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 Grandprix.com 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.