The Trouble With F1: "Safety" Vs. Innovation
Every race day, over a billion people watch Formula One on live TV. No wonder Mercedes Benz, Honda, Toyota, Renault and Fiat spend hundreds of millions of dollars to race their hi-tech cars at circuits all over the world. No wonder we’re witnessing a fight for the future direction of F1. In one corner, wearing red, silver, blue and white, are the teams, led by the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association. In the other corner, wearing dark blue blazers, is the sport’s governing body, the FIA. The battle comes down to two issues: technology and (surprise) money.
Once again, the FIA wants to change the sport’s technical regulations to slow the machines down. In 2004, the governing body mandated that from 2005, all F1 engines must last two races. The theory behind the rule was simple enough: manufacturers would reduce engine power to increase engine life. Less engine power would mean slower cars, and slower cars would be safer cars. To the same end, the FIA also introduced a number of aerodynamic regulations to lower the amount of pavement-sucking downforce. The net effect? By the end of the ’05 racing calendar, F1 cars were about one second per lap slower than before. In the ’05 Chinese GP, Schumaker’s Ferrari’s fastest lap was 1:32.238. In the ’06 Chinese GP, Raikkonen’s McLaren-Mercedes’ fastest lap clocked-in at 1:33.242.
In late 2004, the sport’s governing body amended the rules again. For the ’06 race season, manufacturers were forced to reduce their cars’ engine size from 3.0 liters to 2.4 liters, and switch from V10’s to V8’s. Once again, the FIA reduced the maximum allowable amount of aerodynamic downforce. The end result? Another second added. In the ‘05 British GP, Raikkonen’s McLaren-Mercedes scored the fastest lap time at 1:20.502. In the ’06 British GP, Alonso’s Renault won the same honor with a time of 1:21.599. Clearly, car designers and engine builders are managing to minimize the impact of FIA’s restrictive rules.
Judging by the past development cycle, it’s only a matter of time before the 2.4-liter V8’s are faster than the previous unrestricted 3.0 liter V10’s. And now, in the name of “safety,” the FIA has responded to F1 teams’ ingenuity by calling a near-complete halt to the automotive arms race. They’ve introduced new rules mandating that all engine specs will remain as raced in June 2006. They also want to freeze any further engine development, install a standard electronic control unit (supplied by Microsoft) into all cars, control tire choice and restrict aerodynamics yet further.
The teams– who provide the entertainment upon which the entire F1 circus is based– are fighting this proposal tooth and nail. They’re angry that the FIA is disregarding its own procedures in the drafting and adoption of the technical and sporting regulations. As far as they’re concerned, FIA is invoking the safety clause as an end run around the builders, to sanitize the sport, to increase "competitiveness" (by decreasing innovation), to make the races more "exciting" for TV, to maximize revenue. An unnamed team manager was recently overheard comparing the FIA to “a heavy handed pimp.”
The teams are right to revolt. F1 has been, and always should be, the most innovative of all racing series. Who can forget the Tyrell P-34 six wheel car of 1976, or the Brabham BT-46 “fan car”? Where would F1 history be without the Tyrell 019 (first car with a raised nose) of 1990? Today’s paddle shift sports cars owe a debt of gratitude to the Ferrari type 640 (first paddle shift) of 1989. The innovative aerodynamic appendages tried by Sauber-BMW during the French Grand Prix are just another example of racing improving the breed.
These are the ideas that make F1 racing different and (dare I say it) better than other series. The FIA’s rules have clipped the designers’ wings and draining the life essence from the sport. Before the Sauber-BMW aerodynamic addenda, what was the last memorable F1 design that stood out from the crowd? The Sauber twin keel of 2001? The McLaren “Viking wings” of 2005? Those cars did not offer what I would call major technological innovations.
I want to see cars with huge differences in their designs. I want unmistakably unique cars. The FIA rules will prevent that. Enthusiasts can remember when they could tell the cars apart by their exhaust note (Ferrari V12, Honda V10 or Ford V8). With each restrictive rule change, the FIA brings F1 closer to NASCAR. While a true F1 fan can tell the difference between a Renault and a Toro Rosso, how many causal fans can spot the differences between a McLaren and a Midland?
Let’s hope that a compromise is reached whereby F1 will retain its traditional role as the most technologically free and advanced form of motor sport. Where a small team can design a car in a unique way and take the fight to the larger teams. If we lose, it won’t be long until we have the Euro IRL. And that won’t make anyone happy.
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