Why I am finding F1 less gripping in 2011

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.


  1. Pardon me for saying it but I told you so. While all the fans were screaming for more overtaking, I think I was the only one suggesting that overtaking is not what racing is about (if it were, we’d all be watching NASCAR). I can’t remember how many posts I wrote warning that the show did not need improving – it just needed simple rules.

    I’m still watching but without enthusiasm. No wonder I don’t write about it anymore…

  2. Hi Clive, great to see you leaving a comment! I thought there was room to look for ways to increase overtaking a bit, but Nascar levels of overtaking are certainly undesirable, and I think what F1 has this year appears to be too much. Or it is the wrong type of overtaking, anyway.

  3. I agree with almost everything you wrote here. I’ve actually been considering stepping away from F1 for this season because I’m not really enjoying it.

    You’re using too much bold type for my liking though 😉

  4. […] been bugging me about recent F1, primarily since the Turkish Grand Prix. However, it was only when Duncan Stephen wrote his item on why he was finding 2011-spec F1 not to his taste that I figured out how to write my own objections to what's been going on. My first reaction to the […]

  5. Hurrah! Somebody doesn’t think that the current F1 is a) the bee’s knees or b) only ruined by excess overtaking.

    I’ve had similar thoughts though perhaps to a lesser extreme. I see tyre wear to be part of the challenge of racing and the only problem I have with the current tyre philosophy is that they take all the strategy out of racing. Basically, there’s only one that works and the only reason we’re seeing competition is because most teams haven’t worked out what that strategy is yet (I blogged about it because I was about to dump a 1100-word essay in the comments…) Said strategy has effectively re-introduced single-lap qualifying through the back door.

    In addition, it’s got to the point where challenging the pole-sitter depends on two drivers from the same team being in 2nd and 3rd after the first corner – and then immediately ordering one of them to not fight their team-mate but instead foreshadow 4th place by 1.1 seconds, forcing 4th place to use up their tyres catching 3rd place while letting 2nd, unimpeded, try to do something about the leader. When team orders are necessary to have racing at the front, there’s a big problem.

  6. Clive, good to hear from you again 🙂 Max is still in the FIA Senate – apparently he’s stuck there until he dies. At least now he has privacy stuff to distract him from saying silly things about F1.

    I have to admit the sportscar race at Spa was more entertaining for me than the F1, even if I did end up staying off the internet all Saturday evening to make up for hogging the connection. Somehow I doubt this is entirely due to Fisico winning his class in that race…

  7. Either it’s 2008 again, or I’m actually seeing Clive and Vee for the first time in AGES. 🙂 Happy to see you’re alive and well.

    Going back to the article, I agree with the general assessment. I think you’re a touch too harsh on tyres (a more stable set of control tyres is all that’s required, not the super-grippy rubber of the tyre wars), but I totally agree with you on DRS. The main reason I’m much more sympathetic to the tyres is that everyone is using the same rubber, and it’s up to the driver to make it work. DRS, on the other hand, is patently unfair for the reasons you’ve already stated.

    That said, there are some folks who are VERY happy with what they’re seeing now, and as much as I disagree with them, I can’t blame them. People watch F1 for different reasons, and people’s vision of what F1 should be varies from person to person. The sport can’t please all the people all the time, but they also do understand that they need to please most of the people most of the time. After all, where would F1 be without the fans…

  8. I’m not sure where I stand on the whole issue tbh. I mean I look at races from the 80s and I think – boring, especially since it was either Senna or Prost out front and nothing spectacular going on behind, from what i’ve seen, similar to the Ferrari dominance of the 2000s really. Personally I don’t care for the drivers, I’m really only interested in the cars, and what technical achievements the teams can bring to improve their results. I do think that the tyres and the DRS could maybe have a bit of tweaking to make them less influential. Still you have two camps really. The hardcore techie purists who will watch a race regardless of how “boring” it is, and the dumb football fans who tune in because they want to see Hamilton blitz past the field. Unfortunatly the latter substantially outnumbers the former, and from a business point of view, without the latter, F1 would go bust. I have a feeling if the 2009 breakaway happened, the FOTA series would appeal to the latter, with the big names, and the FIA series would have appealed to the former. But then again I like the FIA, so maybe i’m wrong 😛

  9. Just an addendum to the previous comment, what I would like to see is a reduction on DRS, (KERS is fine I think, but DRS is maybe a step too little in the wrong direction), proper tyres which are durable, and a restriction on maybe rear-end aerodynamics, so that its a do-able challenge (not impossible, but not too easy) to pass an opponent on track. Maybe this could be done to a level that we’d get a few nice wheel-to-wheel battles every race, but again, not all the time. I’d like to give the driver who’s just been passed, a chance to counter-attack. Also a generic, non-biased, Digital TV service (i.e. commentary, a studio channel, pre-race features) provided by FOM, with a little less focus on the human element. (OK, basically F1digital+ again please, heck i’d even pay for it)

  10. Also I wish someone would tell Luca di Montezemolo to shut up! Seriously, he has no business sniping at the smaller teams. Would he like to be reminded that ferrari were unable to win a drivers or constructors championship from 1979 to 1999 (99 – constructors only)? Maybe he wouldn’t feel so special then.

  11. Thanks for the great comments everyone. Brilliant to see some old — and new — faces.


    Basically, there’s only one that works and the only reason we’re seeing competition is because most teams haven’t worked out what that strategy is yet

    Just like refuelling. It seems like another variable at first, but soon enough the teams will get on top of it and the optimal strategy will be clear, and universally followed.

    Journeyer, The fans definitely need to be taken into account. It is a tricky balance to strike. But higher viewing figures are not necessarily always good. That’s why I posted the video of a dog saying “sausages”. It may be a crowd pleaser, but it ain’t F1.

    John, I like your thinking. I definitely think a restriction on the rear wing would do a lot to reduce the ‘dirty air’ problems without the need to give the trailing driver an unfair advantage.

    I would also quite like a return to F1 Digital+. I didn’t have it first time round, but I think I would probably pay for it today. I fear that Bernie is once bitten, twice shy on that matter though!

    Thanks everyone.

  12. Your claim about the FIA fixing the races are simply unsupportable. Race fixing specifically favours one driver/team over the other – DRS favours no particular car. You’re using inflammatory language to make your point.

    For examples of FIA race fixing, see Ferrari.

  13. Duncan, this is an utterly brilliant article – thoroughly enjoyed it and found myself nodding in agreement with your thoughts on F1 2011, it is worrying indeed and like you I’ve been watching since the early/mid-90s – yes there may have been the odd processional race, but as you say we still watched and enjoyed it (and came back for more).

    One point I think needs to be emphasised more is the need to remove the silly “must use 2 different compounds of tyre” – it’s a rule I’ve been against since it was introduced, it’s fake and just all a bit silly. Your latter points about “the show” and “the racing” are spot on, love the analogy of WWE, but don’t love the fact that you’re right – it’s getting dangerously close to becoming that.

  14. Lately in F1 it is notoriously difficult to follow an F1 car once you get into the “dirty air”. You are immediately disadvantaged and even if you have better pace it is extremely hard to pass. In the last 10 years (despite the rule changes) the level of downforce went through the roof adding to the above problem.

    Think of DRS as a cheap way of countering this disadvantage that chasing cars have, by giving them an advantage. In other forms of motorsport where you can follow someone through the corners and slipstream on the straights, there is more overtaking. In Moto GP sometimes it is a disadvantage for you to be leading into the last corner if there is a long start/finish straight, because you will almost surely be passed.

    A better solution than the DRS would be to overhaul the “formula” and put more emphasis on mechanical grip rather than on aerodynamics. But this is very costly and takes time. Hopefuly the 2013 regs will address that. But in the meantime I would not be so negative about DRS as a temporary solution to a problem that F1 has had for years.

    As for the tyres. The problem is having just one tyre supplier. If there is no competitition, nobody is pushing Pirelli to improve the tyre. If we had 4 tyre suppliers we would see even more possibilities for race strategies. Tyre companies would constantly have to provide more grip AND durability at the same time (hard to do – compromise needed) We could see tyres designed especialy for qualifying etc.

    This is of course dream territory as there is a reason for stopping the tyre war and that is cost. Same goes for engine development freeze, banning testing etc. of course in a perfect world we would have all these things but in todays economic climate its impossible.

    So given that, i prefer what Pirelli have done to what Brdgestone was doing. A tyre that lasts the whole race andf a rule telling you you must use both compounds was worse that what we have now. teams made a pitstop only because there was a rule telling them to. Now the racing is more pure in my oppinion in terms of tyres. (given no tyre war)

    At the end of the day it all comes down to money.

  15. I agree, but then I don’t agree. I found the last few races much more exciting, perhaps that means I am not a hard-core fan and that is OK, but I don’t think we have gotten rid of the main problem.

    Here’s the thing. I think DRS is great, as long as what it does is remove the aero deficiency from driving behind another driver, i.e. it should let them slipstream like the old days, it should try and reclaim the lost downforce. Clearly at the last race it was too easy. It should also be banned in qualifying, since there is no aero deficiency.

    The tyres? Well, in my view the problem isn’t that the tyres degrade artificially, it is that in doing so they hand all the power to the team. In my view what is needed is a clear division between the team’s work and the driver’s work.

    When the driver is on the track he should be alone. All decisions should be his. He shouldn’t have 20 people and a supercomputer figuring out when he can come in, he should race til the tyres die, then pop in for some new ones.

    So what am I proposing? Once the driver is on track he and the team cannot communicate except for him to tell them (by button) that he is going to pit or for them to tell him, with a nice dash-light, to stop because of a safety issue (intermediate or terminal).

    F1 is about the tech, but once the tech is switched on it should be under the sole control of the driver. If the machine is too complicated that way, then they need to uncomplicate it.

  16. Lovely article, I couldn’t agree more – although personally I do slightly prefer this year’s tyres to last. We’ve gone from absurdly durable (running effectively a whole race on the softs begged the question why the harder compound and the compound rules existed!) to the other extreme.

    I also can’t help but wonder just how deliberate Pirelli’s fast-wearing tyres really are. Let’s at least put it this way: I’m sure Pirelli were deligthed that they were asked to make fast-wearing boots, not hard-wearing Bridgestone rivals. After 20 years away, it’s a tall order to jump straight back in.

    Final thought, as undeniably brilliant as the Villeneuve/Arnoux battle was – I reckon about 20% of its excitement has to be attributed to my favourite F1 personality of all time, Murray Walker.
    “INCREDIBLE! Villeneuve stood on everything.”
    “He’s off, he’s off, and he’s back again.”

  17. One thing, you mentioned that the tyres were designed to PERFORM badly. However, the tyres’ grip is good, arguably better the Bridgestones, but are designed to last for a shorter distance. This does NOT mean that the tyres perform badly.

  18. Agree 100%. Yes, the overtaking is ‘entertaining’, but thanks to tyres that are useless after 15 laps, controlled use of DRS and a pit team with more strategists than engineers, utterly artificial.

    Add in the fact that Bonkers Bernie has seriously suggested ‘short cuts’ and ‘artificial rain’ and you can see he wants to take F1 even further away from being a sport about engineering and driving excellence and closer to officially sanctioned cheating and manipulation. The analogy with WWE is spot on.

    As a number of posters have said, time to get back to basics and an emphasis on mechanical grip over aerodynamics.

    Loved the 1979 French GP clip, but I also can’t help feeling that the voice of Murray Walker added to the adrenaline rush and also that all the corners had evocative names (‘Parabolique’, ‘Virage de la Combe’, ‘Sabeliers’, etc). So much better than ‘Turn 6’ that we get with today’s Tilkedromes.

  19. Thanks for the brilliant comments. Sorry it’s taken me a little while to respond.

    vjanik — I would like to support DRS as a temporary measure. I do hope it doesn’t stick around, but the way some people within F1 talk about it I really do fear that it’s here for the long run.

    Andrew — Interesting ideas. Similar to what the riders go through in MotoGP. Makes you wonder if F1 drivers are in too much of a luxurious position with so much radio contact.

    Mark — Great points. I’m sure Pirelli are happy to work their way up to producing better tyres, but I do hope they are not prevented from doing so “for the good of the show”. I guess the fact that they have now developed a more durable hard tyre is a good sign on that front.

    Mike — Excellent point. It’s the variation in performance — and particularly the phenomenon of “falling off the cliff” — that is causing most of the problems in my view. A happy medium between the uber-durable Bridgestones and the floppy Pirellis — something that performs consistently — would be ideal.

  20. It’s so pathetic that you live your F1 life in 70s. Can you please just stop ranting the shit you have no idea about?