News and views on motorsports

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Alternative Formula

The new rules will make things interesting and we all have to get used to them. However, the years of experience have proved that the rules are irrelevant; the best team always wins. -- Michael Schumacher

Rule changes seem imminent for 2005 and 2006. Max Mosley's stated aims for these new rules are to slow the cars down and more intriguingly to reduce the cost of competing in Formula 1. His target is to reduce the budget required to run a winning team from USD 400 million as in the case of Ferrari to just USD 20 million. Twenty million??? That's a very tall order. I would suppose some touring car teams in the DTM are approaching that sort of money.

These new proposals have stirred up quite a controversy as usual when rules are changed. There are also many political reasons behind the rule changes and behind all the opposition to those rule changes. I suppose, you, dear reader would have read about these elsewhere. So I shan't be discussing it here save to say that Ferrari of course had full consultation before all the other teams. Oh heck, I can't help it. I'll just say a little more. Part of the reason why this is the case is that the FIA are desperate not to lose Ferrari to a rival GPWC run championship. So of course, Ferrari gets their ass licked. Ferrari must have the cleanest ass in the paddock what with all the saliva polish going on their bottoms.

Anyway, enough about that. Some of the rules have met with unanimous approval. Mostly the aero ones at any rate. The engine regs though have stirred some fierce opposition from the likes of BMW, Renault and Honda among others. You know it already. The changes require a 2.4 litre V8 engine to reduce horsepower. In addition, the engines must last 2 weekends. Banning testing of course has always been in the picture. The engine makers are quite reluctant to build 2.4 V8s that may only last for a couple of years. Why a couple of years? Well, come 2008, those same manufacturers might themselves be switching to the GPWC championship instead of Formula 1.

The politics behind this all is staggering. A friend once said to me that motorsports politics are worse than real politics and the evidence of it all can be seen right here right now in this era of Formula 1. The root cause of it all? Marketing and Money. Formula 1 is so screwed up because of all the corporate wrangling that goes on. This is definitely more so now that the major car manufacturers are all involved very closely with this sport. When those baboons come in inevitably their corporate manueverings will also corrupt the sport. The sport of course is already corrupt due to that other greedy fellow Bernie Ecclestone.

The sports rules I believe have a part to play in this. To compete in an unrestricted Formula that is Formula 1 requires an ever increasing amount of investment. One that can only be afforded by the likes of Toyota, Ferrari et al. Does anyone remember any of the specialist engine makers? People like Hart, Mugen, Mechachrome and Judd? These blokes are completely priced out of Formula 1. They can no longer afford it.

But why should Formula 1 be the domain of manufacturers alone? In the 60s and 70s we had even more participation from specialist makers like Cooper Climax for instance. We had Cosworth who supplied engines to nearly everyone instead of just a chosen few these days. This is crap. I want to see a Formula where the specialists and manufacturers can both compete. It should just be a corporate battleground.

Remember, when Formula One was invented it was a championship for drivers. Not constructors. When people go to watch Formula One they are really cheering on their drivers first, and their favourite team second. If the racing is good who cares what car Schumacher drives in. So long as the racing be good.

So with the above in mind, I would like to propose a new set of rules for Formula 1. One that reduces costs and puts the excitement back into Formula 1 just like in the good old days. Formula One today was built on the excitement of those days. And though that excitement is now diluted in a pool of corporate games, the real fans would like to see a return to the days when we had 4 or 5 people in with a shot at the championship. Remember the early 80s?

I am no engineer but here are some suggestions:

1. Rev limiters.

Worked in touring cars and I don't see why it wouldn't work in Formula 1. Contrived? Well, one engine every two weekends and testing bans are pretty much contrived as well. Aerodynamic limitations as it stands basically contrives to produce freaks of nature that are the current Formula 1 cars. Think about it. Engines achieve greater and greater horsepower mainly because engineers find a way to make them rev ever higher. To rev ever higher requires major investment in engine development and metallurgy. So, cap the revs and you immediately cap that sort of unlimited investment. Toyota cries foul and do not accept such attempts to limit innovation. That's just crap. Road cars for decades pretty much have a maximum limit of roughly 6000 - 6500 RPMs due to a variety of factors such as refinement and economy. Yet road car engineers have found ways for producing ever more horsepower from those same RPMs. Not in leaps and bounds but still there are horsepower increases. As an example a 2.0 litre BMW engine revving to about 6000 RPM produced about 129bhp in the 80s. The same capacity engine with roughly the same maximum RPM is producing 150 bhp these days. There is an increase in horsepower but its taken many years to achieve a 20bhp increment with the attendant refinement and economy. Likewise if you cap the revs in a Formula 1 engine, there will still be horsepower increases year on year but the numbers would be too small. Lets say we cap the engines to I don't know, maybe, 15000 - 16000 RPM? In essence you could take a 10 year old engine it would probably still be competitive. It would severly reduce costs I have no doubt and therefore, "private" engine makers like Judd, Mugen, Hart and Mechachrome could re-enter the sport. Cosworth would also suddenly find that their units would be pretty competitive and I am certain they would find more customers. New teams can enter with older engines and still be competitive. Unlike the situation now where among the greatest challenge for new entrants would be to find a source of engines.

2. Reduce wing size, allow sliding side skirts and ground effect aerodynamics.

Yes, this sounds mighty crazy. But is it really? They banned ground effects in 1982 because they thought cornering speeds were getting too high. But you know what, with flat bottomed cars and now stepped bottom ones, engineers still managed to claw back the deficit and today, the cornering limits of the cars are far higher than in 1982. In fact, whatever the FIA thinks of, engineers would probably find a way round it. The effect of flat bottomed cars meant that aerodynamically the cars are very dependant on their wings. Whereas with ground effects the entire car itself is aerodynamically shaped liek a wing. Hence wings attached to the front and rear of the car, whilst still having a significant effect on total downforce, would not be as important as they are now. Thus the cars will be less aerodynamically sensitive to turbulence thrown by cars in front of them. This would promote greater slipstreaming battles on the straights and most importantly in the corners. In fact, with that ability cars would be able to slingshot their opposition quite regularly, thus producing that rare spectacle, the overtaking manuver. Again, look at touring cars. The cars aren't so dependant on having clean air for aerodynamic efficiency and hence, overtaking is the norm in touring cars. Now wouldn't that be far more intresting to spectators?

3. Allow any engine configuration

Yes, that's right. Allow V8, V10 or V12 engines to be used. In fact, if the teams wanted V16s or V6s then go on ahead. Variety is the spice of life I'd say. It's not really a cost cutting measure but consider this. Engine makers have decided that V10s are the way to go for some time now. Technically speaking its the best compromise between a V8 and V12. The V8 configuration has advantages in light weight and torque. Whereas a V12 of the same capacity as it has greater power due to the ability to run higher revs. However, the V12 is more thirsty and heavier than the V8. So in comes the V10, a compromise between the two. It can still rev higher than a V8, and yet its lighter than a V12 whilst still producing excellent torque characteristics and fuel consumption. But what happens when you put rev limiters on the engine? I would imagine, a V12 and V10 configuration would not be any more advantageous to a V8. If they all rev at similar RPMs and produce roughly the same amount of power, engine makers would immediately make a choice of V8 engines because of its lower weight. A V8 engine is also less complex and contains fewer moving parts than a similar V10 or V12. Its much like the situation with touring cars. A good touring car would optimally have 4 cylinders in preference to a V6 or straight 6 engine. The advantages are mainly due to having a lighter engine and better weight distribution characteristics. Thus, instead of forcing manufacturers to adopt a V8 design by introducing rev limits, engine makers would simply do it willingly. However, they should really allow any engine configuration. This leaves the possibility of innovation on the part of the engine designer. Perhaps some brilliant mind somewhere would think of a new way to produce more power from a V6 or a V10 despite rev limiters.

4. Standard Computer Boxes

This is one FIA proposal that I support. Electronics is an increasingly important part of a racing car and the proportion of electronic costs to total costs are increasing. Car development depends upon data acquisition and analysis. Power outputs are increased due to better engine management systems. Electronics however, cannot improve further without better and more sophisticated sensors for data acquisition. Traction control for instance depends on wheel speed sensors among others. If you ban wheel speed sensors, you basically will ban traction control. The engine management system does not have any method of ascertaining wheel slip. So, the objective should be to have a standard engine management system and sensor suite for all teams. Of course there would still be a chance for the teams to revise and customize the fuel mappings to their particular engine choice. But this is all they would be able to do. It is sort of like tweaking computer chips in road cars. But you can't add more sensors to your road car, wiring it up to new computer boxes for even more added power. The number of electronics and computer experts in the pit lane would be far reduced. Electronic technology goes obsolete very quickly and new and improved systems are introduced regularly. Therefore substantial investment is required to keep up. By limiting the role of electronics, the FIA would be placing a limit on this major cost factor. Plus, a ban of traction control, electronic differentials et al would ultimately place control back to the driver. This reduces the "battle of the black boxes" and produce better racing on the track.

5. Bring back full slick tyres

The FIA decided to introduce grooved tyres as a way of limiting grip and slowing the cars down. Again, the cars are now faster than ever anyway, so why make the tyre manufacturer go through the additional expense of researching grooved tyres anyway? From a safety standpoint, I would have thought that tyres with more grip are safer than that which has little grip. As I said, if Toyota thinks rev limiters are contrived introducing artificial grooves are even more so. I should also think that a full slick tyre would cost less to manufacture and research. With more additional grip, drivers can perform better overtaking manuvers under braking and into the corners.

6. Unlimited Testing

Back at the start of the 1998 season, McLaren was clearly dominant. However, with increased development and the ability to test, Ferrari were able to claw back the deficit towards the mid and tail end of the season. These days, its hard to do such things. Take the 2003 season. Clearly, Ferrari were in trouble. The Williams cars and even the McLaren on occassion were blowing their doors off. Ross Brawn lamented that the testing ban in the summer clearly hampered their development and ability to catch up to their rivals. Williams have also expressed the same this season when it was clear that their technical direction this year had gone astray. These days, once a car has taken the wrong turn at the start of the year, it is extremely difficult to catch up. Hence, the complete and utter Ferrari domination this year. They started on the right foot whereas their main rivals had clearly made the wrong choices. Only towards the end of the season did we see McLaren and Williams back on the podium and fighting for victory. And really, that was only because Ferrari had ceased to develop their cars after winning both titles. This made this season and I would imagine future seasons very boring unless all teams make the right choices at the start. This is not good for the spectacle and not good for the fans. Bring back unlimited testing.

If one thinks about it, even if testing bans apply, it still would not stop Ferrari from spending their USD 400 million budget. If they don't test, the budget is reapplied to other areas such as wind tunnel and simulation systems. And one must remember that despite the little teams protests, they too have significantly increased speed from last year. This years Minardi qualified in Brazil with a time that would have taken pole last year. So even they progress. Limiting testing I think has very little effect.

Another thing I suspect is that the main costs involved are still research and systems costs. These costs are then amortised over each lap of testing to produce a cost per lap. In management accounting circles, this is known as average costing. This I believe is errorneous and misleading. The marginal cost of testing cannot be as high as some of the teams have mentioned. Besides I think teams like Minardi and Jordan without the superb wind tunnels and systems of teams like Ferrari would benefit more from real world development on the track in testing.

7. Allow teams to purchase cars

In Indycars, teams are allowed to build their own chassis or purchase them from a manufacturer. By constrast, in Formula 1 all teams must build their own chassis. Building your own chassis implies design, research and development costs. Why not allow teams to purchase their cars from other teams or specialist manufacturers? In this way, a company like Dallara or Lola for instance can design and build Formula 1 chassis for supply to teams like Minardi and Jordan. The research and development costs of the cars can be spread over a larger volume of cars and thus reduce the unit costs of the cars. Some people argue that teams like Ferrari and McLaren want the exclusivity of their cars. Well, no one is forcing them to supply cars to other teams. But at least allow for the smaller teams the option to buy their cars elsewhere. I do not see how this would make Formula 1 any less prestigious. After all, if Dallara can produce cars for sale that are faster than Ferraris then let Ferrari try to challenge them. Dallara in that case would still be making the best chassis with all the accompanying high tech.

If this were allowed, then teams like Jordan and Minardi would simply need to find the budget to run the cars and not having to spend so much on research. By doing this, wouldn't this be a better way to cut costs for teams rather than some of the more contrived and artificial measures dreamed by the FIA? Measures that in the end will not work because a team like Ferrari would still be spending all their money in different areas to work around the rules.

Imagine a Formula 1 where a Dallara-Mugen operated by Minardi for instance, challenges the might of the manufactuer teams like Ferrari and Renault. Wouldn't that add some spice and variety to Formula 1? At the end of the day, are we all not tired of seeing the same bloody bunch of people winning all the time?

8. Drop Singe Lap Qualifying, Bring Back Unlimited Laps

Let's face it. One lap qualifying is a complete joke. It is utterly boring. The little teams especially Jordan love to complain that single lap qualifying gives his cars a chance at guranteed television exposure. Well, guess what? When I know its teams like Jordan and Minardi on a hot lap, I stop watching and do other stuff anyway. I would guess that its the same with a lot of people. I would go further to state that since single lap qualifying was introduced a lot of people have simply stopped watching qualifying altogether. Teams like Minardi and Jordan should realise that during the old 12 lap and unlimted lap hour format, you had a full television audience who usually watched the entire qualifying session. I know I watched countless Minardi qualifying runs in the past because of this. Hence, I would imagine that teams like Minardi actually got more exposure from qualifying then the case today. I know that the teams that go first are usually the minnows and I simply don't bother. In the old days, I'd watch the whole of qualifying because sometimes you got one or two of the faster cars doing their first few runs at the start of qualifying. What a lot of fans miss including myself, is the qualifying battles that raged on. The sight of Senna duelling with Prost time and again over one hour to see who could set the fastest lap was absolutely enthralling. They simply went faster and faster. The thrill and anticipation of seeing the lap time was thus repeated again and again over that one hour. Who can forget the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying session when Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher were involved in a mega battle for the front row in that deciding round of the championship? We are no longer treated to such spectacles. Lets face another thing. Michael Schumacher qualifying in 18th and making his way up no longer holds much thrills since you know that his car is so fast, it really is a piece of cake for him. Even when he spins as in China, you couldn't care less. So in the interest of the spectators, why not simply give up the current stupidity and just give us more good battles we can watch. I am sure there are many who would agree with me that in the old days, the qualifying sessions were as good as if not better than the race proper. Nowadays, more often than not, I'd rather watch reruns of Dark Angel on Star Sports.

In conclusion, I believe somewhere along the lines the FIA have got things dreadfully wrong. They are concentrating on reducing costs. I argue that costs cannot be reduced. In motor racing teams will spend any amount they can in order to win. That is the nature of the sport. That is the nature of any sport for that matter. The measures to reduce costs by the FIA will fail and fail miserably. Instead of reducing costs, they should concentrate on measures that will improve the competitiveness of all teams and improve the spectacle of Formula 1. It is the same with speed reduction measures that are being implemented. These are very much highly artificial in nature and will be clawed back very shortly. The one engine rule this year was meant to reduce power outputs, costs and speed. It failed. Engines are ever more powerful with people like Honda whispering 1000 bhp. Cars go ever more quicker, in some cases 5 seconds a lap quicker. Ferrari continues to dominate. Fans continue to be bored. The FIA should look into the real fundamentals of the sport and look at working around the true nature of racing. Also, increasing the revenues from the sport to the teams will also relieve the pressures of competing in Formula 1.

I doubt if these things are going to happen what with rule changes imminent. However, I urge fans to voice their opinions. Without us, there would be no Formula 1 after all. It is the advertising dollars from sponsors wanting to reach us that are paying for the sport. So, really, we should have a say in this.

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