Half a century ago, motorsport attracted a tiny fraction of the global following it has today. So when Ferrari won every round of the 1952 world championship, and Alberto Ascari every round but one, nobody complained very much.
Today, after the most monotonous grand prix season since then, world-wide television coverage has made F1’s troubles very public, and newspapers around the world have splashed loud criticism, well- and ill-informed, across their sports pages.
But what worries F1’s big noises isn’t the criticism: it’s the commercial implications of falling TV audiences. So, on October 28, the Formula One Commission locked themselves away in the appropriately featureless surroundings of an airport hotel to Find a Solution.
We had high hopes for this meeting. Max Mosley had wound them all up to it by threats of success ballast and even driver-swapping, so we could see the Alex Yoongs in Ferraris and the Michael Schumachers in Minardis. That made entertaining copy for the tabloids, but it was never going to happen. More credible options on Max’s shopping list were limiting multiple aerodynamic variations, and weeding out sophisticated electronic aids by having standardised, sealed ECUs for all teams. It sounded encouraging.
Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, weighed in with a more robust wish list. Speaking four weeks before the meeting, his recipe to bring back excitement to F1 was: a properly policed ban on electronic driver aids; one make and type of tyre; and —glory be — radically reduced aerodynamic downforce, with a standardised front and rear wing set-up, to help cars to overtake each other. Which is what most of us have been saying all along.
But when the puff of smoke eventually rose over the Heathrow Hilton, there was none of that. In fact, there wasn’t a single initiative that affected the performance of the cars. Qualifying has been revamped to make it a better TV spectacle, and there is a rather pathetic tinkering with the points-scoring system, which does nothing for the racing but is merely intended to string the championship along a bit in the second half of the season. The tyre manufacturers will now be allowed more flexibility in the rubber they supply to different teams. And the overt race-rigging that Ferrari used under the guise of team orders has rightly been banned — although, as Bernie was the first to point out after the meeting, they still haven’t found a way of stopping team tactics altogether, only the arrogant flaunting of them under the noses of the spectators.
But where was the courageous rethinking of the cars’ specification, to give us back the good racing we’ve lost? This was a heaven-sent opportunity for F1 to take a fresh look at itself. Alas, that opportunity — presumably because of the teams’ shortsightedness — has yet to be seized.
The mechanism for altering F1’s sporting rules is complex. Any change has to be approved by at least 18 votes on the 26-strong Commission. The teams have 12 votes, the race promoters eight, the sponsors two, and the engine manufacturers and tyre suppliers one each. Bernie and Max both have a vote as well. Engine suppliers, sponsors and tyre manufacturers tend to side with the teams, while the race promoters will usually toe Bernie’s line. In crude terms, it’s 16 on one side, 10 on the other.
So ballast and driver-rotation were never going to be approved. But, sadly, the teams have so far blocked all efforts to reduce aerodynamic downforce and electronic driver aids. They seem unable to grasp that, in the long run, Formula One would benefit hugely and, therefore, so would their own potential to earn even more wealth.
The new-style qualifying is, I have to say, a welcome innovation. Single-car qualifying has been proposed for F1 many times before, having been highly successful in American racing: a good TV commentator can make it very exciting on screen. And, by making drivers compete on Friday for how late they may run in the Saturday session, to take advantage of what will usually be improving track conditions, there will be something worth watching on Friday, whatever the weather. That hasn’t been the case since Saturday-only qualifying arrived in 1996. A further proposal, to try to reduce the money poured into test programmes, is that teams which commit to no more than 10 days’ testing during the season will be allowed to run three cars, and also test drivers, on Friday morning.
Bridgestone contributed hugely to Ferrari’s domination this year. It knew that only one of its contracted teams was likely to win races, so it designed its tyres specifically to suit that team. Michelin, by contrast, had to cater for the differing needs of Williams and McLaren, while still complying with the FIA ruling that allowed it to supply only two types of dry tyre per race. That rule has now been rescinded: but Bernie’s not the only one to pine for the days of a single tyre company and a level playing field in terms of rubber.
Regular visitors to these pages will know that I regard the championship points table as a tiresome distraction from the real sport of motor racing, which should be about trying to win each race, rather than accumulating a safe points total over a long season. The new scoring system is a clumsy effort to keep the championship open for longer, by reducing the differential between winning and coming second.
In the early days of the championship you got eight points for a win, and 6-4-3-2 down to fifth place. You also got a single point for setting fastest lap. (It would be nice to have that back again, to keep the pressure on everyone late in the race when fuel loads are light). In 1960, the point for fastest lap was replaced by a point for finishing sixth, and the following year the reward for winning was increased to nine points. In 1991, it became 10 points, a change I applauded, simply because it placed more emphasis on winning, rather than driving for points. It was also intended to help avoid situations like in 1982, when Keke Rosberg was crowned champion despite winning only one race.
Now the gap between first and second place has been reduced to just two points again. The new system goes down to eighth place, in the sequence 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. It will flatter consistent finishers, and effectively reduces the rewards for victory. If it had been in place this year, it would have made precious little difference: Michael Schumacher would merely have won the championship a fortnight later, and the title fight would still have been over by the end of July. It might have been better if the F1 Commission had brought back the old system of each driver counting only his best results — say his best 12 races in the season, or his best six from the first half and best six from the second half. This rule operated from the start of the world championship right up until 1990. It was sometimes hard for the public to follow — but it did keep the championship unresolved for longer.
Having said that, it is good news that the minnows will get a greater reward, with a stout seventh place finish by a Minardi, for example, earning two whole points — and Mark Webber’s joyous fifth in Melbourne this year would have reaped four.
The new qualifying arrangements should provide some interesting grids when the weather changes during Saturday’s session. At circuits where overtaking is but a memory, like Monaco, Saturday rain could mean a surprise Sunday winner. Overtaking is more possible at Spa than anywhere else, so we might have seen a reprise of races like the 1995 Belgian GP, when Michael Schumacher’s Benetton failed in qualifying. He started 16th, but by lap 16 he was leading. Helped by changing weather, that was an excellent race. But the Heathrow meeting also announced that, because of the Belgian government’s intransigent view of tobacco advertising, the best circuit on the F1 calendar had been dumped.
So, qualifying looks like being more fun next year: but nothing else has really changed. However, there is a glimmer of hope. We’re not allowed to know who actually said what at Heathrow, but Niki Lauda did let slip afterwards that, “there was a discussion to bring back slick tyres, and reduce the aero package, and then you can pass easier.” Now the team bosses have agreed to meet again, on December 4, in order to debate changes to the technical regulations. They acknowledge that this further meeting is intended to produce not only a decrease in the costs of running a competitive F1 team, but also an increase in the facility with which one car can overtake another.
While new sporting regulations need an 18-8 majority, amendment to the technical regulations requires unanimity. So don’t hold your breath. But is there just a possibility that common sense might overtake the F1 teams on December 4? Then we might see, if not for the 2003 season then for 2004, brave changes to the cars that will bring back real racing.