As a die hard fan of Formula One racing I often get questioned as to why I like it. My standard response: Formula One highlights the best drivers, the most technically advanced cars, and the greatest racetracks around the world. Understand, this is my standard response as I no longer believe this statement 100%. I abbreviate my previous response to prevent a three hour diatribe. As the F1 season approaches, I wanted to take the opportunity to provide a road forward for motor racing. In the next few paragraphs I provide a simple rule change that will bring the innovation and excitement back to racing.
Forgive me as I plan to focus on Formula One only. I choose it because it has the largest budget and more R&D capability than most countries. I believe this change to racing rules could be applied, to some extent, to all forms of motor racing.
To start, let’s review what is wrong with F1 today. Every year the people who write the rule book for Formula One make a set of rules that are more restrictive and more contrived than the previous year.
They add increasingly restrictive rules in an effort to slow the cars and keep costs down for manufacturers. The reason to slow the cars is to make racing safer for the drivers. These rules make sense. Left unrestricted, F1 cars would be so fast that deaths would be inevitable. The rules that attempt to keep costs down involve common platforms, components that must be used for multiple races, and very limited testing. These rules have been less successful as the quest for speed still costs huge amounts of cash. Limiting the amount of money teams can spend doesn’t work. Want proof of this fact? Toyota spent close to $2,500,000,000+ (2.5 BILLION) during their short lived F1 career. How many races did they win? Zero. We will skip the details for now, but realize that budgets for F1 teams are more to advertisers and manufactures cash flow than any restrictions that have been put in place. If a team has available cash they will spend find a way to spend it.
The secondary set of rules appears to be made in an attempt to make racing more exciting for the fans. Most of these “contrived” rules are to encourage overtaking. Here is a major problem. If you are a hardcore fan you understand what is going on when the announcers talk about KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and DRS (Drag Reduction System) zones. For a new or casual viewer they are only confusing. The proof is that the race announcers spend multiple minutes every race re-explaining what these things are and justifying their existence. Race control managed push-to-pass is lame and artificial. Remember, you only get to push the button X times a race or use KERS for X seconds a lap. Why? If a team can engineer a energy storage setup that lasts twice as long as their competitors then they should have an advantage. It makes me think about a cartoon Mario running over a power-up. Tires that degrade artificially quickly? The engineer that had to work that out must be proud. Uggg.
So what should be done? Limit the amount of fuel that the cars have to finish a race and throw away the majority of the rule book. This has been tried before, but it was not really used as a method to encourage efficiency, push development and drive environmentally friendly racing. In 1984 F1 limited the amount of fuel the teams used, but rule book was still to restrictive. Want to go back to the days of F1 leading the way and developing new technologies that will filter down to consumer cars? The rules need to be relaxed on engines, drive trains, suspension components, and aero enhancements.
Here is my proposal. All cars will be given a certain amount of provided fuel at the beginning of a race. Let’s say the amount of fuel provided is about 200 liters. They have already proven that they can fit a full race’s worth of fuel in the car, so this should not be a problem. If the cars are too fast in preseason testing, give them less…too slow? You get the idea. If one team comes up with a design that is better than the rest the remaining teams can copy it or take it to its next logical progression. This will force development throughout the season, and drive the teams to try new techniques and drive innovation.
Beyond this rule there will be very few restrictions. The wheelbase of the open wheel cars will need to be within certain parameters and the core crash structure of the driver tub will need to be standardized. The only other set of rules would be around restricting technologies that prevent overtaking (wings to intentionally reduce down force of following cars) and active aero enhancements (ie. fans to suck the car to the track). Again, we’re looking for racing, not Need for Speed. Tire manufacturer? Team choice. Engine layout and size? Open. Forced induction? Pick your poison. Hybrid or KERS systems? One rule, they must be completely discharged at the start of a race if you want to use one.
The benefits of moving to a system like this fall into two categories: bringing interest back to fans and allowing innovation back into F1. Think about how different the cars would be. This year the major difference in the cars will be if they have the duck bill nose or not. They will all be running fundamentally the same engine, the same ECU, the same size wheels, the same tires, and the same size wings. In this future, who is to say what the cars would look like? The brightest mechanical minds in the world work in this sport, lets let them off the chain and see what they come up with to start a season. Qualifying would allow teams to display outright speed because extra fuel could be provided for qualifying sessions’ more controlled environment. We are starting to see moveable elements and hydraulic suspensions on road cars, so why are they be unavailable to the engineers at the pinnacle of motorsport?
Next benefit to this new rule pamphlet book; previously, one team or another comes up with a way to “bend” the rule book (blown diffusers/engine overrun) and then weeks are spent with the rest of the teams crying about fairness. Without a rigid rulebook it would put the pressure back on the slower teams to innovate or lose. This plan would also bring another dimension to the strategy during a race. Lets face it, last year, unless Red Bull had a mechanical breakdown or missed their setup, the major decision they had to make was how many sets of tires to run. Suddenly, strategy would become an integral part of racing again. Choose to burn extra fuel early in the race, gain a big lead and then conserve fuel, or start out slow and then reel people in at the end. Finally, and most importantly, it would encourage a “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” mentality again. No, you wouldn’t be running down to your local Mercedes dealer to pick up an F1 car, but you would know that
The one thing that need to be managed is teams running such extreme setups that they are unreliable or running out of fuel due to poor management. To fix this point, penalties could be served if a car failed to finish a race due to anything but a crash. So tell me, reader of Autosavant: What am I missing? What would not work? What would work? I want to hear from you and I will reply to and debate anything intelligent below. Here is to hoping the 2012 F1 season doesn’t involve Seb getting a two second lead and then playing “keep away” with the rest of the field. Sadly, I have a feeling I will be watching regardless.