For Formula One, the main event of the past month didn't happen at Imola, nor at Barcelona. It happened at Monte Carlo, on a Tuesday. That was when FIA President Max Mosley summoned the key F1 bosses to a meeting to discuss radical new rules, which he wants to take effect from 2008. Also present in his role as F1 's commercial rights holder was Bernie Ecclestone. Mosley's prime aims are two-fold: to make F1 cheaper, and to make it more exciting. Those crucial requirements have been aired often enough here and elsewhere, for we are all aware that, if they are not urgently addressed, Formula One in its current form could die.
In fact, it's tempting to suggest that Max has been reading Motor Sport, for his shopping list included: one tyre manufacturer and a return to slicks; a proper ban on driver aids by using a standardised electronic package; manual gearboxes and clutches; and a more watchable system of qualifying. We've been pleading for all of this on these pages. But the reality is that they're simply a matter of common sense, and Max has no doubt worked them out for himself.
If the FIA's official release is to be believed, the teams have finally understood the dangers as well, for a lot of common ground was reached in the meeting. As it happens, the FIA is free to impose whatever rules it chooses from 2008. That's because the Concorde Agreement, which requires the teams' approval for any rule changes that do not concern safety, expires at the end of 2007. But it seems they will agree to many of the proposals during the life of Concorde, and that some may be imposed as soon as 2006. The FIA wants 2.4-litre V8 engines that can last for six races, to reduce speeds as well as cost; the teams' counter-proposal is to make the current V10s last for six races, which they say will be cheaper than developing completely new engines.
Sadly, the teams are using the same argument to delay the return of manual transmissions, because developing new clutches and gearboxes will also be costly. But the common electronic package may come in for 2006, and that should finally spell the end of traction control and, at a stroke, put far more emphasis on the driver's skill — particularly on a wet track.
Changing tyres during a race will be banned — possibly as soon as next season — although refuelling will stay. And by 2006 tyre companies will be asked to tender for a single contract to supply all teams with standardised tyres. They will be narrower at the front and wider at the rear than currently, which with less aerodynamic grip should make overtaking easier.
Testing, the biggest factor in the differential between the rich and poor teams, will be drastically restricted, and separate test teams will become a thing of the past. The teams, and Ecclestone, have been told to come up with a better system of qualifying, and if everyone agrees, it could be imposed at once. And, perhaps most important of all, major efforts will be made to bring new blood into the F1 paddock, including encouraging teams to sell or loan chassis and components to new entrants.
It's all immensely cheering stuff How much of it will actually happen, and when, remains to be seen, of course. But the acknowledgment by both Mosley and the teams that changes are needed is an excellent start In any case, F1 's rules should regularly be revisited, because economic circumstances, public expectations and technology keep changing. That's why they've been rewritten several times over the past half-century.
The world championship began in 1950 to the existing GP formula, with engines set at 1.5 litres supercharged and 4.5 litres unsupercharged, to make best use in straitened post-war times of available equipment. The first major change came in '54 with the 2.5-litre engine rule. It was meant to come in earlier, but the teams weren't ready for it, so for two years the world championship was run to Formula Two. The 2.5-litre formula worked well, but after seven seasons, with concerns that the cars were getting too fast, engine sizes were slashed to 1500cc for '61. Inevitably, with high-revving V8 engines and Chapman-led strides in chassis and suspension design, the cars went on getting faster anyway.
By 1966 the concerns were going in the other direction. Formula One was meant to be the pinnacle, but sportscars and American single-seaters were more impressive. So serious horsepower returned: 3-litre unblown, 1.5-litres supercharged, with a minimum weight of 500kg. The racing was marvellous, but on the primitive circuits of the day it was certainly more dangerous. Over the following years the weight limit was increased to 585 kg, but then in '77 the 1.5-litre supercharged rule was exploited by Renault with its first turbo. This led to 1400bhp BMW qualifying engines and unheard-of lap speeds. In '86, F1 was for 1.5-litre turbos only, albeit with restricted boost. But the following season normally aspirated engines of 3.5 litres were allowed, and turbos were handicapped with more weight and further reduced boost pressure. They were finally banned in '89.
Since then the basic F1 rules have remained pretty constant, although the 3.5-litre capacity rule was reduced to 3 litres in 1995, and the weight increased to 600kg by '97. Meanwhile, technological advances and designer ingenuity have gone rampaging on, requiring constant rule adjustments to rein in speed and grip. It is fair to say that the FIA has fought a losing battle in the face of all this clever stuff — witness, for example, Mosley's vow to ban traction control, which failed because he couldn't find a way to police it. During that time F1 has not only become unbelievably more expensive, with budgets for top teams soaring towards £100 million a year — it has also become more boring. Refuelling, which re-emerged during the turbo era and was then banned for safety reasons, was brought back in an effort to spice up processional races, but that was never anything more than a cosmetic fix. Now, by taking an almost clean sheet of paper, perhaps Formula One has a real chance to put its house in order.
Alongside this exciting discussion, the racing continued its fortnightly rhythm. As it happened, the two first European races had a curious symmetry. Both were won by Michael Schumacher, of course: but in both Schumacher had to face some real early-race opposition. Each time it came from one of the two teams that are on the rise at the expense of Williams, who are having an indifferent season, and McLaren, who are having a disastrous one. At Imola, it was BAR and Button who shone, Jenson taking his first pole with a perfect charging lap. In the race there was little doubt about the eventual outcome, but the BAR led magnificently until the first pitstops. Even after Michael went ahead, Jenson was much quicker than everybody else and scored a confident second place.
At Barcelona Jarno Trulli's Renault, after a storming start from the second row, led Schumacher until the first stops. This time Rubens Barrichello tried a two-stop strategy, and it got him up to second ahead of Trulli by the end. The BARs were lightning quick again in practice, but in qualifying a gust of wind caught Button's car and he had a wild ride down the grass. That effectively ruined his race, for he had to start from 14th on the grid, but Takuma Sato was a career best third-fastest.
Much has been made of Michael equalling Nigel Mansell's 1992 record with the Williams-Renault FW14B, when he won the first five races of the season. (Mansell did it from pole every time, whereas Jenson spoiled that run for Schumacher at Imola.) But much more meaningful is Schumacher's career record. Spain was his 200th GP and his 75th win — an incredible tally.
Schumacher is in a class of his own today, so even under Mosley's new rules, we'd probably still be applauding Schumacher wins. But the racing would surely be much better. By 2008, when Schumacher really will have retired, and Jenson Button will be in his ninth F1 season as an old man of 28, grand prix racing should have changed a lot: two dozen cars with manual 'boxes, less downforce, 700bhp — and no traction control — should be good to watch. Perhaps we'll even get some overtaking. And perhaps some of the personality that F1 has lost will seep back.
We will know in the next few weeks when to expect the first of the proposed changes. For the good of the sport, I reckon they can't come soon enough.