Thursday, 18 March 2010

Calls for immediate changes to spice up the racing after a supposedly 'boring and uninspiring' Bahrain Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari, the return of seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher, the ban on mid-race refuelling for the first time since 1993, the return of Mercedes and the Silver Arrows after a period of over 50 years, four World Champions on the grid, four teams closely matched in terms of pace - these are some of those factors that made the build up to the 2010 Formula 1 season one of the most hyped up in the sport's recent history. Everyone has been expecting a very close and competitive season this year, and any one of eight drivers could potentially win the World Championship. On top of that, the refuelling ban and changes to the points system where the winner now gets a much bigger points tally than those who finish behind him have left everyone in expectations of close racing with lots of overtaking.

However, over the last couple of decades or so, as modern aerodynamics have developed more and more, Formula 1 cars have gone to the point where they have so much aerodynamic grip, they stick to the track like a train on rails. Then there have been other innovations such as getting rid of manual gearboxes and the introduction of semi-automatic paddle shift transmissions, which makes it impossible for the drivers to make any mistakes in gear changes. Then in recent years, the governing body FIA have limited the car designers and engineers very tightly with strict technical regulations. So to the casual viewer, Formula 1 cars these days all look very similar, they all sound very similar and they all perform very similar (with relatively small performance gaps).

Back in the '70s and '80s, Formula 1 went through a real boom. The technical regulations were nothing like they are today. The teams could literally let their engineers' minds run free, and they would then come up with fascinating stuff. Some cars would have massive engines and enormous power while others would concentrate more on clever aerodynamic stuff. Towards the late '80s, during the 'turbo' era, the top teams would be running turbo-charged engines as opposed to others running less powerful naturally aspirated engines. That provided a fascinating battle on its own. The naturally aspirated engines worked well in all conditions, but were a bit down on power. Whereas the turbos provided a lot more power, they were more prone to overheating and suffered a bit more generally in terms of reliability. Throughout those couple of decades, we have seen some epic battles on the track, and the main reason for that was because a large part of the performance depended on the driver. In the early part of his career, legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was known for his capability to take an inferior car and give the dominant McLaren and Williams teams a run for their money.

With the new regulations for 2010, everyone expected that Formula 1 could be returning to see some of those action again. However, we have to remember that Formula 1 has never been directly comparable to the likes of GT racing in terms of track action. In Le Mans for instance, we can sometimes see a fast car overtaking five or six cars in a single lap. In Formula 1, even a significantly faster car would at least need to set itself up for a lap or two behind the car in front before attempting any overtaking move. On certain types of track, such as Monaco for instance, a fast car may be stuck behind a slower car throughout the entire race and not be able to overtake. In last weekend's season opener at Bahrain, we saw a mainly processional race with barely two or three overtaking moves in the entire 49 lap race.

That is why everyone is calling for immediate changes to be made to the regulations to spice up the action. Problem is, all the changes in regulations is one of the main reasons why Formula 1 has been greatly criticised in recent years for a lack of on-track action. What we need is for the FIA to have a bit of a hands-off approach from the actual racing, but still play their part to ensure safety and the enforcing of the sporting regulations. As for the technical regulations determining the designing of the cars, that should be left down to the individual teams as much as possible. With certain restrictions, say defining the length and width of the car for instance, everything else should be left up to the engineers. Let them come up with fascinating new innovations. Sure, from time to time, that will mean certain cars will be significantly faster than others, but to keep up, the other teams will have to catch up otherwise risk being left behind.

Difference in power has a great effect on the performance of the cars. So we need to get rid of the standard ECUs (Engine Control Unit) and bring back engine development. That might mean that Ferrari and Mercedes engines dominate the rest of the field, but that should only inspire rival constructors to come up with better engines on their own. So if the likes of Renault and Cosworth cannot keep up with the development phase of Ferrari or Mercedes, may be they just are not suitable to be in the pinnacle of World Motorsport! Bringing back that competitive spirit in car development, and not just aerodynamic development that we have today but developing all round including engine and gearbox, will certainly help to spice up the racing.

Tyres have always played a big part in Formula 1. A single tyre manufacturer is yet another reason why races have suffered from a lack of action in recent years. We need to go back to the era of the 'tyre war', and that will mean keeping Bridgestone in the sport and bringing back Michelin. What is also important is getting rid of such rules as forcing the teams to use two compounds of tyres during a race. Let the tyre suppliers bring every different compound of tyres available and leave it up to the teams to choose what compound they wish to run. If that means that one team chooses to run the entire weekend (Qualifying and Race) on soft compound dry tyres, well then be it.

All of the above will just make sure that teams have a lot more choice in terms of choosing their strategies for a race. We have to remember that this is not IndyCar or A1GP we are talking about, this is Formula 1. In recent years, the FIA's attempt to try and make everything more and more standardised in the name of cost cutting has been slowly taking us away from the roots of Formula 1. So the FIA should just leave engineers up to their job, of designing and building the cars, and more importantly, the governing body has to stop changing the regulations every single year. We need to be going back towards the core of Fomula 1 and not away from it, to remind ourselves why we fell in love with this sport in the first place.

As for this year, changing the regulations yet again and after just one race will bring no benefit. Let us all give the current regulations a bit of chance to settle in, and we can hope that Albert Park will throw up a bit more of an exciting race in just over a week's time for the Australian Grand Prix.

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