FORMULA One has always been a bit on the arcane side, a sport in which what you drive is far more important than how you drive, but this year’s championship is set to be the most baffling of all time for die-hard F1 fans and casual watchers alike.
A whole slew of regulations brought in to make the sport more exciting, while also making it more relevant to the road car market, represents the most significant set of rule changes for two decades and is already proving deeply controversial with fans, drivers and teams as they ready themselves for the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne a week today.
You don’t have to look far to find the catalyst for such root-and-branch reform. For the past four years the Red Bull team and their lead driver Sebastian Vettel have utterly dominated the sport, leading even former world champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes to question whether fans might be finding the whole experience as boring as the drivers. Last year, Vettel won his fourth consecutive championship with three races to spare, bringing back the spectre of the last supremely dominant driver – Michael Schumacher – winning one championship with six races to spare. Only once in his five consecutive championships with Ferrari did the contest go to the final race of the season. Further Vettel domination is as unappetising a prospect as a meaningless final grand prix, two of several reasons which prompted F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and fellow high heidyins in the Strategy Group – made up of the FIA, Ecclestone and six of the 11 teams – to make so many far-reaching changes to the sport at a meeting in Paris.
In the teeth of opposition from Red Bull, more changes will follow further down the line, such as a cost cap in 2015, but, for now, the most eye-catching rule change is one which sees the twice the usual amount of points on offer for the winner of the final grand prix in Abu Dhabi. This rule is specifically designed to keep interest right to the final stages by ensuring that an outsider can snatch victory at the climax of the season. Vettel, unsurprisingly, has been a trenchant critic, denouncing the rule as “absurd”. Equally unsurprisingly, both Renault and Mercedes voted in favour, while a proposal to have double points for the last four races was only narrowly voted down.
If virtually all dyed-in-the-wool F1 fans have been against the changes, it is Red Bull fans, not to mention their outspoken lead driver, who have reacted most strongly to a set of rules which they see as an attempt to curtail the team’s domination. They may have a point. Ecclestone recently joked to Ferrari bosses that if the Italian team could win more races and rise back to the top naturally, then he wouldn’t need to keep moving the goalposts.
Nevertheless, the goalposts are in motion, and they’re mostly moving as far from Vettel and Red Bull as humanly possible.
Red Bull, for instance, will be particularly hard-hit by the move to one centrally-positioned exhaust, which means an end to their extraordinarily effective “blown diffuser” technique where hot exhaust gases were directed over the rear diffuser to generate added downforce, a technique which Red Bull employed to far better effect than any other team.
There are, however, several other regulations which will be equally wide-reaching. The first is the return of turbo-charged engines for the first time since 1988, with last year’s 2.4-litre V8 engines which revved up to 18,000rpm replaced by a 1.6-litre “powertrain” limited to 15,000rpm. Not only that but, as well as draconian changes to gearbox rules, another new regulation stipulates that teams are allowed just five engines per year compared to eight last year. The change from a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) to two energy recovery systems (ERS) also means that drivers will have to drive far more sensitively. Just to make things even more tricky, in order to push the sport’s non-existent green credentials and because the new engines are less thirsty, the fuel allocation has been reduced from 160kg to 100kg, with no refuelling allowed, leading to an almighty charge from the start. Because the maximum car weight has increased by almost 50kg to 691kg, there will be a huge emphasis on reducing extra weight, meaning smaller drivers such as Felipe Massa will have an in-built advantage.
As well as levelling out the field by instilling creative chaos where there was previously calm and order, the regulations have also, according to some of the sagest minds in the F1 game, also made the sport more dangerous, rather than less risky – as they were supposed to.
Adrian Newey, the aerodynamics genius behind Red Bull’s rise, objected to the range and ugliness of the “anteater” and two-pronged noses on the new generation of recently-unveiled F1 cars and questioned whether putting the battery under the fuel tank rather than behind the engine, as previously, is really a safety improvement as claimed.
However, he also made the more serious point that the lower noses – designed to stop cars taking off, as Mark Webber’s did in Valencia in 2010 – actually mean that there’s more chance of the cars “submarining” so that the bulky rear end of the car in front may end up on top of the following driver, an infinitely more dangerous outcome than a car flipping in the way that Webber’s did.
“This,” said Newey, “is a much worse scenario. I’m not in favour of it. For me it’s introduced more dangers than it’s solved.”
The changes in regulations are so profound that, with performance advantages built up over years rendered almost meaningless by radical changes in the rules, it’s virtually impossible to determine which teams will emerge the strongest until they begin trying to qualify in Melbourne next weekend.
“We’re sitting on the edge of the unknown,” said McLaren’s Jenson Button, another former world champion. “It’s unsettling and exciting in equal measure but it’s also really difficult to accurately predict anything right now. These are such huge changes that they’ll have a massive impact upon the competitive order, so we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out.”
Just how hard the teams are finding it to adapt to the new technical specifications became clear in testing in Jerez in Spain recently.
Where the teams collectively put in 711 practice laps last year, and 657 the year before, this year they managed just 93. Not only that, but the fastest car, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, was an incredible eight seconds slower than the fastest time last year.
So much for F1 being all about having the fastest racing cars on earth.
All of which explains why, for once – and in complete defiance of its self-proclaimed mission to make the sport more exciting – the focus has been removed from the glamorous chat about the capabilities of the drivers, and has been squarely placed on the technical detail that leaves most spectators cold.
Mid-range teams, meanwhile, rightly see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use innovative engineering to get a jump on more well-funded rivals further up the established order.
For that reason we’ve had relatively little detail on some interesting stories, such as the coup at McLaren, where Ron Dennis has made a comeback by ousting chief executive Martin Whitmarsh, while rookie drivers such as McLaren’s cherubic Kevin Magnusson have faced relatively little scrutiny.
Even the return of former world champion Raikkonen after four years out of F1, or Nico Rosberg’s 200mph crash when one of the much-criticised Pirelli tyres exploded on the straight, have merited far less discussion than the rule changes.
Just how these changes will make Formula One more interesting or relevant is anyone’s guess. They will, however, certainly make it more unpredictable.
As Button said when asked what he thought of the season ahead shortly before testing in Jerez: “It’s such a different way of driving that we’ll all have to forget a lot of what we’ve learnt in terms of driveability. Winter testing in Jerez is going to be hilarious – it will be cold, the tyres aren’t going to work and the cars probably won’t work either.”
The worry now, is that it will be exactly the same in Melbourne, where the only thing that F1 will be able to accurately predict is that it will not be cold. Or boring.