Motorsport Thoughts

Monday, August 16, 2004

To overtake or to not overtake?

I was having a discussion the other week with a friend of mine about improving F1, as often seems to be the case these days. [In fact, one worry is that there seems to be much more discussion about F1 than there is actual racing and that if people didn't talk about rumours over the transfer market and the future of F1 there wouldn't be that much to talk about - but that's not what this article is about]

The discussion basically went along the lines of me trying to convince him to watch other forms of motorsport than F1 because they're much more exciting, particularly motorcycling.

His response was that he didn't like motorcycling for a number of reasons, some of which were:
-that he couldn't get into it because he isn't a biker (neither am I) and didn't know the riders.
-that the amount of money spent is much less than F1 and therefore there's less prestige.
-that there is too much overtaking so it looks too easy.

Now this last one is the topic of this article.

Andy isn't the only one - there are loads of F1 fans out there who resolutely defend the lack of overtaking.

The reason why they defend the lack of overtaking is they say it adds to the value of the moves that people make when there's not many of them because they've had to work harder. It's an interesting point but I don't agree with it really.

To be fair there is a line where overtaking does become devoid of value but most racing series are nowhere near it. The only time that overtaking does lose merit is on a fast oval where the cars are easily flat-out for the whole lap. The cynic in me says that the only series where you can see this in action is in the Indy Racing League (I try not to get involved in the 'war', but it is painfully obvious that the cars can run flat-out round many of their tracks, which means all the cars stay in a train and creates the extremely close finishes between almost the whole field we've seen over the past couple of seasons.) The racing may be exciting but I don't think driver skill is shown off because the cars and drivers are not streched ability-wise. This is a thin line over from the old CART races around Michigan and Fontana, where the cars reached almost 250mph down the straights and were really tested around the corners. The speed differential may be small between the two series, but in those old superspeedway races driver skill did become apparent. But to the casual observer the difference is very slight.

I have digressed slightly from the main point for debate. It was put to me that in MotoGP and Superbikes, overtaking is too easy compared with Formula One.

Opinions can differ on this but as I have said in previous articles and will do many more times, motorsport exists amongst other things as a means of public entertainment. Whatever else it does, it has to entertain the people watching it.

Now overtaking is good, overtaking entertains! Well, it entertains me! When I watch a MotoGP race the overtaking moves ARE hard-fought, and anyway, motor racing is about the fastest guy (or girl) getting to the front of the pack. When it becomes physically virtually impossible to do so it's getting a bit silly. When Takuma Sato tried to overtake Rubens at the Nurburgring earlier this season various people labelled him a 'nutter' for trying such a thing. Pardon?!? It didn't work, but you have to applaud the guy for at least trying. And it's worrying when the last overtaking move I can remember vividly was half a season ago...

My brain is starting to boil with F1 and its lack of overtaking. Hearing James Allen harp on about grid positions being so vital in a race twice as long as MotoGP or Superbikes, or watching another 'amazing' (but to the eye totally unremarkable because there's only one car on screen) Michael Schumacher in-lap is starting to wear me down. I want to see people racing past each other, next to them, as they're going at similar speeds, and beat them into the next corner. I don't want them to follow in an invisible wake of air for an hour!

But of course what's more annoying are the people who have never even given other motorsport and then have a go at F1 not having enough overtaking!

Please, if you've never seen any motor racing other than Formula One (quite why you'd have made it this far down the article if you haven't, I don't know): PLEASE, GO AND WATCH SOME MOTORCYCLING! Or, some Touring Cars, or Champ Cars, or Indy Racing League, or F3, or anything. TRY IT!

Watch the drivers swap positions! Watch things fluctuate throughout the race! Watch them build up to an overtaking move that could prove vital, then ACTUALLY DO IT! Or watch it fail, but thank them for trying! Watch someone carve through the field from a low grid slot without the aid of pitstops! Watch people try and come straight back at the next corner after being overtaken, rather than dropping well behind like in F1! Watch the first 6 riders finish within 0.7s of each other after a 45 minute race when they started well apart on the grid! After a 125cc GP this year, I was physically sore (er, on the backside) from actually being on the edge of my seat for the whole race.

You will find that all those things you've always wanted to happen in Formula One but never did will come true.

For anyone reading this who already knows the joy of watching motorbike racing, carry on...and spread the word...

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Formula One's Image Crisis

The motorsport press over the past couple of years have been full of articles about how to improve the 'show' of Formula One.

All kinds of ideas are discussed: reducing aerodynamic grip and increasing mechanical grip, reducing the number of driver aids and electronics on the car, introducing spec engines, spec tyres, control parts or such like, and other changes to the technical regulations. Then there's the discussion of the sporting regulations: changes to the points system, qualifying changes, starting the cars in reverse order, making drivers change cars during the season, or calls for Michael Schumacher to be banned altogether.

And to be fair some very good points have been put forward, many of which are points that I would make when in conversation with people who I think are similarly-minded to me i.e it's all about the racing. I don't sit there supporting any one driver, I just like to see a good race where hopefully things change throughout it to give us a good spectacle.

Now to my eyes there haven't been too many races like that in F1 recently.

So it would seem to me at least a simple idea to reduce aero, bring back slicks, ban driver aids and auto gears, sort out the mess that is qualifying, go to good circuits, do a load of other things and all of a sudden everything would be hunky dory and Formula One would be better than ever. 125cc Grand Prix Motorcycling but on four wheels. Brilliant.

But it's not that simple.

The first problem is that the technical changes that people like me keep harping on about will have a tough time getting past all the manufacturers. Anything that levels out the playing field will struggle because big-money manufacturers aren't in the business of having a level playing field.

And the second is because there are a lot of fans out there who aren't interested in seeing a level playing field.

That's the one that none of the press seem to want to mention.

The thing is, it appears that TV viewing figures are going up, despite the red dominance. And there are plenty of new countries out there who want a slice of the action; host their own Grand Prix, back a team - it has to be said that F1 is going to a wider audience and it has to be said that having Michael at the front all the time makes it easy to understand. Simple guide to F1: Michael wins. The race for second might be quite interesting. A lot of those who want a piece of F1 don't need to know any more about it than that. Maybe a dumbed-down, easy F1 is better even if the racing is dull. People still watch it...

The question that the FIA and indeed everyone who controls the sport is: is this a good game to play?

It's all well and good having money flowing into the sport from people who maybe don't know so much about it, but what happens if the money stops. What happens if these Middle-East (to give an example) backers decide after a couple of years that it isn't as interesting as they thought and cease the cashflow? Or what happens if the people who do know what's what - say, Paul Stoddart and Eddie Jordan, get bored and fold their teams up?

My thoughts are that those who are investing in the sport need to be checking the big picture these days - you may want to back the best teams on the grid but you've got to make sure there's a rest-of-grid there first.

There need to be some big-money sponsor people out there - NOT necessarily manufacturers - who will guarantee that the field stays at its current size or (hopefully) gets a bit bigger. Like in the German DTM series, Vodafone sponsor every car in the championship. Something like that would help in F1 - someone needs to make sure that Minardi, Jordan and Sauber carry on being in the sport. If McLaren and Williams suddenly were the backmarker teams with just BAR, Renault and Ferrari in front, it'd look pretty feeble, don't you think?

This is where it all gets a bit tricky with regards to a conclusion both to the situation and my post!

Formula One has never really been about equality and making sure the racing was close. Look back over the years - virtually every year the driver in the best car has won. There has NEVER been much overtaking.

Formula One is about technology. But there's now so much money in the sport that it can't do without cash for the technology.

But the techonology has got good - so good that the racing has become too easy and boring. I watched the Hungarian GP today and was on the point of dozing off at several stages. Added to the drive for safety following the tragic events of 10 years ago, the idea of F1 drivers as 'daredevils', defying death at every turn, has all but vanished.

This has created the potential for a big fall. If people stop watching there won't be the revenue generated so there'll be no point putting any money in from the manufacturers and sponsors.

But conversely if moves are taken to purposefully level out the field (in fact laptimes-wise, it's the closest it's ever been if you ignore Minardi), the viewers might get more excited but the manufacturers won't be happy because they can't show their technology as well.

So there are some big questions that someone somewhere has to solve:
-How much in the way of change technologically will the manufacturers take?
-At what point of dullness will people quit watching to a large extent?
-Do sponsors prefer a predictable F1 to an open F1?
(-And, does F1 need superstars winning every week or many different possibilities in contention?)
-Can someone successfully change F1's image from a technology-led one to a totally driver led one, and do people want that? (customer chassis? - it's been done in the past, why not now?)

I think there's a lot of people around here who would like F1 to become something rather different to it's current form which can gain it some new supporters. The big matter for debate is how much different it can become while still retaining all it's fans, backers and manufacturers it already has.

[Please post any thoughts in the comments...I know that I haven't really reached a conclusion here!]