Johansson’s radical proposal to make F1 awesome again – Part 2
Stefan Johansson, former Ferrari and McLaren F1 driver, has come up a with a template for a radically revised version of the sport he loves. Here is the second in a four-part series on what needs to change and why, this time in the nature of the competition.
Yesterday we dealt with the economic changes necessary to help change F1’s structure. Today, it is about the nature of the competition itself.
What I am proposing below are very radical changes that will require a complete reset philosophically on every level of how we go racing. Over time, focusing on downforce and aerodynamics has completely taken over every other aspect of racing to the point where it affects not only the car design, but also how every new race track is designed.
Sadly, the end result is that the racing is getting more boring, with less passing as each year goes by, to the point where we instead have to come up with band-aid solutions to try and spice up the show. One such is the DRS device, another is forcing the tire manufacturer to essentially produce an inferior product to make the racing a little less predictable. As we know, none of this has worked out very well.
In addition, over time there have been attempts at slowing the cars either by reducing the horsepower and at one point they even went down the road of introducing grooved tires. Yet at no time has there even been a decision to stop the focus on aero development, except for tiny isolated solutions that have been minimally effective and only added to the overall cost.
Learning from other racing series can be extremely instructive as the same physics apply universally. IndyCar and NASCAR have in the past gone in the wrong direction by increasing aero grip, only to find out it was a huge, expensive mistake, and in each case backtracked to a less aero dependent package. If we count how many times there’s been small changes to the aero rules to slow the cars down, or speed them up, or help the overtaking, or whatever the reason was each time, and then count the amount of money that was spent by each team, it’s staggering. A perfect example is the 2019 rules, expected to have cost each team an additional €15m ($16.8m) and they likely won’t make any difference whatsoever. Yet, not once has the problem been fixed, but instead it has maybe masked it slightly for half a season, before the teams catch up to where they were before. At some point the penny has to drop!
70 percent reduction in downforce
The cars should always be balanced on the edge of adhesion in both low- and high-speed corners. By doing this, there will be more emphasis on the drivers requiring the use of delicate car control and, in some corners, bravery will again make the difference. The engineering focus will shift more towards mechanical grip – the vehicle dynamics and tire performance to get back the lost grip from the limited aero downforce. This will make the cars much more difficult to drive which will force teams to hire the best drivers available, and many of the great traditional tracks that have been outgrown by the current cars and become boring due to the massive downforce will again become interesting both from the drivers’ and the spectators’ point of view.
Someone recently suggested a drop of 40-50% downforce but I don’t think it’s enough to make the cars lose their aero sensitivity enough to be able to follow another car closely. The current F1 cars have such a huge amount of downforce that I believe a minimum 70% drop is required to reach the right target where the cars won’t be fully dependent on aero for performance. The Turbo cars of the 1980s had roughly 70% less downforce than the current cars, and they were already on the limit for being aero sensitive when you followed another car. No one at the time considered those cars to be undrivable because they had too little downforce and too much power: we just wanted more, as you always do as a driver. And those cars were awesome to drive.
Implement a fixed maximum level of downforce
In order to heavily reduce the overwhelming importance of aerodynamics on any current car design, there should be a fixed maximum level of downforce. This can be monitored real time from the strain gauges off the suspension pushrods. It will be no different than checking the engines to make sure they are always within the legal parameters or the tire pressures or any of the other multitude of parameters that are currently monitored in real time. It will feed straight into the ECU along with all the other data being collected from the car while running.
So, for example, if there are spikes on the boost level or the fuel flow for a certain amount of time, there is a penalty, or the car can be disqualified, so the same thing should apply to downforce levels. Several different methods can be implemented to control this so there will be no room for interpretation or ways to cheat the system by the teams. It could either be controlled by a form of active ride system, that would alter the ride height by small increments in microseconds once the maximum downforce level is reached. The active ride system was already quite well developed in the early ’90s, so with the current technology available, it would be a relatively easy system to implement.
It could also be controlled from the front and rear wings or the rear diffuser, all with microsecond adjustments so the car would be safe to drive at all times. Once the research on how to best achieve a consistent and safe way to control this is under way, the right answer will be found very quickly. The FIA will then issue and manage the same system for each team.
Make the cars look attractive, aggressive, fast
By implementing the rule on maximum downforce the current hideous front wings will be eliminated automatically and if the rule of standardized parts is implemented there will be one front wing design for all the teams to use. No add-on aero bits will be allowed on any of the car’s surfaces. Any aero development will be more focused on drag and aero efficiency, which will then also translate to road relevance eventually. As a result of this we will hopefully find a number of interesting and visually appealing solutions.
Increase power by 30-40 percent, formula based on thermal efficiency and energy consumption
Create a formula based on thermal efficiency and energy consumption that will have a maximum limit on how much energy a car can use for the duration of a Grand Prix. This will allow and hopefully encourage manufacturers to develop new technologies that are not restricted to the hybrid/internal combustion engine concept only, which is the only option currently allowed. Everyone with even a basic interest in engineering knows that there are a number of far more interesting alternatives.
This would truly open the door for F1 to genuinely be at the cutting edge of technology instead of constantly fine-tuning a politically correct concept at a cost that is astronomical to everyone involved. Set a target of around 300-400hp increase in power as long as it can meet the energy consumption criteria, which will offset about 30 percent of the loss in lap-time from the reduction of downforce. By using this formula, it will eventually become apparent what energy source is actually the most environmentally friendly and efficient from a performance point of view.
The immediate response I get when I mention this idea to anyone is that the manufacturers will never accept it and will leave instantly. If this is the case, F1 is doomed anyway. If there is one thing that is historically consistent in any form of motorsport, it’s when the manufacturers end up controlling a championship, they will eventually screw it up or simply pull out when it doesn’t suit their purpose any longer. Sometimes they then come back again when they’ve had a rethink (Honda most recent example), but there is zero loyalty to – or emotional engagement in – the sport. For them it’s purely business.
If the current manufacturers don’t like the idea for whatever reason, I am certain that there will be other manufacturers that would look at F1 very seriously if it had a more sensible set of rules that would allow for more innovation and had a lower barrier of entry than the current rules provide. Interestingly, there is not one senior executive from any car manufacturer that I have spoken to that is in favor of the electric concept, they all feel this is a political agenda that’s been forced upon them.
If the rules are open for different alternatives on engine technology, we will again get back the engine noise as a factor in the overall experience. Fans can hear the difference between the different engine concepts and there will be very noisy engines and some that are not, but there will be something for everyone to relate to and talk about.
More power, higher top speeds, less downforce, longer braking distances, slower cornering speeds, more passing
With the massive reduction in downforce and a significant increase in horsepower we will see a huge increase in top speed, and as a result, much longer braking distances. This should radically improve the opportunities of overtaking as the entry and mid-corner speeds will be significantly lower, which will again require the drivers to slow the cars down much earlier and a lot more before they turn in to the corners. The target should be somewhere close to 400kph (248mph) in top speed, it will be super-exciting to watch and will definitely give people something to talk about.
It’s hard for people to relate today when there are road cars with higher top speed and more horsepower than a Formula 1 car, no one cares or can appreciate that F1 cars are insanely fast in the slow- and medium-speed corners. We were close to 400kph in some cases in the ’80s with the turbo cars, at tracks that were infinitely more dangerous than any of the tracks are today, yet there were hardly ever any incidents except when a freak accident of some sort occurred, when something broke on the car for example.
We need to get the ‘awesome’ factor back somehow. With the added horsepower and less downforce the cars will become beasts to drive and you will see the drivers really wrestling with the cars on exit and entry to the corners. I can guarantee that Lewis, Seb, Daniel, Max and all the rest of the top guys will love every moment of it, and it will automatically weed out the average guys as the teams will be forced to hire the best drivers they can.
Put more emphasis on weight reduction. With all the focus on the current electric vehicles being the future of not only motor racing but also road cars, the weight of all these cars has increased dramatically, due to the batteries and the systems to run them. A current F1 car is now 50 percent heavier than it used to be. At one point the weight limit was 500kg.
As an example, 30kg equates to roughly one second in lap-time on an average lap of 1m30s. If there were an emphasis on weight reduction as well as an option on engine technology, based on my idea of a fixed amount of energy over the duration of a race distance, there would be some very interesting alternatives surfacing very quickly. And if a good portion of the money currently being spent on the endless and worthless aero development would instead be spent on material technologies and more efficient engine technologies, we would very soon find some very exciting alternatives that would eventually filter down to road relevance. Imagine if every car on the road weighed 30-40% less than the weight of a current car, how much would that save in fuel consumption and subsequently in emissions each year on a global scale? The results would be massive!
It seems strange to me that all focus is on electrification when the gains from lightweight cars would most likely outweigh the benefits of all-electric vehicles, yet there seems to be almost no effort in this area. Road cars today are essentially made of the same materials they were in the early 1900s: surely there has to be a lighter, safer and cheaper alternative. There are already materials in existence, both alloys and composite materials, that could be implemented, and if there was more focus in this area it would not be long before we would see some incredibly light and strong materials surface that would also eventually be cost effective enough to use for production vehicles. I refuse to believe there are no better alternatives than what is currently being used.
Improve tire technology, make them wider and bigger in diameter
Another by-product of the high downforce cars is the current generation of tires. For years, Pirelli has been forced to make a tire that is purposefully poor in performance just to slow the cars down or “make the racing more interesting” since it’s nearly impossible to pass when you follow another car due to the turbulence and the highly sensitive aero on today’s cars.
None of this has worked out very well as we can witness every weekend watching any form of racing with aero-dependent cars. In order to offset the reduction in downforce, the tires could very easily be made to have significantly more grip and durability. It’s almost comical that every weekend teams at the highest level get caught out by tires not working at their optimal level. Teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars on aero development and engine development, yet on the day, they lose races because the tire pressures were off or the temps didn’t reach their optimal working range, or the fronts didn’t heat up as quick as the rears, or whatever. Literally, most races are won or lost depending on how teams make their tires work.
So why isn’t there more focus on the tires in the overall performance of the car from the outset? There are chassis and engine manufacturers competing fiercely against each other; why not allow the tire manufacturers to do the same? Aside from the driver, there are three things that make a car go fast or slow – engine, chassis and tires. If we opened up the rules and allowed more than one tire manufacturer, we would very quickly see a dramatic increase in speed and lap times.
This would also be by far the easiest and also cheapest way for the teams to get better performance as the tire companies would pour money into development and marketing. Tires have always been, and will always be, the cheapest and easiest way to get more performance out of a racecar. Like I already mentioned, teams spend millions in almost every category of racing on aero, chassis and engine development to gain an extra second in lap times, yet you can bolt on a set of tires that cost $3,000 and gain far more just by being a different compound or different in construction.
Allow more than one tire manufacturer
There are at least four tire companies I can think of today that would look at F1 very seriously if the rules were changed to reflect a more modern style tire. Each of these companies is already spending considerable amounts of money in other forms of motorsport, both on development and team support. If they were to engage in F1, we would see benefits not only on the competition side, but also in marketing and development as they would all spend significant money to promote their products through F1. This would help the series, the teams and the entire eco-system would grow accordingly.
18-inch rims to correlate to road car technology
All other forms of racing except F1 have adapted to the more modern, low-profile size of tire versus the mandated 13-inch rims that has been part of F1 for nearly 50 years. F1 has been slow to adapt as it would interfere too much with the current aero packages, and as it’s the engineers that now write the rules, this idea has been shut down every time it arises. If there’s a wholesale rule change on aero reduction, this would be the perfect time to switch to the bigger diameter wheel and tire to make the tires more relevant to tire manufacturers’ high-performance road tire production, make the cars look more relevant to current road car design.
And it will make the cars look far better from a pure aesthetic point of view rather than the image created by these silly-looking little balloon tires they are currently running on. If F1 claims it is on the cutting edge of technology and that it’s important to have some level of road relevance, you’d think one of the first things they would move away from are tires that have not been seen on any road car since the late ’70s!
Summary of proposed changes
To summarize these changes and how they will relate in overall performance, I’ve provided a “ball-park” guess at the loss or gain from the different changes based on an average lap of 1min30sec:
Reduce downforce by 70%: +10-15sec
Wider, taller, improved tires: - 3-5sec.
Increase power by 300-400hp: - 3-5 sec.
Reduce weight by 150-200kg (331-441lbs): - 3-5 sec.
Again, this is a ball park guess without having done any significant research but based on my own experience and discussions with other drivers, engineers and designers. But it’s clear that we will be very close to the current lap times quite quickly, but it will be achieved in a completely different way. Hopefully in a way that will bring the awesome factor back to F1, with a fast-looking car that a driver will have to really fight to get the most out of it. The spectators will be able to see the drivers working hard with the cars moving around a lot more.
4-way matrix of chassis, power unit, tires, driver
Based on the ideas I’ve presented above, when the new rules are being created, there should always be a focus on what I refer to as a 4-way matrix. The rules should always strive for each of the four elements to have an equal importance in the performance of the car. This will also help spread the load of development costs between the teams, engine manufacturers and tire companies, and it will help promote the best drivers to graduate to F1.
Reduce the importance of electronics
By eliminating all the electronic aids the drivers currently use, except the ones absolutely necessary to operate the car, the emphasis will shift back more towards car control instead of the engineers optimizing a car’s performance by studying the data to see where the drivers need less or more support in certain areas, with the help of a multitude of settings all controlled via the electronics on the cars.
One of the technical directors was quoted recently saying, “We need to throw some things in there to make the racing more unpredictable”. If we instead threw a bunch of things away, we would get to that point a lot faster, and save a lot of money in the process. The electronic driver aids would be a good starting point for that. This is a perfect example of poor governance. The electronic takeover could and should have been nipped in the bud, so it didn’t get completely out of hand.
Eliminate designers and engineers in the rule-making process, simplify the rules
Since the rule-making process became a democracy of sorts, which allowed all the teams to have a say through the introduction of the “Technical Working Group” we have seen a progressive decline in the overall quality of the racing. The rules have become more and more complicated each year to the point where the team principals no longer bother to even try to understand them. They simply leave it to their technical team to make the decisions, and the 2019 aero rules are a perfect example of this. We have yet another new rule on the aero, apparently to make overtaking easier. This rule will make absolutely zero difference and will only add tens of millions of expense to the already stretched budgets for most of the teams.
The engineers are all great and highly intelligent people, and it’s great working with them and talking to them, but they only have one thing in mind which is to make the cars go as fast as they can. It’s very difficult for them to see the bigger picture of what is required to make all the elements of the package work. I think it’s actually irresponsible of the team principals and the FIA to allow this to have happened in the first place, bearing in mind that the car rules are by far the most important element to make the business model work.
So now we have this bizarre situation where the inmates are running the asylum – what could possibly go wrong?! Allow the engineers to do what they are good at and leave the governance to people who know what they’re doing. It’s evident that the democratic approach is not working. The teams can’t agree on anything most of the time, and, as such, we always will end up with some form of compromise that will in the end make no difference or, at best, very little.
Instead, it should be governed by putting together an unbiased and well-rounded group of independent people that understand the business from a competition, technical as well as a practical and economic point of view – people who can see in advance when things are heading in the wrong direction before they do, and then act forcefully before it’s too late to correct. Make a set of rules that are challenging and exciting for manufacturers and private teams alike, and make them fair and equal and, most of all, easy to understand for both teams and the fans.
Modify race tracks to make them more difficult to drive and more interesting to watch
Virtually every race track today is either designed or modified to suit the current type of high downforce cars. As such, we end up with tracks that are full of low- and medium-speed corners, first-gear hairpins, and boring chicanes. These types of corners are not very interesting either for the drivers or the spectators, and are merely there to slow the cars down. Chicanes should be banned as far as I’m concerned, and for a track designer to put one in when they have a clean sheet of paper is beyond me.
Abu Dhabi is a perfect example: they could have done pretty much anything they wanted with a budget that was through the roof, and we end up with arguably the most boring race track ever made. If the downforce is reduced significantly, many of these tracks can be modified, or in the case of some of the older tracks, put back to their original design as the cornering speeds will again be much lower. Braking distances will be longer and with run-off areas now much bigger than they were when they changed them in the first place, they will be much safer. The fans will love watching the drivers balancing the cars on the limit rather than perfecting the art of jumping a curb in a low-speed chicane which is currently the case and where you gain the most time in a modern car.
Although the runoff areas are there for a reason, it’s important to find a method to “punish” a driver if he goes over the limit, something that will significantly slow him down to the point where there will be an automatic loss of time that far outweighs the potential gain of trying too hard and going over the limit. As it is today, every driver can find the limit on most tracks within the first five laps as there is no real penalty for going too fast and all you have to do is peg it back slightly the following lap. Interestingly, there are no more incidents on the street circuits where there are often no run off areas at all, which goes to show that drivers will be more disciplined when they have to be.
Replace DRS with push-to-pass (P2P)
The introduction of the DRS system was a typical knee-jerk reaction based on the fact that there were too many complaints that the racing was getting too boring and there was not enough overtaking. Although it has certainly helped the overtaking, it is of no interest as the driver in front is nothing more than a sitting duck, and there is no skill or strategy involved as you can use it as many times as you like during the course of the race.
The Push to Pass system that is being used in IndyCar is far more interesting becaus each driver is given a certain number of seconds per race where they can use it, it is then up to the driver to distribute this to his best ability for the duration of the race. For example, if he’s too aggressive in the beginning of the race and he’s run out of seconds, he’ll be in trouble at the end of the race if there is a restart or a dice for position with another driver who still has enough P2P time left in the bank to attack. The time consumed could be displayed on the TV monitors so the fans can see what each driver has consumed. It adds another element of intrigue both on the track and for the commentators to discuss during the broadcast. Depending on what engine concept is used, a percentage performance gain could be used to achieve the same result.
The current race format is working quite well, it has a good balance of speed and endurance for both drivers and cars. By reducing the downforce significantly, the importance of gaining positions in the first couple of laps will reduce and we will see a more balanced approach from the drivers regarding where and when they decide to attack in the races, rather than risking everything at the start as they know that’s pretty much their only chance to overtake the way the current cars work.
Allow teams to run the full distance if they wish to gamble on tire strategy, no mandatory pitstops. Race tactics will become more important, with more options on fuel strategy, tire wear and overall speed of the cars as the race progress. With the new rules drivers, should be able to attack at full speed for the duration of the race, with enough energy and tires to race hard from start to finish.
Longer pit stops, one crew member per wheel
Although it’s fascinating to watch the coordinated ballet of 16 people during an F1 pitstop, once you’ve seen it a couple of times it’s all the same as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t bring any further elements that add to the show. In fact, because the pitstop is so fast, it makes the overall race strategy more predictable than if you had a longer stop. If you only have one person on each corner of the car, it will make the time of the stop about 5-7 seconds longer than the current 2-4 second stops. This will alter the strategy calls and we will most likely see some drivers choosing to stay out on one set of tires and others going all out risking the extra time the pitstop will take. Tire strategy will become more important and as such add an extra element of unpredictability.
Fewer investigations and penalties
By using a random group of former drivers as Race Stewards, we are only causing confusion as each one of them has his own views of what is acceptable or not. If these things have to be policed based on a subjective viewpoint, it’s critical that the decision is made by the same person or team every time, otherwise it’s inevitable that there will be inconsistency.
We need one person with great experience and is somewhat current, who is respected by everyone, to be appointed Chief Steward and attend all the races. This way, there will be consistency and all the drivers will eventually know what they can and can’t get away with. This person needs to be extremely tough and firm at all times. Because as we know, each generation has at least one driver who is pushing the envelope to the absolute limit of what they can get away with. They’re always in trouble with the stewards and historically these guys have such a strong conviction that they’ve never done anything wrong, that they are able to gradually wear the stewards down and often get away with stuff they shouldn’t.
As it is, we currently get some very odd penalties and decisions depending on who is stewarding each particular race. Again, a lot of this is an unfortunate side effect of trying to sanitize the tracks to a point where there is no longer any punishment for going over the limit.
No penalties for engine and gearbox changes
Can anyone even remember the original purpose why this penalty rule was implemented? I think it was in the interest of cost reduction that it was decided that teams would only be allowed a maximum of three engines per season and the gearbox had to run at least five consecutive races before it could be replaced. It is evident that this rule has had the exact opposite effect, making the costs spiral even higher. By implementing a Draconian set of rules that are being enforced in an equally Draconian manner, the manufacturers are being forced to develop and build engines that are infinitely more expensive to produce than if they were allowed a sensible number of engines and gearboxes over the course of the season.
By enforcing the rule as strictly as they do, the competition and subsequently the entertainment side have become a complete farce in many instances. The constant grid penalties are ruining the races and the competition is becoming a joke when a driver starts a race from last on the grid with 50 or more grid penalties. The team’s (rational) behavior of strategically taking penalties in order to position themselves for a better future race leads to even more confusion amongst fans and adds nothing to the racing. As always, the best way to reduce the costs in the long run is by having rules stability: the constant tinkering with the rules is just driving the costs higher every time, and the top teams with big budgets will always gain more from these rules changes as it’s the R&D that drive the costs through the roof, not the manufacturing of parts.
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