F1 can’t learn too much from Canada

Without doubt, the Canadian Grand Prix was a highly unusual and exciting race. It brought us a new, unfamiliar situation and it was fascinating to watch it unfold. The staggering figure of 65 on-track passes will count as among the very highest seen in a dry race in recent years.

It is therefore no surprise that the kneejerk calls to “learn from the Canada show” have come thick and fast. In my view that is dangerous.

First of all, as I have pointed out before, the focus on “the show” is vacuous, trite and antithetical to the idea of the sport. Of course F1 should be exciting. But what you can’t forget is that we love F1 already — because it already is exciting.

What we now risk — with this crazy obsession with “improving the show” — is future of F1 that is increasingly watered-down. F1 is becoming too convoluted due to bizarre rules that are tacked on bit-by-bit in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to engineer excitement. This is the stuff of bad game shows or WWF or Nascar. We are talking about F1, the greatest sport in the world. It doesn’t need this.

I am particularly disappointed in Mike Gascoyne’s bizarre call to attempt to somehow incorporate the conditions that occurred in Canada into the tyre rules:

If you were going to write the tyre rules for how you wanted races to be, they would be like Canada. You had changing strategies, overtaking and lots of excitement.

It was exactly what F1 needs, and it’s proved that the argument for one tyre being very marginable is very strong.

This surely overlooks the key reasons behind why the Canadian Grand Prix was such a great spectacle. First of all there is the fact that it is an incredible circuit that brings us great, edge-of-your-seat races time and again, regardless of what the current rules are. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a great circuit. Full stop.

Moreover, one of the features of the circuit that has emerged as a major factor over and over again is the fact that it is hard on tyres. I vividly remember the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix, where the tyres were degrading in such an odd way that the circuit was absolutely covered in marbles. I seem to recall David Coulthard describing those conditions as the worst dry-weather conditions he had ever raced in.

Then there is the fact that this is the first time Formula 1 has visited Montreal with the current slick tyres, and with the current restrictions on the numbers of sets of tyres teams can use, and there you have your recipe for the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix.

Some of this cannot be replicated. Some of it already is. The rest is artificial interfering.

The call for the tyre supplier to provide the teams with increasingly marginal tyres goes against everything that F1 is supposed to be about — the best drivers using the best equipment. Artificially hobbling drivers is a fake approach to racing. More overtaking is meaningless if it isn’t real overtaking.

That is why Pirelli’s stated desire to “have a Canadian GP every race” sends a shiver down my spine. I was hoping that the switch of tyre supplier would be the perfect opportunity to ditch the current tyre regulations, which are currently a mess from a sporting standpoint. Instead, it looks like the tyre rules are only going to become worse.

But most of all there is the issue that the unpredictable will soon enough become predictable. The way events unfolded in Canada caught the teams off guard. But the second time something like that happens, they will be much better prepared. The third time they will begin to set a routine in place. After a handful more occasions, they will know the drill down pat. All the unpredictability will be gone.

This is what we saw with refuelling. At first it was an interesting novelty, and it added an interesting strategy element. But by the end of the refuelling era, it was adding nothing to the show. Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, and with the calculation powers of modern computers, the teams always knew what the optimum strategy was and employed it. The result was neutered racing, with the refuelling only adding an incentive for drivers to “overtake in the pitlane” and avoid on-track action.

The same would happen with tyres, as the teams gather data and become better prepared. They may say they want to improve the show. But they also want to win the race. It is a classic prisoners’ dilemma — and, just as with refuelling, the teams will always try to win the race before thinking about the show.

It is worth considering that the reason the Canadian Grand Prix was so exciting was that the teams pushed too hard and ended up painting themselves into a corner. The Bahrain Grand Prix was so boring because the teams were far too conservative, fearful of overstepping the mark with the tyres and ending up in exactly the scenario that unfolded in Canada. The teams want to have their cake and eat it.

F1 teams are constantly looking for the boundaries of performance, and sometimes they go beyond those boundaries. When they do, they learn the lessons and adapt their approach for next time. No set of rules can affect this fundamental nature of the way teams behave.

What we really should take away from the Canadian Grand Prix is the joy of watching a great race. This is the sort of thing that should be celebrated. But there were great races in the past, and great races are caused by a variety of factors that cannot be pinned down.

Even if they were pinned down, knowing the factors would be a surefire way of ensuring boring races for the rest of the sport’s future. What makes F1 exciting is its inherent unpredictability. Trying to engineer unpredictability is surely an oxymoron.

This does mean that sometimes we endure the odd mediocre race. But since we follow a sport and not a show, we are all happy with that — aren’t we?…

3 comments

  1. Well, the three “exciting” races they say, are Spa, Monza, and Montreal (and frequently Silverstone). I wonder what they all have in common?

    Oh yeah, they’re basically “triangle” tracks: long straights with one, or maybe two, corners between them. No long sequence of tricky, high-downforce corner after corner sections that seem to be the second timing segment of other tracks. Even Suzuka, usually an entertaining race, has just the one, reasonably quick, Esses section. So, what did they do to Bahrain, and (to a lesser extent) Silverstone?

    I do realize that the high-downforce sections are part of a measure of car and driver skill, but it’s almost impossible to make them not processional, and the issue of “car designed to maximize T2 ability gaining enough time behind the faster car in T2 that they can lose it through T3 and T1 and be too far ahead for an overtaking maneuver” is almost unfixable.

    Go ahead, have different corners, and have a tricky section or three of linked corners. But don’t make it one section of half-or-more of the track, and make sure there’s some straight-corner or two-straight available.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Interesting points Mycroft W. I definitely agree that there need to be fewer slow corners — they do little for racing, as there is usually only one line through them, which just sends cars through in single file.

    Corners can of course add something to the race. For me, the key is to make it challenging. Most of the overtaking seen at Silverstone is at Stowe. Why is that? It’s not because Stowe is a corner particularly well-designed for overtaking — it’s because Maggots and Becketts is so challenging that drivers are more likely to make mistakes, disadvantaging them all the way down Hangar Straight and allowing the car behind to have a go.