Too late, too little, Formula 1 is trying to figure out how to recapture its declining fan base. Unfortunately, it’s trying to listen to everyone. What many fans are asking for would militate against correcting the things they believe is wrong with it.
The latest preoccupation with slashing lap times is a perfect example. In the gap between the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix the FIA announced that the F1 Strategy Group is looking at ways of responding to fans who feel current F1 cars are too slow. Initially Bernie Ecclestone wanted to do this by way of 1000bhp engines for 2017. The engine manufacturers and their aligned teams felt this was not the way to go – and so plans are afoot to reduce the weight of the cars and develop their aerodynamics so they can eclipse the qualifying speed records, most of which still stand from the last of the V10 days over a decade ago.
Before looking at the relative merits of the various ideas floating around, it’s worth pointing out a few basics. Even a reduction in car weight of 100kg would only find around half of the targeted six seconds of lap time. With the engines staying roughly as they are, the rest must come from downforce. More downforce equals more speed equals more fuel used. On the other hand, less weight equals less fuel used. But the saving would be less than the extra needed to fuel the downforce-induced speed increase.
At the moment, at most tracks on the calendar the 100kg fuel limit does not cause any significant reduction in pace and any saving of fuel invariably comes from teams having short-fuelled in the knowledge that the slow pace the tyres impose allows them to not need the full allocation of 100kg. It’s just that sometimes grip is slightly greater than they were expecting and they thereby need to trim the consumption slightly. But as the pace of the cars in qualifying increases from three seconds-worth of extra downforce, that will no longer be the case. At that level of performance, even lighter cars will be seriously fuel-limited in the races. The difference therefore between qualifying pace and race pace will be much bigger. Although the cars might become the quickest ever in qualifying, most of the race lap records of the V10 era would remain out of reach and we’d rarely see their full power unleashed.
Less downforce allows the engines to be used harder relative to the car’s potential in the race, without any concerns about the fuel limit. More downforce means greater fuel consumption and fuel economising. So – abandon the fuel limitation? No, that’s not on the cards, not something that would be accepted by the likes of Mercedes, Honda or Renault (if it remains involved, something not assured at the moment).
More downforce always demands more of the drivers, helps sort the men from the boys, but paradoxically it always makes it look easier from the outside. More downforce will give that aggressive direction change that has visually softened in recent years as the regulations have removed downforce, but the cars will appear to be cornering on rails. At current levels of downforce the cars move around significantly at low- and medium-speed corners. But in order to chase lap time that will disappear. More downforce reduces braking areas and militates against overtaking, the very reason it was removed in the first place.
The strategy group has also been looking at the reintroduction of refuelling – again as a way of making the cars faster in the races. This, thankfully, is almost certainly not going to happen. The group has realised that aside from adding £1.5 million per team each season, refuelling would actually reduce the amount of place-changing. The main reason is quite simple: it reduces the difference in speed between the car that’s just pitted and the one that’s stayed out (typically the pitted car would have around 2sec of tyre performance boost but 1sec of fuel weight penalty). Even just to retain existing levels of place-changing at pitstops in a refuelling era would require tyres deliberately engineered to degrade more than they do already.
A preoccupation with always being faster than before would almost certainly only add to F1’s ills. In answering what a section of fans say they want, it would introduce other things they really wouldn’t want. The solutions need to be far wider-ranging and more radical than tinkering with how fast the cars go.