Following Formula 1’s Bahrain season-opener Motor Sport’s readers were among race fans around the world who made it clear how disappointed they are with Grand Prix racing’s 2010 edition. We’ve heard the same complaints for years – boring racing, no passing, and cars which all look the same running on an incredibly featureless, soul-sapping track. As many people asked: what happened to the FIA’s special overtaking group? Obviously, they failed miserably in their task.
Some people ask why CART’s old Indy or Champ Cars and the IRL’s current Indycars put on a better show with closer racing and more passing. One reason is that when F1 went to flat bottoms more than 20 years ago CART stayed with a Lotus 79-style ‘tunnel car’. Mario Andretti insisted that flat-bottomed cars were much too pitch-sensitive and more difficult to drive in close quarters, therefore discouraging close racing and passing. Mario’s concept was an integral element of CART’s and then Champ Car’s rules until the latter’s demise in 2008, and was the primary reason why Champ Cars put on a better show.
Of course, the IRL went down an entirely different route. Contemporary IRL cars are seriously restricted on horsepower and downforce, and are designed to run around in a pack. Passing is extremely difficult but the cars do tend to stay close together much like in a NASCAR restrictor-plate race. Yet the IRL’s formula has proven spectacularly unpopular as the series struggles to draw crowds to most races and its television ratings have plunged to miserable new lows.
A key element in the IRL’s formula is the massive amount of drag designed into the cars by the rules. In discussing the new Delta Wing Indycar concept Chip Ganassi told me that designer Ben Bowlby emphasised the excessive amount of drag required by the IRL’s rules. “Ben pointed out to me that an Indycar has more drag than a stock car!” Ganassi exclaimed. “I said, ‘How can an open-wheel car have more drag than a big, full-bodied NASCAR?’ That’s not the way it should be. But that’s how we, as rule-makers, have allowed it to be.”
Surely the people who write the rules have defined far too many of the specifications for today’s racing cars, F1 included. Darn near every element of the cars are specified by the rulebook. Today, there’s no room to create something that’s at all innovative like a rear-engined Cooper-Climax or a Lotus 79. Instead, we’re supposed to drool over the latest aerodynamic refinements to wing endplates and so forth. But these things are way too arcane, if not trivial, for most race fans. Clearly, people are tired of watching the same basic package that we’ve seen for the past 20 or more years.
Something radical is desperately needed, and that’s why I think the Delta Wing concept is a great thing, just to shake up everyone’s thinking. This spirit drove the sport for most of its history but there’s no longer any room for out-of-the-box thinking. If Colin Chapman was alive today, he’d shake his head and walk away, disgusted with the spec car syndrome that has infected the sport at every level, F1 again included.
Of course, if the rules were to be opened up F1’s team principals would complain that it would be too expensive and would result in too many different solutions and probably in one concept proving much quicker than anything else, making all others obsolete. No doubt there’s some truth to this riposte, but that doesn’t mean the sport isn’t in dire need of inspired technical leadership to recreate itself in a way that intrigues and excites more of us.