The 2017 regulations promised wider and lower cars, wider tires, and an end to the much debated “token” engine development system. Late last year the first predictions were made concerning laptimes: team managers and Pirelli already estimated that the cars would go 4-5 seconds per lap quicker.
The Barcelona tests gave a glimpse of what is possible, and indeed we have seen some very quick cars that mandate those predictions.
We also witnessed what is seen by many as “the end of the Bernie-era”. Good or bad: the man at least deserves some respect for getting F1 where it is today. Where it went wrong is that it all became a money-driven game: big money trumps true racers every time. Further, audiences are waning and on a downward trend.
“When in doubt, listen to Bernie”, and in an effort to recapture the audience and shake up things, the 2017 regulations were written to simply have more of the good stuff: speed and (OMG!) aesthetics. Not everyone is happy about this, the teams know ‘the show’ is at risk, the knowledgeable fan base feel insulted as there is a undeniable feeling that by mid season the racing will be processional. And yet the powers that be feel we need to return to the days of unrelenting increases in lap time.
To give you an impression about the developments of the last 20 years, below an overview of best lap times at Monza (traditionally the fastest track)
|2008 (wet)||V8||Bridgestone-grooved||1:28.047||Kimi Räikkönen||Ferrari|
|2009||V8||Bridgestone||1:24.739||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes|
All those races were between the 1:21 and 1:28 range. Naturally above times aren’t the most reliable indicators, since there are many variables (fuel loads, race strategy to name but a few) in a race, but it does show the point. In above overview I tried to align with some of the changes FIA made: introduction of the V8, introduction of the grooved tire, and the return to a single tire supplier.
The line is clear: FIA has consistently adjusted the rules to slow cars down.
Please note that in 2009 FIA decided to revert to slick tires (and make changes to the aerodynamics regulations), in order to reduce aerodynamic grip and increasing mechanical grip. In 2006 overtaking went to an all-time low. Obviously this was not what the circus needed. It was estimated that returning to the slick would help in increasing wheel-to-wheel action, and make races more exciting.
In April 2016 FIA announced its new power unit regulations for the 2017 season. Their claim is that the changes which were made, are aimed at reducing costs and guaranteeing supply for customer teams, closing the performance gap between engines, and improving engine noise.
That might be so, but loosening regulations means that the field is open for competition. Money will flow where constructors think progression can be made. We have heard rumours that Ferrari’s engine will get close to the 1000bhp range. This will likely become more for each generation of the engine.
The Barcelona tests have shown that 4-5 seconds a lap are indeed possible. That would bring us in the 1:19-1:20 range for Monza: faster than the lap times from 2003-2005, after which FIA decided (once more) to slow things down. If FIA hasn’t completely let go of their principles, they must be heading for some quick speed limitation measures. Faster cars do not rhyme with FIA’s long time direction.
Why would they want to slow things down in the first place? The answer is easy: safety. In his days Max Mosley repeatedly made statements along this line, and even this year Mosley repeated during an interview with ITV:
“My personal view is that it may have gone in the wrong direction. I would have gone for less aero and perhaps more mechanical grip.”
“Deliberately setting out to make the cars quicker is questionable because all the rules for the last 40 or 50 years brought in by the FIA have been to make the cars slower – either slower or safer, because speed equals danger obviously.”
Naturally Mosley has been out for a while, and Bernie’s influence has been curbed. The ball is in Ross Brawn’s court, in his role as director of motorsport, and FIA officials as Jean Todt.
It strikes as odd that while Mosley regularly gave his opinion about events, Todt has rather been silent. Is he a backroom-person, is it weak leadership, or is it simply that FIA chose to be less visible?
Drivers have been enthusiastic about the faster cars, but, let’s face it: would we really accept them to be afraid of speed? They are not in the best position to make the sport safer. It is not their role, and we expect them to be about competition and have balls of steel.
Liberty Media have been the voice of reason since their take over. They are looking to make the sport viable for a longer period of time. Driver injuries and deaths, although common in the 70-ies and 80-ies, are no longer part of the sport.
As commercial rights-holder Liberty Media does not decide regulations, but they will find a partner in FIA. FIA has long been a slave to cold hard cash, and they will follow Liberty’s needs.
Or will Todt finally find the courage to push for one-sided measures? Will FIA react differently now that Bernie is gone? Will Liberty put its foot down? Hard to say, but I would estimate that none of the involved really wants or needs more speed.
Rumour and rumblings have already begun behind closed doors. We are heading for speed reducing measures, the only question is “when?”