One of the most worrying trends in F1 is the increasing tendency of wheels and tyres to come loose and fly off. Since refuelling was banned for the start of the 2010 season, the speed of tyre changes has become easily the most crucial element of a pitstop. With the greater number of pitstops this year as a result of the current deliberately dodgy tyres, this has become even more critical.
During the Chinese Grand Prix we saw Jaime Alguersuari’s right rear wheel roll itself off the car soon after a pitstop. It flew off towards marshals, photographers and other bystanders, while Vitantonio Liuzzi took to the inside to avoiding being hit while he passed the stricken Toro Rosso.
For me, loose wheels are easily the most dangerous thing in F1 today. When two marshals died in he space of a few races just over a decade ago, they were both as a result of flying wheels. Stronger wheel tethers were introduced after those incidents, but these do no good if the wheel is not properly attached to the car in the first place.
With the emphasis on tyre changes now at the very forefront of every race, it is no surprise that teams have been looking to save time in this area. Mercedes have been particularly inventive, developing a wheel nut that is attached to the wheel itself.
But there have been lot of wheels coming off since the start of 2010, clearly as a result of not having been attached properly in the first place. Robert Kubica’s wheel detached after a few laps of the Japanese Grand Prix.
Mercedes also had a few wheel failures last year. Among these was the truly scary moment in Hungary when Nico Rosberg’s wheel came off the pitlane, causing all sorts of havoc as it bounced and rolled around while several dozen mechanics were busy working.
It is high time this was nipped in the bud. I am sure the teams would take more care in their pitstops if a real penalty was applied. This isn’t a sporting issue. It is a safety issue, and any teams that are not attaching wheels securely enough should face a ban.
Flying wheels are not just putting drivers at risk. They are putting marshalls and mechanics at risk. But worst of all they are putting spectators at risk.
Renault were suspended in 2009 after Fernando Alonso’s wheel came off in Hungary that year. However, the suspension was lifted. That was fine. Then, it was a one-off incident — in the refueling era there is little to suggest that Renault were cutting corners.
But today, the loose wheel problem is truly endemic. It must be stopped.
I suppose it is inevitable, but I dislike the blame game that has gone on since the horrendous crash between Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen during the European Grand Prix last week. The most important thing after an incident like that is to take stock. I was in awe of the extremely high safety standards demonstrated during that crash, but lessons need to be learned. Fingers don’t need to be pointed.
For me, it was a racing incident, in which both drivers could share a portion of the blame. Heikki Kovalainen probably tried to defend more than was really justified against a hugely superior car. Meanwhile, Mark Webber tried to catch a bit more slipstream than was necessary. Both made a mistake, and the result was that both were punished. That’s racing.
But BBC pundit and Red Bull Racing “Ambassador” David Coulthard was among the first to start pointing fingers, during his post-race analysis on the BBC. The comments about “A-class” and “B-class” teams that were being bandied about on the BBC were rather crass in my view.
Given that he is paid by Red Bull, David Coulthard’s comments perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising. For him, Heikki Kovalainen should have stepped aside, rolled out the red carpet, and allowed the Red Bull car to pass without a fight.
In fairness, it is not just his link to Red Bull that might have made him say this. David Coulthard has a history of suggesting that the “slower” car, should move over for the “faster” car. I have never forgotten his whining following the 2001 Monaco Grand Prix, when he was unable to overtake Enrique Bernoldi whom he was racing for position. You still hear him moan about it from time to time.
The idea that, when cars are racing for position, the car behind needs to overtake the car in front, has always appeared to evade Coulthard’s grasp. Formula 1 should award the drivers with the most skill, not just the engineers who can design and build the fastest cars. Overtaking is exciting because it is a skill, and if drivers of “slower” cars were to just stand aside, viewers would soon flock to another sport.
Yesterday David Coulthard went further still, blaming the crash on the slower speed of Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus car. As Keith Collantine points out, the difference in speed is hardly alarming. Certainly, by historical standards, the pace of the new teams is actually very quick.
There has been a lot of talk about the reintroduction of the 107% rule, coming next season. Had the rule been in place for this season, the new teams would only have been caught out a handful of times. But in the mid 1990s it was a fairly regular occurrence for a Forti, Minardi or a Tyrrell to fail to qualify. Before then, to have cars that were several seconds off the pace was frankly the norm.
The only reason a car 2.5 seconds off the pace is considered “too slow” these days is because the standards in F1 have greatly increased over the past five or ten years. Of course there is a reason why chronically slow cars should not be allowed to race. But when we are talking about teams that are on the margin of 107%, the issue seems overblown. It’s not as if the Hispania cars are performing like the Mastercard Lola.
I get the feeling that David Coulthard thinks only “fast” cars and “fast” drivers should be allowed in F1. Of course, Formula 1 is an elite sport. But every single one of the cars on the grid this year is an elite car. The new teams (the first real new teams since 2002) have done an incredible job to be so close to the pace so quickly. Hispania is an elite team, as are Virgin and Lotus.
Of course, David Coulthard had the advantage of always racing for “fast” teams in F1. His F1 career began at Williams when the team was reaching the height of its mid-1990s dominance. When he moved to McLaren, they were never terribly far off the pace. Even when he raced for Red Bull, they weren’t exactly backmarkers.
Maybe if he had done a stint with a smaller, less well-resourced team, he would have a bit more sympathy for the tailenders that are every bit as important to F1 as the front runners.
In my previous article about the post-Bahrain backlash, I noted that I thought the main reason why people felt that the race was boring was down to something fully within Bernie Ecclestone’s control. It is the most important thing to the vast majority of fans, although in the rush to blame the presence of heavy fuel loads or front wings or whatever personal hobby-horse they have, many people have forgotten about the television coverage.
FOM feed the world
Nowadays, the “world feed” carried by every broadcaster for almost every race is produced by FOM, run by Bernie Ecclestone. (The only exceptions at the moment are the Monaco and Japanese Grands Prix, where the world feed is produced by Télé Monte Carlo and Fuji Television respectively.) This is generally a very good thing.
Until a few years ago, races were covered by local broadcasters, meaning that the quality of the coverage could vary quite wildly from race to race. I always remember the Japanese Grand Prix being particularly bad because so much time was spent on board with a below-average Japanese driver trundling around doing very little.
This situation was not helped by the fact that the quality of this standard feed was deliberately stunted while Bernie Ecclestone attempted to launch a premium digital television service, F1 Digital+. “Bernievision”, as it was called, was a very good product.
Unfortunately, the main problem with F1 Digital+ was that it was ahead of its time. The adventure began in 1996, at an impossibly early stage of the development of interactive television. There were teething problems in the early days, including an incredible clanger at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, where the “superior” product managed to completely miss the biggest crash in F1 history! But they learned over time and there were innovations aplenty. With the broadcasters struggling to make any money with it, the service was closed down in 2002.
Since then, the technology on which F1 Digital+ was based has been used on the standard world feed, which FOM have gradually taken over from the host broadcasters. This has brought about a noticeable improvement in the quality of coverage since 2004. Broadly, the pictures have been better. Incidents have been caught live more regularly, and replays have been shown quickly. The information displayed on the on-screen graphics has also improved considerably.
But after reaching a peak in quality three or four years ago, FOM’s coverage has stagnated. Many times, innovations have been brought to the coverage, only to be used sparingly, and eventually disappear.
For instance, whatever happened to the tyre temperature indicators that were used once or twice a few years ago? Why do we no longer often see the graphics comparing the telemetry of two drivers racing side-by-side? What has happened to the thermal images?
Why don’t FOM buy some of those awesome super slo-mo cameras instead of just using the ones in Germany? Why is line comparison only ever used during practice, and even then not very often? Why isn’t more use made of the graphics that show the position of drivers on a map of the circuit?
The poor usability of FOM’s new graphics
Things are not totally stagnant at FOM though. At Bahrain, they unleashed a new set of graphics. It has to be said straight away that they are very good looking, and with a few tweaks will work very well. However, at the moment there are some major flaws with them.
The font appears to be a version of DIN. This is a bold, clear and readable font.
However, FOM have made a mistake by choosing to display the drivers’ names in all uppercase. It is known that all-uppercase is more difficult to read. Often readers look at the shape of words rather than the individual letters. This is much more difficult when capital letters are all the same height and many are roughly square-shaped. It is thought that it may even increase the amount of time spent reading by as much as 20 per cent.
Then there is the odd slanting of the lower-third graphics. I see what they are trying to do, by echoing the slant of the Formula 1 logo. But while it looks stylish, it is pretty painful if you want to actually try and read it!
As you can see, unlike a normal table, the text is not aligned to allow for easy comparison of figures down the column. Instead, you have to read down and to the left. Slanting is one thing, but if you are going to slant one way, slant towards the right! We read from left to right. Effectively reading from right to left (and then switching back to left to right to actually read the information!) is completely counter-intuitive. I know Bernie Ecclestone is keen to take Formula 1 to new markets in Asia, but making us read from right to left really is going a step too far!
The graphics also animate on rather extravagantly. This is particularly irritating with the graphics that update as each driver crosses the line. Each driver’s name and time now takes a while to animate on. But when cars are passing through so quickly, this is vital reading time lost. The new graphics really are a bad case of style over substance.
There was also a large outcry over the fact that the ‘tower’ graphics — which display a list of positions down the left hand side of the screen — appear to have been done away with. Although the tower made a couple of appearances during the race, it really is much more useful during qualifying, where positions change much more rapidly.
During the commentary, Jonathan Legard mentioned that the BBC had received plenty of complaints about the disappearance of the tower, although the content of the world feed is beyond the BBC’s control. For commentators to start bemoaning the poor quality of the world feed once again shows how much of a backward step FOM have taken lately.
On the plus side, there were a couple of interesting new additions as a result of the renewed emphasis on the speed of pitstops. The pitstop time graphic now shows the length of time spent in the pitlane as well as the amount of time spent stationary. However, the stationary time displays only after the driver has exited the pitlane. Why not reveal this first?
They also get the thumbs up for finally switching the lap counter so that it counts up rather than down. I generally like the new graphics, but they have some major flaws just now. With a bit of tweaking, it will look great and work well. But I do wonder what FOM were thinking of when they made some of these decisions.
Too much action was missed
But, of course, the design of the graphics is small beer compared with the actual pictures themselves — and it is here that I think FOM are particularly letting themselves down just now. A few years ago I was amazed at how much action they caught live. Today, I find myself with difficult believing how little action they catch — and how few replays they show.
For instance, what actually happened to Karun Chandhok? We know he binned it, but how? All FOM showed us was his slightly smashed-up car. A replay of the event was never shown. Did their cameras completely miss it?
Moreover, the BBC’s post-race ‘forum’ showed several replays from the on-board channels that brought to light much more action than FOM showed us. Nico Hülkenberg’s first lap was rather eventful, but FOM showed very little of it.
Another on-board shot, not shown on the world feed, revealed how Felipe Massa squeezed Lewis Hamilton early on in the lap. This was totally missed by FOM, and caught all viewers, and even apparently the pundits, by surprise when the BBC showed it later.
And why were viewers never given the full story of the mêlée caused in the midfield as a result of Mark Webber’s blue smoke on lap 1? And, for that matter, why was so little attention paid to the recoveries by Adrian Sutil and Robert Kubica, who made their way back up through the field following that lap 1 incident?
I have to admit that I am baffled. The race was allegedly “boring”, so there was plenty of time to show replays of interesting incidents, but clearly the opportunity was passed up. Why?
The whole style of FOM’s product has become rather stale, clinical and formulaic as well. While a few years ago the feed contained interesting shots of the cars and the circuit. Now there is a greater emphasis on wide shots of the venue. While these shots are attractive, they do not showcase the race.
The coverage of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is a prime example. There were so many wide shots that it was often difficult to pick out the cars. It felt like most of the time was spent looking at the giant sparkly hotel that looks a bit like a rude sex toy rather than the race itself. And the final lap lunge by Jenson Button on Mark Webber was missed by the cameras!
You can see the moment on this video, at 2:30. Also watch out for when the cars out out of shot when Robert Kubica is battling with Sébastien Buemi at around 1:40, so we don’t properly see what Kubica really did.
It is worth noting that the FIA obviously thought that FOM had done such a good job of producing an uber-slick but ultra-dull feed that they awarded the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix an award for the best television coverage. I thought it stuck out as a particularly poor performance from FOM. It was another triumph of style over substance. I guess they were trying to trumpet this new grand prix, when it was widely recognised to be an underwhelming circuit that produced a rather dull race.
When will HD finally come?
I feel as though FOM have almost given up on improving the television product. F1 is supposed to be the most technologically advanced sport in the world, yet it is still not even broadcast in HD. It is probably the last major sport in the world to only offer an SD feed, and before you know it 3D will have come along by the time F1 goes HD.
Fuji Television are prepared to produce an HD feed for the Japanese Grand Prix (although this is only shown in Japan). I also noticed people praising the Japanese GP coverage for its interesting shots and pretty solid coverage. But Fuji were once universally recognised as one of the worst of the host broadcasters back in the bad old days.
Fuji really have upped their game in the past couple of years. It is notable that we can actually now compare Fuji with FOM and say that Fuji may actually be better. Certainly, Fuji provide a welcome breath of fresh air to F1 coverage when every other race is presented using the formulaic approach that has increasingly been taken by FOM.
This evening I came home to read about the tragic news of the death of Henry Surtees in yesterday’s second Formula Two race at Brands Hatch.
Yesterday afternoon I opted to watch the German MotoGP, where spectators were treated to an excellent motor race. Once that was over, I logged onto the internet. It was soon clear that there had been a serious accident in Formula Two.
Henry Surtees was struck on the head by a loose tyre after he drove into the path of debris from Jack Clarke’s accident. Clarke spun off and hit the barrier, sending his wheel flying into the path of Surtees. It seems as though Surtees was immediately knocked unconscious. His car went straight on at Dingle Dell, hitting the barrier and coming to a standstill shortly afterwards.
Straight away it was clear that it was a nasty accident, and the fact that there was very little news regarding his condition in the following hours rang alarm bells. Later in the evening news broke that Henry Surtees had died.
It is trivial to point out that motorsport is dangerous. But a lot of effort has been put in over the years to try and eradicate and chance of serious injury or death. The risk posed by flying wheels and tyres must count among the most difficult of these problems to solve, and yesterday’s tragic events at Brands Hatch underline just how dangerous they can be.
The two most recent fatalities related to Formula 1 were both caused by loose wheels. During the 2001 Australian Grand Prix, circuit marshal Graham Beveridge was struck by a tyre which was sent flying after Jacques Villeneuve was involved in a high-speed accident with Ralf Schumacher. Just a few races before at the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, another marshal, Paolo Ghislimberti, was killed following a first-lap pile-up where Jarno Trulli’s tyres flew off his car. Those are the only two F1-related fatalities since the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994.
Since those accidents, a lot of effort has been put into strengthening the wheel tethers which are supposed to prevent wheels from flying off at high speed. Unfortunately, a solution has not yet been found, and wheel continue to fly off cars regularly. At this years Australian Grand Prix, Robert Kubica narrowly avoided being struck on the head by a flying tyre following his accident involving Sebastian Vettel.
All forms of motorsport face such dangers, and Formula Two has had some accidents involving flying rear tyres already in its short history, as Brits on Pole have noted. Questions are already tentatively being asked about the safety of the Formula Two cars which are designed and built by WilliamsF1. But the tragic death of Henry Surtees only underlines the risks that we already knew existed in motorsport.
The situation is particularly awful given that his father, the World Champion Grand Prix motorcyclist and Formula 1 driver John Surtees, raced in F1 during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the sport was probably at its most dangerous, and is still alive today. Henry Surtees, racing in an age when motor racing has probably never been so safe, died when he was just 18.
A deal has been struck between Max Mosley, Fota and Bernie Ecclestone, and the threat of a breakaway series has been averted. I think there were a lot of people out there who quite liked the idea of a breakaway series. Indeed, given the choice between Max Mosley’s rotten vision and a Fota-run series, I would have gone for the Fota series every time.
But a split would have been a calamitous situation. The new series, despite having all the big names and probably some decent circuits, would still have taken some time to find its feet. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Fota series would have got good television coverage. Don’t forget that for the vast majority of fans, television is the only way we can consume the sport that we love, so this is an essential element.
In a lot of ways, the roots of the current problem in Formula 1 lie with Bernie Ecclestone. Or, to be more precise, CVC. They are the ones who suck the money out of the sport in order to pay the interest on their debts. That is why F1 ends up visiting sterile circuits with minuscule crowds — because those governments will pay huge sums of money for the privilege of holding an F1 race. That is probably also the reason for the fervour over cost cutting. If the teams spend less, Bernie can get away with giving the teams less of the sport’s revenues, and giving CVC more of them.
But despite that problem with CVC, I can’t find it in myself to be too angry with Bernie Ecclestone. In truth, he has done a great job of promoting the sport, and F1 may never have appealed to me were it not for Bernie’s efforts. Sure, there are a lot of areas where he can improve, particularly on the dire online offering.
But under Bernie Ecclestone, the television coverage of Formula 1 has been revolutionised. He got his fingers burnt with the adventurous F1 Digital+ endeavour. But while those innovatory days may be no more (and it is notable that F1 is still not broadcast in HD), today’s FOM-produced World Feed (used for all races except Monaco and Japan) is based on many of those innovations and television coverage has improved immeasurably over the past fifteen or so years.
We seldom have to deal with relatively amateurish efforts from the host broadcasters. Just compare these two videos of the same incident as it unfolded live. One is from the FOM F1 Digital+ World Feed, and the other was from the host broadcaster. (To view them side-by-side ‘as live’, start the second video when the first video reaches 17 seconds.)
The difference in quality is massive. F1 Digital+ caught the accident live so viewers knew immediately what happened. This was no coincidence. It happened because a system of sensors around the circuit could detect when cars were running close together, and coverage automatically switched to those cars in the expectation of some kind of incident unfolding. Later, replays from multiple angles enhanced the viewer’s understanding of the incident.
Meanwhile, the host broadcaster cut to Ralf Schumacher climbing out of his car ten seconds after the incident originally started. And it was a long time until viewers found out that the accident also involved Jacques Villeneuve — and there was only one angle of the incident. Note also how Martin Brundle had to rely on the superior coverage which he could see outside his commentary box window to tell viewers that Villeneuve was unhurt.
The Australian host broadcasters were not dummies. They just did the best job they could with the resources they had at their disposal. “Bernievision” was only good because of heavy investment and years of experimentation.
Bernie’s television operation was pretty impressive even in 2001, though not all of the innovations remain in today’s coverage. But it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone that today’s coverage is more like the first video than the second one. A Fota-run championship would not have had such a slick operation going from day one, and the fans would have been worse off for it.
Then there is the question of whether it would have had any coverage at all. The BBC would have been scared off, and television executives would have been confused. They want the World Championship, whether or not an alternative series is better in the eyes of the fans. Take, for instance, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which I hear is better than the FIA’s World Rally Championship. Not that I’d know, because the former is ghettoised on Eurosport while the FIA’s weak WRC gets terrestrial coverage.
No matter if it has all the current teams and good circuits — signing up to show a new series is a risk which television executives wouldn’t want to take. The prospect of the best F1 series being on some pay channel and having no terrestrial coverage was a real one. That aspect of the breakaway scared me.
On the other hand, the proposed breakaway presented the opportunity to create a great new version of Formula 1, unshackled from the financial needs of CVC or the warped politics of Max Mosley. Fota had some crazy ideas, but they carried out market research and were far more receptive to the views of fans than the FIA have ever been.
I particularly liked the idea that the new series could have been particularly focussed on attracting an American audience. The FIA Formula 1 Championship has dumped on US fans time and again, and today there is no race in North America even though it is a major market for the manufacturers.
There would also have been a careful look at ticket prices and the fees circuits have to pay to hold an F1 race. No-one (apart from Bernie apparently) likes to arrive at sterile circuits with a dozen people in the grandstand. It comes across on television too, whether or not FOM’s cameramen are instructed to avoid shots of empty grandstands.
I could feel the atmosphere of the passionate British crowd on the television. The difference could hardly be more stark from the previous race at Turkey, where the crowd was around 10% of the size. And Silverstone is a circuit that Bernie wants to move away from.
Even the little things that are wrong with F1 could have had the magnifying glass applied to them. Such as, why can’t a driver keep the same number for his whole career. In other categories such as Nascar or MotoGP, a driver’s number becomes part of his legend, every bit as important as, say, his helmet design. Even in the history of Formula 1, the number 27 car is almost synonymous with Gilles Villeneuve. Imagine the marketing potential too. But in the clinical world of Formula 1, driver numbers are determined by the positions of last year’s Constructors’ Championship.
In short, the breakaway could have been a great opportunity to fix everything that is broken with F1. I doubt the breakaway would have been a true ‘split’, and it probably wouldn’t have had the same consequences as the Cart / IRL split. It was pretty clear from the fact that the FIA never released a finalised 2010 entry list that the FIA didn’t have a 2010 F1 Championship to speak of, and Fota’s would have been the only show in town.
That, I think, is why the deal must be seen as a victory for Fota. It has turned out to be a powerful organisation that did after all have the ability to at last stand up to Max Mosley’s dictatorial authority.
There is a part of me that suspects that the FIA as an organisation simply isn’t fit for the purpose of overseeing motorsports. We will eventually see how things develop with Max Mosley’s successor. I think today is just the starting point though, and we will see some more loose ends being tied up in the coming months. There will be power struggles there too, I am sure.
It looks like these negotiations will in fact be handled by Michel Boeri. That in itself is interesting because he is the promoter of the Monaco Grand Prix. It was reported that he would take the Monaco GP with him to the Fota camp if the breakaway went ahead.
What we need now, most of all, is someone in charge of the FIA who is not a glorified politician, constantly interfering. I remember Maurice Hamilton making the point once that everyone knows who Max Mosley is, and many people can tell you that Jean-Marie Balestre was his predecessor. But not many can tell you who Balestre’s predecessor was (for you history buffs, on the Fisa side it was Pierre Ugeux, and in the FIA it was Paul Metternich). Yet the sport still ran.
It sounds like from now on there will be more checks and balances in place, with the F1 Commission being given more of a say from now on. No doubt Fota will continue to play its role too, and I think it would be best for everyone if Williams and Force India re-joined and USF1, Campos and Manor all joined too. That way the teams, who create the sport, can have a say in its governance too.
Speaking of the new teams, I think as we sit here today, with much of the damage repaired, the biggest shame of this episode is that two capable teams have been denied a place on the entry list as a result of Max Mosley’s petty politicking. I think many of us can’t wait to see Prodrive finally get a chance to enter F1, and Lola were a promising prospect too.
No doubt the FIA actually had a tough choice to make, as according to Joe Saward at least the Manor Grand Prix team is actually a seriously strong prospect. With costs set to be cut and a more stable future for F1 promised, and with that troublesome Max fellow out of the way, at least we know there are capable teams that are ready to fill any potential gaps that appear.