Formula One - On and Off Track Week 15

Formula One - On and Off Track Week 15

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • F1 2011 - It’s too complicated!
  • Have Pirelli lost their marbles?
  • Jean Todt - Ruled by numbers

It’s too complicated!

The most surprising news after the Malaysian Grand Prix was without a doubt the complaints of drivers and so-called Formula One pundits who claimed Formula One is now too complicated for spectators to follow. They have doubts whether the new regulations are the right way to a brighter future of the sport. The ´confusion´ and ‘chaos’ is allegedly caused by the new Pirelli tyres, as they degrade very fast and force a driver to either carry on for several laps on tyres that are four to five seconds per lap slower, or pit for new tyres and try to regain the time they lost in the pit lane on a fresh set of Pirellis.

Has Formuila One become too complicated?
Has Formuila One become too complicated?

Photo by:

The tyres work well for a number of laps, but then drop off very quickly, and the difference in lap time between fresh and older tyres is so big that teams now refer to it a the ´tyre cliff´. A few drivers were confused about what was going on in the race. “It was a really confusing race in a way, trying to understand the pit stops," said Jenson Button. And added, “I don't think anyone really knew who was going to finish behind Seb [Sebastian Vettel]. It is complicated and I think at this point of the season it's going to be because there's a lot that we're trying to learn ourselves on the circuit.”

Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery was puzzled by the reactions. “If I am going to be criticized for making the races more exciting, I don't know what to say,” he said. He was also forced to defend the Pirelli policy of producing fast degrading tyres, “We are doing what we have been asked to do,” he said, referring to the fact it was actually the FIA who asked the Italian company to spice up races and increase the number of pit stops by making less durable tyres. “We either go back to a one-stop strategy, if that's what they feel is better, or we continue to do what we have been asked to do,” he commented after the race.

Race strategies have certainly become more complicated with all the extra stops, and with a record of 59 pit stops, this also puts more pressure on the pit crews who had to perform 59 flawless pit stops in Malaysia and despite their skills, a few of those stops went wrong which cost Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa a chance to finish on the podium.

It’s certainly complicated at the pit wall

Christian Horner

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted race strategies have definitely changed, “It's certainly complicated on the pit wall. It would be an air traffic controller's nightmare if you were tuned into the strategy channel.” And added, “It does add an exciting dimension to the race, an element to it that was much more strategic, and you can see it worked out for some and not for others.” All in all he was satisfied with the changes, “You had people racing each other, so that has to be a positive for Formula One in what otherwise could have been a static race.”

Race winner Sebastian Vettel thinks racing has changed, “If you look at the race speed, the lap times compared to last year, we are much slower.” And after the race he commented, “There are more battles going on, which is obviously something people want to see, but for all of us there's a lot to pick up and a lot to learn because there are so many things going on.”

Fernando Alonso agrees things have become complicated for the drivers. “It is not clear or easy to know where you are. You just need to keep pushing, to keep saving the tyres.," the Spaniard said. But he also agrees it makes races less predictable, “Last year after the first pit stop the race was more or less over. This year you don't know anything until the last four or five laps and that is interesting.”

Complicated, but many thrilling fights
Complicated, but many thrilling fights

Photo by:

Nick Heidfeld had a similar view, “It's probably more complicated to understand from the outside, but at the same time the show is better because there was more overtaking going on.” Force India rookie driver Paul di Resta however, was confused. “It was quite confusing, and I was quite surprised. I know it's going to sound crazy, but you didn't really know where you were,” he said. “I don't know how many times I passed [Nico] Rosberg. Every time I came out of the pits I seemed to be next to him. I think I overtook him four times in the race.”

Another thing that makes life more complicated for drivers is that they have to push more and more buttons during a race, and some of them compared the situation with sending a text message with a cell phone in the cockpit while driving at a speed of 300 km per hour. This discussion seems to have subsided, also because drivers now have seen that the Drag Reduction System or "DRS", does indeed help to make overtaking easier. DRS is also a simple system, if the gap in the rear wing is opened, the downforce and drag decreases, and the car goes faster, if it closes the car has more downforce and drag, and therefore the car goes slower. There is nothing complicated about that.

It seems to be a huge paradox: there is the call for more action, but when there is more action, it is now all of a sudden too complicated. The race in Malaysia had a record 59 pit stops, the DRS wing proved its potential and KERS, or the absence of KERS on some cars, also added to the excitement. DRS seems to work perfect, and in Malaysia drivers were able to pass each other.

There are some things you lose, other things you gain, so it's always give and take

Sebastian Vettel

Is Formula One complicated? No it certainly is not, spectators can see on the on-screen graphics where every driver is, they can see whether KERS or DRS is activated, many onboard cameras show the battles for positions, and many teams have live data streams on their website where fans can follow the progress of a team, the official website offers live timing, and the introduction of HD TV made the Formula One spectacle even better.

So let’s not give our final judgment until the last race of the season has finished, and there is no better way to end this topic than with the wise words of Vettel: “There are some things you lose, other things you gain, so it's always give and take.”

Have Pirelli lost their marbles?

Almost all drivers complained about it during the Malaysian Grand Prix: the marbles, pieces of rubber that fall of the tyres and gather especially at the outside of corners, making overtaking very tricky. Vitaly Petrov was one of the victims, he ran wide at a corner, ended up outside the clean racing line, was caught out by the marbles, which sent him onto the grass where he hit a bump that launched his black and gold Lotus Renault into the air. The unfortunate Russian landed so hard on the curbs that the mounting of the steering column broke which forced him to abandon the race.

Big chunks of rubber on the Pirellis
Big chunks of rubber on the Pirellis

Photo by:

Alonso also admitted the marbles are a problem, “It was more difficult than Australia for sure," he said. "There is some concern for places like Canada, Singapore, Monaco, that you catch a lapped car, they let you past, you go inside, you take some marbles and then on the next corner you miss the braking point and you go straight.” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali even suggested the incident Alonso had with Hamilton was partly caused by the big chunks of Pirelli rubber along the track.

But it not just the enormous amount of marbles outside the racing line that worries drivers, a number of them have also complained about the marbles which were spit out by the cars ahead of them, and they referred to them as flying bullets. Some of these marbles are actually quite big chunks of rubber and drivers fear it is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

Rubber is not the softest material and if it got you in the right place, it could hurt

Paul di Resta

Di Resta told the UK Telegraph, ”They kept coming up and hitting me in the hands. In the middle of a fast corner, these lumps of rubber would be smacking into my hands as I turned the wheel. Rubber is not the softest material and if it got you in the right place, it could hurt.” Vettels supports di Resta’s view. “There was a lump that was suddenly in the middle of my visor,” the German said. “They're like bullets fired from the car in front. Imagine Singapore or Monaco, where a fan could suddenly find a piece of tyre in his tea,” he jokingly added.

Hembery was a bit annoyed about all the stories about the Pirelli tyres, “I have not had those comments from the top three but if it’s an issue, we will have to confront it,” he said. “There was a lot of overtaking though. We will have to analyze all the overtaking maneuvers but the marbles have to go somewhere and that is a difficulty for us.”

Jean Todt - Ruled by numbers

There is not only confusion about the tyres and many pit stops, FIA President Jean Todt last week proposed to make car numbers better visible, and give drivers -- like in NASCAR -- a permanent number which would make it easier to identify a driver. “Like in NASCAR a driver who is arriving in Formula One, he gets a number. He would keep it for all of his career. You could identify a driver with a number,” the Frenchman said. “I would like to see who is driving the car, from a long distance, and the number of the car. At the moment, [if] you don’t find the number, you don’t find the name.”

Car numbers were clearly visible in the old days
Car numbers were clearly visible in the old days

Photo by: Lucien Harmegnies

Which is remarkable to say the least, as the man has spent over ten years at the Ferrari pit wall, and together with Ross Brawn he was considered to be the best strategist of that era, winning five World Championship titles with Michael Schumacher -- and now he claims he doesn’t know who’s driving which car?

He also suggested teams are not interested to make car numbers better visible. “I don’t have the power without creating unnecessary conflict to change something I’m not happy [with]. You need to have some strong ground for changing. You need to have a minimum of positive opinion among the group in Formula One,” he explained. Why teams don’t like Todt’s idea is easy to explain: all teams want to sell every inch of space on the bodywork to sponsors, and a big car number would in their eyes be a waste of money.

Currently the car numbers are determined by the ranking of the previous season, the one who won the championship gets the number one, his team mate gets number two, second in the championship gets number three and his team mate number four. Because many drivers and teams are very superstitious, the number 13 is skipped, thus with 24 cars on this year’s grid, the team who finished last in points gets numbers 24 and 25.

This hasn’t always been the case, until 1972 drivers had different numbers during each Grand Prix, the numbers were given in the same order a driver submitted his entry for that Grand Prix to the race officials, if a driver was the fifth one to submit his entry, he got number five. From 1973 to 1995 the new champion received the numbers one and two and exchanged their old numbers with the previous champion, thus only the car numbers of the past and present champions were changed.

Jackie Stewart, Tyrell
Jackie Stewart, Tyrell

Photo by: Lucien Harmegnies

In 1993 and 1994 the World Champions, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost respectively, weren’t active in Formula One anymore, and the numbers 0 and 2 were issued to the team who had won the championship. Damon Hill, 1996 World Champion, started his career at Williams with the number 0 on his car. Another rule of thumb was that new teams were given the first available car number, and in 1991 for instance, it was indeed difficult to work out which driver had which car number and why, as a total of 41 drivers participated in the 1991 championship.

Starting in 1996 there were only 24 drivers on the start grid, and it was therefore decided to abandon the old and somewhat nebulous car numbering system, and number the cars in the same order as they had finished the championship. Ferrari fans and the Ferrari team were not really happy with the change, as the most famous car number in Formula One, the number 27, which was the car number of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, could no longer be used by Ferrari.

Todt’s plans for bigger and more visible car numbers have so far fallen on deaf ears, but the Frenchman hasn’t given up his plans yet. “It will come, it will change,” he said.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 14

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Jenson Button , Michael Schumacher , Nick Heidfeld , Fernando Alonso , Nigel Mansell , Jackie Stewart , Ross Brawn , Lewis Hamilton , Felipe Massa , Alain Prost , Damon Hill , Gilles Villeneuve , Paul di Resta , Sebastian Vettel , Jean Todt , Vitaly Petrov
Teams Force India , Williams
Tags car numbers, degradation, malaysia, marbles, pirelli, strategy, todt