Formula One’s ban on all testing until January has given the off-season a different look. No race this year to be the first team to clock up a hesitant handful of laps around a fog-bound Silverstone in an unpainted 2002 car. And the hotels at Jerez de la Frontera and Sabadell, normally busy during December with test team personnel as their drivers grind round the Jerez and Barcelona circuits from dawn till dusk, are empty.
Michael Schumacher has been devoting himself to his family with all the relentless application that he brings to developing a new suspension setup. Brother Ralf is spending time with his new baby, whom he has called David. When I met with the other David, Coulthard, in early December, he and girlfriend Simone were just back from a three-week holiday in the sun. In previous years he’d be off to Spain for some serious testing, but he told me his plans up to Christmas involved nothing more exciting than public appearances for his sponsors and relentless work on his fitness.
Of course, behind closed doors the winter scramble to prepare for Australia, looming in the first weekend in March, has been going on unabated. The wealthier teams have been running new components to destruction on sophisticated test rigs, and for everyone the schedule to get new engines and chassis built up has been as frantic as ever. Alain Prost has had the additional struggle to stay afloat as his team’s towering debts force it into receivership, while Arrows grind through legal proceedings over claims of unpaid sponsorship money.
The testing ban, intended to reduce costs and pressure on their personnel, has probably achieved nothing of the sort. And, despite dire warnings of the effects of a world recession on the health of F1, the parallel rise of technology and expenditure gallops on unabated. New cars and engines will perform better than old, lap times will continue to diminish, and costs will continue to escalate. Whether the actual racing will be any better is debateable. But those who love F1 ‘s technological inventiveness will have plenty to feast on in 2002.
Two-way telemetry will now be allowed, so that the teams can utilise ‘handshake’ software on the move to fine-tune car and engine settings — the fuel mapping, say, or the differential — rather than telling the driver over the radio to do it from within the car. Yet more complexity and yet more expense: although I gather there will be codes in place to ensure that teams won’t be able to tap into each others’ cars and interfere with their rivals’ settings mid-race!
Renault, having bravely introduced their revolutionary wide-angle V10 in 2001 (and handed Benetton a pretty miserable season while they developed it on the hoof) are now working on an electro-magnetic valve operation system which will render camshafts obsolete. The word from France is that the camshaft-less set-up is currently bulky and rather heavy, and weight high up on an Fl engine is not a good thing. They went for the wide-angle in the first place to lower the engine’s weight in the car. So we’re unlikely to see this development on the grids until 2003, but Renault are determined to devote the necessary budget to make it happen.
Meanwhile, Ferrari’s design team have gone to expensive lengths in the quest for a little more rear-end rigidity by building their 2002 engine and gearbox as one complex unit. However, Ross Brawn has stoutly denied that they have been working on a new type of clutchless gearbox. If the new car isn’t ready in time for Melbourne, the team will run its 2001 version. This is not the sensational news the Italian press would have us believe: the F2001 worked so well last season that they can afford not to field the new one until they’re happy with its reliability as well as its speed.
Back when test teams hadn’t been invented, the big teams frequently turned up at races with a new generation car which was run in practice and then, if it wasn’t quick enough, was quietly put back in the van.
The lovers of technology will hate me for saying it, but I have a theory that the simpler and more straightforward the cars, the closer the racing. Certainly, the cheaper the cars, the easier it is for the midfield and backof-the-grid teams to stay in the hunt. For the last two years, every F1 race on the calendar has been won by a Ferrari, a McLaren or a Williams. Contrast this with 1975. This was the reign of the DFV `kit-car’: almost everyone apart from Ferrari used the
Cosworth engine, and most of the cars differed little from each other. Technically, it was not a vintage era. But in that year’s 14 rounds, seven different teams scored victories.
We know the difficulties of reining in the prancing horse of high-tech development. Max Mosley has tried to do it in the name of safety, with scant success. But I’d do it in the name of making driving talent matter more.
My fantasy is a gridful of cars all developing 800bhp, with manualchange transmissions, steel brakes, no aerodynamic aids, and a maximum tyre width of eight inches — one inch of width per hundred horsepower.
I’m not being entirely serious, of course, because I’ve no wish to return F1 to the fatal dangers of days gone by: but that’s the sort of power/rim width ratio the 1930s Mercedes and Auto Union drivers had to deal with, using vastly inferior tyre technology.
It’s fun to debate who’d be quick in cars like that, and who wouldn’t, around Monaco, or Suzuka, or Spa in the wet. Schumacher would still be the best: Hakkinen,Villeneuve and Montoya would shine; Alesi would be hugely brave; Jos Verstappen might surprise a few people.
A simpler F1 might be anathema to the top teams, but it would be appreciated by the people paying the bills. Worldwide, Ford is currently running at a loss, and Bill Ford, the new boss who ousted race fan Jac Nasser, may yet find himself very tempted to shut down the Jaguar Fl facility: with a single stroke of the pen, he could probably save 1,80 million per year (including Irvine’s salary). You can’t turn the clock back, of course, and I’d be the first to concede that a large slice of Formula One’s glamour comes from the technical sophistication of it all. But the vicious
circle that connects winning with expenditure continues to turn, and continues to widen the gap between the rich teams and the rest. It will be no surprise to me if 2002 is the third year running when only Ferrari, Williams and McLaren win a race.
Somehow, in the harsher environment of the early 21st century, the brakes must be applied to F1 ‘s costs, and the brave way to do it is not by fiddling with the details of the existing rules, but by a radical rethink of the formula. CART is technically cruder than F1, but the racing is closer and more unpredictable. An engine without cams may be an intriguing prospect, and handshake software is all very clever stuff. But I go to a motor race for the racing. What battles might we have seen in 2001 if, say, Alonso’s Minardi had had the same horse power as Rail’s Williams?