If you read our website you will have seen the Formula 1 proposals for 2017, with wider, more aerodynamically aggressive cars that will be at least five seconds faster than the current generation. No sooner was that published than the F1 strategy group issued a directive to its technical group saying it wished to investigate ways of improving overtaking. In many ways, these are conflicting aims. Put simplistically, the faster the cars, the harder overtaking becomes. Furthermore, these conflicts have to be resolved by March 2016 when the 2017 regulations are published. It’s already clear these moves could create more problems than they solve.
It’s another manifestation of a business run by an executive committee rather than a sport being led by a governor. These moves are in response to market research. Yet the trick isn’t asking people what they’d like you to provide, but providing something so fantastic they’d never have thought of it. But that requires the mindset of visionary, not an executive.
So in response to a segment of fans expressing disappointment that current cars lap more slowly than those of several years ago, the technical group was tasked with coming up with the ‘five seconds a lap faster’ car. That’s easy: increase the downforce and the tyre width. But immediately it’s in conflict with another of the perceived problems: not enough overtaking. In fact, within the concept of the initial 2017 formula proposal, there is already some attention given to that. The bigger, steeper-ramped diffuser ensuring more of the total downforce comes from the underbody should in theory make the car’s wake less turbulent. But, as a few F1 engineers have pointed out, the aerodynamically faster cars will still have shorter braking distances. And others have pointed out that the vortices from the endplates of the wider and lower rear wing will be very disruptive for the front wing of a following car. Then there’s the fact that two of the wider cars side-by-side will take up an extra 40cm of track – not conducive to overtaking.
The conflict between performance and overtaking is just one of many. For example, cars faster by 5sec per lap in qualifying would require significantly more than the current allocation of 100kg of fuel if severe economising in the races were to be avoided. There’s conflict between the fans that say they wish to see the cars sliding more and those who say the current cars look tame in their direction change compared to a few years ago. The 2017 proposal would see the return of that super-aggressive direction change, but they’d slide much less. Lower downforce equals more sliding but paradoxically makes it easier for the drivers so that there’s way less difference between a great driver and a good one. The drivers will tell you current cars are too easy – and that they want more downforce.
All we are doing here is going backwards and forwards in recent history and rediscovering the flaws of racing with any given downforce level. Then there’s the conflict between change and limiting costs. Change is invariably expensive.
So, with a sport that is tying itself up in knots trying to please everyone while keeping the money rolling in, it’s time to recognise that the answers are not to be found from a bunch of executives running a business (i e the strategy group). Regardless of the technical formula, many of these conflicts disappear when you jumble up the grid order. As we said here last month, that doesn’t have to mean artificiality. The remainder would evaporate if a severe limit was put on costs and the technical formula was opened up – potentially creating huge divergence in how lap times are achieved. But that’s radical – and F1 generates way too much money for those involved in its running to do anything radical. Which is what is slowly strangling it.