17 April, 2011

The State of Formula 1

Oh my goodness.

It's been quite a while since I've written in this blog (nearly a month, in fact), and today I can definitely say that the fantastic Formula 1 race has moved me to add another piece.

It's kind of ironic, actually. When I first started this blog I (erroneously) thought I'd have enough time and opportunities to write both what happens in The Garage and what happens in the racing world. Thus far I've done a little of the former and none of the latter. I feel it would be a travesty, though, to let such a brilliant race slip by unnoticed in the annals of this collection; for what we saw today was the culmination of quite a bit of work aimed at changing the face of the sport. Today, we saw the fruits of that labor.

I'm not going to say that the state of F1 is perfect the way it is right now. No, no. It's far from it. When Jenson and Lewis will be paid a combined $175 million for their efforts at McLaren, or when the teams at the back of the grid are undergoing a rabid trial by fire to make it to the green flag each race, F1 is still not fixed. Saying it like that makes it seem as though I'm accusing it of being broken, which I also don't think is the truth. I've loved the sport since I first saw it, even when its harshest critics walked away in droves after the USGP in 2005 or when lack of on-track passing prompted many to label the races as boring. While I can see their points, I've never felt this way. But apparently in the past few years the head brass of the FIA have, and thus the tweaking began.

Every year they've tried to snatch downforce from these brilliant aerodynamicists (who are always able to claw it back). They've changed the tyres. They've changed the engines. They've changed the qualifying. On and on and on. But now that most of those changes seem old hat to fans now, the newest changes come to the forefront: The return of KERS, the new Pirelli tyres and the DRS.

Addressing them in order, I've been mixed about the Kinetic Energy Recovery System. While I can see how some would argue that it's road-car-relevant, at this point it's become an overtaking device both for the act and for preventing it. Yes some cars are investigating and even starting to employ similar systems, but in the world of cost cutting and budget issues, investing loads of cash into this was a bit much to me. But what does it do to the racing? As we've seen this season (now that nearly everyone has it), it hasn't been half bad. True there's still the chance of severe electrocution or noxious fumes like the ones that poured out of Kimi's Ferrari a while back, but overall it's made a difference. Red Bull claims it's 0.3 seconds per lap for these six seconds of 80 extra horsepower. The weight of the system is what prevents that number from being more advantageous, but in a world where millions are poured into tenths, that 0.3 doesn't look too shabby.

Pirelli have also been under the criticizing eye of the public since the start of the season, and for them it's been a mixed bag. No one expected them to jump right into the pinnacle of motor sports and deliver cracking tyres that are on the level with Bridgestone, but through the help of vets like Nick Heidfeld and Pedro de la Rosa, the Italians have done a good job. The glaring issue that's plagued them so far this season was exemplified off the racing line in Shanghai: These tyres wear heavily. You'll be hard pressed in most races this year to run a two-stopper, and the thought of a one-stop race is basically out of the question. To me, though, I love this. Now it goes back to the skill of the driver. Can he command the most out of his car while protecting most of his rubber? In pressure situations, can he keep his cool and not scrub off their speed or flat spot them into oblivion? It definitely spices things up.

Gnawing at the back of my mind, though, is the fact that one Bernard Ecclestone said something very similar long ago. I rarely submit and say that the man was 100% correct, but whether you agree with his brash nature, his scathing and often cutthroat comments or not, Ecclestone knows what's right more often than not. (Don't even get me started on his ridiculous ideas of artificial rain.) He had said that it will be good to have tyres that aren't very good because then you'll get chaos. You'll have scrambling and strategy adjustment. You'll have three-, four- or five-stop races. Orders will be mixed and the racing will be more exciting. And damnit, I'm afraid he's dead right on this one. That said, I'd be fine if Pirelli never change their compounds from here on out. So what if the drivers complain? Like I've said before, they're supposed to be the best in the world. They're paid to drive the cars. Heading into this season some said pushing a few extra buttons would be tough for them. Then it's tough! Let them prove themselves, and let the best ones win. I think Pirelli are doing that in more ways than one.

The other day someone asked me what I thought of the Drag Reduction System, and the first thought that came to my head was "It's gimmicky." I still hold to that statement, but that doesn't mean I don't like it. Technologically it's phenomenal: A system that can instantaneously remove 100 lbs of downforce from the cars that can only be used if you're the trailing car and are within one second of another car on a certain part of the track? A system that, once deployed, snaps back to its normal configuration within 0.05 seconds of when you press the brake? Wow. Just the engineering to make that work makes my head spin. But the more important thing to think about, especially if you're a critic of the DRS, is that fans are getting their wish.

How many times have you heard people gripe for the past ten years (heck, the past 20!) about how the cars have too much downforce. The aero is disrupted when you're too close to the car in front of you, and the cars stick to the ground so much easier now. The days of the 1971 Monza-type races are gone. Blah blah blah. By slipping the DRS into the rules this year, Formula 1 has given the fans back the days of close following and slipstreaming while not giving so much that the spectacle decays into a Talladega-like draft-fest. Watching Hamilton hunt Vettel today was something of beauty, but part of the tension came from the fact that you knew he was close enough to use both the KERS and DRS when they hit that backstretch. From there it would be Hamilton's slingshot versus Vettel's KERS and an impossibly fast Adrian Newey masterpiece. The on-screen graphics showed the speed differentials when Webber was slicing and dicing his way through the field, and his speeds would be 10 or 15 kph higher than the other car's. You knew he had the speed, and from there it's down to the skill of the driver to use it accordingly. To me that's fascinating and enthralling.

What the KERS and DRS do is, ultimately, spice up the show. Their gimmicky-ness aside, I almost hate to admit, but they're doing their jobs. China was fantastic. Even some of the F1 drivers like Lotus tester Karun Chandhok said that this was the best dry race they've seen in a long time, not just for the fact that we actually saw the wunderkind Vettel get passed on track for the lead (in an incident that wasn't at the start of the race or due to an accident/mechanical failure). Watching the race today we said that to catch Vettel Hamilton would have to drive the car, not just drive it. He would have to utilize his tools, mind his tyres and attack the once-untouchable German. And by God, he did. We said the same about Webber if he hoped to climb up from the depths of the grid, and even though he didn't have KERS, Webber drove what was probably the drive of the entire race. Unbelievable.

It's not that before this race I hadn't noticed how the changes of recent years have affected the sport, it's just that today it was most purely exemplified in a spectacle that basically defined why I love Formula 1. The racing was pure, there weren't accidents galore like the ones that have come to define IndyCar this year. There weren't competition, debris or full-course cautions today to bunch up the field to create a false fantastic finish like at Talladega. This was a race that was uninterrupted. This was a race that featured the most technologically-advanced cars on the planet racing within seconds of each other despite being made completely different from every other car. This was a race that had action, suspense, seething talent and a worldwide television audience in the hundreds of millions to watch. This is the sport I love. This is what Formula 1 should always be.

No comments:

Post a Comment