not so much a race as a stately procession

Posted: March 15, 2010 in Uncategorized
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There was a time when I loved motor sport. Nowadays, I have little interest in it at all. Part of me wonders at the dichotomy of glorifying competitive use of the internal combustion engine at a time when we are generally trying to minimise the impact of that infernal device on the rest of our environment.

It has to be admitted that there was still an element of excitement – drivers jousting for position, the tactics of the race including when to head to the pits, the challenge of aligning a vehicle to prevailing conditions. And let’s be honest – the horrible thrill of seeing a prang.

Yesterday’s Spanish Grand Prix (last night, Australian time), showcased the full range of the accumulated new rules which include:

  • carrying sufficient fuel for the entire race, rather than strategic pit-stops for refueling or nursing a vehicle for economy;
  • mandatory use of only two types of tire – hard and soft – and who is going to use a slower hard tire when they can use a faster soft tire that grips the track surface better;
  • safety rules in pit lane – no longer relying on speed restrictions but instead on space between vehicles, a driver cannot head out if a vehicle has pulled into the pits somewhere ahead of him i.e. driver A hits the pits and is just finishing a lightening speed pit-stop as driver B pulls into a bay ahead of him – driver A is now not allowed to head out of the pits until driver B’s vehicle heads out at which time A can head after B but only while maintaining the minimum distance restrictins, despite the fact that A was in there first and had already finished; and
  • mandatory design and engineering restrictions.

The end result of this continual interference by Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone was less a race and more a highish-speed procession.

First there is little incentive to conserve fuel as you have to carry enough for the entire race to begin with which has direct implications for exactly how the drivers approach things on the track, removing a major element of tactical approach.

Next, the homogenisation of design etc, while arguably helping the lesser teams to catch the bigger teams in terms of vehicle performance, has at the same time created a real sense of sameness about it all, pulling the leaders back to the pack.

The old trick of pulling in behind someone to ride in the slipstream has no benefit any longer as you do not have the incentive of the fuel efficiency that creates. When riding in that slipstream, drivers have less direct control of their tire’s grip on the track and the vehicle moves around more. This is harder on tires and as everyone runs on the softer tire, there is now an active disincentive to joust for position by sitting on someone’s tail in their slipstream. Consequently drivers now sit further back from each other, no longer jostling for position with those lightening slips around the man in front. Changes of position only happen if someone ahead makes a real mistake.

The lunacy of the new pitlane restrictions was demonstrated when Aussie driver, Mark Webber, was in the pits, finishing his pit stop, when another driver entered. As the new arrival’s pit was further along pitlane than that of Webber’s team, Webber had to wait until the latter had finished his pit stop. If Webber had left any earlier, he would have breached the minimum distance restrictions by virtue of driving past the other’s pit.

Consider the difference between two tennis players, each hovering at the baseline, patting it back and forth, merely waiting for the other to make a blunder, compared to the excitement of serve and volley. Someone like Chrissie Evert who was a master of baseline play could run her opponents ragged. But all too many baseline players are doing nothing more than just waiting for their opponent to make a blunder. The new state of Formula 1 racing is the equivalent of those boring, uninspiring baseline players. When something merely relies on one person holding on long enough to profit by another making a mistake, it becomes about as exciting as watching bottles of beer come off an assembly line.

Good one, Bernie.

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