Simon Taylor: Modern Times

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Regular visitors to these pages will remember my disappointment (Modern Times in December 2002) when those much-vaunted meetings of the Formula One Commission before Christmas produced alterations to qualifying and the points system, but no rethinking whatsoever of the technical rules. There was a general acceptance that costs had spun out of control, and that the processional, predictable racing was eroding F1 ‘s bedrock — its TV audiences — and thus its appeal to sponsors. But still the teams, ostrich-like, resisted change.

My bystander’s dismay was as nothing beside the dismay of the President of the FIA. But, beneath his charming and urbane exterior, Max Mosley is a very tough operator. Having failed to get what he wanted by one route, he set off on another towards the same goal. Even though the Concorde Agreement states that unanimity is required to alter the technical regulations, Max announced in mid-January some very substantial rule changes: and he has made most of them stick. He did this partly by a reinterpretation of the existing rules — not for nothing is he a highly qualified international lawyer — and partly by picking off all the major teams beforehand, and making them see what they had apparently failed to see for themselves: that Formula One is in mortal commercial danger.

In the past, sudden rule changes have usually been imposed because of safety considerations. For example, after Chaparral’s pioneering work in CanAm and sportscar racing, the wing thing arrived in Formula One with extraordinary speed. Typically, it was Colin Chapman who started it. At Monaco in 1968, Graham Hill’s winning Lotus 49B had front nose flippers and a wedge-shaped engine cover.

Just a fortnight later at Spa, the Ferraris had a proper aerofoil section wing, mounted centrally just behind the cockpit, and the Brabhams had nose flippers and a small tail wing. By Rouen four weeks later, the Lotuses had immense rear wings mounted on tall struts. And by Canada in September, every car in the race had wings, with the Brabhams featuring a tall front aerofoil and an immense double arrangement at the back.

There was nothing in the rules to prevent these ridiculous artefacts and, amazingly, no-one thought to outlaw them until after the 1969 Spanish GP, when the Lotuses of Hill and Jochen Rindt separately had enormous accidents after their rear wings failed. The then-governing body, the CSI, dithered until, midway through practice for the next grand prix at Monaco, high-flying wings were banned.

Meanwhile Rindt, convalescing at home in Switzerland from his Barcelona injuries, wrote a long letter to me at Autosport which, to Chapman’s annoyance, I published on the Readers’ Letters page. Jochen always hated wings, and his argument against them applies equally well, 34 years later, to today’s overefficient aerodynamics. I can still hear his staccato Austrian voice in these terse phrases:

“If you follow another competitor, he has the full use of his wing, but you have to put up with the turbulence. He could be going slower than you, but you cannot pass him because, after getting near him, your wings stop working and you can’t go so quickly. This stops close racing. Therefore it is in the interests of spectators and drivers to ban wings.”

A decade later, in the days of ground effects and skirts, Chapman went to the other extreme with the Lotus 80, doing away with wings altogether and using the entire body to generate downforce. It didn’t work, even after small wings were added, and the team soon reverted to the Type 79. Still to come was the row between the governing body (FISA) and the constructors (FOCA) about the sliding devices known as skirts, which made ground effects work by controlling the air running underneath the car. This was resolved politically in 1981 via the creation of a new pact between FISA and FOCA — the Concorde Agreement.

Last month Mosley’s draconian proposals, by reinterpreting the rule that says a driver must drive his car unaided, sought to ban with immediate effect spare cars, traction control, launch control, fully automatic gearboxes, driver radios and pits-to-car telemetry. Between Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race the cars would be held in parc ferme and could not be worked on. In 2004, brakes and rear wings would be standardised. Most ambitious of all: for 2005, an F1 car would have to use the same engine for two races, and for 2006, for six — so just three engines in an entire season. If mechanical failure forced an engine change, there would be heavy penalties.

Amazingly, the teams have fallen in line with most of this, and much of it right away. The ban on traction control, launch control and fully automatic gearboxes has been delayed until mid-season, because Mosley concedes that it would be even more expensive for teams to make the changes in the few days remaining before the cars had to be flown to Australia. It will now be imposed from the British Grand Prix on.

Traction control, you’ll remember, was readmitted in 2001 because the FIA found it impossible to divine if teams had it anyway. Now Max says they have new technology to police the cars — backed up by some good old-fashioned bribery: anyone providing information that proves a team is cheating will be paid a million dollars. It sounds an attractive way for a hard-worked mechanic to enhance his lifestyle, although he’d probably never work in F1 again.

Pits-to-car telemetry, which allows teams to make adjustments to cars during a race, is indeed banned forthwith; car-to-pits, the one-way flow of information into the team’s monitoring computers, will remain for this season only. Radio from pit to driver continues, but in unscrambled form, so there can be no secrecy between teams. And from 2004, the radio system will be standardised and spectators and TV audiences will be able to listen in, which should make for excellent entertainment.

Teams can take a spare car to a race if they wish, but it won’t be scrutineered: if a race car is destroyed in qualifying they will have to run the spare in the race unsorted, and start from the pitlane. The parc ferme arrangement is adopted, although where it will be situated and how it is going to work will probably only become apparent in the Melbourne paddock. Nor do we yet know how long before the race the cars will be released, or the fate of the traditional Sunday morning warm-up session.

The proposals for 2004 and beyond are still unresolved, although the excellent initiative of a standard, small FIA-supplied rear wing seems likely to happen. Front wings will have to reduce, too, to retain balance, and this one simple change should do much to improve racing and allow more overtaking. Jochen would be pleased.

The proposals to extend engine life look less likely to be adopted. Renault’s Patrick Faure, for one, expresses broad approval for most of the new rules, but is strongly opposed to long-life engines: “One engine per weekend may be the right solution. But a racing engine that has to last six races has nothing to do with F1. It’s a tractor engine. We will not stay in F1 with a rule like that.”

Of course the new rules won’t bring any immediate change in the pecking order. The wealthiest teams will still be at the front, and the poorest towards the back. In fact, while this whole package was claimed to be about reduced costs, it probably won’t save much money at all: most teams will still bring spare cars to races, and the technical changes will demand more development work if a team is to stay competitive.

But what it should do, if everything works as Mosley intends, is reduce the rich teams’ ability to control everything, introduce more variables, and make the racing more unpredictable.

As for the poorer teams, there is new hope for them, too. With Prost and Arrows gone, and Minardi and Jordan clearly in budgetary distress, there was a real threat that the bigger teams could be forced to race three cars to ensure the 20-car starting grids demanded by F1’s contracts with the TV rights holders. But McLaren boss Ron Dennis, looking no doubt for the lesser of two evils, has called for a redistribution of F1 ‘s TV earnings to give less to the richer teams and more to the smaller ones. Bernie Ecclestone has put his metaphorically immense weight behind this and, though that too flouts the Concorde Agreement, it seems bound to happen.

So Melbourne on March 9 will have a rather different look. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari still start clear favourites, of course, but now perhaps they won’t dominate the season quite so easily, for quite so long. Well done, Max: this year’s F1 season is the most appetising prospect for many a year.