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Making the good better - A vision for Formula One: Step Three

FEATURE BY TONY PURNELL
19/05/2013

Step Three: Entertainment

This article was set to be about cost controls, but given the topical nature I thought I'd skip ahead and join in the discussion on tyres. My concern here is that the press and some major figures are getting into a stew about something that for the 99% of folks who enjoy watching a race on Sunday afternoons really want, to be entertained. Now people can be rather easily led, and I'm worried that the hysteria that seems to be being whipped up about tyres is leading Formula One back to somewhere the fans don't want it to go.

The central issue is that having to look after one's tyres as a key performance parameter is a bad thing. Folks are crying out ‘bring back the real racing'; well, be carefully what you wish for.

Today I work in cycling. It's a very popular TV sport. In a big tour race, like the Giro or the Tour de France, there are two distinct disciplines. One is 'the race of truth' known as a time trial, where riders go off one by one and must not interfere with each other. The best rider over the distance wins. It's intellectually interesting to watch occasionally, but frankly as dull as can be as a TV spectacle. The other discipline is the road race. Here the interaction with the other riders, team tactics and the fact that each rider has only so many matches to burn before exhaustion make it fascinating and sometimes riveting to watch. The latter is perhaps the key issue, riders must save their energy as much as possible and only let rip when a race-winning move is afoot.

As long ago as 2006 I remember a head of steam building among the press, the fans, and within the FIA that something had to be done about the processional races being presented. In essence they were tedious affairs. To rub salt into the wounds it seemed that every time it looked like a race was on the cards because someone quick had lost position and needed to charge up the field, instead they got stuck behind someone a little slower, unable to overtake. It was like a time trial but with the serious deficiency that if you caught behind a rider who went off in front you had to go at their pace. Let's not forget Formula One races back then were seriously tedious.

The negative press that Formula One was receiving in terms of being boring led to various meetings within the FIA and subsequently convened with the teams to try to figure out ways to make the racing more exciting. Various attitudes became apparent; some couldn't figure out how anyone could think that a procession was not exciting, the way the times varied provided enough interest for any fan. Fortunately this was very much the minority view and nearly everyone agreed that something needed to be done. The Technical Directors on the whole didn't think changing the car technical regulations was the way to go; instead the way forward was to change the tracks. This served their purpose as Technical Directors build long term plans around the regulations, and are loath to restructure their thinking in the event of anything radical with the regulations, an understandable position.

Much effort and thought went into using driver simulators to find how to change the tracks to improve the racing. Bernie Ecclestone went a step further with a left field idea that suggested tracks should split into two, so that drivers could take a left or right fork, speed along that section (both would be equal in length aiming to be similar in split time) and then merge together again. I took the view that changing the tracks was impractical, unlikely to work, and the wrong approach. It was like going into a store for a shirt, one you really liked and finding that they only had it two sizes bigger than you wanted. The solution - fatten up for a couple of months and go back to the store. Best change the dimensions of the shirt I think, or in this case the car.

The FIA maintained the position that the root cause of the lack of overtaking was aerodynamic, in that the car behind suffered a marked reduction in downforce by being in the wake and was thereby slowed down a good deal. On this there was no disagreement. In addition overtaking occurred when there was a marked difference in speed for a small section of the circuit, obvious, but it did mean that the cars which were separated on the grid by small time differences gained more or less gradually over the lap would struggle to overtake one another.

The FIA suggested that a rule should be considered that gave a technical advantage to the car behind in order to compensate for the loss of aerodynamic performance. My suggestion was to allow active ride (platform control) to cars in the wake of another, using some sort of a car-now-in-front turbulence sensor. At first this gained few friends, but it did plant the idea of advantage to the car behind. This grew to the point that a suggestion from Steve Clark, then at Honda/Brawn, to use the timing loops in some way gathered support.

At this point Jean Todt arrived on the scene and put improving the racing as a top priority, although in reality this had been the case for some time previous. Todt's concern should be remembered as the disquiet with processions was reaching fever pitch by then (i.e. Formula One races really were in a 'state'). Out of all this came the idea of the DRS system, taken into being by Charlie Whiting who realized that this should work and give the local difference in speed required. It was really rather revolutionary to essentially disadvantage the leading car in order to jazz up the racing and is a great addition to the sport.

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