Tales from the Cultural Wilderness - Journal

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2003-03-25 Entry: "A Dismal Procession"

Even here in the wilderness, where coverage is scarce, I continue to follow the same sport. I've tried to pick up the American sports - baseball (which appears to be about as dull televised as a 5-day test match in cricket), basketball (which I've even seen live and failed to get excited about), football (okay, we're getting there but it isn't as good as rugby), and ice hockey (which I admittedly haven't watched much of, so am reserving judgement on) - but none seem to catch my attention.

The sport I follow has been mired in controversy over the past couple of years - one team dominates everything; they dictate the results, they go away with all the prizes. It's been hard on the smaller teams - finding the money every year to compete is proving difficult if you don't win anything; you don't get lots of coverage on television; the big sponsors want lots of coverage.

So Formula 1 needed to change.

It didn't need to change to fix the first problem - even last year there were signs that the top teams were getting their act together and could compete with splash of red that seemed to lead every race. But the second problem, there was the rub. The small teams could barely compete - One was bankrupt, a couple of others were close. And so a vast raft of rule changes were introduced this year to try and solve the second problem; and unfortunately, a number were sneaked in to try and solve the first.

The important changes - removal of the plethora of electronic gadgets that have been added over the past years (traction control, launch control, etc), don't actually come into effect until later in the season, so it's hard to judge their effectiveness, but they're likely to reduce costs. They may even liven things up at the front, but engines and aerodynamics will still play a major part.

The most visible changes have involved qualifying. They now have two qualifying sessions of one lap - Friday and Saturday. Every car goes round once, so no-one can get in the way of anyone else's lap, and everyone gets equal screen time before the masses.

However, only Friday is an attempt at a fastest lap, and only Saturday counts to the race.

So you have a bizarre spectacle Friday of everyone pushing the car to its limit for one lap, and all they get for the effort is a slot to go out in on Saturday. It has no bearing on the race whatsoever, and as it's almost impossible to predict what the weather will do for a specific hour tomorrow afternoon, there's not even any strategy involved to try and be early or late in that hour... so it doesn't really matter if they make a mistake!

Saturday meanwhile, isn't an attempt to go as fast as the car will let you. It's an attempt to go as fast as you can while not damaging the tyres too much, and carrying way more fuel than is sensible for trying to go as fast as possible. The tyres and fuel they've got in the car Saturday stays in the car for the race. They can't change them, they can't work on the car, they're barely allowed to move the thing (needed so that the sponsors have something to look at!) until the start of the race.

Now, the arguments for Saturday make some sense on initial inspection, but are fairly flawed in deeper analysis. The big push was that with only one lap, someone who made a mistake would be pushed towards the back of the grid. Then, by playing with fuel strategy, smaller teams could jump up the grid (by putting less fuel in the car and thereby being faster than the big teams with the more powerful engines). So, we've got happy sponsors meaning more money for the smaller teams, right?

Well, not really - yes, potentially the smaller teams could do that, and being in pole position does have some cachet, but it only lasts until the race gets underway, at which point their strategy makes doing well in the race almost impossible. There's usually only one or two strategies for pit-stops that works well enough to win races. So, getting pole and then finishing 15th isn't really all that impressive.

It's also argued that turning the grid upside down will lead to more overtaking and more action. Which'd be fine if anyone could overtake anywhere but during pit-stops. The top cars may have slightly more power, but the aerodynamics mean that there's usually only one place on the track where overtaking is even possible, and that usually depends on the guy in front making a mistake.

So you get an upside down grid that doesn't shake out until the pit-stops, or until one of the top teams gets ahead and then runs and hides. This is pretty much what's happened for both races so far.

Australia was difficult to judge, due to rain making an impact on the race, and a surprising error in judgement on the part of the Ferrari's as to which tyres to run. But it still became a case of the McLaren's getting ahead and then running and hiding - it was only technical faults that let them down.

Malaysia was much the same. Coulthard suffered the technical fault and had to retire. Michael Schumacher made a clumsy mistake and ruined his afternoon. Raikkonnen got out ahead and then ran and hid for the afternoon. We saw a little bit of overtaking down field (usually one of the top players carving their way through in a superior car), and we had a big squabble over ninth place (or somewhere like that) but it wasn't significant in results terms, and it didn't really help the small teams that were involved in it. The only highlight of the Malaysian race was the fact that Renault proved we might be back up to four big teams from last years three.

So what is the solution? Redesigning most of the tracks would probably be a big start. Hopefully some of the new tracks being built around the world (to replace the European ones as the tobacco advertising ban comes on line) will make overtaking easier - Malaysia's probably the best at the moment, and even here there wasn't a great deal.

Changing Friday's qualifying is a must - it's completely pointless and not very exciting. Yes, they can claim they went fastest, but it's a meaningless result. It doesn't count towards anything. How about aggregate times from the two sessions? That wouldn't help the smaller teams much, but it'd provide a bit more incentive to the Friday session. How about requiring both sessions to be run under race conditions? That'd give the engineers even more time off, but it'd probably be dangerous - they could log how much fuel was in the car at the end of each session and impound the tyres. Everything else can be worked on... which'd probably require more accurate fuel gauges than the cars actually have (the amount they put in is a known quantity, but I'm not sure they can measure volume in the car).

Whatever happens, Friday has to change - it's pointless to watch, and it's irrelevant to the race. It doesn't provide significant benefit to the smaller teams (as they're going to be slower anyway), and as they're running first, a lot of people will just tune in for the big hitters that run later on in the hour, so there's no extra coverage for the sponsors. Change it! Change it now!

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