Ringing the changes
The FIA’s latest set of rule changes for 2003 have caught pretty well everyone on the hop. Not since Jean Marie Balestre banned aerodynamic ‘skirts’ at the beginning of 1983 have the rules under which the game is played changed so suddenly and so dramatically. One could point to the banning of turbo engines in the late eighties, but this was a change that was announced in 1986, and slowly phased in over the course of the following three years.
On the face of it, the changes coming into force next year are not of the same order of magnitude. The cars will still be powered by the same kind of engines, and they will still look pretty much the same as last year. There has been some talk of banning traction control and automatic gearboxes before the start of the season, but all the indications are that the FIA have accepted that it will simply not be possible to introduce such radical changes so quickly - this year’s cars have already been built, and it is hard to see how a ban on traction control could be implemented without introducing standardised electronic control boxes - something which could not be done at such short notice.
The most obvious change to F1 next year, at least to the casual observer, is the new ‘one shot’ qualifying format. The idea of giving drivers just a single shot at a qualifying lap sounds made for television, and indeed it probably is. Traditionalists,. particularly those of us who remember the days when the grid was settled by two one-hour qualifying sessions over two days, may think that this sounds a little gimmicky - tacky even, but even I can’t help feeling that this could make Saturday afternoons pretty essential viewing. The dilemma for the driver is simple - put in a ‘banker lap’ a little way off the ultimate pace and risk starting a few places further down the grid than before or risk all on a really quick lap and hope not to end up in the gravel trap and at the back of the grid come Sunday. One can’t help feeling that this is a system which will play even more into the hands of Michael Schumacher, for there is no other man in F1 with quite the same instant pace on cold tyres, in an unfamiliar car as the five-times champion. At least though, it won’t play into the hands of the richest teams in the way that many initially feared. When the rule was first announced, there was much talk of Ferrari and McLaren, to name but two, developing special ‘qualifying cars’ designed to go quickly over a single lap with no thought given to longevity. To anyone who remembers the “burning money” days of qualifying tyres and engines in the mid-eighties turbo era the idea of such profligate waste of money will seem eerily familiar, and as fundamentally ridiculous as ever.
This is not going to turn the sport upside down. It will hand an advantage to those who can be instantly quick over a single lap, and over the course of a whole season, to those who make fewer mistakes when on, or at least, near the limit, but don’t expect Justin Wilson and Jos Verstappen to making up the front row of the grid too often this season.
The banning of traction control, which has been mooted from mid-season onwards could have more of an impact. Over the last couple of seasons, there has been lot of muttering that, frankly, F1 cars are too easy to drive these days. No need to change the gears, no need to be delicate with the throttle - the software takes care of all that. Certainly, the pace of such s 17 year old Nico Rosberg when he tested Williams late last year suggest that driving an F1 simply isn’t as difficult as it once was. I’m not suggesting that Rosberg Jr is anything other than talented - if the laws of genetic inheritance hold even approximately true, then he is going to be a name to watch in the future, but a 17 year old kid who has never raced anything more powerful than a 1300cc single seater should not immediately be turning such quick lap times in an F1 car. While the influence of aerodynamic downforce on a car’s overall grip and the amazing things that can be done with engine management systems to make an engine more driveable mean that modern F1 cars will continue to be easier to drive than say an eighties turbo-car, without traction control, the gap between the great and the merely good should be much wider than it has been over the last two years. This is unlikely to affect any of the big names - the men at Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have no need of such devices in the first place, but it will be interesting to see how such as Pizzonia and Massa (should he get a drive) cope this season. Massa, in particular, looked like a man who would not benefit from a car that was any more difficult to drive than it already was. That the wild Sato, the unexceptional Bernoldi and the hopeless Yoong have parted the F1 scene prior to the banning of driver aids is probably a relief to everyone else.
Now, the FIA’s more eccentric decisions. The first is the banning of the spare car. Teams will still bring these to races, as if a car gets written off in practice, they will need a spare in order to go racing - yet now they will not be allowed to use them in any other circumstances. I lost count of the number of times a driver switched to a spare last year because of a problem in their race car. Now it is no longer clear exactly what the circumstances in which they will be allowed to do this are. At what point does a race car become judged ‘unraceable’, allowing use of the spare ? Who makes this decision ? And is the cost of bringing one extra car to the circuit in the transporter really that great ? How will the teams who opt to make use of the FIA’s Friday practice sessions be affected by this ? In some ways stranger still, is the banning of car-to-pit telemetry. If data-loggers were also banned, there might be some purpose to this. Drivers would have to articulate to their race engineers exactly what was happening out on the circuit to be able to best set the car up. Those with a good technical understanding of the sport would be handed an advantage - the Prosts and the Sennas of this world. The instinctive Alesis and Raikkonens might suffer for their relative lack of technical understanding. Instead, all that will happen, is that there will be five minute delay while the team download the relevant data from the black boxes. Which rather begs the question - why ban car to pit telemetry at all ?. Its been around in the sport since at least the late eighties, and is not normally brought up in a list of factors leading to spiralling costs in F1. Likewise, the ban on pit to car radios seems a little mysterious. Its hard to think of a serious branch of motorsport these days in which such systems are not used. If there is a fear about them being used to convey (now banned) team orders, then why not keep them on the condition that they be open to the TV feed - thus killing two birds with one stone and doing something to improve ‘the show’ ?
These qualms aside, the FIA appears to be going in the right direction with these changes, and certainly Saturday afternoons will be compulsive viewing next year. Whether the racing is any better next year though will ultimately depend not on tinkering with the rules, but on whether Williams, McLaren, and perhaps Renault have done their homework over the winter and can take the fight to Ferrari.
To return to racing lines.