What’s The Time?

April 6th, 2016

If you need such a complicated graph – you’re doing it wrong

I’m a big fan of F1 and unfortunately in the last few years I had to witness my favorite motor sport digging its own grave.

I’ve been following the sport since I can remember. F1 is actually one of my earliest memory, unfortunately linked with the tragic death of Ayrton Senna in 19941. Back then, and all throughout the 90s and early 00s, F1 has always been a synonymous of innovation, adrenaline, fast and entertaining races and grand spectacle.

Now, it’s becoming a massive moving advertising billboard. A traveling circus in constant need of fresh money. Who are the losers in this transition? The viewers of course.

The latest development in this downward spiral is represented by the new qualifying format introduced in Melbourne. A new timed elimination system that was supposed to increase the competitiveness of the qualifying sessions and increase the engagement of the sport.

The results? For the past two races, the track has been empty for almost 3/4 minutes each session, reducing the track times of all cars and basically destroying any show.

During the first race in Australia, all the teams clearly had no clue of how to manage the new format. Almost all the teams got caught in the time trap half-way through the out lap, wasting tires, time and viewers patience. It was so bad that during the Q3, which was supposed to be the big shootout between the 8 fastest cars left, everyone did barely one lap and Hamilton started celebrating his pole position with 3 minutes to spare on the clock, with the team in 8th place not even bothering leaving the pit.

In Bahrain last weekend, teams seemed to have acquired a slightly better understanding of the new system, which meant that they drove even fewer laps than the week before. Getting the timing right meant that almost everyone only drove for one lap as the elimination system doesn’t give you enough time to go out, back in to refuel and change tires and back out.

The funny thing is that all the teams agreed to the new system before the start of the season, it wasn’t imposed from above. Now everyone, drivers first, are trashing the new qualifying system.

To make things worse, just before the last race, the teams got together with Jean Todd and Bernie Ecclestone to try and agree on an “improved” solution. The drafted idea that came out is now proposing to oblige all drivers to take at least two laps every Q session and to use the aggregate time to decide the standing order.

Vettel didn’t seem to like the idea, as The Guardian reported:

As Formula One’s masters lurch towards another doomed-looking meeting on Thursday in an effort to resolve the new and catastrophic qualifying format, Sebastian Vettel has described the proposed aggregate system as a “shit idea”.

He’s not the only one with a bad feeling about this. His opinions were echoed by former team mate Daniel Riccardo:

Qualifying is one lap, that one perfect lap. To have an aggregate it starts to sound more like endurance racing, or something. I wouldn’t be too keen on that, no.

To be honest I wouldn’t be that keen either on that idea. I so fondly miss the days were we had cars running around for an entire hour, slowly building up pace and speed, leading to a spectacular gran finale where everything could’ve realistically happened. Nowadays you can predict the order of the qualifying without even having the teams actually going out on track. It is pretty sad, especially from a viewer point of view. It’s note a coincidence that F1 has been steadily losing viewers (both on track and on TV), and all the changes that the FIA made in these recent years don’t seem to offer a solution that will bring back the fun.

I’m definitely not in a position to advise the FIA on how they should run their sport, but I believe that as it’s the case in many situations, even with F1 the principle should be that less is more.

Less stringent rules, more freedom to develop and bring innovation. F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of automotive innovation, but since the FIA started to heavily regulate the engines and the spending limits for the cars’ development, the sport started morphing into something it never was: a fair playground. It may sound controversial, but the F1 was a better sport when it was less fair. Big teams with big budgets were free to develop and innovate as much as they wanted. Also, cars were designed by real innovators, engineers who had real ideas and they were driven by pure passion. Today cars are mostly designed on paper by thick rule books issued by the FIA, leaving little to no room for teams to bring their own unique take on what an F1 car should really look, sound and perform.

Despite all my rants, I’ll keep watching the next F1 race, and the one after, because I still love the sport and what it represents. I just wish we could turn the clocks back and be amazed once more.

  1. At the time Internet wasn’t a thing so I remember following the updates on Senna’s condition via the Televideo (Teletext) system in my TV. Yes, Televideo