Why Formula One must not make knee-jerk changes for 2010 in the name of improvement

Forget the fallout which surrounds the Australian Grand Prix, or the terrible weather experienced this weekend in Malaysia. The latest news, regarding methods to improve the quality of racing in Formula One, is far more important at this time and could have a significant impact on the sport s future.

Unfortunately “the show” has been in question for some time now, but only since Bahrain has it reappeared in the centre of the stage. Last weekend in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal and president of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA), indicated that changes would happen regardless of the quality of the racing at Albert Park and that the teams were planning to meet to discuss such measures. Therefore a radical overhaul of the sport could be just weeks away.

But should Formula One really need to make such knee-jerk reactions after a handful of rounds? And if so, would such alterations have a damaging effect to Formula One s place as the pinnacle of motor sport?

After all this is Formula One: the pinnacle of motor sport. It has a reputation to uphold.

Here are just some of the possible changes which have been suggested by fans, journalists and leading figures inside the sport .

Changes to qualifying

One solution, which has been batted around the Formula One world since Bahrain, is altering qualifying. Under the current system drivers face two segments whereby the slowest seven cars are eliminated from Q1 and Q2, leaving the ten fastest cars to battle for the top spot on the grid. For the purists, this system is the only alternative and, with the added ban on refuelling, it allows drivers, with the cars in their fastest specifications, to duel for pole.

Already this season qualifying has produced a number of surprises and moments of sheer brilliance, in equal quantities. So why is there such a desire to change?

Reports over the Australian Grand Prix weekend hinted the system would stay the same, but that the fastest drivers would be subjected to reverse-order grids. In a perfect world it is believed that this solution would produce overtaking during the race, as the faster cars would be forced to make up places on the track to get anywhere near the points. However, if such a system was implemented then how long would it be until it was abused in the most obvious way? How long would it be until there was a repeat of qualifying for the 2004 British Grand Prix, where drivers purposely slowed down to maximise their position?

Another change rumoured to be on the cards would see the current system completely overhauled and instead replaced by a knockout draw where drivers would be pitted against each other, and would be made to battle head-to-head through a series of timed rounds. This proposal appears to have drawn its inspiration from Superleague Formula, where drivers qualify for the starting grid through a series of group sessions, and one-on-one battles. Although such a radical proposal would probably appeal to a certain section of the television audience, the novelty effect would soon wear off with time. Furthermore, an entirely new set of rules would have to be made to allow for the introduction of a selection process for each head-to-head. It appears that too much effort would be required to try and create a level playing field and that such a system would be complicated to understand for fans. Afterall, unlike Superleague Formula, the cars are not of the same specification or performance. Would it really be that exciting if say Lewis Hamilton was pitted against a Hispania car?

It s often used too much in writing, but in this case the old saying could not be closer to the truth: “If it s not broke, don t fix it.”

The introduction of Success Ballast

Another proposal, which also extends into qualifying, is the introduction of success ballast in the form of fuel. According to the rumours, the championship leader would have carry an extra 10kg of fuel in qualifying, with second place man carrying one kilo less and so on.

The idea of penalising the fastest cars for being successful is not new to Formula One and was even proposed in the early 1990s when the Williams team dominated proceedings. Some may remember that it was also often suggested during the dominant years of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.

However, success ballast is an artificial way of forcing equality onto the sport, when there is really no need. Currently Formula One could not be any closer and although Red Bull appear to have an advantage in qualifying, it will surely not be long before the others teams catch up. Add to the fact that we have already had two different race winners from the opening two races and it is clear that Formula One is ultra-competitive at this present time.

Mandatory Pit Stops

One area, which has received significant attention from many Formula One pundits, is the pit stop process itself. Prior to the changes this season, refuelling provided an extra dimension to race strategy, which made overtaking possible – be it not on track. However, with drivers now forced to complete a race distance on a single tank of fuel, this element of strategy has been lost as teams have opted to bring their cars in at similar times during the race instead.

To attempt to address this and allow for pit stop strategy to play a part in changing track position, many have lobbied for the introduction of a second mandatory pit stop, in a bid to once more allow pit stop strategy to play a big part in the race order.

However, such a system already exists in the DTM and has made no real improvement to the quality of racing. Like Formula One, the current-specification of DTM cars are so sophisticated that series drivers find it increasingly difficult to overtake.

Despite the obvious draw backs and the artificial feeling which would descend over Formula One, mandatory pit stops appear to be the favoured solution for many within the sport and is seen as the only possible compromise which would prove to be a quick fix to the overtaking situation, while appeasing all sides.

However why does there need to be mandatory stops at all? The removal of the compulsory tyre stop, which is already in place, would add an exciting element to races whereby drivers could either elect to try and go the full race distance without changing tyres or stop for tyres in return for having more grip towards the end of the race.

Tyres

Unfortunately the reasons behind maintaining mandatory pit stops in Formula One is closely linked to current tyre rules in the sport.

Calls have already been made to narrow the gap in performance between the two types of tyres currently brought to each Grand Prix. Such a decision was taken last season, and proved successful. However, given the change to the dimensions of the front tyre for 2010, Bridgestone decided to revert back to the original system in the hope that the added fuel weight would pose more of a challenge for the drivers, as they looked after their tyres. As largely shown in Bahrain, this has not worked out entirely to plan with the front running teams opting to start the race on the weaker tyre, before making an early pit stop and completing the rest of the duration on their favoured compound.

Unfortunately changes to the tyre compounds look increasingly unlikely as Bridgestone has ruled out any possibility of making its tyres edgier. Even if they wanted to, the company insists that it will not narrow the gaps between the tyre compounds that it brings to each race as it has already constructed its tyres for half of the season. Ultimately Bridegstone is in the sport for marketing purposes, and the thought of dramatically changing its tyres, to make them appear less reliable and safe, would do nothing but strike fear into those on its board. Therefore, it isn t surprising that the tyre company has been keen to deflect any of the blame for the quality of racing onto the teams, over the last few races.

The only possible moment for the sport to change the structure of its tyres is in 2011, when Bridgestone leaves and is replaced by at least one tyre supplier. This would surely present the perfect opportunity to the teams and the sport s governing body as it would allow them to add stipulations to the tender process when selecting a new supplier and force possible bidders to design their tyres in a way which would be more favourable for on track action.

Additionally, if the latest reports are to believed, the creation of a tyre war would also allow for the possibility of an improvement in race action, but once more this is out of the question for 2010.

Changes to the cars

Again, it is highly unlikely that the teams will agree to any alterations to the current aerodynamic specification. Whereas the removal of the double diffuser will help, such changes will not take place until 2011 – too late to make any difference to this season. Sam Michael of Williams has suggested that the teams look to develop adjustable rear wings, operated by the drivers in a similar to those found at the front of the car. However, although these may assist drivers stuck in the dirty air zone, such pieces will be costly to implement in such a short period of time – especially for the newer teams who are running with the smallest budgets of all. Even then, such a concept would go largely untested and open to controversy.

Ultimately, it is impossible to see the teams agree to scaling back aerodynamics anymore than the current regulations stipulate. As has been shown over the past year, designers and aero-dynamists have been able to claw back the lost down force with relative ease. It isn t so easy to remove such innovations from Formula One either, as it is impossible for designers to simply forget what has already been used to working with, simply in the name of equality.

What s more the reduction of aerodynamics would have an adverse effect on many of the team s other business ventures. Take Renault which, since 2004, has worked in partnership with the aviation giant Boeing to help improve aerospace products and services. This agreement is mutually beneficial for both parties and so it is therefore hard to see a team like Renault simply agree to give up these ties and stop using advanced systems, such as CFD, for aerodynamic use.

Furthermore, a complete reduction in aerodynamics would have to apply to the entire caste system of the single-seater world. Otherwise Formula One would lose its position as the leading championship in its field of motor sport.

Conclusions

Overall it would appear that any change to Formula One this season, could have a negative effect on the sport s in the long term. Ultimately, the only possible changes which could be implemented for 2010 – either to the pit stops process or in qualifying – would be heavily artificial.

At the end of day Formula One will never produce enough overtaking to satisfy all and those who would have you believe that the sport can return to its so-called “golden age” have been misguided. It is too easy to look at the exploits of Senna or Prost, Mansell or Piquet with rose tinted spectacles. Yes, Formula One may have produced more excitement in those days, but the cars were far more unreliable and aerodynamics were still in their infancy.

To foster overtaking, designers would have to be muzzled – leaving pencil thin cars to beat the dirty air effect. Is that really F1, limiting technical excellence?

Reports this weekend have suggested that the teams are willing to discuss the return of KERS for 2011 as well as widening the rear tyres. However, before such measures can be introduced, teams must not be willing to change Formula One for the sake of it by rushing unnecessary rule changes for 2010. All proposals must be examined in detail to make sure that mistakes are not made again and that Formula One is not constantly questioning itself time and time again.

Given the amount of politics and technology which surrounds Formula One, the quality of Grands Prix are always going to be hit or miss.

Let s just hope that the Malaysian Grand prix is more hit that miss, and that Formula One doesn t make any hasty decisions – shooting itself in the foot once more.

What do you think would help improve the quality of racing in Formula One? Should the teams be rushed into making changes now or wait and see how the season pans out?

Also what is your opinion on the proposed return of KERS or a possible tyre war for 2011?

As ever your opinion is always welcomed at Forumula1.com.