There have been four grands prix in 2011 so far, and they have been widely hailed as a great success. There is no doubt that the races have been action-packed, with something always going on.
But I wasn’t feeling it quite as much as many others were. I thought the Chinese Grand Prix was okay. But the reaction of others left me perplexed. All kinds of platitudes were bandied about. “The best dry race in decades!” “The best since Japan 2005!” Really? I wasn’t feeling that at all.
But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was leaving me cold about F1 in 2011. There have been a lot of changes for this season, which has led to a very different style of racing. But what was it about the new F1 that was leaving me less thrilled than others?
It took me some time to work it out. But once I hit on it, the worse it seemed — and it has left me feeling a bit pessimistic about the prospects for truly good racing in 2011.
A pain in DRS?
A lot of attention has been focused on the brand new drag reduction system. Results of the DRS have been patchy.
At some races — particularly Australia — the DRS has been just enough to allow a driver behind to catch up. At the opposite extreme, in Turkey it was obvious that the DRS zone was far too long, and drivers were making easy passes that were not pleasing to watch.
The core problem is that it gives one driver and advantage over another — a significant deviation from the purity of racing. Comparisons to turbo boosts in the 1980s are no good. It may be a button that drivers can press, but there the similarity ends.
Back then, all of the options were open to everyone. You could choose to have a turbo or not, and you could use it whenever you wanted. But to say who can use a device and when they can use it is not on.
To artificially give the trailing driver a speed advantage is taking us into Mario Kart territory. As a friend said to me, “It’s like they have allowed cheating”. It is fundamentally wrong and does not belong in any event that calls itself a sport.
I love the idea of moveable rear wings, but the implementation is all wrong. I don’t even understand why it can only be used in one part of the circuit. As Niki Lauda said, why is it the FIA’s job to say where drivers can pass each other?
Moreover, the hit and miss nature of the DRS zone is leading to different sorts of results in different races. The zones change size, and sometimes the FIA have got it wrong. They have even changed the position of the DRS activation point during a race weekend. What other word is there for this apart from ‘manipulation‘?
This may be a device designed to “fix” the “problems” with overtaking. Instead, we have come one step away from fixing the results.
F1 has sold its rubber soul
But I am more concerned about the situation with the new Pirelli tyres. While the DRS is widely criticised, people have been much kinder about the tyre situation. Indeed, one of the more popular refrains this year has been “thank you Pirelli”. But I am in no mood to thank them.
They are designed to degrade artificially quickly. This is a significant deviation from the concept of F1. Formula 1 is now no longer about the best drivers in the best cars. It’s about the best drivers in the best cars — with the worst tyres.
While technical regulations have always restricted cars (it is the “formula” in Formula 1, after all), the tradition has always been to maximise the performance to create the fastest car possible that adheres to the formula of the day. That is what brings us radical ideas like the double diffuser and the F-duct, that many F1 fans love to talk about.
With the tyres, Pirelli have deliberately made them perform badly. Come on, this is supposed to be elite motorsport.
Moreover, these dodgy tyres have now become the central issue of a grand prix weekend. I have long bemoaned the dominance of tyres in F1. If a car has better aerodynamics, you can see it. If an engine is faster, you can hear it. But the tyres? They are just black boxes that sit in the four corners.
But there is no getting away from it — tyres are hugely important to the performance of a car. What I don’t understand is why you would want to accentuate that.
Critics of F1 often complain that the drivers of the best cars always win. What these people misunderstand is that F1 is all about engineering excellence, just as much as it is about great driving.
But now we have now reached a stage where the deciding factor is neither the driver nor the car. It is now all about strategy — driven by deliberately dodgy tyres — above all else.
They are now so important that the situation is now threatening to make qualifying a complete non-event. After all those years spent tweaking the format of qualifying in the name of “the show”, you have to laugh when further changes totally break a format they finally got right.
The reason? Because you need as many fresh sets of tyres as possible to last the whole race. This means less track action on Saturday, as teams are fearful of using too many sets of tyres. What is this, Formula 1 bean counting, or Formula 1 motor racing?
Divergent strategies reduce real racing
In addition to spearing Saturday action, it is my view that the tyres situation is making Sundays less exciting too.
Take the experience of Mark Webber. He climbed from 18th on the grid to finish 3rd in China. You’d think if anyone would be excited about the wheel-to-wheel action in 2011, it would be him. Not so much.
After the race he told the BBC, “Sometimes the overtaking moves aren’t that genuine because the guys really have nothing to fight back with. It’s more tactical now, and a bit less racing.” During the BBC’s broadcast from Turkey, Martin Brundle revealed that Webber had told him privately that he got no satisfaction out of the progress through the field in China. James Allen further hinted at Webber’s distinct unhappiness at the situation.
Following Turkey, Jenson Button lay the blame for his poor result squarely on his strategy. Asked about what happens when his tyres go off, Button said, “You’re not racing any more. You’re trying your best to get the best out of the car, but you’re not racing anyone around you because you are a sitting duck… They just come past you and you can’t do anything.”
Overtaking has looked like it’s too easy this year, and it is not just because of DRS. The situation with the tyres means that drivers are dealing with such radically different levels of grip that the slower driver does not even bother to defend any more.
Many celebrated Lewis Hamilton’s pass on Sebastian Vettel for the lead of the Chinese Grand Prix. But for me, it killed the race as soon as it happened. I was hoping for Vettel to be able to defend, but he simply couldn’t. As it was, the pass was inevitable for laps in advance.
In the laps between Hamilton’s pitstop and his pass on Vettel, the McLaren driver was an average of 0.9s a lap faster than the Red Bull. (At one point he set a lap time 1.6 seconds up on Vettel.) To put this into perspective, during Q1 in China, a 0.9s gap to the fastest driver would have earned 18th on the grid.
Is it really exciting to watch a car that’s got an advantage of around one second a lap breeze on by? Not for me. This isn’t overtaking — it’s merely passing. It’s hardly Dijon 1979, is it? Today René Arnoux would flip his flap, press his boost button and head off into the distance on his superior tyres — race over.
The performance differences are huge, and it is all down to decisions that are made by computers far in advance. It is out of the driver’s hands. What is this, the Excel Grand Prix of Spreadsheet?
It is right that strategy plays a part in a race. But this year the balance has been tipped way over the edge, to the point where the driver’s influence on the outcome of the race has been severely diminished. You almost may as well hold the grand prix on a computer where all of the strategies have been put in.
To open up strategy options for this season without resorting to crap tyres that create crap pseudo-racing, they could simply have ditched the rule whereby drivers are forced to run on both compounds. This would have opened up the possibilities of running a 0, 1 or 2 stop strategy.
Instead, we are now seeing record-breaking levels of pitstops — upwards of 80 pitstops a race — for no good reason. This has taken away the emphasis from the on-track action, and has made huge amounts of the “racing” totally irrelevant.
It wasn’t broke, so why “fix” it?
The most disturbing thing about all the changes this season is the fact that there was very little wrong with Formula 1 in the first place. I didn’t complain that Formula 1 is dull. And while there was room for improvement, I have long bemoned the gimmicky thinking that has come about through efforts to “improve the show”. Now it is in danger of jumping the shark.
I love Formula 1 motor racing. I have done since the mid-1990s. There were lots of other people who claimed they also loved F1 — but at the same time complained about “processional races”. They said that F1 was too dull. Yet, for some reason, they still watched it anyway, and demanded changes. Huh?
I feel like the sport I love has been hijacked.
I also believe that the criticisms of the new format have been misunderstood by some insiders. It is not “too much overtaking” or “too much of a good thing”.
James Allen said, “it’s a bit like going into a sweet shop and eating half the stock, when you’ve only been used to getting a packet of Polos at best.” That’s not how I feel. It’s actually more like going into a nice restaurant expecting a good meal and being served a Big Mac instead.
Time to end the fixation with “the show”
Don’t get me wrong. I am still deriving satisfaction from Formula 1 this season. But the wheel-to-wheel action has become a lot more insipid this year, and bland passing has become so prevalent that overtaking has become devalued.
Kers is great for Formula 1. But the tyres situation, combined with DRS, is threatening to spoil the party. It wasn’t broke, but they fixed it anyway. But in “fixing” the racing, we have come just one step away from fixed races. The positioning of the DRS zone, determined by an FIA mandarin, could potentially make the difference between who wins and who loses.
Somewhere along the line, F1 has become so fixated on “the show” that it has forgotten about the race. There are now too many gimmicks and complications that deviate from the core concept that has served motorsport well for over a century: put a bunch of cars on a track and discover which is the fastest.
Of course, motorsport must always seek to entertain the audience. It wouldn’t exist otherwise. But you also need to remember why fans of motorsport tune in. Clue: it’s because they want to see a motor race. There are plenty of other places where you can be entertained by contrived or fictitious means.
But sport is supposed to be based on merit. It needs to be real.
When Renault’s James Allison said “We are an entertainment business,” it showed how wrong this whole approach is. We are dangerously striding towards WWE territory. If James Allison wants to work in an entertainment business, he can go to work in Hollywood. I want to watch a race.
The toxic focus on “the show” needs to stop.
This is a show:
This is a race:
Now, let’s go racing.