metaphorically and makes it needlessly expensive and complicated in reality.
So how do we deal with the overtaking problem? In David Coulthard's words:
It was quite striking to hear Lewis Hamilton of all people saying to his Mercedes team during the Spanish Grand Prix that he could not get close enough to Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari to try to pass him.
I don't have the answer, but surely there must be a way to design the aerodynamics of an F1 car so this is not such a problem, whether it be by having more of the downforce created by the under-floor or whatever.
It is not beyond the F1 designers to come up with a solution to this
After all, IndyCar racing must have found a way, or their cars would not be able to run so close together on oval tracks.
There is widespread agreement that the difficulty of overtaking is, as said, due to the aerodynamics of F1. The answer here seems to be an obvious combination of better racing and saving money: restrict aerodynamics. As a start, I'm with Sean Kelly: restrict the front wing drastically. Making front wing aero much less complicated should dramatically reduce the difficulty of closely following another car. To run with David Coulthard's Indycar analogy, take a look at Indycar front wings compared to the F1 spec ones. The changes so far would all support each other: proper tires mean increased mechanical grip, which means less need for extensive front wing aero, which means more overtaking opportunities, removing the need for the DRS. To me, it seems that these changes would not only improve racing but also make F1 less expensive, so everybody wins.
And along comes the Strategy Group. Made up of the five biggest teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull and McLaren) and the best of the rest by constructors' standings (Force India), plus the FIA and a gnomish demilich, the Strategy Group essentially exists to exclude the smaller teams from decisions concerning the sport. They met a week ago on Friday to fix what ails F1 and create a new formula for 2017, and what they came up with is awful.
The 2017 changes address three main issues. Firstly, the engines will be make to rev higher so as to generate more noise. From a TV viewer's perspective, all the moaning about F1 cars making less noise with the new V6 engines is completely ridiculous. At one point, the whining got so terrible that they actually attached a fucking trumpet to the exhaust. A TRUMPET.
That is the stupidest thing I have ever seen on an F1 car. I'm sure there's a market somewhere for a dadaist motorsport series where the cars look like Terry Gilliam animations propelled by flatulence, but surely F1 is not it.
The engine non-issue is being addressed in a vaguely more intelligent manner now, but it all seems completely mad. The new engines are technologically brilliant and road-relevant, which is why all the engine manufacturers refused to change them despite Bernie Ecclestone's inexplicable continuing campaign against them. Lately I've been completely unable to understand why Mr. Ecclestone does the things he does; from his persistent lies that the V6 engines aren't relevant to seeming to do his best to drive the smallest teams out of the business, the outside observer cannot fathom whose interests Mr. Ecclestone is acting in. They don't even seem to be his own. At least he didn't get his way with the engines.
The other major issue is that the cars are to be made considerably faster. F1 cars right now are several seconds a lap slower than those of some previous formulas, which is hardly surprising with the smaller engines, tighter aero restrictions and gimmick tires. The Strategy Group wants to fix this by increasing aerodynamic downforce, so the cars go faster. As James Allen points out, this seems likely to not only fail to increase overtaking, but rather undo much of the work done over the last few years to increase it. Certainly as I understand it, increasing aerodynamic downforce will make the "dirty air" problem much worse than it is now. So in terms of race quality, this change should lead to less overtaking and less battling on track.
The third innovation grabbed the biggest headlines: refueling is coming back. This is basically a terrible idea. Now, in theory I like the idea of introducing more strategy variables into the F1 equation, but refuelling generally made for boring races where drivers would overtake each other on pit stops, not on the track. The combination of refueling and increased aero would seem to pretty much guarantee this. Refueling is also dangerous: F1 pits are something of a fire hazard at the best of times, even when you're not pumping high-pressure gasoline into a running engine.
So the Strategy Group's ideas seem to be terrible from a racing viewpoint. They're even worse because they are literally the opposite of cost-cutting. Every team will have to invest in extra personnel and refueling equipment - equipment that was discarded partly because lugging it around was so expensive! As before, all cost-cutting proposals were rejected. Instead, the idea of customer cars was raised again, which in prctice mens tht instead of developing their own crs, smaller teams would buy ready-made cars from the bigger ones. The idea was studied s one way of controlling costs for smaller teams, but it has significant drawbacks: customer cars would effectively divide the grid in half into the constructors and the "B-teams", and it's not at all clear that this kind of racing would make any sense from a sporting or business viewpoint for either the smaller constructors or the B-teams. While I think that something like a co-constructor model could work, the current customer car proposals do seem to confirm the worst fears of the small teams about the Strategy Group.
On the whole, then, in terms of the two perceived main problems of F1, the Strategy Group's suggestions would seem to have the net effect of making everything worse. There are very few reasons to think that what they've come up with will improve the quality of the racing. It seems absolutely impossible that costs would be reduced.
The Strategy Group doesn't get to make regulations on its own; everything it suggests will have to be approved down the line. It's already been said that if refueling turns out to be too expensive (if?), it'll be abandoned. But even if none of the proposals outlined above ever see the light of day, they're still profoundly worrying, because they very strongly suggest that the major teams, the commercial rights holder and the FIA have terrible priorities. Apparently none of them care one bit about any kind of cost control. The return to refueling seems to be a perfect example of their decision-making process: it's pointless, seems by all indications to be more likely to only make everything worse and more dangerous, and the only thing we can be sure if is that it will make F1 more, not less, expensive. The Strategy Group has certainly made it clear that the smaller teams' interests mean nothing to it. Similarly, the focus on making the cars faster and louder seems to be counterproductive to improving the actual quality of the racing.
I'm very concerned by the future of F1 right now. Unless the world economy suddenly booms, it's difficult to see how the smaller teams can stay afloat. Customer cars may well be their deathknell. It doesn't seem farfetched to thinl that in a few years' time, the F1 grid will be made up by the current big teams and a couple of marketing ventures like Lotus and the incoming Haas F1 team. This is not to in any way denigrate the current small teams; on the contrary, they're pretty much heroes of motorsport for sticking in there. But if things go on like this, they'll be forced out.
One thing I find bitterly amusing in the continuing fan debate on what's wrong with F1 is the insistence that the teams cannot run the series, and a higher authority must be brought in to make them do what's good for them. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, who's publicly admitted to admiring Adolf Hitler, has more kindred spirits in motorsports than you'd think. Certainly the idea of excluding the smaller teams from important decisions is absolutely terrible, but it's just complete nonsense to suggest that competing teams can't run a sports series. Anyone who says this has to be completely ignorant of how almost all of the world's major sporting leagues work. Hankering after an FIA dictatorship is pure stupidity - unless you genuinely think that F1 would be better if we could only resurrect Jean-Marie Ballestre. Especially given how well the FIA's strongarm tactics worked last time.
What is it with fascism and motorsport, by the way? Former FIA president Jean-Marie Ballestre was an SS man during the war, and he was succeeded by Max Mosley - son of Oswald Mosley! And then there were Bernie's Hitler comments. He also dismissed the Strategy Group, saying he "doesn't like democracies. Given that only the wealthiest half of the grid is represented, the Strategy Group hardly qualifies as anything like a contemporary democracy, but that isn't stoppig both fans and pundits from, without a shred of irony or indeed any kind of awareness whatsoever, getting starry-eyed over a "benevolent dictatorship" to run F1. It's amazing.
Speaking of dictatorships, I strongly feel that one particular problem that was completely ignored by the Strategy Group does need to be addressed: the circuits. Far too many of the new circuits have been rubbish. Has there ever been an interesting race at Abu Dhabi? There certainly never was at Valencia, which suffered from the main problem of modern street circuits: no matter how pretty the environs, once the racing starts it's just cars hurtling down a stupidly narrow concrete-lined canal. Even Singapore, which always draws fanboylike oohs and aahs from the TV presenters, is a rubbish circuit, and the racing not only looks terrible but is incredibly boring. The only time Singapore has ever been even remotely interesting was, well, that one time. Sochi is worse: as if having to watch everyone kowtow to a diminutive megalomaniac dictator wasn't bad enough, then Putin shows up. With perennial snoozefests like Barcelona and Hungary stuck on the calendar alongside them and locations like the Nürburgring and Monza dropping out, the circuits are also becoming a real problem. Putting on a good race becomes exponentially more difficult when your circuit is not only designed to stop the drivers from overtaking but also to put every viewer to sleep. Maybe I'm just a pessimist and Azerbaijan will be brilliant. Somehow I doubt it.
I'm genuinely scared that F1 is in peril. The terrible irony of it all is that the new engine regulations were supposed to provide the sport with long-term stability, which it badly needs. Now that's being completely undone in a frantic effort for change for the sake of change, which is simultaneously ccelerating the financial self-destruction of the sport. The (few!) people making decisions in F1 today would do well to remember that it's not a law of nature that there needs to be such a thing as Formula One at all. If the number of teams keeps dropping and the racing gets worse, how interesting is something like the World Endurance Championship going to start looking? And how many peope will tune into that thing with the motorized bicycles instead of F1? The fantastic success Formula One has had can't be taken for granted.