Modern Times

FIA President Max Mosley’s efforts to reduce Formula One’s galloping costs put me in mind of King Canute, who famously sat on his throne on the seashore and commanded the incoming tide to turn back.

Actually, Canute was a Good Egg. At the start of the 11th century, he was the first king to unite the scattered fiefdoms of England, a task harder than making Eddie Jordan and Ron Dennis toe the same line.

As any skoolboy kno, that stunt with the waves was to demonstrate to his sycophantic courtiers that he was a man, not God, and could not influence the forces of nature.

Whether Max can influence the forces of F1 ‘s finances remains to be seen. Today’s richest teams take to a Grand Prix three cars, plus parts to build a fourth, and perhaps eight engines. Each driver can then use one engine for practice, another for qualifying and a third for the race, with spares to cover unforeseen blow-ups.

From 2004, Max’s well-meaning wheeze will restrict every driver to one engine per weekend, requiring each F1 engine to last for practice, qualifying and the race a total of perhaps 500 miles. It will spell the end of the highly-tweaked qualifying mill with a life of 50 miles, and all the engine manufacturers need to do, according to Max, is impose lower rev-limits. The engines will last longer, everybody will spend less money, and we’ll all live happily ever after. If somebody’s engine does blow up irreparably in practice or qualifying, his team will be allowed to fit a different engine for the race but he will have to move back 10 places on the starting grid.

What nonsense this all is. It is ludicrously simplistic to believe that Mosley’s new ruling will reduce the engine budgets of, for example, Mercedes or BMW. (Both Williams and McLaren voted against the move). It will save Minardi money, no doubt: they will merely buy fewer of their customer engines and, if they do have a blow-up, moving 10 places further down the grid from their usual 21st and 22nd places will be no hardship.

But to expect the major engine builders simply to impose a lower rev-limit on their existing designs borders on the foolish. What they will do and they’ve got until 2004 to do it is spend ever more money on ever more sophisticated technology. They’ll meet the ruling by developing new engines that deliver power reliably for longer, and with longer working lives between rebuilds. The expenditure is more in the development than in the manufacture, so having to turn out fewer units will not make a pro rata saving. Yet again, the gap between the rich and poor teams will increase.

And I wonder which team will be the first to utilise the following strategy: build a more powerful engine with a 250-mile life, qualify first and second, detonate both engines in the closing moments of qualifying (putting down plenty of oil so no-one else can go faster), happily start the race from the sixth row with two fresh engines, and storm through to finish one-two.

To be fair to him, at least Max is confronting the problem of F1 costs, even if he has not yet found the right answer (proper controls on testing would make a big difference). But the problem will remain as long as F1 ‘s immense commercial rewards make the insane expenditure worthwhile. Here’s just one example:

At BMW-Williams, they have different exhaust manifolds for qualifying and the race. Both are made from paper-thin space-age materials and are incredibly light, and both cost 1,14,000 a set: but the qualifying versions are even thinner, and so fragile that they cannot last a race distance. They are precisely 200g lighter than the stronger race variants. But the cars are already under the minimum weight limit and have to carry ballast, so why do they want to save 200g of weight? Because they can then move tiny portions of ballast around to perfect the balance of the car.

So we’re talking about an extra expenditure of 114,000, per session, per car, on a throwaway set of exhaust manifolds to make a saving of seven ounces, which will then be added back onto the ballast somewhere else — and only for the qualifying session.

This, you’ll agree, is getting somewhat extreme. Lighter qualifying brakes (which don’t have to last so long) and smaller qualifying radiators (which don’t have to cope with so much heat) are also becoming the norm in the wealthier teams.

It would be a truism to say that motor racing never gets cheaper, only progressively more expensive. And yet there have been occasions in the past when a truly elegant original design has brought in its wake the ability to save money — for a while, at least. In 1957, the Vanwalls, Ferraris and BRMs were, by the standards of the day, complex and expensive machines. Then John Cooper, who a decade earlier had put the front ends of two crashed Fiat 500s together with the driver in the front and the engine in the back, upgraded his fire pumppowered Formula Two car for F1. Back-to-back world championships followed. It cost a lot less to build an F1 Cooper than it did an F1 Vanwall, and for a while the simpler, fighter rear-engined cars were cheaper than their front-engined forebears.

Universally available engines — first the Coventry-Climax, and then the Cosworth DFV — also helped keep costs down: so Max’s other idea, that engine manufacturers should be required to supply at least two teams (as Ferrari and Jaguar do already), may have some merit. But the teams have refused to approve this.

Meanwhile, we’ve had two more Grands Prix, both spoiled by F1 ‘s two most exciting men colliding on the first lap. Williams certainly had the upper hand in Malaysia, and it was Ralf Schumacher’s one-stop strategy that won the race: but it would have been good to see Montoya JP and Schumacher M, both men on two stoppers, fighting it out at the front.

The way I saw it, the fault for the Malaysia shunt was Michael’s, for Juan Pablo left him the room: but on cold tyres the Ferrari simply understeered into the Williams — which made the drive-through penalty for the Columbian a serious error of judgement by the stewards. The FIA says it wants to impose more penalties for transgressions on the track, like moving a driver 10 places down the grid for the next race. (Another punishment that won’t concern Alex Yoong too much.)

But to do that it must employ stewards who understand racing, and preferably have taken part in it at a serious level. The FIA’s chief steward in Malaysia was a cinema owner from Bombay called Nazir Hoosein.

In Brazil, the fault for the collision between pole-man Montoya and second qualifier Michael Schumacher (whatever Montoya may think) was Montoya’s. Pole in Brazil is on the right, approaching that wicked downhill left-hander. Schumacher’s start, using the new Ferrari for the first time, was better than his starts usually are, and he and Montoya were wheel to wheel into the first corner: which kept Montoya wide. That meant he was fighting a losing battle through the right-left that followed. When his front wing touched the Ferrari’s rear tyre, his victory chances disintegrated.

Ralf, slower in qualifying than Juan, was able to wind in his brother, but never got quite dose enough for a tow into the first corner, the one real overtaking place for today’s cars on this circuit. So the new Ferrari won first time out, its aerodynamics clearly able to cope with the BMW’s superior power on that uphill drag onto the straight, even though the pundits reckoned that its Bridgestone tyres were inferior to the Michelins on this day.

Brazil’s other big disappointment was the early retirement of Rubens Barrichello, on a two-stop strategy to Michael’s one, just after his 2001 Ferrari had taken the lead from its 2002 team-mate. Rubens’ luck in his home race is invariably dreadful, and he has yet to finish a race this year.

While Ferrari dispute the lead with Williams, McLaren’s place in the top three is threatened by Renault. Poor Jamo Trulli hasn’t scored a finish yet; Jenson Button was bound for his first podium finish in Malaysia, when his rear suspension collapsed almost within sight of the flag, but he got another fourth in Brazil — making him a remarkable fourth in the championship standings after three races.

If Montoya can get through the first lap unscathed, the Ferrari-Williams fight looks like keeping us entertained; but the new weapon from Maranello is clearly effective. Money was obviously no object in the development of its integral engine/gearbox layout: and, however Max ties to rewrite the rules, money will continue to decide who gets to the front of Formula One.