Monday, 7 April 2014

The New F1

It's been a while again since I last wrote. You'll have to forgive me - I've been very, very busy with the other side of my life as an academic. Well, academic in training anyway.

So, what's happened in the mean time? We've had a few races and a lot of controversy arising from the new F1 rules. At the moment, it feels like a lot of unrest surrounds F1. There were fears that the new formula wasn't as much of a spectacle as it has been in recent years. I have to say, I am inclined to agree with these fears. However, last weekend's race in Bahrain proved that F1 is anything but boring, and if you think this you are, to use the wise words of Niki Lauda, an idiot. The race saw lots of battles between team-mates, and provided a thrilling final 10 laps once the safety car got off the track. However, brilliant racing aside, I still think F1 is facing a few problems.

Let's start with the obvious: the sound. It seems that the F1 fans are pretty divided on this issue: some like it, some hate it. I don't particularly dislike the sound, but I think it's far, far too quiet. A popular motorsport journalist wrote rather a scathing piece basically calling everyone that thinks F1 isn't loud enough an idiot, but I protest. In the article, it was stated that 'nobody likes coming away from a race having been deafened'. Well, no, being deaf isn't nice, but when you can feel the noise of the cars, it's hard to be in anything but awe. Another reporter also said that nobody leaves an F1 race commenting on the noise. This I can directly refute: when I left the Nurburgring in 2011 and Spa in 2012, the main thing I remembered was the sound. To be honest, when you go and see an F1 race you can't see a whole lot of racing compared to the television, but what you do get is the whole atmosphere. At the Nurburgring, my prevailing memory (apart from the frostbite) is standing a few feet away from the track, cars at head height, being completely blasted with sound from Schumacher's Mercedes. It was fantastic! Similarly, at Goodwood in 2012 one of the best moments was standing in the paddock, two feet away from Vettel suddenly doing a burnout. It was completely irresponsible of him, and I think my ears are still ringing from it, but it was amazing! We humans rely on all of our senses to experience the world. While F1 looks fantastic, you also need the sound. It's part and parcel of the racing and it contributes hugely to the atmosphere and spectacle. Admittedly, I haven't attended a race this year, but when watching on the television I feel that something has been lost. When the safety car in Bahrain was louder than the cars, something is wrong. Like it or not, the sound is part of F1, and this is something that should come back. The noise itself is alright (the turbo whistle sends my pet budgie absolutely insane), but it needs turning up to 11.

Another issue I feel could get bigger over the season is the racing. You're going to call me crazy given what we saw in Bahrain, but bear with me. The racing was fantastic at the last race. However, most of that was between team-mates. I love seeing team-mates racing, and I want to see more of it. I also want to see more racing between different teams. Red Bull in previous years have been utterly dominant, and the new rules were supposed to stop one team from dominating and improve the racing. What we seem to have at the moment is dominance falling to Mercedes and only team-mates racing one another. Well, ok, Bottas seems to overtake everyone bar Mercedes, but we need much, much more of this. In Bahrain, there wasn't the scare over fuel-saving over racing, but I'm worried that this will happen more often as the season progresses. Let's hope the Bahrain entertainment continues at other circuits.

Recently, there have been reports of health concerns for many drivers. Apparently, Jean-Eric Vergne was hospitalised due to the extreme weight-loss programme he was required to follow in order to maximise his performance and weight distribution in the car. When drivers are hospitalised, or pull out of other events due to health issues directly related to the new F1 rules, something is very wrong. It's not right that 'heavier' drivers are worse off than 'lighter' drivers due to absurd weight rules. I believe that this is something that will change next year, but I don't understand why this has to take so long. These drivers are at the peak of their physical fitness, and it shouldn't be compromised for the sake of regulations.

Speaking of regulations and rules, I think the stewards this year have gone crazy. In Malaysia, Daniel Ricciardo's race was ruined by an unsafe release in the pits when a wheel wasn't attached properly. Thankfully, nobody was hurt (think about Webber's unsafe release when the tyre hit a cameraman - horrifying), but Ricciardo's race was ruined. Once the problem had been fixed, Ricciardo headed back out onto the circuit, and was given a penalty. This is fair enough - the team have done something unsafe (not intentionally I will hazard to say), and the rules are clear that they should receive punishment. The madness sets in after the race when Ricciardo is also given a 10-place grid drop for the next race. In my mind, this is ridiculous. Ricciardo was punished once during the race, after having his race already destroyed by a mistake by the team, so why should he suffer even more at the next race? Apparently, the reasoning for this is that it will deter teams from unsafe releases even more. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I don't think teams set out to send their drivers off without wheels attached properly. Also, the mistake in Ricciardo's case didn't harm anyone but Ricciardo. It wasn't even his fault that the wheel wasn't secure - he stopped and was wheeled back to the pit for the problem to be fixed. So, what was wrong with fining the team? I don't get it.

The madness of this situation was further inflated this weekend, when Maldonado received a penalty. In Maldonado's case, a penalty wasn't given for an unsafe release, but for causing a collision (any surprises?). In the collision, Guttierez's Sauber was launched upside-down in quite an horrific manner - thankfully, he was unhurt, but it was a nasty situation that nobody wishes to see repeated. Rightfully, Maldonado received an in-race penalty. He also, like Ricciardo, received a grid drop for the next race. However, unlike Ricciardo, Maldonado's drop was only of 5 places. Let's just think this over: both Maldonado and Ricciardo receive in-race penalties. Fair enough. Ricciardo gets a 10 place drop for something he didn't do, and something that didn't hurt anyone. Maldonado causes a serious collision and gets away with only a 5 place drop. Nope, I don't get it either. Honestly, things like this are crazy, and detract from the racing. For F1 to improve, I think this is something that should be addressed.

Another thing I noticed this weekend was the return of GP2, F1's feeder series. GP2 has always had some spectacular racing, and I'm sure this will continue throughout 2014. The problem is, the GP2 cars all lapped within the 107% time of F1. This is worrying, as F1 is supposed to be the ultimate formula. I wonder whether in all the haste to be more environmentally friendly (ignoring the lights during the night races, the lorries, planes and helicopters that all go to the circuit) we've lost some of the notion of F1 as the highest level of motorsport. Also, it seems that the field is now spread out very, very far. The Mercedes-powered cars are much, much faster than Ferrari and Renault-powered cars. While it's great to see Williams and Force India near the top (indeed, Hulkenberg is now third in the driver's championship!), it's not so great that the others are so far behind. Think of the BTCC where 24 cars are separated by less than a second, and you're approaching something more interesting. If F1 can get like this, we'll be on to a winner.

One final issue that, to be honest, I don't really feel is an issue is the look of the cars. Before the season started, everyone was up in arms over the look of the cars. They are ugly (that hasn't changed), but I think that we've all got used to them. Cars always tend to differ year on year - look back to 2007 and the cars were like spaceships! I think that there are regulations coming into force in the years to come that will reduce the ugliness of the cars, but frankly, there are more pressing issues.

Overall, I think this new F1 needs some tweaking. The cars need to be louder, and the stewards need to sort things out and be more consistent. However, as long as we get some exciting racing, I think we'll be alright. Although, speaking as a slightly biased Red Bull fan, I hope the Renault-powered cars can overtake Mercedes by the end of the year!