Has Formula E accidentally stumbled on the thing that can improve Formula 1?

F1 cars racing at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix

The scale of Mercedes’ dominance is making seasoned analysts ask if Mercedes are now invincible.

Of course, dominance is nothing new in F1. But facing a sixth season of this in a row, it is beginning to wear thin. Especially when we were all anticipating Ferrari to be on the front foot this time.

Martin Brundle’s piece on the frustrations he feels following the Spanish Grand Prix have gained a lot of traction. I struggle a lot with Martin Brundle’s views on the current era of F1. It often comes across as a rose-tinted spectacles view. “It was better in my day”, with justifications retro-fitted on.

Looking at the details in Martin Brundle’s piece, I agree with some of them, and disagree with others.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the hybrid engines, or “technical complexity which prevent us fully sharing and understanding” how drivers are getting the maximum out of their cars.

I may not understand everything about how F1 cars work. But nor did I in 1996, when I first got hooked as a 10 year old.

Indeed, it strikes me that it’s the point of F1 to have incredible, technologically advanced, complex engineering.

(Incidentally, 1996 was a year in which Williams were so dominant that they wrapped up the championship with a quarter of the season still to go. That didn’t stop me getting hooked then. And it doesn’t stop old farts wishing F1 went back to how it was in the 90s again — forgetting of course that the old farts of the 90s were pining for the 70s.)

Nor do I necessarily buy into the idea that drivers “must be gladiators”.

Wolf was a gladiator. Lewis Hamilton is somewhat better than that.

There is more to a driver’s appeal than the idealised vision Brundle paints. And drivers have always been “buried” in their cockpit. They may sit a bit lower now than they used to. But the fact is that people have always complained about this.

You could never see the drivers like you can a footballer or another sport star. But that’s sort of the point of F1. You can’t see the drivers because they’re in a car. The car is as much of a star as the driver. That dynamic between individual and team is what has always made motorsport so fascinating.

Where I agree more with Martin Brundle is that affectations like DRS and high-degradation tyres must go. These are sticking plasters to a fundamental problem that hasn’t been solved properly.

It’s a tricky balancing act. How do you control the phenomenal speed of cutting-edge cars in a way that promotes entertaining racing while leaving space for innovation?

We can say F1 needs to better control aerodynamics to reduce dirty air. That’s easier said than done, as decades’ worth of attempts are testament to.

Conspicuously absent from Brundle’s piece is any analysis on the political and commercial reasons why the same teams are at the front year after year. The days of blaming this on hybrid engines are long gone. A revised commerical model and more equitable distribution of revenues ought to be considered with greater urgency than it is.

But there was one line in Brundle’s piece that stood out to me like a sore thumb.

We need bulletproof low-degradation tyres even if we have to mandate a number of pit stops.

I read this having mulled over the Monaco E-Prix, which took place the day before the Spanish Grand Prix. In Formula E, as in Formula 1, the Monaco circuit is tricky to overtake on. So it was perhaps little surprise that the first phase of the race was highly processional, despite the exciting racing Formula E has offered this year.

This year, for the first time, Formula E cars last the full race distance. This means they don’t make any pit stops. To add in the strategy element that received wisdom deems to be required, Formula E have created the concept of an attack zone. This is an area of the track where drivers must take a slower line in exchange for a temporary power boost.

In most races, the attack mode activation zone has been placed in a challenging location where the drivers clearly lost time. In Monaco, presumably for safety reasons, it was placed in the middle of a straight. Drivers appeared to lose little to no time by taking it, and there was no real risk of losing a place. This neutered the strategic element of it.

So the Monaco E-Prix began as a procession. Attack mode wasn’t going to be a factor in shaking things up.

And then something weird happened. The drivers began to get creative.

The drivers realised that they couldn’t rely on a strategy call to make up places. For a change, the drivers had to do it all themselves if they wanted to make positions on the track. The result: fireworks.

This all got me wondering if the lack of pit stops this season is what has made Formula E so entertaining. By simply removing pit stops, has Formula E inadvertently stumbled into making the racing more entertaining — by making the drivers get creative?

It seems to be taken as read by most motorsport observers that pit stops and strategies are required to make entertaining racing. Going back to that Brundle line:

We need bulletproof low-degradation tyres even if we have to mandate a number of pit stops.

What isn’t explained is why we would have to mandate a number of pit stops. It seems to be taken as read, but it’s never explained why.

Could it be that pit stops are the biggest hindrance to wheel-to-wheel racing?

A lot of the problematic rules around high-degradation tyres are aimed at manufacturing a strategy dilemma for teams. This usually doesn’t work — strategists crack the puzzle, and drivers duly follow their engineers’ instructions to make up places by pitting on the right lap.

We should remove all that nonsense and force the drivers to make up places where it really matters — on the track.

Original header photo by President.az

1 comment

  1. A lot of Martin’s comments appear angled towards how easy F1 now is to be conveyed to the audience as being a dramatic sport. Williams might have dominated 1996, but there was a lot more jeopardy and tension in the Hill/Villenueve fight than the Hamilton/Bottas one. That is not necessarily anything to do with anything any of that quartet is doing – it’s more the nature of F1 to complexify itself to the point where the commentators are having trouble finding where the advantage is gained and lost, and therefore where to put the commentary stress. (I hear Sky’s input used in the F1 YouTube feed, and watch Channel 4. Both sets of commentators are having trouble with this).

    It explains why Martin would see the hybrid engines as a competitive issue (beyond the fact that iterative spending contests have become the name of the game). The more complex an engine is, the harder it is to say why it’s working or not working in a given situation, relative to its rivals. All that can be said, in the toughest situations, is that it works or it doesn’t. Beyond a fairly modest point, it ceases to be a satisfying experience if you think you are listening to experts. Engine experts never commentate and very rarely speak with journalists, so the gap never narrows… …and you run the risk of the audience feeling they have a better grasp of the situation than the commentators. It puts people off watching.

    Similarly, “Gladiators” was never about the world’s best athletes, though most of the people who got on the show have good fitness and strength. It was about the glamourisation of a certain kind of aggressive, blatantly physical sporting conflict, with big personalities and direct opposition of wills. Wolf wouldn’t have placed for, say, World’s Strongest Man, but he was someone who really got into the type of competition involved, as well as the persona assigned to him. Now, does F1 of 2010s look like that sort of thing – or is it deficient in some of these components? To take an example, Verstappen was perhaps as close as we were getting to someone like Wolf, but it got in the way of his racing. Notice how much better his racing has got since he dropped that aggressive persona at the start of this season.

    The affectations, as you refer to DRS and blancmange tyres, have made the situation worse. Time it was recognised.

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