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An engineer replies to Stefan Johansson's blueprint for reshaping F1 Part I

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
02/05/2019

Dear reader, Mr Stefan Johansson has provided what I will call a thought-provoking 'Straw-man' for our consideration.

In the engineering world a straw-man is offered to give a complete start point for discussion and refinement as one knows it is not going to be the final product, but a step in the right direction, and enables people to grapple with the entire problem, rather than what can appear to be 10,000 unrelated parts. My thanks to Mr Johansson for a well-considered article.

...and now, firmly in the interests of defending engineers everywhere, and providing a polite repost to keep the discussion going, I'll offer some gentle pokes to this straw-man and see what remains standing, and what floats as chaff to the floor, to be swept politely into the Pitpass broom cupboard, where they can join a few "Super Bowl Experience" moments that have been gathering dust for some time now.

In his introduction Mr Johansson states: The younger generation doesn't seem to care, F1 and motorsport in general is struggling to catch their attention.

This addresses our first issue. With the motor car over 100 years old, with self-driving cars probable within the decade, and with many under-30 folk using Uber, with a twist of public transport, we are indeed struggling to catch their attention. Many folk no longer care. The esteemed Mike Lawrence wrote some time back how Motorcycle Speedway was immense in Britain just after the Second World War. And yet a seemingly monster of sport simply faded away. Is it that Formula One as a main stream sport is fading away, and as I suggested sometime back in Goodbye Horseless Carriage, are we gracelessly sliding into being a minority sport for the monied few to race, and the caring few to watch?

Next Mr Johansson split is argument for improvements into four main categories; Economics, Competition, Entertainment and Relevance. I will address each in turn, but with reducing detail, as there is some overlap between categories. So come! Let us shake the Johansson straw-man and see what straw-man 2.0 arrives trim and chipper on the Pitpass desk.

Economics

Mr Johansson places the blame for soaring costs on the endless development wars between teams, and quite simply we agree. Yet endlessly seeking improvement is part of the human condition, especially among sports-folk. Can you imagine an Olympics where each track team arrived and pronounced, "Well, given how amazing Usain Bolt was, we've dialled training back 10%, eaten far more pizza and not got stressed. Let's call him the best, and our goal is to be within 15% of his time, give or take."

I do not think we'd be too impressed. The endless and relentless seeking of perfection appears to be genetically coded within us. So we have to allow continued improvements, just at a more affordable level.

Mr Johansson then singles out the aero-race and the engine-race combined with the FIA decision to make things last race-after-race as prime suspects in pushing costs too high, and then sprinkles a generous topping of manufacturer demanded pointless "road relevance" on top to ice the cake.

As Miss Physics would politely point out unless one wishes to race in a vacuum one has to deal with aerodynamics, unless one elects for an aquatic fun-feast in which case she will cheerfully point you to the similarly constructed laws of hydrodynamics to keep you busy. Daniel Bernoulli is to blame for releasing his book "Hydrodynamica" to a curious public in 1738. What later became known as the Bernoulli Principle states that as speed of a fluid increases there is a simultaneous decrease in pressure, or a decrease in the fluid's potential energy.

Skip forward 281 years, add dynamic lift, drag, aerofoils, and mix with a generous helping of Newton's Laws of motion... and hello Boeing 747, Starlifter, unstable Ford Sierra's, and modern Formula One cars. A classic example of not listening to Miss Physics is the Ford Tickford Capri of the early 1980's. This turbocharged, monster of plastic, metal and (optional) leather trim reached 60 mph in around 6.7 seconds, before rocketing on to an impressive for the day 137 mph. A shame the front of the car generated lift, not down force, and the steering went light as the tyres lifted once a touch north of 100 mph. A handful to drive requiring nerves of steel and a highly reactive driving style? Indeed. Great fun? Well, rather depends on how long one wanted to have this style of fun.

Many engineers, technicians, general science nerds and geeks are fans of Formula One and understand the concepts involved, and grasp what each team is trying to do as they fiddle with turning vanes, end-plates, front wings, rear diffusers and all the rest. No, the average curious fan or modestly maths-capable engineer could not design any of them, but we can understand the issues being addressed, and get excited by new developments, and hence, the development race.

Standardising aero is not the answer. Limiting maximum aero is not the answer, because with the aid of their super-computers all the teams would flat-line at the maximum within a season or two. Framing rules that allow for creative solutions, is half the answer, and providing a budget floor (more on that in a moment) rather than a cost cap (impossible to correctly police, refer to the wobbling Tower of Turtles, and A Crisis Carol Coda for our most recent discussions of this topic).

Hybrid power trains. Mr Johansson's suggestion later in his article for an energy equivalence rule is sound, and one that with care could be applied. It also aligns with previous discussions on Pitpass about just such an approach. The prescriptive rules of the FIA have forced us into a situation where one, and only one, hybrid approach is valid. As I've previously noted 'Road Relevance' only exists as a concept to allow the rabid racers within the huge manufacturers to justify to the Board why spending zillions on racing (other than brand recognition) is justifiable and desirable. Then making these engines last for so many races, only pushes the cost higher! I have previously lamented that the otherwise razor-sharp mind of Max Mosley appears to have left the room when he pushed for this approach on the ground of cost saving! A disposable 700 bhp engine that only needs cover one race distance before a rebuild is always going to be cheaper to build than one that must last three, five, or more races. Go back in time to the turbo era and qualifying engines, practice engines, and then race engines for a race weekend, and the total season cost for engines was still far, far less than today!

Apply an energy equivalence rule, and limit teams to two engines per weekend per car before penalties apply. Hello innovation.

Next Mr Johansson points an accusing finger at forcing teams to build their own stuff rather than buying off the shelf. As an engineer that loves this side of the sport I am not keen on standardisation. As with the aerodynamic counter-argument above, I love following how teams tackle the various issues of building 'The Package'. Later in his article Mr Johansson calls for nearly everything apart from the custom-fitted driver's seat to be off the shelf.

Not a surprise really. There is an old saying that runs along the lines of "Never ask a Fishmonger if you should have fish or sausages for dinner". The point being the Fishmonger will always recommend the fish. Being a former Formula One driver, Mr Johansson is highly biased towards the driver's side of the equation, which is fine (not withstanding that he was also really rather good at it). Much of his revision of the sport could be summed-up as; "Get the dang engineers out the way, give us over-powered fast cars, and let us gladiators race!" From this perspective standardised parts across the entire engine and chassis are of no relevance to our red-mist gladiator who is only too keen to drive at eleven-tenth's around Monza's Parabolica – once returned to its original profile.

Why not create an Amish Formula One where we simply freeze the rules as per 1979? Jean-Pierre Jabouille won the French GP on 1st July that year at Dijon. It marked the first win for a turbo-powered car. A car, that if one follows many of Mr Johansson's recommendations one would come rather close to recreating. It's also the very same race in which Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Rene Arnoux (Renault) battled mightily for second. In one of the comments about Mr Johansson's article a reader noted they had the good fortune to know Gilles, and that 40 years ago he was making the same complaints as raised in Mr Johansson's article, and offered rather similar solutions! From the driver's perspective it will ever be thus. "Give us all wild beasts to tame, too much power, too little grip, insane corners, and then get the pesky nerds out the way and let us race!"

While some standard parts might well be of benefit, too many will simply make Formula One a one make series, and over time it will be even less relevant to the road-going beasts we can observe (McLaren Senna anyone...?) that could in the years ahead actually lap any given circuit faster than the frozen Formula One cars. Certainly, the drivers will be having a ball racing wheel to wheel, but the fans will be even more disengaged.

Force too many standardised parts into Formula One and we would need to revise the "Constructor's Championship" to either a "Kit Assembler's Championship", or possibly a "Pit Crew Championship". Again from a driver's perspective this would fall into the "No loss to me" category. From a team's perspective it would fall into the "Why bother?" Category, which is why Mercedes and Ferrari oppose too much standardisation. They need to be able to differentiate themselves via excellent engineering. It is not useful for Toto to stand-up and say, "This year Mercedes fitted Lewis' seat perfectly and then we all stood back. It's all him. Nothing to do with us. He could have won in any car on the gird this year, and we are really lucky I could persuade the board to pay Lewis' salary, because whoever has him in this one make series will win."

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Max Noble, 15/05/2019 10:03

"@La Claire - nicely made point. My thanks, sorry for not seeing it sooner. Agree, my point is to make engineers part of the mix, not the eliminated nor the dominating factor.

F2 cars are also engineered, just with less ability to fine tune, smaller budgets, and more bounds for error... which all add to great racing... along with a groups of drivers all thinking the same as Max Verstappen... bingo..."

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2. Posted by La Claire, 08/05/2019 15:32

""Why not create an Amish Formula One where we simply freeze the rules as per 1979?" The animousity toward standardised parts and the love of engineering are, of course, popular positions for engineers to take. There are only two problems - 1) Formula Two is a much better racing series than Formula One, i.e. reality doesn't bear out these thesis and 2) Engineers love engineering contests, but engineering no one goes to watch an engineering contest. For example, an engineer is always going to want to conserve resources and eliminate uncertainty - the worst forms of sickness to racing from a fan's point of view.

Personally I don't care too much, as long as we have high cockpit sides and the halo, I think we might as well just go to an e-sports format and save a lot of natural resources by not flying what are at this point basically portable simulators around the world. But with great respect for the engineers who make the things I use and make the things I use work, I don't think they have the perspective to design an engaging spectator sport. Just think of the engineers you know. Smart? Yes. Interesting? For sure. Crazily entertaining? Not so much."

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3. Posted by Max Noble, 07/05/2019 21:43

"@Cricketpo - Bit rough knocking out the historic payment, but I like your idea of a sliding scale of being able to work on the car in-season. This would allow the bottom half of the grid a much better chance to close on the top half. Another great idea that the FIA and Liberty should consider investigating."

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4. Posted by cricketpo, 06/05/2019 12:52 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 06/05/2019 15:18)

"First of all a thanks to Mr Noble and Mr Johanson for trying to imagine a way forward for F1 and its followers. I suppose a nod to pitpass.com for hosting the conversation.

For my part I would like to find a way of leveling the playing field. Actually more than that. Not just preventing the big spenders from running away with the prizes but also encouraging less successful teams to compete. I illustrate this with a story I heard that when Haas first entered F1 they were using the previous season's technology. Above all F1 must discourage such lack of ambition. I think topics such as uniform monocoque would enable smaller teams to concentrate on other stuff. The paradox for me is that this approach is counter to what F1 has been about. However innovation does appear to have been stifled.

I don't believe in "historic" payments to teams. Success and only success should be rewarded. There must be some element of risk for the teams to keep them honest and to make sure they are really there to compete and not just appear.

I think the testing ban has affected smaller teams more in that their innovation may have been stunted because they just cannot afford the time to follow blind alleys. My way forward would be to allow the bottom team. To be allowed to throw whatever time and money they can at their next car. For every place up the constructors championship you increasingly limit their ability to alter their car. This would probably not hurt Mercedes and Ferrari too much as they already have dominant packages it would take some time for real challenge to appear.

There are many more issues to be resolved but that would be mycstsrting point"

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5. Posted by AndMo, 04/05/2019 7:15

"Well, I am a fan and have been since I was a kid 40 odd years ago. My interest in F1 is ingrained, but the show has got dull.

I don't go to GP's because they are just too expensive. I have a son- a potential future fan because he's car mad and loves racing games- but a race weekend is 1000 euro for the two of us, plus travel costs. I would pay it more times per season if the racing was exciting, but it isn't. Instead I watch it on TV (as part of an overpriced subscription), usually alone. Its not that there aren't empty seats at GP's. In fact often there are whole stands with no one in them. Why?

The drivers aren't allowed to have personalities. Witness Max getting harassed for mouthing off to The Forgotten Guy last year. Or even Vettel being hauled over the coals for some swearing (though it shouldn't have been personal). I have even grown to like his incessant moaning and wheel banging as at least he has an opinion. Great that the teams are so amazing, but we don't know the teams. We know the drivers. How can fans love bland guys in computer controlled cars?

The cars pass through fake means- an open flap. What ever happened to whacking it up the inside, all balls and twitchy rear end. Ah, that's right- a cars wake is so extreme no one can get close enough, unless we use aero means to undo aero wake. Sounds self-defeating to me and totally eliminates the spectacle.

And what ever happened to a good old engine explosion at 200mph? Nothing gave the fan a better view of the aerodynamicists work than a huge, smokey vortex, or made the racing unpredictable and thus exciting. I don't want longevity, I want the exact opposite. I want engine based spectacle and unpredictability.

And as the driver of a manual GT3 who has to get the feet all busy on a fast drive and stuff up a few changes that gets the car all squidgy and squirmy, why can't we go back to manual boxes to increase the drivers required input beyond dealing switches and dials on a steering wheel whilst gear changes are just software? Automatics basically. What, can't these guys change gears?

And then we would like tyres that can be thrashed hard instead of babied around.

And cars strong enough that a bit of wheel to wheel doesn't see all that carbon aero strewn around the track meaning a safety car and the end of the race for the two protagonists.

But I'm no driver and I'm no engineer. I'm just a bored fan watching robots.
"

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6. Posted by Max Noble, 04/05/2019 3:07

"@JL - my thanks for considered feedback. Yes, fully agree a successful solution would take many of Mr Johannson’s concepts, and then refine and balance them against some of the counter arguments I offer. As I note in my comment below, each fan has a unique opinion on what makes “Ideal” F1, but we have a fair amount of overlap between us - otherwise there would be no fan base at all!

I believe if all the engine manufacturers had made a good job of the hybrid power sources we would not be having these discussions as the racing between four or five of the teams would be close.

So it’s really a lack of intense racing for the podium across a number of teams that is our gripe... rather than what it costs, or who designed what to get to the close racing. If Liberty tinker with the “wrong” rules, or (as I’ve already highlighted) the “Cost cap” does nothing to shuffle the order or bring the mid-field teams any closer to Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull... then our irritation now will be nothing compared to the grinding of teeth come 2021..."

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7. Posted by JL, 03/05/2019 14:58

"Max and Stephan should both be congratulated on their efforts. But the problems facing F1 would require some melding of the two solutions. The first thing that has to be recognized is that F1 is far too expensive to attract a field of 20 cars that are each competitive. If you want a series that is not dominated by one of three teams, or possibly four teams, then the costs have to be reduced dramatically.

I was lucky enough to be involved when a big budget was a couple of million dollars. We had races where people could not qualify as there were more entrants than starting positions. The spectator would rather have 15 teams to pick his favorite from rather than three. The racing in the mid to late 70s to the mid 80s was just more exciting than today. That is where Stephan's argument has the most merit.

Max's argument is, as he admits, from the engineer's viewpoint. He wants to see creative minds come up with solutions that furthers his craft. Unfortunately, when that happens, it decreases competition. As examples, Colin Chapman's introduction of a new aerodynamic capability with skirts. Brawn's interpretation of the rules on diffusers. Technical breakthroughs unfortunately are what increases costs and, at least initially, decrease competition.

The current solution of requiring various parts of the race car to last for x period of races is something that dramatically increases costs. There is a great deal of merit in standardization of certain parts of the race car...the spectator (who is expected to pay the bills of these teams) doesn't really care a lot if every team has the same front wing. What they care about is how competitive the racing is.

I am a huge Lewis and Mercedes fan but I can say, with a great deal of certainty, that Lewis would rather have to fight for a win than cruise to a win. I think that is true with all top drivers. That is not the case today. Today we know it will be, barring a major unexpected event, either a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull that crosses the line first. If this is not changed then Liberty will discover they paid way too much for F1 and that Bernie was far brighter than they were and sold at the top of the market.

"

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8. Posted by Max Noble, 03/05/2019 6:51

"@Oldbuzzard....
Horatio “How’s it going Hamlet?”

Hamlet “Been better, been worse.”

Horatio “Bummer. Anything else.”

Hamlet “The rest is silence.”
(The end)

It’s all about compromise and balance if I might be so cheeky. :-)

...being serious it is about compromise and balance as there is a little of the hero driver, the nerd, the casual fan, and the dedicated fan in us all in different ratios. That’s what makes striking the right balance so difficult. Bernie was unique and totally the man for his season.

@Uffen - yes indeed very torn, as noted to Oldbuzzard above, I love all aspects but do agree it is currently out of balance and does not appear to be going in the right direction just yet.

Let’s hope Liberty and the FIA are have the right difficult conversations with the teams and all stake holders to get us back to a new Golden Age... :-)
"

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9. Posted by Oldbuzzard, 02/05/2019 14:59

"Many, many words to say what can be said in a very few. Mr. Noble has stated here that he is an engineer and that says it all. F1, or any motor sport, should not be managed by engineers. Nor by racing drivers, nor television producers with no knowledge or sympatico with the sport. Professional Motor racing is a form entertainment and until that lesson is learned, F1 will continue to struggle and deteriorate. I hate to bring this name into the conversation, but it is what it is, Bernie Ecclestone was the kind person to manage a racing series. First, he had love of racing for racing’s sake, he WAS a racer. Next, he had a keen eye for entertainment. Motor racing is, or can be, hugely entertaining if it is allowed to. Motor racing can also be hugely profitable if allowed to be. But to accomplish all of this it takes the right stuff. The sport must be run by an entertainer. Not an engineer. Especially not an engineer. Nor by a racing driver. Especially not a driver. Nor by a sponsor. Most F1 sponsors don’t have a clue about motor racing. Bernie was/is a racer (former and not particularly fast, which he quickly realized), a promoter, a used car salesman, a producer of entertainment for the masses. A sport like F1 needs a person with all these skills and more - knowledge of the TV business, the film industry, the print media, the public relations industry, the advertising industry, the construction industry, the transportation industry (moving the F1 circus around the world is formidable task), and more. And there is the art of negotiation. Bernie E. Is a true master of this skill and, I believe, an inherited one, not a learned one. Certainly practice makes perfect, or sorta does, but you either got it, or you don’t. Bottom line for F1, do not let the inmates run the asylum. Especially not the engineering inmates! Many a successful racing promoter has said, “you are not in the racing business, you’re in the entertainment and food business. Entertain the spectators and feed them well and they’ll keep coming back for more. Designing a new front wing will not sell one single ticket."

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10. Posted by Uffen, 02/05/2019 14:31 (moderated by an Adminstrator, 06/05/2019 15:18)

"Another interesting and thought-provoking article, Max. Well done. I, too, am an engineer and one side of me appreciates the complexities involved, but another side despises them. Like going to a concert and listening to auto-tuned singers and drum machines. Closer to perfection, but a waste of my 'entertainment" time. You seem to be torn as well. Aero is important but gearboxes and simulators aren't. I don't disagree, but how does one split these aspects and maintain a logical perspective?
"... fun racing wheel to wheel, but fans are disengaged." Must strongly disagree there. As a fan and an engineer I lean toward exciting racing. A field of Cosworths and Hewland 'boxes with the odd Ferrari and maybe a Matra thrown in was plenty entertaining and it was how the drivers and teams used them, not the "sameness" that mattered.
I look forward to parts 2 and 3."

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