I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’m a huge Formula 1 fan. I’ve been watching for about ten or fifteen years now, since around the time Michael Schumacher made his switch from Benetton to Ferrari. At this point I’m addicted to the racing, the engineering, the business, and all the melodrama that comprise an F1 season. Even with all the egotistical posturing and the ruinous politics that have marred the sport, I still tune in on race day to see the best drivers and racing teams in the world competing for the most prestigious title in motorsport. I simply cannot get it anywhere else.
After watching for so many years, and doing a great deal of reading and virtual racing, I see a lot of things that average viewers probably don’t. I can see battles for position opening up well before cars appear to be dueling, just from the way the pursuing driver is taking corners. I scrutinize pit stops for the slightest misstep or wing adjustment, and can often tell you exactly why this stop took 9.2 seconds and that one took 10. I can see when a driver is beginning to have trouble with his tires, and can probably tell you why. F1 races often look uneventful, the same way golf or baseball can look boring and uneventful, but if you have a trained eye then most of them are fairly filled with interesting action. Just not wheel-to-wheel racing.
Yet it is something of an obsession within the sport’s governing body and among its fans to find ways to improve the show. The argument goes that F1 has become far too processional at the expense of the drivers’ duels that are the reason most people watch the sport in the first place. Something must be changed, perhaps the rules and regulations or the tracks, in order to make passing and fights for position more regular occurrences.
I love great drivers’ duels. The Hakkinen – Schumacher battles around the turn of century, with first one then the other having the slightly better car, were a thrill to watch even if they weren’t going neck-and-neck most of the time. For years McLaren had the better cars and when Schumacher managed to get out in front of Hakkinen, it sometimes seemed like he was making a heroic fight against the inevitable as Hakkinen surgically trimmed the gap to nothing. Schumacher was perhaps never quite as good a race tactician as Hakkinen, but few drivers could wring as much performance from a car as Schumacher. The clash of styles and strengths was always fascinating to watch.
Perhaps there used to be a lot more of that kind of thing. Certainly in the 60s and 70s the running order seems to have been a lot more fluid, and longtime fans are quick to wax nostalgic about the great battles of the 80s and early 90s.
So it’s possible I’m biased toward the kind of F1 racing that I have always known: strategic and perfectionist. Passing opportunities come only rarely. Most races I’ve seen are about positioning and timing, and it’s not too often that drivers get in a dogfight for a points-paying position. It also makes those moments that much more fraught, because it’s difficult to battle back once a rival passes you.
In order to bring back “the show” that supposedly makes racing worth watching, however, we find ourselves facing the same kind of rule-tweaking and politicking that has made Formula 1 so dysfunctional. One of the major problems with modern Formula 1 cars, as opposed to those of the 60s, is that so much of their grip is aerodynamic rather than mechanical. In other words, they perform worse when they are near another F1 car, such as when you are trying to pass.
One of the reasons F1 cars are such high-performance vehicles is that they are covered in wings, winglets, and diffusers that generate grip. They are able to take turns at ridiculously high-speeds because the air itself is forcing them closer to the track. Problem is, they need “clean air” moving predictably and smoothly over the body in order for these elements to do their jobs. Out on a track by themselves, it’s not an issue. But if you’re chasing another F1 car, with the same aerodynamic elements leaving weird currents and air disturbances in their wake, then you have a major problem. The guy you’re chasing is getting everything from his aero elements, but your performance is suffering, which forces you to either back off or take serious risks.
The solution I hear proposed most often, and one they’ve tried to implement in various forms over the years, is to eliminate the number, type, and placement of aerodynamic elements that a Formula 1 car is allowed to have. Reduce the amount of aerodynamic group, leave the cars more dependent on mechanical grip (suspension and tires), and they will not suffer the same degraded performance in passing situations.
Problem is, they will likely be inferior race cars, incapable of matching the pace set by their aerodynamic siblings. In the name of improving the spectacle of F1, we would be turning the clock back 30 years and mooting the accumulated aerodynamic expertise of racing engineers who have steadily improving on their craft and learning ever more about how to make air interact better with a car’s body.
As I said, F1 is about the best drivers and team in the world competing at the highest level. Engineers are part of that, and to start reducing their role is to reduce the sport. If the cars have trouble passing because of the way they are designed, then that’s the nature of great racing machines. It’s not really a problem we should be trying to fix by hamstringing the cars or their designers.
Casual fans are always going to be clamoring for more, flashier action. A lot of people tune into baseball games and just wait for the home runs to start flying out of the park. NASCAR explicitly markets itself to yahoos who watch it for the crashes. I’m sure a lot of people just wish hockey was just made of brawls and shoot-outs. But that doesn’t mean these sports should go out of their way to cater to this uninvolved, sometime audience. F1 is a hell of a show if you know what you’re looking at: the culmination of the efforts of hundreds of talented, passionate professionals. There’s far more to it than passing.
(I just found this article on Grandprix.com, which is thorough and fascinating explanation of the techniques and physics of overtaking, and why modern F1 features so little close racing. I highly recommend it.)