Formula One’s fundamental contradictions, Part 1: What is F1 all about?

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Brought to you by TJ13 Editor in Chief Andrew Huntley-Jacobs

If Bernie Ecclestone is to be believed, F1 is about to undergo a sea change in 2017. A new mandate will be given to a tyre supplier and the size of the wheel rims will increase – regardless of whether Pirelli or Michelin win the current bidding process.

More noise, faster cars, refuelling, wider tyres, greater downforce, less gears, active ride, customer cars, three car teams and fake rain have all made the agenda for the F1 talking shops at some point or other.

The problem is that F1 is in many ways an ill-defined idea and this may seem an ironic statement to make, given the tomes that represent the technical and sporting regulations. Yet almost everyone you speak to in the paddock has a different idea of what Formula One is – and should be – all about.

A common practice when merging a number of disparate entities into some kind of conglomerate is to distil the commonality of the many into a set of principles, objectives or goals. Only then can some kind of plan can be formed as to how the new collective can operate as a whole.

Graham Lowden identifies this issue clearly. “One of the big assets of F1 is its ability to solve problems that are really clever: technical, commercial, political and legal. The people in F1 are brilliant in solving problems, but the exact problem has to be correctly defined for them to solve,” reports Motorsport.com.

“What we are seeing is that a lot of time is being incurred by people to solve problems which are not actually a priority.”

In this series I will attempt to examine the ‘big ideas’ that are touted as defining F1 and what is often considered to be sacred and part of the DNA of the sport.

The articles will not be exhaustive and in many ways merely aim to serve as a starting point for a discussion amongst the TJ13 community.

When you consider the title of this article, a few moments reflection brings the realisation that a response the length of a post graduate thesis could easily be penned.

However, for today the proposition is simple. Is Formula One about the driver or the car?

Many have written of the F1 rule of thumb and suggest in terms of performance the driver is around 20% and the car 80%. A great driver cannot deliver if their car is consistently a few percent inferior to another’s.

In what many consider to be the ‘golden era’ of F1 when the garagistes took on the might of the auto manufacturers, teams consisted of around 10-15 people including the drivers. Literally the driver was 20% of the human effort contributed to race in Formula One.

Further, given the vast expense of today’s F1 and the thousands of people involved in the production of the big team’s cars, is innovation much greater? Does the on track action captivate the fans in the same way as it did then?

Christian Horner coined the phrase, “F1 needs drivers to be heroes” in 2014,” and by implication he meant the team’s become less visible along with the politics of the sport.

Speaking following a thrilling Hungarian GP, Horner explained his thinking. “Sometimes it feels like the races are a bit to managed. But in conditions like today. just look at [Fernando] Alonso and how fantastic he was today and [Lewis] Hamilton coming from the back of the grid and Daniel making his strategy work, passing around the outside and doing incredible things.

“I need to watch that race again to understand it all, but that’s what Formula One is all about. We need to allow the drivers to be able to express themselves more without being criticised. We need to allow their personalities to come out. They have opinions and they’ve got personalities, we should encourage them to see some of them.”

Horner clearly thinks the on track driver action is where the focus of F1 should be, together with a greater exposure of the drivers to the public.

All this sounds great, however, there is a fundamental mantra most people in F1 subscribe to, which conflicts with the idea that the ‘driver is king’.

Formula 1 is considered to be the absolute pinnacle of motor racing in the area of the technology behind the cars; and this why the old 80/20 car/driver influence statistic is cited.

If this is true, can the drivers really be the heroes and can we even have true competitive racing – driver skill verses driver skill?

Anthony Davidson believes F1 needs to have a radical rethink about its priorities. “It should be 20% who can build the best car and the rest of it should be about who is the best driver,” he told F1i.com

The argument Davidson then presents is that F1’s regulators allow too much technical freedom to the car designers and that the specified components should be increased.

“Say in LMP1 for instance we have a spec diffuser and I think that works really well. You hear nobody complain about it in the teams and who is to say a spec front wing wouldn’t be the way to go in Formula One? And to reduce the effects of wings in general and focus more on mechanical grip and bring back a bit of slipstreaming”.

These comments were made in the Le Mans paddock, because clearly Davidson would have been lynched had he been heard by F1 folk. Spec front and rear wings???

Clearly the aerodynamics which create the equivalent of a giant bow wave of air around the car and prevent other cars being able to efficiently close up and overtake – is a big problem for Formula One, and do the powers that be have the will to find a proper solution?

It may be the converse is true. Currently one of the big new ideas for 2017 – is a significant improvement in aero downforce. Whether the ‘dirty air’ and inability to ‘slipstream’ is part of this consideration – who knows.

One other aspect mitigating against the driver becoming the primary focus of attention is the risk averse nature of circuit design and the relative ease of the challenge of racing in a Formula One car.

So the F1 fundamental contradiction presented to us is…

Can we make really the drivers the heroes and allow their skills to be the majority of the performance difference on track; whilst simultaneously retaining F1 as the technological pinnacle of motor racing?

For many, insisting both these notions remain priorities for F1 is simply a case of attempting to solve an impossible problem – as did the ancient geometers?

Can this circle really be squared?

23 responses to “Formula One’s fundamental contradictions, Part 1: What is F1 all about?

  1. Great piece and I look forward to more in the series, I’m always torn in my responses when questioned on the subject of driver vs car. However, I would argue that it simply isn’t possible to go back to the “good old days”..

    It’s easy to forget that the sport has more often than not been dominated by one or at a push two teams throughout its history. The battles in the past were usually those of reliability, inter team battles and the points scrap. Ask anyone to name their favourite F1 car and they’ll likely pick one that dominated that year (FW15c, MP4/4, F2004, BT46b etc) but those cars didn’t create great racing, they are just iconic because of how they decimated their rivals.

    Since the rules were changed in 2009 I think we have gone through another mini golden age where some of the teams have been able to get results that are almost against the grain. These are usually born out of moments of unpredicatbility though, as drivers are now so metronomic in their approach and the race strategy detail is now so finite.

    Inherently changing the racing/predictabilty therefore comes down to control elements (weight, aero, fuel, tyres etc). DRS is one such bug bear for many, and although IMHO it’s currently being used incorrectly it is a necessary evil in terms of dealing with close racing when there is a demonstrably different aero approach from each team. So, you could argue that Davidson’s spec item approach could work but then you end up in a situation where things aren’t optimum (they aren’t now because of reglatory control, but that’s another story) which can lead to accidents when designers start pushing the boundaries to leverage more/less downforce. It is a never ending debate but I for one would likely turn off it was a spec series, the only reason my interest has been piqued recently in Indycar is because of the homologated aero kits…

    Getting back to the crux of the debate (as, as always I have gone off on tangents) if you want drivers to be “heroes” again you have to make their life difficult and that increases the risk of accident(s), something the FIA/sport have worked hard to reduce over the last few decades, whether it be through track design or technical regulatory framing. Increasing downforce, as has been muted, simply makes like easier for the driver IMO we should continue to curtail it, the problem with that is that to try and increase downforce the teams design vortex inducing, turbulent cars, which makes life difficult for overtaking.

    This is essentially the problem for me is you cannot have good close racing in F1 and have balls out speed, two into one does not go. Unless you have expansive strategic battles, which are confusing for many or you have a larger array of moveable aero, which has both safety implications and the purists will hate. Finding the balance is such a difficult task but not impossible, the problem is how much pain do we have to take to get there?

    • I would pick the tyrell p34 as my favourite. With a close second to the ferrari 312t4.

    • If modern F1 drivers are to be heroes (at least in my eyes) they really need to have their lives in serious jeopardy and on the line every weekend, every FP session, every qualy, every time they go out in a F1 car.
      Just as they have up until late ’90s.
      Some may argue that they still do, just look at Jules Bianchi’s accident.
      That’s not really a example, since he had hit a tractor that shouldn’t even bee there. What would happen to him, had tractor not be there? Probably nothing, he’d walk away, just like pretty much every other accident we see quite often.
      FIA worked so hard over the time, particularly since Senna and Ratzenberger death to reduce dangers of racing, in the proces they’ve reduced hero appeal of the drivers as well.
      We cannot have heroes in modern F1 any more, and that’s what it is.

      One can hardly argue that today any given John Smith would or wouldn’t do decent in a decent F1 car, given the chance.
      Cars are to easy to drive, to many aids to help drivers, to many people thinking and doing what essentially should be drivers job etc.
      Thank God they’ve banned drivers coaching, although coaching is still done behind curtains.
      IMO every single engineer on the F1 team would do at least as good job as any given driver, but unfortunately engineers on the teams didn’t have backing/desire to become drivers so we’ll never know. 🙂

      As for the favourite cars I’m sure this one, no one would pick, but this is my all time favourite: RE 40 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOcEb5s5tDg

  2. I think no, the circle cannot be squared. If you introduce stuff like spec wings, spec diffusers, you move the problem to other places. Teams will find ways to be clever in other areas, and eventually someone will have an idea that is so strong that their car dominates nearly regardless of driver. That’s the nature of engineering solutions. Look at BrawnGP; I don’t think anyone rates Button as a true WDC but he had a great car with a very clever design.

    We need to allow the engineers to be more clever and allow the drivers more degrees of control during the actual race. What I’m talking about is active aero (driver controlled), and active suspension (computer controlled). This might help the dirty air problem somewhat.

    I mean, if you really want to say “let’s make it all the driver”, go watch IROC.

  3. For me, it is not the dominant car that is the problem. There have always been cars dominating one or more seasons, and there will always be, that is the nature of racing in itself.

    In principle, I don’t believe in spec cars either. But WEC has achieved something amazing, with a good mix of spec elements and a variety of technical choices, producing fabulous race cars that are challenging to drive, and amazing to watch. If you see on-board footage from Le Mans from within an LMP1, you can not be anything but impressed with the drivers controlling these beasts. And I think that it is that what is currently wrong with F1. When you see on-board footage from an F1 car, it “looks” so easy…. On top of that, you add all this delta driving and fuel / tyre conservation, and you end up with what we have today. WEC probably has the same ration of driver / car influence, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with this in itself.

    I was a big fan of the Group C car and the mid 90s GT Supercars, but after that, lost a bit of interest in Le Mans, as it became less exciting for me and I was never a big fan of the open LMP1s. But now, with WEC, they have created an amazing platform again that is reaching a crowd far beyond the typical race addicts.

    Not sure what the solution for F1 is, but there is hope if you see WEC. It is probably a combination of solving the aero issue, removing the tyre/fuel conservation element and allow teams to really innovate. I love the ideas of more freedom in technical choice, and don’t mind if a team dominates as a result of it, as long as other teams have the possibility of fighting back (not like the current engine development restrictions) within an environment of some sort of cost control. Not an easy task, but who ever said racing is easy !

  4. I’m no expert but it seems to me that what people seem to forget in relation to the aerodynamics aspect can be simply understood by standing near a runway and watching large aircraft take off.

    As most her will know, the principal reason (other than trying to avoid an embarrassing nose to tail bump !) that they leave a significant gap between one lifting off and the next starting its take-off run is that the first one has punched such a hole in the air and created such turbulence behind that hole that it dramatically reduces the lift available to the following aircraft. Hence time has to be allowed for the air to ‘settle’.

    Given that F1 cars – for almost forty years since Colin Chapman started playing with the idea that the whole car could/ should generate downforce (see the Lotus 72 as his first real try) – are now, in effect, upside down wings dependent on relatively ‘settled’ air to generate the desired level of grip, is it any wonder that similar effects are experienced by these vehicles ?

    Now – despite being a grumpy old person – I’m not going to hark back to the ‘golden days’ of yore when men were men, etc, but it does seem to me that we have drifted irretrievably away from the previous norm that grip was dependent on the stick-ability of the tyres and the efficiency of the suspension. Which is a shame as, I suggest, in those times the balance between driver and machine (OK, driver and technology) was considerably more weighted in favour of the driver being able to make a tangible difference.

    The conclusion of this out-pouring is that I consider the only way to ‘improve the show’ actually *is* to minimise the chassis/ wing-generated aero and let the drivers tame the beasts so created.

    All IMHO, obviously….

  5. first of all I think the whole mantra of F1 being a test bed of sorts for manufacturers has to be phased out. Manufacturer R&D budgets are way beyond F1 and what they have cooking is also way ahead. Hydrogen power anyone?

    F1 should be strictly about racing, and manufacturers should take home the glory and clout that comes with being the smartest to maximize the rule book to their favor and bringing in the win on Sunday. That’s all “average” people will care about. We hardcore fans get into the technical side heavily, but the average folk don’t care. they pay attention to drivers personalities, visceral audio/visual appeal, and palpable on-track excitement.

    the technical catch 22 for me aligns with what makes f1 the fastest cars in the world: aero, tire compound grip, and power to weight ratio. for me, the term “pinnacle of Motorsport” simple means the fastest prototype racing machines around a circuit. and to achieve that you must have a huge amount of aero. there is no way to keep f1 the fastest while removing aero unless you make the tyres out of chewing gum and the race surface out of Velcro.

  6. It will be interesting to see where the story goes. However, if you look at F1 historically (from the 1970’s until now) it’s clear that the more the FIA regulated the sport to increase competitiveness and parity, the sport has in fact become far less competitive. If we start in the 1970’s ( I’ve eliminated the 50′ and 60’s as some teams ran three cars so the results get skewed) and look solely at constructors winners you’ll see a clear tend of decreasing constructor competitiveness. The following is a decade average of different constructor wins with the highest wins during that period.

    1970’s – 4.7 average different constructor wins – 1975/76/77 -6 different constructor wins

    1980’s – 4.5 average different constructor wins – 1982 – 7 different constructor wins

    1990’s – 3.2 average different constructor wins – 1990/97/99 – 4 different constructor wins

    2000 – 2009 – 3.2 average different constructor wins – 2008 – 5 different constructor wins

    2010 – 2013 – 3.7 average different constructor wins – 2012 – 5 different constructor wins

    2014 – 2015 – 2 average different constructor wins – 2014 / 15 – 2 different constructor wins

    Since 1989 we’ve lost on average one different constructor win per season.The decade high number of constructor wins has also dropped. Clearly a sport which despite the FIA’s tinkering is significantly less competitive than it once was.

    • There is a solid thought process here; thank you for the effort that would have gone into the research. It definitely gave me pause for thought.

      I think the basis of your comment could be expanded into its own article with research all the way to 1950 including (but not limited to) driver based results – as well as the teams – in yoy data format, plus decade avg’s etc for both drivers and teams.

      The pure yoy data would be interesting and telling, and I’d trust your interpretation of it given your comment. Additionally, if you were a masochist, with zero life, a version of the above methodology applied to studying pole positions, and another version studying overall podiums.

      With all that combined, we’d definitely see in a very granular way what you are already touching on… The slow diminishing of performance-diversity between the teams as time goes by – and in that potentially the answer to where F1 is now in terms of the fan exodus.

      +1 Cav

    • Cav – Some interesting data, and an interesting supposition, mate!

      I’m not sure that your data supports your point, however.

      If we look at the modern safety era, from the 90’s forward, up to the last year season of the 6th Concord agreement, 2012, we see the following:
      1990-1999 3.2 avg different constructor wins
      2000-2009 3.2 avg different constructor wins
      2010-2012 3.7 avg different constructor wins
      90/97/99 – 4 different constructor wins
      2008 – 5 different constructor wins
      2012 – 5 different constructor wins

      If we look at the 7th Concorde agreement years, from 2013 to now, it’s a smaller sample, but discouraging:
      2013-2015 – 2.7 avg different constructor wins
      2013 – 4 different constructor wins

      My points are:
      1) The rates of innovation during the ’70’s and 80’s were higher vs the more regulated modern cars of the ’90’s, ’00’s and now. Aero innovations, such as wings, venturi’s, etc., plus aero-industry worthy materials, were brought to the sport in 70’s and 80’s. In the 90’s, we had carbon fiber chassis, advanced aero, and powerful engines, just as we do now.
      2) During the modern era, (1990’s to 2012), we’ve averaged 3.3 different constructor wins per season.
      3) The majority of modern F1 regulations are to: A) control costs, and B) increase safety. If the regs were more laisses faire on those two issues, F1 wouldn’t likely exist.
      4) The difference between modern F1 from the 1990’s up to 2012, vs 2013 to now, is the A) Strategy Group governance, B) FOM’s massive payments to Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren teams, combined with C) the too expensive hybrid engines. Those three things have done more to destroy parity in F1 than any safety or cost control regulation ever has.

  7. A real hard question to answer. Well, to answer within the daily reality of F1. Because it again boils down to money: you can’t expect Mercedes or Ferrari to pour in 100’s of millions and only be of influence on 20% of the outcome.

    So I would propose to go for 50 50.

  8. Flashback here 18 months? Where I questioned, exactly how do you define the different types of F1 ‘Fan’. The judge said impossible. So a left field idea, get rid of the individual constructors and drivers championships, and merge them into one. Who would watch, and who would neter a team? F1 was always about the car, that was how motor racing came into existence – my Alfa Romeo is better and more reliable than your Ferrari – “hey lets race for a few hours and see who finishes”. Is WEC really the true ‘F1 top dog’, and todays F1 just an entertainment idea? Albeit a very expensive one, that perpetrates a fraud on the uninformed viewer. If the car shouldn’t be deemed important, then why bother having any technology, just race spec karts. The balance can only be determined by who is prepared to enter and build cars, and the amount of money they are prepared to spend. No manufacturers and sponsors, then it ends up with a spec car, and the balance is 10/90 in favour of the driver. Commitment from teams and entrants is really what changes the balance. It is what it is, at any point in time.

    @the judge13 asked Can we make really the drivers the heroes and allow their skills to be the majority of the performance difference on track; whilst simultaneously retaining F1 as the technological pinnacle of motor racing? Answer – NO.

  9. What surprised me about the first two WEC rounds this year is who LMP1 cars can closely follow each other and race wheel to wheel even in twistier parts of the circuit. Wasn’t high downforce supposedly bad for close racing, and that was used as an excuse for DRS?

  10. F1 is about incredibly talented drivers racing the fastest cars on earth (around a circuit, not ovals or straight lines) and the implied danger. And on top of it comes the cherry called living a jet setting lifestyle and conquering fan adoration and respect. Money, fame, they are byproducts of the speed, danger and charisma associated with the cars and drivers and what they do. Being the pinnacle of technology is a facetious marketing concept which has crept into widespread belief.

    F1 is and has only ever been the pinnacle of itself within the regulations. But it also happens that in no other sport or activity (that I can think of) are competitors so obsessively and self-destructively dedicated with improving and winning. And that mentality is all consuming.

    That’s it.

    Defining F1 is simple.

    The hard part is making the people involved understand what comes first because they are hell bent on either competing and winning or making money out of it, and thus have entirely compromised perceptions. The players simply don’t know what it’s about, like fish in bowls not knowing what happens on the outside world.

  11. Sadly you ask the wrong question. Anyone who knows F1 knows that it is about neither the car nor the driver. It is, of course, about the money.

  12. Great article… asking the right questions!

    In light of the recent beautiful Le Mans race, it’s worth noting that F1 is _a_ pinnacle of motor sport, but not _the_ pinnacle of motor sport. Le Mans also is a pinnacle of motor sport, agreed?

    So what is the difference? Formula 1 vs Le Mans?

    At Le Mans, we see that sports car racing is much more a team sport versus F1. The drivers are teamed together to share the same car. Also the technology levels are higher, and more creative. There are more manufacturers, and more specialty race shops involved. The engineering teams are big, and creative.

    So where does that leave Formula 1?

    I suggest asking why is there the word “Formula” in Formula 1? Why is there “Formula” 3, and Formula 4, and soon (again) Formula 2? Why “Formula” 1?

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