Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Without overtaking all we have to watch is a race where the cars go round and round for 90 minutes with the race winner being the pole sitter. And too many times over the last five seasons or so that has been the case. The cars finished roughly in the same position they qualified. The television pundits and media folk would talk excitedly to the drivers and team principals about what a fantastic race we just witnessed when in reality nothing at all happened. For some strange reason they think that we fans will be just as excited as they are. But we are not. We the fans will have paid around £400/£500 to sit in a grandstand to witness a procession, where absolutely nothing of note occurred.
I think overtaking is absolutely vital to the sport of F1. A successful overtake requires skill, bravery and generally a faster car. It is one of two things that make the fans jump out of their seats in excitement. A great overtake is remembered for ever. My own favourite is Nigel Mansell on Nelson Piquet, Silverstone 1987 and the subsequent track invasion. No doubt you have your own favourite. The second thing we love to see? Well that’s a spectacular crash.
The F1 lord and masters know that lack of overtaking is the biggest frustration for the fans. So why don’t they tackle the problem and come up with a solution? They would argue that they made many changes to the rules and regulations. For example, DRS overtaking zones (an artificial overtaking aid), more powerful cars, more aero efficient cars, wider cars, cars featuring tyres that degrade to the point of failure and then let go in a spectacular fashion. At least the exploding tyres were exciting to watch. Then there have been changes that have been introduced which just alienate F1’s fan base. Safety cars, virtual safety cars, noiseless cars, halo head protection devices, hybrid engines, grid penalties and young drivers we have never heard of. Yet not one of these many changes have led to a sustained increase in overtaking.
Track design is often targeted as being the problem. In particular circuits designed by Herman Tilke. However other categories of motorsport enjoy plenty of overtaking on the very same circuits.
F1 sees itself as the pinnacle of motorsport and that claim can only be justified if its cars can set lap times that are faster than any other form of motorsport. That is why aerodynamics plays such an important role in car design. So efficient are the cars aero packages that they are capable of generating huge amounts of downforce that enable them to take corners at incredible speeds and set unbelievable lap times. However the resulting air coming of the back of the car is so turbulent that it makes it almost impossible for a following car to get close enough to attempt an overtake. Consider this; the first race of the 2018 F1 season at Melbourne demonstrated the problem. On the closing laps, Lewis Hamilton chasing race leader Sebastian Vettel gave up the pursuit for victory because as he closed the gap to Vettel the turbulent air from Vettel’s car destroyed the aero performance of his car. It was impossible for Hamilton to overtake despite the fact he had a faster car. Can you believe it? With just 4 laps to go Hamilton gave up. My guess is so did many F1 fans. I know I did.
My argument is that the format of the F1 race weekend reinforces the problem of and guarantees little or no overtaking during a race.
We all know the format to the race weekend. Two practice sessions on Friday, another practice session on Saturday morning, qualifying in the afternoon. Sunday the race itself. So at any Grand Prix by the time we reach qualifying, the practice sessions have enabled the teams and drivers to perfect their cars performance for the circuit in question.
Next up qualifying. The qualifying session simply places the cars in order of performance. In fairness the qualifying session places the drivers under great pressure to perform and reproduce the pace they achieved in practice. For many fans the qualifying session is the most exciting part of the race weekend.
Finally the race itself. All the cars lined up on the grid in order of pace. Fastest at the front, slowest at the back. At most races the cars get away from the start in perfect order. It is unusual for the race order to change very much, so with cars now circulating (racing) in almost the same order as they qualified there should never be any overtaking throughout the race. Why so? Because a slower car cannot overtake a faster car and this truth is reinforced because the moment a driver attempts to overtake, physics takes over (turbulent air problem) and makes it impossible.
Very occasionally we have a great race when rules and regulations interfere with qualifying positions and grid penalties are applied. Penalties can be earned for mechanical failures, speeding offences, and I love this one, an unsafe release. There are a myriad of offences which can put one of the leading cars towards the back of the grid. Now there is a real chance of seeing some overtaking as a fast car with grid penalties is placed amongst the slower cars. The excitement only goes so far, as pretty soon the driver with the grid penalties will find himself behind cars of a similar pace and then again the law of physics takes over. Still the fans get to see some racing. I myself dislike the concept of grid penalties but have come to love them as they generate overtaking.
My proposal for the re-introduction of overtaking and the introduction of racing is to change to the format of the F1 weekend.
Grid Positions will be determined by the drawing of lots. Just like an FA cup draw. This will be done in the full glare of TV cameras on the podium on Saturday and Sunday. A totally random grid. You are virtually ensured of seeing overtaking throughout the field. Drivers would be interviewed for their reaction to their grid positions. It should be funny and compelling viewing.
Grid penalties are removed from the rule book because what’s the point of a grid penalty when grid position is now random. Any penalties earned during the race are applied during the race. No post-race penalties allowed. Under any circumstances.
Friday practice sessions will be removed and Qualifying is eliminated. Friday is given over to promotional activities. Fans will be allowed unlimited access to the paddock and pit lanes and meet the driver sessions. You don’t think this can be feasible. Well at the Le Mans 24hour race that is what happens and the crowd is much bigger in size.
Saturday morning is practice time with a 2 hour practice session being the only time allowed to prepare the cars. The old Saturday afternoon qualifying sessions are replaced by a Sprint race of approximately 30 laps (no pit stops for tyre changes). The grid position lottery takes place at mid-day on Saturday.
Sunday race day. The morning is given over to a variety of track based entertainment, for example, motorcycle stunting and Big V8’s drifting, with the emphasis being noise and visceral excitement. The support races would not be part of the race weekend. The truth of the matter is that the support series play to near empty grandstands, so why have them.
At 12 noon the grid position lottery takes place, broadcast live around the circuit. It would be great, the confusion of not knowing your grid position until close to the race would place drivers and team engineers under huge pressure in determining best strategy. Over a season the luck of grid positions would even itself out. The race would be full length 90 minute race with no tyre changes allowed except for flat tyres. No stops for more fuel. Just flat out racing.
With two races per weekend we would have two championships. Saturday racing would produce the F1 Sprint Champion and Sunday racing would produce the F1 Champion.
Cricket has manged to introduce different championships that run concurrently. Test matches; One day internationals and T20 limited over games. The fans love it. So why should’t F1 have multiple championships?
My proposal still keeps F1 as the fastest racing series. My proposal is radical and may not be welcomed by the three big teams (Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull) but I feel that most other teams may readily accept my proposal. The fans would get two races instead of one, they would witness a greater racing spectacle with the prospect of more overtaking.
My other idea would be to award drivers with a point for every successful overtake during the race. If a driver is subsequently re-overtaken he does not lose his point won previously. These overtake points are collected throughout the season and at the end of the season the top overtaking driver is awarded a cup/medal and prize for ‘king of the overtakes’. It’s a bit like in cycling where a rider in the Tour De France wins the Green Jersey for sprint wins.
At the end of the season I would still expect to see the big beasts at the top of the championships (as they should be) but we will have witnessed a more compelling and unpredictable race series.
I accept that F1 needs to have the fastest lap times in motorsport. But think about this. MotoGP motorcycles have lap times that are in general 30 seconds/lap slower than F1 cars yet out on track they look faster and they ma,nage to achieve much more overtaking and closer racing.
F1 must do something to arrest its decline in popularity, but up to now all the governing body and shareholders have achieved is less and less actual racing, higher costs and loss of support from the fee paying fans. My message to F1 is ‘be radical, be brave, embrace change and once again become exciting’.