Don’t Let the Door Hit You on Your Way Out, Toto

Bernie’s right. Horner too. Not about everything – God knows the only idea worse than Christian’s “equalization” proposal was Bernie’s double-points farce.  But bringing V8s back is the best idea for F1 since…well, since the V8s left.

Everyone seems to agree that Formula One is in crisis.  While crisis means different things to different people, most of the sports’ so-called leaders are referring to unsustainable finances.  Personally, I’m more worried about the steady erosion of the sport, but let’s hold my concerns in abeyance for now and examine what’s behind this profit crisis.

I’ll sum it up in a Twitter-friendly two characters: V6.

Yes, yes, I know.  Such an over-simplification is naïve.  Formula One doesn’t have one challenge, it has many.  Inequitable revenue sharing is a big one.  So too is the advent of “new” media, which simultaneously competes for the attention of viewers, and provides at least some would-be sponsors a more efficient marketing platform.

But while the V6s may not be the problem, they are the biggest problem.  By a long shot.  The only other topic that comes even close is the inequitable revenue sharing, and sadly, it’s highly unlikely that anything can be done to change that until the current Concorde Agreement expires.

Seriously, think about it.  Profits are getting squeezed from both directions – rising costs and falling revenues – and the common thread?  These dreary engines.

  • Costs?  There’s no mystery here.  Costs are always going to be a problem in Formula 1.  But it should come as no surprise that saddling the midfield with enormous engine bills was never going to be sustainable.
  • Revenues?  Stop kidding yourselves.  It is no coincidence that declines in attendance and television viewership accelerated with the retirement of those wailing V8s.  Yes, I know – not everyone hates these V6s.  Some people (to my bewilderment) actually seem to like them.  But I doubt that anyone is more inclined to watch or attend a race because of the new engine format.  And I know a lot of people are being driven away.  My Dad won’t attend a race this year for the first time in more than three decades because “it’s lost its magic”.  Another close friend has stopped watching because he’s so offended by the notion of lift-and-coast.  And if you want to know how the uninitiated would-be-fan responds, read my piece “Making F1 Cars Inspiring Again” (spoiler alert: they weren’t impressed).

The (lousy) counter-argument goes that we need fuel-efficient hybrid technology in order to maintain manufacturer involvement.  Can anyone explain to me why manufacturer involvement is so important? Why it’s worth rules changes that drive away fans, push midfield teams to the brink of bankruptcy (and beyond) and change the sport to its core?

And has no one noticed that Renault already has one foot out the door despite (because of?) these new engine rules?  Which, incidentally, would be an ironic and infuriating twist (don’t forget that Renault shoulders a significant share of the blame for ushering in this dismal engine regime.)

Sure, 1000bhp V8s won’t be as easy as Bernie’s making it sound.  But at least he has the balls to call a spade a spade.

Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, Toto.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

Track Limits – The Boundary Between Sport and Game?

Hemmingway once said, “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I don’t know exactly what was behind this characterization, but I’ve always imagined that he meant that sports embrace mortal risk, while games employ referees (or stewards, in our case) to mitigate them.

And so against that backdrop, I’m curious to hear what you, dear readers, think about paved runoff area and its implications for our sport. Gary Anderson – a man I respect enormously – touched on paved runoff in an OpEd for Autosport recently, calling for stricter and more consistent policing of track limits. I wholeheartedly agree that this would be an improvement over the current state of affairs. But I’d vastly prefer a more Hemmingway-esque solution; one without paved runoff, and thus without the need for referees to police the out-of-bounds line.

Even the once-fearsome Parabolica has been neutered.

Even the once-fearsome Parabolica has been neutered.

In his piece, Anderson presents two arguments in favor of paved runoff as if they’re indisputable: (1) They improve safety, and (2) Drivers that make mistakes can likely continue the race.  I think both of these points are contentious.

1) Clearly, the desire for safety is less controversial than the second argument, though I think the quest for safety may have gone too far since 1994. No real fan of the sport wants to see our drivers maimed or killed. But go too far in the name of safety and they’ll end up driving nerf cars at carriageway speeds. When you remove the element of risk (outside of freak accidents like Massa’s and Bianchi’s), the sport changes fundamentally. And I worry that we’re at that point – where a driver’s mindset is more akin to a video gamer’s than to that of the drivers of bygone eras. Not that I’d argue for a return to the unacceptable dangers of the early-nineties, never mind the fifties or sixties. But perhaps we need a little more Monaco and a little less Tilke. A little more kitty litter, and a little less runway.

2) Explain to me again why it’s important for drivers that make mistakes to be able to continue the race? Anderson isn’t the first to make that argument, but I still don’t follow it.  I tune in every race to watch the 24 best drivers in the world (or, more accurately, the dozen-or-so best drivers in the world and a handful of rich guys, but we’ll revisit that topic later). They aren’t supposed to make mistakes.  And if they do, I want to see them pay a price for it. (Besides, it adds unpredictability, and in a fair and just manner – in stark contrast to double points or standing restarts. And isn’t unpredictability supposed to be good for the “show”?)

But anyway, I’ve been ranting enough lately, and perhaps my view on track limits (and other topics) is unusual. Please, use the comments to share your thoughts, or send me a tweet at @SaveFormulaOne. I want to hear what other passionate fans think about the subject.

See Gary Anderson’s piece here.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

F1 Dictatorship for Dummies

F1 is in crisis, and cannot rely on a yield-hungry private equity firm or a committee of self-serving team principals to save it. It needs leadership committed to the sport, not profits.

Though having said that, has it occurred to no one that declines in viewership have occurred in concert with an erosion in the sport’s virtues; with the very compromises in the name of the “show” (DRS; high deg tires and multiple race compounds; double points) and green technology that were supposed to make it appeal to a broader audience?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that F1 hasn’t also faced increased competition for viewers, changing media habits and the declining status of the automobile in our culture (particularly among millenials). Clearly these are meaningful headwinds to attracting and retaining an audience (Bernie’s job must have been a lot easier when there were four television channels to choose from). But were any of the absurd gimmicks introduced in the last few years ever really going to hold the attention of the ADHD Facebook generation? Seems like they’ve only succeeded in alienating the core – the purists like me.

And yet, rather than restoring the sport’s purity and learning to live within the ample means that we The Devoted would provide, the dummies in charge react (in panic) by looking for new ways to sully the sport in the name of the “show” (standing restarts, a ridiculous ban on radio communication, and God knows what they’ll come up with over the winter).

So, not that they’ll listen, but I thought I’d jot down some principles for them, the principles I’d follow if I was in a position to shape F1’s future. Call it “F1 Dictatorship for Dummies”.

1) We want a race, not a lottery. It doesn’t get more offensive than double-points. Perhaps that’s why the news of standing restarts wasn’t met with the horror it deserved – we’d been desensitized. In any event – please, please, please, dummies – stop with the gimmicks.

2) F1 is not just a driver’s championship, it’s a constructor’s championship. That is its essence – the best drivers, the best strategists and engineers and fabricators and mechanics. F1 needs two-car teams that build their own cars, period.

3) The economics need to add up. Success should be incredibly hard to achieve, but not impossible. New entrants should be held to an extraordinarily high bar.  But survival should be viable for any legitimate team.

4) Race teams test. Don’t stop them. It’s hard to claim to be the pinnacle of motorsport but test less than a low budget F3 team. Besides, the teams will spend the money they would have used for testing on simulators and wind tunnels (to less effect). If they used that money for testing, there would be more chances to test and groom promising young drivers (or raise revenue from rich young drivers); more opportunities for the fans to see the cars in action; more stories for the press to cover between races to keep the fans engaged.

5) Engines should take your breath away – like they used to. They are (were) integral to the experience of Formula 1. They should build anticipation as they approach and amaze as they pass by. These dreary new V6s are about as inspirational as a rusty minivan.

6) Racing is about speed, not conservation. It is frivolous by its very nature – entrants spending princely sums and drivers risking life itself, all for the glory of completing a circuit faster than a few other unhinged souls. And yet that’s why we love it. Fuel economy should only be a consideration if it makes the car faster, not by decree from a governing body that’s forgotten what draws us all to racing in the first place. Coasting shouldn’t be in a racing driver’s vocabulary; the idea that lifting and coasting in an effort to stay within an artificially-imposed fuel consumption limit is now a regular occurrence in Formula 1 should offend every racer to his core.

7) Passes should be well-earned and memorable. I long for the processions of the Schumacher-era. Not that I didn’t wish for more overtaking, but I’ll take one great pass over a seasons’ worth in the DRS era.

8) Race cars are meant to be fast – unbelievably fast. And F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle. We tune in to watch supermen struggling to reign in their thoroughbreds (think Senna at Monaco in ’88), not to cruise around in low-grip cars, driving to a delta for 90 minutes and emerge looking ready to start another race.

9) Track limits should be just that – limits. If you make a mistake, you should pay an actual penalty – broken suspension, or at least lost time. We certainly shouldn’t be relying on the (inevitably inconsistent) judgment of a few stewards to impose penalties that fit the crime. And while we’re at it, how about a ban on anti-stall software? If Pastor can’t keep his car pointed in the right direction, maybe he doesn’t deserve to finish the race. I tune in to see him drive, not his onboard computer.

10) Let the drivers race. Penalize aggregious errors – deliberate contact, repeated contact or incompetence – but otherwise, let them get on with it.

11) Don’t force unwanted technology on the teams (I’m talking about you, V6s), but don’t ban good, cost-effective technologies either. The idea of a ban on radio communication or tire blankets at the pinnacle of motorsport is ludicrous – or at least it ought to be.

12) It’s a team sport. Team orders have a place.

13) F1 should be exclusive. What’s wrong with that? This is the pinnacle, after all (at least it was), and the participants should act accordingly.  A spot in F1 – driver, engineer, or any other spot in the paddock – is something to which to aspire. It’s a privelege, not a right, but something that can be earned. That’s part of its allure, and the sport should embrace it. F1 isn’t NASCAR (thank God), nor should it try to be.

14) Technology freezes are a dangerous antidote to a space race, and should only be imposed when the technology is mature. The current engine freeze is a disaster. Manufacturers need time to develop a new technology, or you end up with a Mercedes-esque juggernaut. The only alternative is spec equipment, which is the opposite of F1’s very essence.

15) This is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport. Everything should be built to optimize for speed. Parc fermé after qualifying is a terrible idea – I want to see the fastest cars in qualifying trim, and the fastest cars in race trim. But even more offensive are the long-lived parts, and the penalties that arise when they fail. Engines (and gearboxes, etc.) shouldn’t last long. If limiting units per season really saves a meaningful amount of money (does it?), fine, I can live with that, but make the penalties less draconian. And if it doesn’t save much money? Then knock it off.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

F1 Needs a Dictator

F1 has many issues, but one fundamental problem: It has fallen into the hands of terrible custodians, who value profit over sport.

Ultimately, we can blame Max Mosley, who (besides being an early champion of these dreadful V6s, at least in concept) signed that ridiculous century-long deal with FOM. This in turn allowed Bernie (next in line for blame) to sell the commercial rights to CVC, which is doing exactly what you’d expect a private equity firm to do: bleed the sport dry with little regard for its future. (Tempting as it is to blame Donald Mackenzie, he’s just doing his job. This should have been very predictable to Ecclestone and Mosley – people who ought to have had more regard for the sport’s well-being.)

Of course, if the teams were left entirely to their own devices, we wouldn’t be much better off. Even if everyone at the table was as noble as a Frank Williams or a Peter Sauber, F1 would still undoubtedly fall victim to the tragedy of the commons. And in reality, in today’s corporate F1, there are far too many in power with Mackenzie’ s sensibilities to dream that a majority could put the sport’s interests first.

What F1 needs is an uncompromising dictator, but one who will fight ferociously to defend the purity of the sport. Ecclestone can apparently no longer fill that role – not just because of his age, but because the sport’s commercial interests are no longer so clearly aligned with its virtues. If forced to choose, I fear that Bernie would value his financial legacy above sporting integrity.

Todt is probably the one man who could fill the role, but he seems totally ineffectual (curious, given that this is the man that turned around Ferrari in the 1990’s – hardly political kindergarten). Perhaps his impotence is a good thing, given that this is yet another man that supported these terrible engines (and more recently, this stupid radio ban). But if not him, who? And when?

Ratifying the 2015 calendar may be Todt’s last chance to take control of the situation. Let’s hope he doesn’t let us down – the future of our sport may depend on it.

PS: I remain quietly hopeful that this is all just another of Bernie’s incredible chess maneuvers – that he will bring F1 to the brink, then buy it back from CVC at a great discount, consolidate power, and reshape F1 to its glorious potential. Let’s hope I’m right, and that he has the energy to see it through.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

Making F1 Cars Inspiring Again

I promised I would reserve judgment on the sound of the 2014 F1 cars until hearing them for myself. Well now I have (in Montreal), and they sound like s**t. The race was incredible, as we all know. But lap after lap, as I heard the cars approaching, I longed for the beautiful wail to which I’ve grown accustomed over the last few decades. Some of the magic has been lost – and the case for attending in person versus watching on TV is definitely less convincing. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many reasons to love F1. But in my eyes (or ears), it’s lost a bit of its sparkle.

It’s also worth noting that this sentiment is not limited to the hardened fan. I’ve brought many uninitiated friends to Grands Prix over the years, and converted most to proper fans. And when I’d hear them describe the experience to friends and family upon their return home, the glorious sound featured prominently in their tales, nearly without exception. This year, I brought three more friends to Montreal. All had fun, but seemed relatively nonplussed by the F1 cars. When asked on Friday night what they liked best, they all (enthusiastically) agreed the historic F1 cars were their favorites. When asked why, the answer was simple: they loved the sound.

But it’s important to note – for me and my guests – that this is NOT a question of volume: the cars are plenty loud enough. The issue is that they sound ugly and uninspiring – like a rusty Toyota Camry with a hole in the muffler (particularly the Mercedes-engined cars, which somehow sound even more flatulent).

And to my great frustration, this point seems completely lost on the powers-that-be, who (as best I can tell) unanimously interpret complaints from fans to be demands to make the cars louder. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t want the rusted-out Camry’s to be even louder. I want the return of cars that sound musical – sounds that would bring a smile to Enzo’s face. And more broadly, I don’t want more artificial NASCAResque veneers applied in a desperate and half-hearted attempt to conceal past misjudgments by the governing body.

If they want the cars to sound better, they’ll add two cylinders (or better yet, six), kill the fuel-flow restrictions, and allow them to rev like unrestricted racing engines should. If they want to keep the turbos and small displacement and ERS, that’s fine – the cars can still sound great. But a V6 will never sound good (I don’t understand why, but IMO, it is the ugliest sounding cylinder configuration – even flat-4’s sound better) and no one will ever be awe-struck by something that sounds like it revs about as high as my sister’s minivan.

And because that will require a major rules change, it won’t happen overnight – if at all. Jean Todt (among others) has far too much ego invested to even consider an about-face on his precious new rules. The manufacturers claim these regulations are critical to their participation (though they must not be too happy with the reception the engines are receiving). And while none of them should be concerned with sunk costs, I’m sure it will be tough to say “well, there’s $1bn wasted…now let’s start again”.

But I hope, that if they believe that the sound is a problem and they’re serious about fixing it, they’ll recognize that this is what it will take. How can we get them to listen…?

PS: The 8-speed boxes are also contributing to the “problem”. Combined with the lower revs (which means lower ratios) the rev range is tiny now.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne