Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It's not just politics

The impule to regulate everything is not the exslusive preserve of politicians. In sport too the idea that you can achieve a desired outcome from the efforts of other people by exerting ever greater control holds sway.

It was a pretty shocking admission for one of the world’s most astute businessmen. The man who has built F1 out of the disparate and often competing interests of constructors, drivers, sponsors and organizers, and even managed to make himself a few pennies out of it on the way. The man who beat a bribery charge with a hefty out of court settlement, and has steered F1 through numerous crises over the decades, Bernie Ecclestone, made the frank admission on Saturday that he didn’t know what to do about the current state of F1.


This came following the departure of Caterham and Marussia, who after 3 disappointing seasons have followed in the footsteps of HRT, Hispania and Virgin Racing and given up their F1 aspirations. It’s not really surprising – their £50 million budget was around one fifth of the dominant Mercedes team, while Ferrari and Red Bull are spending even more pursuing the silver arrows. No one expects F1 to be cheap, but when your return on £50 million is to see a few snap shots of your car trundling round at the back then breaking down, there is little incentive to keep it up.


Yet at the front of the pack car manufacturers and big name sponsors are prepared to put in not just tens but hundreds of millions to compete, and to keep the glitz, glamour and technical innovation that gives the sport it’s enduring appeal. F1 cannot turn this away. So the question becomes how to maintain this interest while allowing the smaller teams to have a competitive car. And the budget cap seems unlikely to work when Red Bull already own 2 F1 teams.


Firstly you have to be a bit realistic – there’s always a “car to beat” out there, and it’s quite often the one that has had the most money ploughed into it. This is as true of F1 as it is of club racing, only in F1 it has a few noughts on the end. What we’re looking for is not a situation where money counts for nothing, but rather a more chaotic order where a stroke of brilliance can even out the playing field, or an inspired drive can put a back-marker up front.


Secondly there’s the ongoing identity crisis in F1 as it flits between manufacturers and privateers, roughly once a decade. A balance here is a healthy thing. The manufacturers bring money and enjoy tremendous marketing benefits, but they are also fickle. They’re run by rational boards of directors, and when they’ve spent millions and got nothing for a few years they will leave, as BMW, Honda and Toyota showed us. Privateers exist to run racing teams and F1 is the pinnacle of that. McLaren, Sauber and Williams have had ups and downs over the decades they have been racing but they are not going to go and sponsor a football league if they have a couple of bad seasons. We need both in the sport.


The difficulty is that in recent years new teams have struggled to get anywhere. In the 1990s Jordan and Sauber were able to produce competitive cars. Jordan became Force India, now the newest team on the grid and winless after 6 seasons and with just one podium this year, in a relatively successful season. Sauber languish at the back, with no points in 2014. If these established outfits are unable to race competitively then what hope do brand new teams have? Either of putting a competitive car on the grid or of raising the funds to do so in future?


So we find ourselves at the latest re-emergence of a fault line that has run through F1 for decades – how to keep the big sponsors and manufacturers around while also allowing smaller, newer independent teams to be competitive. It goes back to at least the FISA-FOCA wars of the early 80s which brought Ecclestone to the fore in the first place.


Since the end of the first turbo era in 1989 all the attempts to reduce costs and make the series more competitive have centered around placing more restrictions on what teams can and cannot do. Restrictions have been placed on testing, engine size and configuration, fuel use, working on the car between qualifying and the race and a host of other more obscure things, while limits have been placed on the number of engines and gearboxes teams can use. Only one make of tyre is allowed and the scope for using different strategies is limited. Meanwhile the tiniest details of the aerodynamics are so closely controlled and monitored that absent of sponsors’ livery it would be very hard to distinguish any car from another.


It seems reasonable enough as a theory – make the cars alike, limit the ability of the big teams to flex their financial muscles and on Sunday afternoon we will see a pure contest of driver ability.

The reality however is that tiny and obscure advantages are locked in throughout the race weekend as the cars perform and develop in exactly the same way, meaning the advantage of the better cars is simply compounded lap after expensive lap. The car with a one tenth advantage in qualifying is a tenth quicker a lap in the race and 5 seconds ahead after 50 laps. And as is well understood at all levels of motorsport, each additional tenth of a second is more expensive than the last.


However the most important aspect that this regulation-happy approach has overlooked is that historically the way in which smaller, less well funded F1 teams have been able to push their way to the front is by producing some innovative and radical piece of design. Lotus in it’s original incarnation brought numerous innovations to Formula 1 including ground effects and later active suspension which gave them an advantage. Ecclestone’s own Brabham team produced the whacky fan car, albeit only for one race, while Tyrrell found success with their 6 wheel P34. Less dramatically, but no less effectively Schumacher and his Benneton team mastered strategy in the mid 1990s to score two world championships against better funded rivals.


Of course the modern era is different – technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, and it would be na├»ve to think that Caterham could have bolted a fan to their car and won races, or that Marussia just needed an extra axle to be fighting Ferrari and Mercedes for the lead of the race. But still some diversity across the field could produce cost savings, and perhaps the occasional surprise. Throw in a wild card of different tyres, a larger, normally aspirated engine that is better suited to certain circuits or a radical fuel strategy that changes the game, and we will get more unpredictable races, even if we will still see the same big spending names coming out on top more often than not.

The point here is that giving more freedom, not less to the designers and engineers and that will give the smaller teams a chance, and make for some more interesting racing along the way.

But so long as those who govern F1 are, like those govern countries, obsessed with regulations as the answer to all our problems we will never know.