The F1 2011 season is five races old and teams, drivers, the media and fans have had just about enough time to pass at least a modicum of judgement on the new rules and regulations for this season.
Prior to the season’s start, there was a distinct impression amongst many fans that the powers-that-be had gone too far – that tyres made of tissue paper, moveable wings and KERS was just overkill. Yes, 2010 had been processional at times, but had it not been exciting? Had the label “best season ever” not been bandied about? And was anyone in any doubt that Sebastian Vettel was a deserving world champion? The answer to all of these was no. It had been wonderfully entertaining – it was arguably the best ever – and Vettel was a wonderful champion after some great drives. So, no thanks Mr Todt and the Overtaking Working Group, we don’t need you, go and fiddle with IndyCars if you want something contrived.
Or so we thought. Now, arguably, we have reached new levels of rapture. This F1 season engages one’s interest and concentration in a way it never had before. No longer can you watch this sport on a Sunday morn through bloodshot, hungover eyes. Not any more can minute-by-minute journos rest on their laurels, or even go to the goddamned bog. Not these days can F1 dabblers drop in and instantly absorb the events of the last ten laps.
If you were being contrary, you could argue all that was bad. We liked the sport dull, say the purists. We loved it when you had to delve into the minutiae of set-up and driver politics to derive full enjoyment from the sport. We quite enjoyed being anorak-y about it all – it was a niche interest, an acquired taste.
But I don’t believe most F1 aficionados feel that way, nor most up and down the paddock. The new rules have brought rampant, riveting entertainment to our screens that requires a modicum of intellectual commitment and in return gives ample reward in the form of wheel-to-wheel dicing and more strategy than you could shake a stick at.
Let’s start with the DRS. With the exception of last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, the qualifying and free practice use of the DRS – it is permitted anywhere on track – will reap benefits for the drivers most deft with their control of an unbalanced car. There, it rewards skill and car control. In the race, in the set area(s) it is allowed it provides a perfect antidote to the wake that these aerodynamically-sophisticated machines leave. While, of course, spicing up the racing perfectly. And no, since you ask, it doesn’t artificially create overtaking. It’s still as hard as ever to make a move stick; harder, perhaps, especially when the chap behind you has the same advantage on the next lap. What wonderful battles we have seen this season as a result.
Then there’s the KERS. If it weren’t for McLaren’s great KERS, honed during the troubled ’09 season, we might have seen the Red Bulls run away even further so far this year. The Woking team have managed to build a car that’s not shabby in terms of speed, yet it also has a functional KERS installed and operational. That is more than Red Bull have ever done, although their downforce advantage still pays dividends. My point is that Adrian Newey’s stubborn refusal to adapt the RB7’s shapely rear to accommodate KERS means that we have a battle on our hands for the title, which can only be a good thing. What’s more – how could I forget – it goes and adds piquancy to the start-finish straight just like the DRS.
Then finally there’s the Pirelli tyres. What fun those have been! The softer versions seem to lose their usefulness quicker than a superinjunction these days, as well as leading to a host of pit stops, which, with their slapdash skill and nailbiting reintroductions to the racetrack, are doubly value for money. Strategy is important in a way it hasn’t been since refuelling and even before. It may yet throw up some surprises – Red Bull will get it massively wrong at some point, which will be lovely for those of us necessarily impartial and perpetually favouring towards the underdog.
These new rules are great fun, basically. It’s not to say that they don’t need fine-tuning: the DRS activation point is a work-in-progress but should be fine by mid-season, and you also can’t see an organisation the size of Pirelli continuing to preside over what occasionally appears to be chaos. But meanwhile, sit back, put your thinking cap on and enjoy the wonderful spectacle.