Spectators vs Regulators: The Calm Down Edition

October 31st, 2016

Another race came to a close yesterday and of course we had another round of radio communication outburst and penalties flying all over the place. My question is: do we really need this circus?

Once again at the centre of attention was the young Max Verstappen, who really seems can’t stay away from being slapped on his hands for being a “naughty” driver. Yesterday was the latest installment in the series: Vettel gets angry at Verstappen on the radio. This edition also featured a never seen before: “F**k off Charlie [Whiting]!”.

The reason for all the anger was Verstappen cutting a corner and maintaining his position while fighting with Vettel for third place and then later trying to back the german into his partner Ricciardo. The steward gave Max a 5 seconds penalty after the end of the race which made Vettel run for the podium after to replace the youngster. Funny thing happened tough: Vettel got a 10 seconds penalty after the podium ceremony, meaning he ended up after both Red Bull drivers and making Ricciardo the rightful owner of the 3rd place trophy. Guess what the penalty was for: moving dangerously in the breaking zone! This is the rule that was introduced in Austin in order to calm Verstappen after the all the “outrage” of his fellow drivers (read: Vettel).

So from a spectator point of view, Vettel looked like a little boy only capable to whine as he can’t overtake another skilled driver, only to be penalised exactly for the same reason that his nemesis was punished for.

Which is kind of amazing and made me laugh quite a lot when I saw the news of Vettel’s penalty!

All of this mess made me think about F1 from a higher-level view. It seems now clear that F1 is a different sport from a spectator point of view than what it is for regulators on the ground.

We as TV and track viewers, we live and we crave for some action on track. The kind of action that makes you jump from your seat/sofa, that makes you hold your breath until the end; the kind of action that made F1 great. Lately I’m happy if I can stay awake past the first 2 laps after which nothing will happen. The most you can hope for is for some mechanics to make a mistake during a pitstop so that another drive can overtake, without actually overtaking.

This level of action has been progressively killed off by new rules and restrictions, that yes aim at making the sport safer for the driver but is also progressively killing all the excitement.

There’s an easy comparison here that can be made. Next weekend, tune in the GP2 race before the F1 and you’ll see what excitement looks like. There are hardly any boring races, and you’ll see all the action you want. I’ve seen amazing battles over the years and drivers using every inch of the track and then some to try and gain a position. We are many years off the last time I’ve seen 3 F1 cars entering the same corner at the same time to pull off something of an amazing overtake.

To circle back to yesterday’s race, what we are seeing now in F1, especially with Max, is a driver who is bringing the best of GP2 up in the major category and getting punished for doing so.

In recent years, F1 got very comfortable, probably too much so. With all the rules and regulations and the fictional technical restriction, is no wonder that the sport is loosing viewership. And it’s not just TV either. The Malaysian Grand Prix can be another casualty as the CEO of the Sepang Cirtuit is thinking of dropping the race from the calendar as F1 “is no longer exciting”.

To countermeasure all of this, for the past 6 months everyone is saying the 2017 regulations will change all of this, making the sport extremely exciting once again. I remain hopeful as always, as I really really love the sport, but I won’t certainly hold my breath.

In the meantime, I think everyone should count to 100 before shouting; adrenaline or not.

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

F1 2015: Australian GP

March 15th, 2015

A new F1 season has started and we already had many confirmations and few surprises. But nothing in the race was nearly as good as the post-race interview, where a joyful Hamilton said the following to the Terminator himself: “I thought you were taller!”. Joking aside, 2015 started with a bit of a low tone. 13 cars lined up on the grid (after losing 2 cars in the lap to preceding the formation lap) and only 11 saw the chequered flag.

Despite not having had many technical changes compared to last year, it’s already clear that reliability will play a big role in this season. Speaking of reliability, we have to mourns McLaren. Only Button made it to the initial grid (Magnussen’s engine exploded before he reached the grid) and he only managed to finish 11th out of 11 cars, having to deal with a new Honda engine only running at 40%. Everybody had massive hopes for the renewed partnership McLaren-Honda, but it yet has to show its real face (and it seems it won’t happen anytime soon).

Speaking of surprises, as I said at the beginning we had a few. First was Ferrari, with the surviving car of Sebastian Vettel achieving an impressing 3rd place that prompted him to salute his new team and fans with a surprisingly good Italian (he spoke more Italian in one race that what Schumacher did in his entire career with the Scuderia).

I also want to mention the new drivers, because they all provided great entertainment and showed once again what F1 has to do more of. Max Verstappen, Felipe Nasr and Carlos Sainz Jr. all showed great tenacity and fearless racing. They always “went for it” whenever there was an available space and the three of them I think overtook a lot, certainly more than what we have seen in recent years.

A very early take away from this first race is that Mercedes is going to dominate the entire season once again, while the real race will probably take place between Ferrari and Williams with than everybody else watching from a distance.

All in all a good start but the really important thing is that F1 is back and in a very good shape.