21 May 2009
What Formula One should be doing - Part I

Formula One is in crisis.  As the Depression bites many teams are running out of money.  The cars are dull to look at and the racing is much the same.  Up until this year the same two teams (Ferrari and McLaren) dominated.  And now several teams including Ferrari are thinking of quitting the sport altogether.

So, what should the sport do?  The first thing it must do is to understand how it got into this mess.

But before we do this I would like to deal with a red herring.  People often complain that there’s not enough overtaking and wheel-to-wheel racing in F1.  But there never was, apparently.  And when you think about it, why should there be?  Surely, the best car-driver combination should, under almost all circumstances, shoot off into the distance?  The only real reason why this should change during a race would be either through driver fatigue or brake and tire wear.

Having said that there is a problem with overtaking a slightly slower car.  Modern racing car aerodynamics like to take clean (or laminar) air flows and spew out dirty (or turbulent) air flows.  So, the car attempting to overtake finds that it has to deal with the overtakee’s dirty air rather than the clean air it’s designed to deal with.  The result? Appalling and unpredictable handling.  And difficult overtaking.  Perhaps they could experiment with overtaking lanes or come up with a measurement or the turbulence from the back of cars and limit it.  Who knows.  But, as I said, it’s not as big a problem as people tend to think.

No, the real problem in F1 is regulation.  Want a bigger engine?  You can’t, it’s banned.  Or maybe you want to put a turbo on it?  You can’t do that either, that’s also banned.  Hey, there’s even a restriction on the number of cylinders you’re allowed.  Or what about high wings, fans, skirts, more than four wheels, closed cockpits, closed wheels?  You can’t.  Banned, banned, banned, banned.  It’s no wonder all the cars look the same.  The complexity of the regulations eventually forced Gordon Murray, one of F1’s most talented designers and the man behind the McLaren F1, to abandon the sport altogether.

But while it is easy to see why the regulations make for boring cars it is difficult for many to see why this leads to spiralling costs and a lack of competition.

But that’s what regulations always do.  They always help the big guys at the expense of the little guys.  For instance, in the 1970s Lotus came up with ground effect.  Using skirts to control air flow, ground effect “glued” the car to the ground while cornering.  It was cheap and it was banned.  It then took 20 years of expensive computer modelling and wind-tunnel testing to regain the downforce the ban had removed.  It’s not hard to guess which teams were the first to reap the benefits.

But what about this year? I hear you ask.  They’ve changed the rules and all of a sudden it’s the little teams that are prospering.  Just you wait, I say.  Give it a year and the big boys will be back.

See here for Part II

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