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?