Just before the Spanish Grand Prix, word went round that FIA President Max Mosley and F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone had summoned team bosses to a secret 24-hour brain-storming session. The plan was to lock themselves away in a luxury hotel and debate in private where modem F1 is going wrong, and how it should be re-shaped for the future.
In modem business-speak this sort of thing is known as a “blue-sky” meeting, where company executives take a metaphorical clean sheet of paper and say: If we weren’t where we are now, where would we like to be? It’s a very healthy exercise for any organisation to indulge in, not least when things are going really well. The old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can sometimes lead to dangerous complacency.
And in any case, despite soaring TV revenues, burgeoning budgets, new sponsors still queuing to come in and the little matter of a $1.4 billion bond issue, there are those who believe that Formula One is, in some respects, broke – although absolutely not in the monetary sense, you understand.
Over the past few seasons F1’s technical regulations have progressively followed a path which, in the name of safety, has made overtaking almost impossible. Even the most enthusiastic F1 fan, like me, has to admit that races are now rarely battles of talent and courage on the track – apart from qualifying, which more or less decides the result of most races, and getting off the line and into the first corner. Instead they are battles of pitstop strategy, in which the weapons are computers rather than cars, and the helms are not drivers but team technicians.
A telling example of exactly this came in the Spanish Grand Prix. After the scramble at the start, Michael Schumacher found himself in fourth place behind Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR, which had made a brilliantly opportunist start and driven round the outside of both Ferraris going into Turn One. Schumacher told us afterwards that he made one attempt to pass Villeneuve a few corners later, which was easily blocked by the Canadian, and after that he decided it “wasn’t worth the risk” to try to overtake him. This from perhaps the fastest, the most aggressive, the most determined racer in the world, defending his World Championship lead on a circuit with a 190mph straight and a wonderful mix of 14 slow, medium and fast corners. And on a day when his car’s best race lap when he had a clear track proved to be 1.7 seconds faster’than that of the car he was trying to pass…
Schumacher is clever, clear-thinking, and a realist. He knew that his best, perhaps his only, chance of passing Villeneuve was by waiting for the first pitstops. So the 80,000 Spanish spectators and the billions of TV viewers watched him tail the BAR for 22 laps, and then follow it into the pits. The Ferrari crew did their job a bit quicker than the BAR boys, and as they came back down the pitlane Schumacher was ahead. The best driver in the world had needed the help of his pitcrew to pass a slower car.
Now perhaps, on that particular track at that particular time, the mix of the fast-improving BAR and Jacques Villeneuve – still for me one of the half-dozen best drivers in F1 – was indeed more than a match for Schumacher. But we’ll never know because he decided not to risk trying to pass.
It was the same for almost everyone else. There was the odd scrabbly manoeuvre lower down the field, and Damon Hill notably got past Rubens Barrichello two laps from the end; but as is now usual, from the first corner on, the order among the top six throughout the race was only changed by pitstops and retirements. And this wasn’t round the houses at Monaco: this was a typical F1 circuit which has witnessed some great battles in the past.
The reasons for this dearth of overtaking have oft been recited, on these pages and elsewhere. They are complex, but let’s look at them in simple terms. Max Mosley wants to pursue safety by reducing cornering speeds. It’s a laudable aim, but he has done it by reducing the effectiveness of the tyres, so that more and more grip comes from the wings. The preponderance of aerodynamic grip over mechanical grip means that a car’s potential is greatly reduced when it’s running in dirty air behind another car. You catch up a slower car with ease and then, once you’re behind it, you lose so much grip you can’t overtake it.
Circumstances have conspired to alter tyre compounds, too. Now Goodyear have withdrawn and Bridgestone are in a monopoly, they no longer have to develop tyres to the maximum within the regulations to find more grip in order to beat their rivals and win races. And, according to Williams technical boss Patrick Head, Bridgestone are being encouraged to make tyres to a specification that will give less grip rather than more.
Many of the drivers have been voicing their concern at the way F1 has gone for some time. One or two have been publicly outspoken, and have been slapped down by the FIA in consequence, for the FIA’s term for criticism is “bringing the sport into disrepute.” There is also the view that the drivers are paid huge sums of money to drive, and not to have opinions: it’s the same for everybody on the grid, and they should get on with the job and not try to deflect attention from their own shortcomings in the cockpit. But Damon Hill, former World Champion, the winner of 22 out of his 104 Grands Prix and now the old man of the grid, is surely qualified to say what he thinks is wrong. “We are going down a blind alley,” he said in Spain. “I am happy to talk to Max Mosley about it. It is no fun any more, and we cannot continue like this.” The paying public, and TV audiences around the world with a channel changer beckoning, will agree.
Apparently the drivers will not be represented in this meeting, but no doubt several of the team bosses will be outspoken. There is always resistance to any change of regulations, of course, because of the enormous cost of redesigning whole cars or parts of cars while still remaining competitive. But, according to Patrick Head of Williams, “Max’s view is that it is obvious to a 15-year-old student that what he says is correct. Well, there are a lot of people well above that level of education who don’t agree with him.” (Patrick is a racing car designer. Max Mosley’s background is in the law.)
F1 has gone down blind alleys in the past, and has usually managed to extricate itself in the end. Regulations have changed greatly down the years, and the comparative stability of the basic rules over the past decade has been a major ingredient in the strength of Formula One. But, quite rightly, the FIA has historically not been shy of executing U-turns when the rules turned out not to work well.
Looking back, it is curious to remember an era when F1 cars were reduced to 1500cc and were far from being the fastest, or even the most technically advanced, cars racing (1961-1965). Or a year when normally aspirated cars were banned (1986), or a period when ground-effects cars had to be virtually devoid of springing in order to work properly. Then there were fuel consumption regulations, which gave us cars cruising gently late in a race to try to get to the end without running out. For so many years refuelling was banned, on understandable safety grounds: we’ve all become used to it now, and it does function wonderfully efficiently. But there’s always a still small fear that a terrible pits accident could occur, and make worse headlines for Formula One even than Imola did in 1994.
Nobody’s going to ask me: I’m just a humble enthusiast. What do I know about the complex business of ensuring F1 remains a major draw on TV screens across the globe?
But, if I were asked, my homespun recipe for better F1 racing would be (a) drastically reduce the size of the wings; (b) return to slicks, and let them get slightly, but not a lot, wider; (c) ban refuelling, so the races have to be won and lost on the track; (d) try – it may be impossible, but try – to find ways of reducing costs, and thus reduce the technological and budgetary gulf between the front of the grid and the back and ensure that two teams don’t do all the winning.
How easy that all sounds – far too simplistic, no doubt. And the sponsors like big wings for their logos: so much easier to read on TV.
As this page went to press it was revealed that F1 ‘s blue-sky meeting had been postponed. No reason was given. But we should take some comfort from the fad that it was mooted at all. And we must go on clamouring for it to happen: perhaps there is, after all, concern in high places for the state of F1’s health.
I’m an optimist. I believe that in a few years we will look back on the end of the 1990s as just a passing black spot in Formula One’s still more or less glittering history. For that to be the case, the problems need to be faced today. Some brave initiatives need to be taken, and fast.