Continuing his three-part analysis on why Formula 1 needs a new approach, the ’80s grand prix star identifies the three areas that have sent the sport down a self-defeating dead end.
There are three main factors that determine the speed of a racing car – aerodynamics, engine and tires. Of these three, aerodynamics has become the most crucial component in modern car design. Yet, out of these three main factors, aerodynamics is the one area that has almost no significant benefit to anything beyond making a racecar go faster.
There is an endless tinkering to gain minuscule percentages of downforce versus drag, all determined by a very strict set of rules that basically allows for virtually no innovative thinking. It is purely a matter of spending as much time and money as is allowed by the rules to fine-tune the aero package.
The “development war” has become a big talking point in Formula 1, and the top teams are literally flying in crates with new aero parts every day during the course of a grand prix. It is purely a matter of cubic dollars, the more you spend the more you gain. Today a top F1 team is going through something like 75 different versions of its front wing-design in one season. The sheer cost of this is mindboggling. There is obviously a lot of other aero work going on at the same time but it’s all secondary to the front wing as this is what most influences aerodynamic forces along and over any open-wheel racecar.
Yet the more efficient the aero package is, the more difficult it is to pass the car in front of you as turbulence from the car ahead will inevitably affect the efficiency of the front wing of your car. When you look at the front wing of a current F1 car, it is not difficult to see how a slight interference in the perfect airflow will cause a major disturbance in the overall grip and in particular the front grip of the car. But it’s not only F1 cars that suffer from this problem; every modern racing car that produces downforce of any level is suffering from the same problem.
In an effort to try and make the racing more interesting, a number of “artificial” devices has been introduced, DRS (drag reduction system) being one of them. It’s helped the passing for sure, but it’s taken away a big part of what is the “art of racing”, in my opinion. There is no skill or technique involved in pressing a button in order to gain an advantage on the car in front of you, especially if this car is basically a sitting duck and has no ability to respond.
The current engines in F1 are incredibly sophisticated, so much so that they’re now called power units. The cost to develop these units is astronomical and drove up the costs for every team participating in F1. This has mostly affected the smaller teams who have to buy these engines from one of the engine manufacturers.
But it’s not only the cost of the engine that has gone up. Because they are so complicated to run and install, much more manpower is required. Combined with a general squeeze in the sponsorship flowing into F1 at the moment, this has caused most of the mid-level and smaller teams to rely more and more on Formula One Management’s complicated system of financial aid that pays out on a scale based on points scored in previous seasons.
Despite the massive cost of developing, manufacturing and maintaining these power units, the OEMs are forced to make them within an extremely strict set of rules, and there is only one option of technology that everyone must adhere to. So again, there is very little room for innovative thinking.
However, the big difference between the chassis and engine rules are that once you’ve submitted the engine you’re planning to run, you can only make changes according to incredibly complicated “token” regulations, whereas a team is allowed to develop its way out of a chassis problem. There is basically no limit to how many upgrades you can make to a car during a season. Apparently the main reason for this lock on engine development was to bring down costs, yet the cost of creating these power units in the first place has already broken any attempt at keeping the spends at a reasonable level.
For a while now, the tire supply in F1 has been limited to one manufacturer. The mandate to Pirelli has been to effectively build a bad tire, in the interest of making the racing more exciting. This has been going on for some years now and I don’t think anyone can say it has improved the racing on any level whatsoever. All it has done is make everyone drive 10-20% off their real pace just to make the tires last until a set lap in the race; it hasn’t altered strategy nor has it made the races more interesting.
For me it’s one of the worst ideas they have ever come up with in F1. It would be so much better for everyone involved if a driver was forced to be on the limit, every single lap throughout the race, so we see who are the really good ones and who are the ones who will make a mistake when the pressure is on.
One of the big arguments right now is about the cost of running a Formula 1 team, and how to reduce it. There’s talk of a cost cap and all sorts of different solutions are offered. There are several different thoughts and philosophies in this area – the smaller teams are complaining they don’t get enough of the profit share from the FOM, the bigger teams all want to spend more than they currently do if it means they can win.
I don’t think it will ever be possible to find a happy medium and it will be impossible to ever efficiently police a team’s outlay. The only sensible solution in my opinion is for the FIA to mandate new rules that would restrict or eliminate areas where big spending is done.
The money being spent on aero development in general is simply astronomical, the constant fiddling with the little aero widgets and bits and pieces being bolted on the cars is endless. Rather than focusing on overall downforce which increases corner speed, reducing drag would in my opinion be one of the major areas to focus on in order to help increase straightline speed.
If rules were devised to make drag reduction an imperative, super smart engineers would bring forth very major breakthroughs in a short period of time, and suddenly the difference between terminal speed on straights and cornering speed would be vastly increased. That would make the cars more of a handful, increase the length of braking zones, and thus increase the number and likelihood of passing opportunities.
Most people are now in agreement that the cars don’t sound or look spectacular enough, the fans can see that the drivers aren’t fighting their cars and, as a result, it’s difficult for fans to appreciate their heroes.
Part 3 – Potential remedies – follows on Friday. To read Part 1, click here.
To read more of Stefan Johansson's opinions on the sport, click here http://www.stefanjohansson.com