You can change the rules, alter the tracks and shuffle the drivers around a bit, but the Bahrain Grand Prix seems to suggest that Formula One still isn’t as interesting as it could be. I know we’re only one race into what has been billed as the Most Exciting Season Ever and as such I don’t want to be jumping to too many conclusions, but given that some of the big names are already saying the new F1 rules aren’t working it seems I might not be alone in thinking this.
With four quick teams, four world champions and a huge cast of folk that could be there or thereabouts, it looked like 2010 was going to be a cracker from the word go. Instead, what we got is a race alarmingly similar to what we’ve had for the last however many years – a Red Bull shot off at the start and led until it broke, Fernando Alonso capitalised on someone else’s misfortune to take the win, and Lewis Hamilton did a damn fine job in a car that maybe wasn’t all it could have been. And all of that without any real overtaking or thrilling battles along the way.
A big part of the problem appears to be the stipulation that cars must run the full race distance without refueling. On paper, this sounded like an excellent idea, promising lightning-quick pitstops and benefiting engines that are fuel-efficient as well as those that are the most powerful. What happened in reality was that we got a whole field of drivers tentatively teetering round the track, trying not to push their fuel-heavy cars too much in case they damaged the tyres and had to make an additional stop for fresh rubber. A big part of the excitement of racing – seeing who was on what fuelling strategy and watching those running ‘light’ flying round as they tried to build up enough of a lead to warrant an additional stop – had suddenly been removed.
I understand the reasoning behind this, namely that in light of the rather pressing environmental issues facing society we need to encourage fuel efficiency wherever possible, but if all this does is lead to deadly dull races then it’s going to do absolutely nothing to convince motor sport fans to drive more responsibly. Instead, I have an idea based on something a friend told me a few weeks back. Why not give each car a restricted amount of fuel, an amount that will last, say, 75% of race distance for a standard F1 engine running at full chat all the time? The remaining 25% of power for the race must be made up through other means, be it by running the engine ‘lean’ for certain periods, making several fuel stops to lighten the tank, supplementing the petrol engine with a kinetic energy recovery system, using hydrogen fuel cells or whatever else you can come up with. And of course, it goes without saying that the more power you can generate through these means, the less petrol you have to carry and the more weight you can save. That way, you get variety between cars, differences in strategy and the opportunity to showcase alternative technologies to a large and captive audience.
The other thing I find strange is the requirement to use both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ tyres over the course of the race. If the FIA do insist on making cars last the whole race without pitting for fuel, then why not give teams the opportunity of running the whole race without stopping for new tyres either? If someone thinks they can drive in a way that will let them do the entire race without having to pit and without losing too much time if/when the tyres go ‘off’, then let them do it. Again, I see there is a certain logic in terms of cost-cutting and resource efficiency in restricting the number of different types of rubber available over the course of a race weekend, but if all the tyres produced get used over the course of the season then what’s the big problem? Or how about sticking F1 cars on GP2 tyres and reducing the amount of stuff the tyre manufacturers have to cart about that way?
The third thing that narks me is the range of circuits used at the moment. Coming from a part of Scotland where virtually every harbour, bridge and canal was designed by Thomas Telford, I do agree that uniformity is an important part of functionality. Trouble is, functionality isn’t exactly what we want in F1, and there are just too many Tilke tracks on the calendar at the moment. I’ve got nothing against Hermann Tilke personally, but I am with Sir Jackie Stewart when he says that one man can only have one great circuit. Sepang is a decent track and Istanbul is always good fun, but the rest of the recently built grand prix circuits consist almost exclusively of long straights with tight corners at the end and big tarmac run-off areas.
Another grand prix-obsessed friend of mine reckons you can’t design overtaking into a track, but what I think the circuit can do is add character and unpredictability to an otherwise mundane race. For instance, the bizarre situation that can arise at Spa when it’s raining at one end of the circuit or not at the other. Or the rivers of water running perpedicular to the racing line at Interlagos. At the very least, an interesting setting can give us all something to look at and take our minds off the fact that a first-rate bore-fest is unfolding in front of us (i.e. Monaco). Unfortunately, however, ‘character and unpredictability’ more often than not translate into ‘danger’, which is understandably why we don’t race at the old Nürburgring or Österreichring any more. If nothing else, though, getting someone else designing F1 racetracks (or taking some of the most dangerous aspects out of the old favourites) might bring in fresh ideas and a different view on things.
It’s only one race into the season, however, and we need to wait a few more rounds before any kind of verdict can be reached on the 2010 rule changes. Even if the races are dull, there might still be enough volatility on the front rows to make things interesting. That Red Bull looks to be a caricature of last year’s car, even faster and even more fragile. The McLarens and Mercedes will get up to speed in due course. And Ferrari might have taken a dominant one-two at Bahrain, but remember they did have to change both engines before the race and that three other Ferrari-powered machines – two Saubers and one Toro Rosso – parked up under mysterious circumstances. 2010 hasn’t got off to the strongest of starts, and there certainly seems to be some head-scratching going on, but let’s give it a few races yet.