It’s not often a racing driver will appear on the podium and be unhappy. It’s nigh-on unheard of for all three drivers to be frowning. But that is what happened today at the Malaysian Grand Prix. The battles between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber for 1st place, and Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg for 3rd place, opened cans of worms for Red Bull Racing and Mercedes.
Fingers are being pointed at Formula 1’s perennial pantomime baddie, team orders. But the problem runs much deeper than that, and it strikes at the heart of what makes F1 as a sport today.
Once upon a time, Formula 1 was about the pinnacle of technology. The technical regulations were never a free-for-all. But you could be guaranteed that technology was being pushed to the limit.
This is no longer possible, for two major reasons: safety and money.
Clearly, if there were no technical restrictions, Formula 1 cars would be very different to what we have racing today. But they would be ridiculously dangerous.
They would also probably go beyond the boundaries of what is humanly possible for a driver to endure. Cart found this to their great cost in 2001, when a race had to be postponed because drivers were losing consciousness at high speed. The sustained g-forces they were enduring were well beyond what humans can tolerate.
Cart produced spectacular racing in its day. The cars in that championship were truly incredible. But in the end, it proved too much for the drivers to take. Cart never recovered from the incident.
For this reason alone, it is not possible for Formula 1 to simply be about producing the fastest, most powerful cars.
Then there is the need to control costs. Not so long ago, the top Formula 1 teams would have spare cars, and even special qualifying engines. Engines would be relentlessly developed. Teams would push their engines and gearboxes hard, then replace them for the next race.
But in this era of cost control, that has all changed. It is all about efficiency. No more spare cars. No more special engines. Engine development is frozen. Different engines are equalised to the point where they may as well be identical except for the manufacturer’s badge. Teams can use only eight engines a season. Eating through gearboxes is also a no-no, and the FIA seal them up to stop them from even being looked at.
Inevitably, this resulted in a different type of racing. Pushing to the limit became the exception rather than the rule. You have to save your engine and your gearbox.
Then, when it was judged that the racing had become too dull, the powers that be decided that further tinkering was required in order to improve “the show”. So on top of smothering engine development, they decreed that the tyres must be designed to be bad. Tyres are now designed to wear out quickly and inconsistently, and there needs to be a big performance gap between the different compounds.
Now, as well as drivers working to save their engines and save fuel, they are also constantly having to save their tyres. They tiptoe round corners out of sheer fear that the tyres will simply disintegrate.
Drivers have special settings on their steering wheel for saving engines, saving fuel and saving tyres. The pace of the race is not dictated by the driver’s right foot. It is decided by tacticians on pitwalls or in a “mission control” thousands of miles away. They see that their car is using too much fuel, and they instruct their driver to switch their car to the correct setting that will save the amount of fuel required.
If a driver is leading the race, he turns his engine down. They can’t stress the engine too much. This isn’t actually out of fear of it blowing up — these things have not even been developed properly for several years. It is simply just in case, because they’ve got to use this engine again at another race.
For the past couple of seasons, there has been added emphasis on saving the tyres — just in case they wear out too much.
Formula 1 racing is no longer about pushing the limits. The driver who pushes to the limit is the one who gets punished. Today the limit is known as “the cliff”, the point beyond which the tyre performance drops off rapidly. And no-one likes to fall off the cliff.
The driver who wins is the one that takes it easy, sticks to the safe path and avoids the cliff edge.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is immense skill in being able to extract the maximum from given limitations. Any driver that can beat the others at this is a deserving winner.
But it has changed the nature of racing in Formula 1. And on days like this, you have to question if the sport is following the right path.
The problem today at Sepang was not about team orders. Red Bull Racing and Mercedes were not using team orders in the pantomime baddie sense. There was no Schumacher-style orchestrated switch. There were no Häkkinen-style “after you” shenanigans.
The teams were simply holding station. This is a perfectly normal way for a team to end a race, particularly when conditions are marginal. That’s why, for instance, Damon Hill was able to win the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix without being challenged by his team mate. The torrential rain made it far too risky. In today’s F1 — all about saving engines and tyres — conditions are always marginal. So holding station is a natural way for a team to approach a race.
It is the fact that the race has been designed to be marginal that caused today’s problems. Both Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg were pleading with their team bosses to be let past because they thought their team mates in front were so slow. Slow. That is the key word.
“My team mate is too slow. Let me past,” both drivers said. I don’t doubt that they actually believed this.
Of course, neither Mark Webber nor Lewis Hamilton were slow. They were simply in the conservation mode that now rules Formula 1. Everyone was driving so comfortably within their limits that we simply did not have a race on our hands.
While Sebastian Vettel is being vilified for his actions (and rightly so), what he did was the one thing that turned the event into a motor race. That’s the irony. Vettel was the man who said to himself, “this conservation stuff is nonsense. Webber is going so slowly — I’ll change this.” Vettel may have been in the wrong. But at least he drove through to stop the end of the event being a procession.
Formula 1 will have to think carefully to consider whether it has gone down the right path. The pursuit to improve “the show” — at the expense of true racing — is what led to the situation we saw today.
The solution won’t be easy to find. But unless something changes, situations like this could well crop up more and more.