It has to be said that the writing was on the wall for the Bahrain Grand Prix before the teams even arrived there. And it’s not due to the refuelling ban. There are arguments for and against refuelling, but on balance I think banning refuelling is a good idea.
The legacy of refuelling
Some people had decided in advance that scrapping it was a bad idea, and have used the relatively pedestrian Bahrain Grand Prix as definitive evidence that they’re right. But one race is far too soon to judge. And as I pointed out in the previous article, there was actually more overtaking than normal.
It is no secret that F1 has a bit of an overtaking problem. The amount of overtaking has declined steadily throughout its history, and nose-dived in 1994 when refuelling was introduced in the modern era. In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the amount of overtaking has been relatively stable at this low level.
For me, the biggest legacy of refuelling has been to gift seven World Championships to a driver who isn’t particularly good at wheel-to-wheel racing, but transformed “overtaking into the pit lane” (i.e. gaining positions just by being in the pit lane at the right time) into the most important aspect of modern-day grand prix racing.
It is often argued that this “strategy” element adds an important dimension to the racing. The argument goes that what is lost in terms of on-track action is gained in terms of strategic intrigue.
This may have been true in the early days of refuelling, when strategists were still finding their feet with the new rules. But over time, it became clear what worked and what didn’t.
Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, teams had their strategies worked out by computers to the extent that there was one clear optimal strategy, and the race was won or lost on whether your first stop was made on lap 17 or made on lap 18. More often than not, after the first stop, it was clear how the rest of the race would play out, and the whole spectacle usually settled down.
The powers that be concocted increasingly contrived ways to re-inject a strategic element into the racing, but it stopped working. We reached the ridiculous situation where cars were qualifying on race fuel loads, which still did little to avoid the harsh reality that there is one optimal strategy.
How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy
For me, there is far too much talk about “the show”. F1 is not a show. It is a sport. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see a show, you should go to the pantomime. Todd on the latest Formula 1 Blog podcast said it best: “Jim Clark didn’t take part in a show. He took part in a race.”
Yet, with the obsession with making F1 more entertaining, the rules have constantly been tinkered with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the powers that be have to tread a fine line. They must make the sport more appealing to people who, truth be told, aren’t really interested in F1, while keeping the purists happy.
F1 is special because it is, at its core, about finding the fastest driver in the fastest car. Everything else is tinsel. Some of the new rules actively go against this attempt to find the fastest.
Look at the obsession with strategy. Look at attempts at mixing up the grid. The current tyre rules are among the most unpure in F1 today.
Forcing drivers to use two different types of compounds achieves nothing for anyone except Bridgestone. And I am yet to work out what is achieved by the new rule forcing drivers to start the race on the same tyres they qualified on. What does it prove? Do we tie one hand behind the back of footballers to “spice up the show” there? It is ridiculous.
Yet, all the talk is to introduce a mandatory two stops. That is certainly what Martin Whitmarsh implied on the BBC’s coverage last weekend. The idea sends a shiver down my spine. And quite how it is supposed to spice up the action is beyond me. Just now the optimal strategy appears to be a one-stop. Now they want to enforce a two-stop strategy? It’s difficult to see the scope for spiced-up strategy action here.
But I can think of a way of re-introducing the strategy element while keeping the purists happy: get rid of the mandatory tyre change. This would blow wide open the possibility of a no-stop strategy, thereby potentially reducing the predictability of the current situation. Sure, Bridgestone will be unhappy — but they are leaving the sport anyway so there is no point in making them happy.
The decline in overtaking pre-dates 1994. It has been clear for years that it is not as easy for F1 drivers in F1 cars to overtake as it perhaps should be. There are plenty of pet theories as to why this might be. The ones that get the most attention are the ones that are put forward by Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, as they are the most powerful people in F1. But of course, they have their own agendas.
The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have long blamed modern aerodynamics for the lack of overtaking. The received wisdom has become that aerodynamic grip is bad news if you want overtaking, and that the emphasis should be more on mechanical grip.
I was very interested to see James Allen write about what Frank Dernie thinks about this — that’s it’s a load of old cobblers. I have felt for a while that the argument that aerodynamics damage the racing does not hold water. On a Renault podcast a couple of years ago, Pat Symonds pointed out that the races that have the most overtaking, as everyone knows, are wet races. In the wet, aerodynamic grip is ramped up, and mechanical grip plummets.
When you think about it, it’s so right. It does amaze me that, in the face of so much hard evidence to the contrary, people still blame aerodynamics for the poor racing. I have come to the conclusion that many people’s views on the overtaking problem are shaped largely by fashion and spin rather than the evidence.
Speaking personally, I love seeing what sorts of devices teams come up with. We have all been fascinated by McLaren’s “F-duct” (even though it seems to have done them “F-all” good). Neutering these sorts of areas is the first step on the slippery slope towards spec chassis. And then it just wouldn’t be F1 any more.
I am not totally averse to restricting the cars though. Formula 1 is, after all, a formula — it always has been.
I am no engineer, but it strikes me that F1 cars are simply too fast to allow for much overtaking. In particular, the brakes on F1 cars are so good today that there is little opportunity for a driver to perform an outbraking manoeuvre. With such small braking zones, the scope just isn’t there in the same way it might have been in the past. Is somehow reducing the power of the brakes a viable option?
The points system
Bernie Ecclestone has also sought to blame the points system for the lack of overtaking, and the system has accordingly been tweaked. I personally think there is something in this. The points system rewards conservatism.
Think about instances where a driver attempting to overtake faces a 50-50 situation (or, more accurately, a ⅓-⅓-⅓ situation). By this I mean that there is a ⅓ chance that a clean pass will be made and a position will be gained, a ⅓ chance that an attempt will be made but will fail, and a ⅓ that the move will go wrong and end in a crash. (Obviously this is a major simplification of the real-life scenario, but I think this “50-50” thought experiment still underlines an interesting point.)
Under last year’s scoring system, for a driver in second place trying to overtake the leader, this “⅓-⅓-⅓” situation would lead to an expected gain of… -2 points. Under the new points system, the expectation is -3⅔ (although as a percentage of the winner’s points haul, this is better). No wonder drivers can’t overtake. It’s not in their interests to even try unless they are practically left an open door.
This was the core reason why I was in fact, contrary to the fashion, in favour of Bernie’s proposed “medals” system. Then, attempting to gain a position would be unambiguously advantageous.
However, I think there would be much more to be gained in ensuring that circuits are more challenging and provide more in the way of opportunities to overtake. Nothing is certain. After all, Suzuka is normally entertaining, but produced a bit of a stinker last year. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
But we all know that certain circuits, in general, produce better racing than others. I really do struggle to think of any grand prix held at Interlagos that was boring. But I know not to expect much action at, say, Valencia or Shanghai. Or Bahrain for that matter.
We know this because teams and drivers will often turn up a circuit and say, “there is only a certain place you can overtake, and it’s here”. Adrian Newey, Sam Michael and Martin Whitmarsh are all in agreement. As the Williams technical director said:
You’ve got to ask yourself, why do you go to a race such as Barcelona where no one overtakes, and then take exactly the same cars to Monza, Montreal or Hockenheim and you get lots of overtaking.
And the McLaren team principal said:
You only need to do simple statistical analysis and look at where the overtaking moves are If, say, we race on 18 circuits with 350 corners, then 90 per cent of overtaking moves in a year would happen at just 10 corners… The fact that overtaking is focused on such a small number of corners clearly demonstrates that it’s circuit-dependent.
Ferrari and Renault went to Valencia in 2008 proclaiming that they know from their simulators that there would be little in the way of overtaking. Ferrari even based a fundamental decision about their engine on this prediction. And they were right.
But Bernie will not entertain the suggestion that the circuits are to blame. This is because, unlike the effort made by drivers or the aerodynamics or the strategy, this is the area that he is responsible for. And he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.
The effect of adding a new slow, narrow, bumpy, twisty section that looks as though it was almost designed to prevent overtaking was predicted before the race began. Quite why the organisers of the grand prix thought it would be a good idea is beyond me.
GP2 world feed commentator Will Buxton saw the writing on the wall, and was left exasperated by the negative effect this different circuit configuration had on the GP2 racing. He predicted a similar negative effect on F1, and it transpired that he was right.
What else is Bernie to blame for?
While I confess that it is a bit too easy to lay the blame on Bernie Ecclestone for the boring race in Bahrain, there is another core part of F1 that he is responsible for, which led to a dull spectacle being played out in our living rooms last Sunday. But that is what I will deal with in another article in the near future.