Against the backdrop of technical confusion, acrimony, the odd bit of skullduggery and the spectre of refuelling, this is the one question enthusiasts want answered as F1 gears up for another season
It is going to be the New Dawn of Formula One. Now that the gizmos have been consigned to history, the role of the driver will once again become paramount. Races will suddenly become contests of men and machines again, rather than machines and machines with drivers holding steering wheels for appearance’s sake.
Well . . . that’s the theory, anyway. That’s the way Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone hope it’s going to be.
The truth is, you probably aren’t going to notice the slightest difference. Do you recall any change when tyre widths were reduced for 1993? Did cars slide around more, even those without traction control?
The latter is the single most damnable phenomenon to hit F1 since excessive downforce. While it might be all very well in your road-going BMW or Mercedes-Benz, it is not what pure motor racing should be all about. Whatever would Bernd Rosemeyer or Gilles Villeneuve have thought of it? You can almost hear both demanding dashboard switches that would allow them to turn it off. . .
Without doubt, however, the ghost of traction control is going to haunt F1 in 1994, banned though it may be.
The problem is that, though most if not all F1 teams are honest enough not to try cheating by employing devices proscribed by the FIA, nobody can be sure, for such is the atmosphere of our sport these days. To Mosley, any form of fly-by-wire throttle is a means by which traction control could be utilised, and as such he believes it to be outside the spirit of the regulations. Unfortunately, since his technical delegate Charlie Whiting told the teams in Japan last year that fly-by-wire would be legal, Williams, McLaren and Benetton have all gone a long way down that route. Ferrari, which has not done itself any favours by adopting a holier-than-thou attitude throughout, has opted for an ordinary throttle system.
What we thus have is a pre-season slagging match with Ferrari saying that the other three top teams aren’t building legal cars, and at least two of them accusing Ferrari of irregularities because its suspension attachments are via hinges rather than the accepted joints and bushes.
Williams, McLaren and Benetton all say that they will invite Whiting to inspect their cars prior to official scrutineering in Brazil, but each is unlikely to accept being told they do not conform to regulations having been advised in October that their intended designs would. In all this, it should be said, Whiting is in an untenable middle position, squeezed between Mosley and the teams.
We thus face almost certain enmity and confusion at times during the season, and the auguries for the first race are not brilliant. Despite Whiting’s visits, we expect aggravation in Interlagos. And we would not be alone in such expectations.
“We will co-operate to the maximum, because we don’t want any aggro in Brazil,” stressed Frank Williams recently, but his partner Patrick Head is not sanguine.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of aggravation in the scrutineering bays this season. In that Ferrari are already suggesting that whatever McLaren is intending to run is illegal. The Ferrari has something that may be a bit doubtful. Ron seems to be sitting with the power throttle, of which there is nothing in the regulations saying you can’t have one but the FIA is saying if you’re running one we can’t police traction control and therefore you will not be able to follow Article 2.6 which says that the onus is on the teams to prove to the FIA that their cars conform to the regulations at all times.”
Clearly, then, there is doubt and confusion, and no small degree of animosity building which is reminiscent of the days of the old FISA/FOCA war. Grandee v constructor. Head is typically forthright in his assessment of Ferrari.
“I must say I find them difficult to stomach. We know quite a lot about their activities, and what they get up to, and their holier-than-thou, ‘we’re only here to save money and we want to make race cars relevant to road cars.’ One has to almost turn round and throw up, I’m afraid. The level of hypocrisy is too much “
Ferrari, for sure, has played a leading role behind the scenes, with Mosley and Ecclestone anxious that the great marque should remain in Formula One. Its President Luca di Montezemolo, naturally, has his own opinions. Whether you can agree with what does appear to be hypocrisy on some levels, some of his views strike sound chords. ‘Don’t forget this is the Formula One Drivers’ Championship,” he stresses. “It’s quite strange just pushing buttons like a jet Boeing pilot this is not, in my opinion, the future of our sport.
“Formula One must get back to real competition and a sporting atmosphere . . . There must be the possibility, like in every other sport – football, basketball, tennis – to have a surprise, to have an unknown winner maybe.”
Ferrari is also perceived to be the team most behind the other controversial note of 1994: refuelling. According to Frank Williams, after Ecclestone slipped the subject on to the end of the agenda at that prolonged meeting in Hockenheim last year which shaped the technological future and thus got tentative agreement from everyone Ferrari was the only team which really stood against a reversal at a subsequent cool-down meeting in Portugal.
Refuelling raises many fears in the F1 fraternity. “The chances are there will be a conflagration,” says Ron Dennis, and he is not one given to hyperbole. “We haven’t seen the hardware yet, though; we have only had access so far to drawings. From what we have seen it looks well designed and the process should be safer than those previously achieved in motor racing. But we will be handling a flammable liquid in an area of stress, and therefore there will be risks.”
He speaks for many when, having assessed the safety aspects, he remains pessimistic. “When the inevitable accident happens, we have to ask will it be controllable?” he asks. “Will people be hurt?”
Some of the safety worries are obvious, others less so. Refuelling in recent history was reintroduced by Gordon Murray on his Brabham BT50s at the 1982 British GP, and proved such a thoroughly successful ploy that pretty soon everyone had to do it. Then, at the end of 1983, FISA banned it again on the grounds of safety following increasing fears about the obvious risk facing team personnel.
Frank Williams shares Ron Dennis’ apprehension, but says: “Despite our misgivings we’re going to give it a shot. Obviously we’re going to try very hard not to have an accident.”
Naturally, the FIA has gone to great lengths this time around to ensure that safety has the highest priority, and the equipment being prepared by the French company Intertechnique aims to avoid the dangers posed in the past. With the 1983 equipment, refuelling required two men. One presented the fuel hose on one side of the car, while his partner was stationed on the opposite side. Simultaneously, the first connected the fuel hose as his partner offered up a bottle to a similar connector. As the one refuelled the car, the other’s bottle allowed air in the tank to be vented, to reduce internal pressure. The problems arose when the two of them got out of synch.
Today, the refuelling systems are different. The risk of blowback was the greatest fire hazard with the old set-up, but Intertechnique has drawn on aircraft refuelling principles. Now there are still two men, but they are both needed to hold the six-inch diameter hose. This is effectively two pipes, one within the other, with fuel flowing down the centre and air venting back through the outer pipe to the large fuel storage tank situated in a team’s pit. This contains a carbon filter that vents directly into the atmosphere. The risks should be reduced significantly.
Intertechnique’s equipment is expected to permit a flow rate around 20 litres per second, so refuelling should take the same time as the best tyre stop, around five seconds.
Jack Oliver struck a positive note after Footwork had actually taken a chassis over to Intertechnique’s Lyon factory for a dummy run.
“We tried it out, and it is super equipment. It’s very well made, to an excellent standard of workmanship. The equipment goes in just fine and I believe that it’s foolproof. It’s safer than the systems we used before. If we are going to have any problems this year, they will be because of people failure or because of a freak circumstance.”
The other principal worry concerns the considerably greater level of traffic in the pit lane. With most teams now talking of two fuel/tyre stops Ferrari mentions three in some instances there is considerably greater potential for collisions. There has been talk of the need for pit lane speed limits.
The other big question is, of course, how is refuelling going to affect races?
Dennis looks happier about this aspect. “The strategy you adopt in a race will be very interesting and teams will contribute a great deal more,” he says, glad that a team’s role may receive greater recognition.
Most expect to make at least one, possibly two fuel stops. As we’ve seen, Ferrari might even make three at some circuits. Obviously they will all change tyres at the same time. Cars will run with lighter fuel loads and fresher tyres, and therefore should be running faster than they did in some 1993 races.
“I think it will brighten up the racing. Races could be sprints from beginning to end. They’ll be more exciting from the entertainment point of view,” suggests Patrick Head.
Certainly, teams will have to keep very watchful eyes on their opposition. “We won’t know what everyone else will be doing until late in a race, when their strategy will become apparent,” says Williams Chief Designer Adrian Newey. “We’ll be committed to our own strategy right from the start, of course, and so will everybody else be, because of the amount of fuel you decide to put in initially.”
Equally certainly, you’re going to have to be sharp to keep track of what’s happening, no matter what your role.
Against this background of uncertainty and controversy, the 1994 FIA Formula One World Championship prepares for the off. As usual the politics have dominated, and on the driver front Alain Prost remains as enigmatic as ever in the will-he, won’t-he drive for McLaren scenario. But, just for a moment, let’s forget all the foregoing and look at cars and teams. Certainly, Ayrton Senna starts as the clear favourite, but it will be fascinating to monitor Damon Hill’s efforts to challenge him. Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen are hungry young lions. Will JJ Lehto be able to shrug off the trauma of his Silverstone accident and put himself on a par with the German? Speaking of which, is Heinz-Harald Frentzen going to be the meteor his winter testing performances suggest?
The indications are that the Big Four will remain omnipotent, but will Marlboro McLaren Peugeot (initially, at any rate) be supplanted by Mild Seven Benetton Ford? So far the story is that the Peugeot V10 is not as powerful as the Ford HB, whereas Cosworth has done a wonderful job persuading its compact new Zetec-R unit to rev to 14,500rpm. That’s a phenomenal figure for a V8, and Rothmans Williams Renault is certainly eyeing it with caution. And what of Ferrari? Will John Barnard’s new chassis work the oracle, in conjunction with refuelling?
With Ligier’s winter problems, and Lotus yet to complete its Mugen Honda-powered 109, the stage is set for others to push towards the fifth place ranking. Will Sauber benefit from Mercedes-Benz’s support to move forward? Can Harvey Postlethwaite, Jean-Claude Migeot and Yamaha propel Tyrrell back into the limelight with a sensible little package? Will Footwork at last break through? Or will Jordan surprise everyone the way it did in its maiden season in 1991? All of these runners, allied to Ligier and Lotus, have the potential to challenge.
Head, for one, believes that 1994, for all its background unrest, will provide good racing. “I think it could be a very close Championship we might even see one or two teams outside the Big Four knocking on the door.”
If only . . . D T