The State of Formula One

by J Kraus

 

2010 Ferrari F10

I am somewhat amused by the vast rumblings of discontent over the Bahrain GP. Everyone is complaining about the lack of passing. My first thought was that many of the voices complaining most voraciously about seeing only a few passing manoeuvers will happily spend a hour and a half watching a football (soccer) match in which only one or two goals are scored.

Viewing a pass on the racetrack is really not all that exciting in and of itself (unless you have a wager on!) It is how the pass is executed that can make it exciting for the fans.

There are two major problems with today’s F1 cars from a spectator standpoint: too much tire and too much downforce. The result is a car with a very small window between in control and out of control. That is why, when a driver makes the tiniest error he as often as not ends up completely off the track.

In the narrower tire, no-downforce era, if a lead driver was being closely pursued by a competitor, he could push the envelope a little more knowing the worst that could happen was that he slide off line enough to let the other driver by and thus lose a position. Today, if a driver pushes that envelope a little too far, he is liable to slide right off the circuit, lose multiple positions and possibly be out of the race if his car suffers significant damage bouncing through the kitty litter.

In reality, when you see a F1 car racing around the track, it is constantly cornering in controlled slides around the circuit. However, with the combination of sticky tread compounds, large tires and massive downforce, the tire slip-angles even at the limit are so minuscule that to the viewer the car seems to simply steering around the track as if on rails. Not much excitement there.

Jack Brabham applies a bit of opposite lock in his BT 19 while visibly oversteering on his way to winning the 1966 Dutch GP. Bernard Cahier photo

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when tires were relatively narrow, tread compounds less advanced and downforce non-existent, fans could easily see that the drivers were actually driving their cars. When a pass was executed coming into or exiting a turn with both cars in visible drifts with high slip angles on the tires; that was excitement, that was motor racing. You didn’t need to hear from race communications that a driver was suffering from understeer or oversteer; you could see it with your own eyes.

There was no need for “drifting” competitions in the pre-downforce era; you could see plenty of drifting on the racetrack. Not just in F1, but in ETCC and BTCC racing as well.

Speaking of tires, I see no need for multiple-compound tires. The more interesting races are won on the track, not in pre-race strategic deliberations.

BRM P83 F1 with 3.0 litre 16 cylinder H-configuration powerplant

Unfortunately, as I am more excited by technology than personalities, Formula One becomes increasingly less interesting for me as the FIA increasingly standardize and legislate away engineering creativity. By legislative fiat, all current F1 engines are 2.4 litre 90-degree V8’s. By contrast, in 1966, the first year of the 3-litre Grand Prix formula, cars on the grid were powered by interesting mix of inline 4’s, V6’s, V8’s, V12’s and the BRM H16, each configuration producing a unique and distinctive exhaust note.

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3 thoughts on “The State of Formula One

  1. You are quite right about high downforce leading to cars appearing to just track about the circuit as if a rail tracks. The aerodynamic package is designed to provide downforce when the car is travelling straight ahead. Once the car starts sliding sideways a bit, a critical portion of that downforce suddenly goes missing, just when it is needed most. When this occurs, it often does result in an off-track excursion.

    If the car slides straight sideways, it loses downforce at both ends; however, if the rear of the car steps out to any great extent, most of the lost downforce will occur at the rear, leading to a rapid buildup of oversteer as grip is increasingly diminished. This is why drivers today have such a sharp edge to contend with between all-out and off the track.

  2. At the rate it’s going, they won’t have to worry about that sharp edge between control and lack thereof. They’ll have stability control handling that, and a GPS to steer them around the track. They should take the wings and all the electronic nannies off, have a minimum ground clearance of say 4 inches, narrow down the tires, make the tire compounds so hard that the tires actually screech around corners, and let them put any engine in they want. Do that for a couple years, and let the fans decide whether they like the new cars better than the previous generation.

  3. As an ex-racer (50th anniversary of my first circuit race at Brands Hatch
    will be Saturday week, 29th May) I might take a contrary view to the
    soccer/processional F1 analogy. Soccer does not entail 22 men following each
    other round the touchline in a crocodile. There is constant interplay within
    the overall strategy and a player can outpace or run around an opponent.
    With “lesser forms” of motorsport slipstreaming and overtaking manoeuvres
    are the very essence of the game – pace GP motorcycle racing!

    The basic F1 problem is that aero research in tunnels concentrates primarily
    on the downforce/drag equation but then as an important function and without
    adversely affecting this endeavours to create turbulent ‘dirty’ air in the
    slipstreaming zone to seriously reduce front end downforce of a car working
    towards an overtake. The engineers on the ‘F1 Overtaking Panel’
    unsurprisingly do not admit to this. NASCAR has flattish floors and no such
    problem.

    In our old unsophisticated days without aero aids the more unscrupulous
    amongst us would have engines built as really loose “bags of bolts” which
    gave a scratch more grunt but importantly spewed a fine oil curtain from the
    exhaust thus coating the goggles of the following driver and discouraging
    too close company. Period photos show oily front ends and very black faces
    from brake dust sticking to the oil film. Two pairs of goggles were the norm
    and not just to guard against lens breakage.

    Flat floors and no diffusers would not be apparent to the TV audience or the
    diminishing numbers who pay at the gate but would improve the spectacle.

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