How KERS will ruin great racing

It is worth remembering that the 2008 season so far has been, by all accounts, an exciting season for on-track action. There have been plenty of overtaking manoeuvres of note. Felipe Massa’s double move on Kovalainen and Barrichello in Canada was a stormer that I won’t forget quickly. Nick Heidfeld managed two double overtakes at Silverstone. And let’s not forget Lewis Hamilton’s bold moves at Hockenheim.

Even races that were expected to be utter snooze-fests have contained their fair share of surprises. The French Grand Prix was spiced up by Räikkönen’s exhaust problem and even the Hungarian Grand Prix had an incredible sting in the tail.

This season the field is closer than it has been perhaps for decades — who knows, perhaps ever. I’ve had a look at this season’s qualifying times, and the average gap between the fastest car and the slowest car is 103.26%. That’s not bad going at all when you recall that around a decade ago it was fairly common for drivers to fail to qualify for being more than 107% slower than pole time.

The closeness of the field this year — not just from the fastest to the slowest car, but particularly the closeness of the teams vying to be 3rd or 4th fastest a the moment — is what has contributed to this season’s great racing and an intriguing championship.

It’s not an accident that the field has become so close in Formula 1. The relative stability of the technical regulations in recent years has meant that the teams’ R&D programmes are yielding diminishing returns. As one team boss told recently:

We work 24 hours a day in the wind tunnel. But we have hit a wall. We have only managed to find three percent more downforce this year. We just cannot find any more.

It seems as though the teams have discovered almost all there is to discover about how to make their cars go faster — certainly in terms of aerodynamic factors. You can see this in the wide indifference the ‘shark fin’ has met with. Team after team says that the shark fin has made little or no perceptible difference in performance — yet they all still run with it. One theory I have heard is that Red Bull simply designed the shark fin so make more space for the Red Bull logo, and that all the other teams have simply copied the design to make it look as though they’re still trying to experiment with aerodynamics.

Now the FIA proposes to do away with all of this ‘closeness’ nonsense by ripping up the rulebook and starting again. If there is one thing a radical overhaul of the rules is sure to do, it is to spread the field. We saw this in 1998 when McLaren rose from the midfield to become almost dominant. 2009’s regulation changes are far more radical, potentially opening the door for next season to be a snooze-fest dominated by one team that just happened to find the edge first.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that such a radical change in the rules does not do very much in terms of cutting costs. Yet again, the FIA’s cost-cutting mantra is undermined by the FIA itself.

I have not even touched on KERS yet, which is bound to lead to huge gaps between different teams. You can see this in the reaction of some teams who are currently trying to get the other teams to agree to run without KERS until 2010. Those teams whose KERS programme is not quite up to scratch are desperate to delay the new system’s introduction.

This is inevitable as KERS is very much at the experimental stages of its development and different teams are trying out different techniques. One of these techniques will be shown in the long run to be the most effective, but we are yet to find out which that is. In the meantime, the teams that were lucky enough to strike on the right technique first time will crush their opponents.

Closer racing in 2009? Don’t count on it. Make the most of the great racing of 2008 while you can.


  1. The point of motor racing is competition not spec charity.

    Good racing ?!
    Apart form the wet races and Canada (always a nice race) there wasn’t anything better then last year. Bahrein, Malaysia, Spain, France, Hungary dull as ever.

  2. I’d echo DOF’s observation that racing hasn’t been fundamentally great this year – it’s always been the result of some outside force such as deteriorating track conditions (Canada), rain (Monaco and Silverstone) or safety car randomness (Germany). On an ordinary day there’s still the same old problem of aerodynamic disturbance ruining racing – look at how Raikkonen couldn’t get anywhere near Alonso or Glock at the Hungaroring, for example.

    I do expect the grid to spread out a bit next year but not just because of KERS – the changes to the aerodynamics rules and the reintroduction of slick tyres will play a role in it as well. F1 has to have an area for car development, it can’t become just another spec series or it loses part of its raison d’etre.

    I hope that the changes to the wings and the return of slick tyres will do more to tip the balance towards proper racing and mitigate the effect of KERS and other changes increasing the difference in laptimes between cars.

    And if we’re going to concede that car failures such as Raikkonen’s in France have made this year more exciting, I expect we’ll see more of that with KERS as well.

  3. I wasn’t calling for F1 to become a spec series (far from it!), but I do want stability of regulations. I agree that car development is a vital part of the make-up of F1 — but it’s up to the teams to find out where they can make the gains, not for the FIA to tell them what to do. (Let’s not forget that the FIA banned an idea not a million miles away from KERS when McLaren came up with it several years ago.)

    I don’t mind odd changes in the regulations here and there, the type we get every year, but 2009 is a lot of changes for the teams to keep up with, so we are bound to see some teams (particularly those with the lowest budgets) fall far behind the usual suspects.

  4. I think we need stable regs. The problem is we have had stability of the wrong regs. We need to slash the ability to generate downforce and by a lot more than they plan for nex year.

    KERS is a joke from the point of view of cost, safety and road relevance. McLaren built a car with it years ago to get a performance gain and Max realised he could spin it into a great environmental gain. End of thought process.

    Movable aero and push to pass should never have been considered let alone implemented. All they are going to result in is a flood of protests and penalties ruining races in the process. I can see it now. Someone’s wing flap gets stuck between the two optional settings after contact. Someone uses their push to pass 10 metres earlier than on the previous lap meaning they have pushed it three time in the distance of one lap.

    All of this lets Max manipulate the results to suit himself and Ferrari.

  5. 1] Push to pass worked well in the 1980s (it was called adjusting the turbo boost).

    Mansell talked about pressing the overtaking button at Silverstone in 87 to the max to get pass Piquet.

    Push to pass is just coming back, and it’s a good thing it does.

    2] Ditto for movable aero.

    3] But the cars need ground effects aero, active suspensions and turbo engines (witch don’t loose 10% power-torque when behind like the current NAs crap-0-8s).

    4] Downforce levels are not a problem, it’s how the produces this downforce the problem.

    The old ground effects cars of the ealry 80s produced a peak 2200 kg of downforce vs. 1600 kg today, but they didn’t have the dirty air issues.

    Without the huge downforce F1 cars will get beaten by Formula Nippons or GP2 or IRLs or sport-prototypes.

    The Formula Nippon FN09 cars to be used in the future due to ground effects aerodynamics produce 50% more downforce per the same amount of drag and are capable (according recent tests) to run close to each other.
    That was also the case for the Group C/IMSA GTP prototypes with produced 2.5 to 3 times more downforce then the current F1 cars.

    Downforce is not an issue, the way it is produced is the issue.