F1 Frontline

Lewis Hamilton celebrates a hard-earned victory at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, the win ensuring the Englishman claimed a third F1 world championship. A late mistake by team-mate Nico Rosberg allowed Hamilton through to become the first Briton to claim back-to-back titles.

ome apparently unconnected developments unfolded during the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend, joining up to paint a very coherent picture. 

In the ongoing discussions between the teams and the FIA about the 2017 technical regulations, the latter indicated that it intended to favour the Red Bull proposal of the wide front wing rather than the alternative narrow wing proposal. The narrow wing format, it was felt, would not give the targeted lap time reduction of five seconds. At this point, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff expressed concerns about whether the tyre constructions would be able to withstand the downforce loads such a car would generate. 

On Sunday a Brazilian Grand Prix unfolded around Interlagos – traditionally one of the great overtaking tracks – in which there was precious little passing. Lewis Hamilton spent much of the race sitting within the DRS zone of team-mate Nico Rosberg yet was unable to make a single serious stab at a passing move. It had been a similar story in Mexico. “Unless you have a big advantage to the guy in front, you get to within a second and you just lose downforce and there’s no way you can get any closer,” he complained. “You get within that tenth of a second, but within it you can’t get close enough… Something’s got to change, you know. But the big bosses make the decisions and whether or not they make the right ones for many years, who knows.”

Sebastian Vettel chimed in. “What we need to follow another car closer in the corners is more mechanical grip… I think we need better tyres to allow us to go quicker. I think the solution is very simple. Unfortunately the sport is very political with different interests from different people. But since the responsible people can’t agree on anything the people who are literally paying for that are sitting in the grandstands.”

These 2017 cars that will be five seconds per lap faster are not likely to facilitate more overtaking. Braking distances will be slashed, there will be less room to get them two-abreast (for they are set to be two metres wide rather than 1.8) and though the tyres will be fatter, the aerodynamic sensitivity to the wake of the following car is going to be enhanced, given the wide, powerful front wing. 

Post-race the Sky TV group of drivers – Martin Brundle, Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert and a guesting Bruno Senna – were gathered. They were in full unity that the 2017 proposal was absolutely 100 per cent wrong. Senna recalled that when he drove skirted, ground-effect Formula Renault 3.5 cars, “you could sit right on the gearbox of the car ahead even through the fast corners; it was brilliant. As soon as they took the skirts off, that disappeared.”

So, why are drivers not part of the consultative process? Why are the teams – which always have competing agendas – partly making the rules? Why are we getting so fixated about how fast the cars are lapping when surely the quality of the racing is a far more important consideration? Why does there seem to be
a lack of recognition that one detracts from the other?   

Bernie Ecclestone commented a few races ago that the regulations need to be ripped up. He was referring more to the commercial agreements and the engine formula. Each of those are crucially relevant, but no more so than the aero configurations of the cars – for this largely determines the quality of the racing. These are not yet cast in stone for 2017, but the process is heading in a direction that even from this distance can be seen to be counter-productive. It’s not just the rules that need to be ripped up, but the rule-making process.