Formula One

28 May 2009
What Formula One should be doing - Part II

In Part I I explained how Formula One’s regulations were ruining the sport...

So, the answer is to get rid of the regulations, yes?  If only it were that easy.  Formula 1 has a secret.  No, not a particularly dirty one, but a secret, nevertheless.  They solved the problem.  About 30 years ago (and we’re talking ground effect here again) Formula 1 teams solved the problem of how to go round corners quickly.  Hooray, you might say, and so might I, on a technical level.  But going round corners quickly creates at least two new problems.  First the potential g-forces are greater than the unaided human body can stand and second, if anything goes wrong when the car is cornering (as it did in Ayrton Senna’s case) the car is going to crash at very high speed.  Such things might not matter if F1 was still a largely amateur sport made up of gentlemen racers but it isn’t and the audience that pays the professionals doesn’t want their heroes to be just people who can stand up to high g-forces.  They want them to demonstrate some skill.  Oh, and stay alive.  That’s also quite important.

So, I have no doubt that cars do have to be slowed down in the corners.  It’s just a question of how to do that without tying up the sport in red tape.  My candidate is a weight limit.  Tell teams that they can have any design they like so long as when it leaves the start line it weighs less than, say, 500kg.  As technology improves and cars get dangerously fast simply lower the limit.  Every time this is done teams will have to work out which bit of their car - whether it be the engine, transmission, suspension, wheels or bodywork has to lose the weight.  Each team will answer the question slightly differently leading to a wide variety of designs.

Another way might be to make the cars behave more like ordinary cars.  This might include demanding that all cars be started by the driver alone (they’re not at present), that they be drivable by amateurs (although I am not quite sure how you’d enforce this), that they make their way to the track under their own power.  It’s always struck me as bizarre that cars are allowed to refuel when they like.  Make each team state in advance when they plan to stop for fuel - it would at least be closer to the situation in real life.

21 May 2009
What Formula One should be doing - Part I

Formula One is in crisis.  As the Depression bites many teams are running out of money.  The cars are dull to look at and the racing is much the same.  Up until this year the same two teams (Ferrari and McLaren) dominated.  And now several teams including Ferrari are thinking of quitting the sport altogether.

So, what should the sport do?  The first thing it must do is to understand how it got into this mess.

But before we do this I would like to deal with a red herring.  People often complain that there’s not enough overtaking and wheel-to-wheel racing in F1.  But there never was, apparently.  And when you think about it, why should there be?  Surely, the best car-driver combination should, under almost all circumstances, shoot off into the distance?  The only real reason why this should change during a race would be either through driver fatigue or brake and tire wear.

Having said that there is a problem with overtaking a slightly slower car.  Modern racing car aerodynamics like to take clean (or laminar) air flows and spew out dirty (or turbulent) air flows.  So, the car attempting to overtake finds that it has to deal with the overtakee’s dirty air rather than the clean air it’s designed to deal with.  The result? Appalling and unpredictable handling.  And difficult overtaking.  Perhaps they could experiment with overtaking lanes or come up with a measurement or the turbulence from the back of cars and limit it.  Who knows.  But, as I said, it’s not as big a problem as people tend to think.

No, the real problem in F1 is regulation.  Want a bigger engine?  You can’t, it’s banned.  Or maybe you want to put a turbo on it?  You can’t do that either, that’s also banned.  Hey, there’s even a restriction on the number of cylinders you’re allowed.  Or what about high wings, fans, skirts, more than four wheels, closed cockpits, closed wheels?  You can’t.  Banned, banned, banned, banned.  It’s no wonder all the cars look the same.  The complexity of the regulations eventually forced Gordon Murray, one of F1’s most talented designers and the man behind the McLaren F1, to abandon the sport altogether.

But while it is easy to see why the regulations make for boring cars it is difficult for many to see why this leads to spiralling costs and a lack of competition.

But that’s what regulations always do.  They always help the big guys at the expense of the little guys.  For instance, in the 1970s Lotus came up with ground effect.  Using skirts to control air flow, ground effect “glued” the car to the ground while cornering.  It was cheap and it was banned.  It then took 20 years of expensive computer modelling and wind-tunnel testing to regain the downforce the ban had removed.  It’s not hard to guess which teams were the first to reap the benefits.

But what about this year? I hear you ask.  They’ve changed the rules and all of a sudden it’s the little teams that are prospering.  Just you wait, I say.  Give it a year and the big boys will be back.

See here for Part II