Two Big Threats That Risk Spoiling Formula One
Inconsistently enforced track limits and overly complex racing cars stand in the way of the best performance from 2016's professional, top-level race drivers.
Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Racing drivers are like prima donnas. And like an operatic tenor, or star ballerina, they are what the crowd came to see.
So doesn't it make sense that we give them the stage to perform to their maximum potential?
I see two chief hurdles standing in the way of us enjoying the best performance from 2016's professional, top-level race drivers.
One is track limits, and the consistency of their enforcement. The second is the increased complexity of the modern racing car, and the perception that the settings they're dialling in to their steering wheel is more important than actually steering it.
So let's address them both...
1: Track Limits
We've recently experienced a Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring where the track limits issue was magnified by the circuit's very nature. Numerous and copious asphalt run-offs mean drivers can cheat their way to a better lap time, unless track limits are enforced.
Two ways to do that: ultra-strict stewarding, which means plenty of penalties being handed out for transgression, or the implementation of super-aggressive kerbs that dissuade you from running wide in the first place.
Strict stewarding equals disallowed lap times and in-race time penalties. Frustrating for the driver, but utterly bewildering for the fan who's trying to comprehend what's going on.
In the Red Bull Ring Formula 3 European Championship a few months ago we had almost 100 track-limits penalties handed out in a single day. Try following that...
In 'the good old days', the way that track limits were enforced were substantial kerbs and grass run-offs with gravel traps. But high kerbs were literally flattened by pressure from the motorbike fraternity, and the safety movement simultaneously pushed for asphalt run-off over grass/gravel.
So the FIA has devised flatter kerbs that have dynamics such as negative cambers, to upset the balance of cars that run over them. And, at the Red Bull Ring, they blended them with aggressive 'baguette' kerbs as a further deterrent.
Then Daniil Kvyat's scary Q1 crash happened, so two things to take from that: it was his decision (or mistake) to drive over them, but the consequence of hitting the kerbs directly led to him having a massive shunt. Not ideal.
On to Silverstone, where we had track limits enforced by stewards at three corners in qualifying – and almost had to explain why the home hero wasn't on pole after setting the fastest time... So that's not ideal either.
When it comes to the aggressive kerbs, the sporting debate about track limits is soon blurred by a 'safety' one. Put a big sausage kerb down at a fast corner, and you'll get a complaint that it might dangerously launch the cars, or break them to cause a crash.
But isn't it time to say that common sense on track limits must come hand-in-hand with safety? There's a balance to be struck here – surely?
2: Overly-Complex Racing Cars
The complexity of cars is perhaps an even more difficult subject to address. Of course, motorsport should remain an engineering exercise as well as a driving display, and innovation is in its DNA.
But there has to be a blend of technology and human input weighted in favour of the latter – technology should never be allowed to outweigh the driver.
The case in point here has been the effect of the radio restrictions in F1. The incredibly complex nature of the hybrid-era, ultra-fuel efficient cars means there's hundreds of settings available via the steering wheel dials. In a recent interview that James Allen did with Paddy Lowe about the Mercedes steering wheel, he describes it as "a very, very complex machine".
Lowe explained that the driver "has to interpret what's going on with the car as he drives" and have "an awful lot of switchgear." The Mercedes wheel has three rotary dials, one for the "strat" settings you used to hear so much over the radio, plus gearbox and engine adjusters too.
In one way, it's really impressive to have all that technology and control at the driver's fingertips, but is it all a bit too much? "Engineering porn," as Stefan Johansson branded it...
The risk this runs is the perception of the fans that the engineers are having too much control, which is overriding the driver's skills.
After all, the future of the sport lies very much in how it's consumed and how the fans perceive it – and it must pervade that it's a competition between heroes driving amazing cars that us 'mere mortals' can only dream of driving in reality.
The drivers – the stars – are only human, so how do we ensure their best interests are being kept in mind? Ultimately it's down to the FIA Drivers' Commission, which was formed in 2013, to discuss this and make recommendations and, ultimately, put solutions in place going forwards.
Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen is its current President, and a firm hand on the tiller. I've known Tom for almost 20 years now, and he's always been very principled but pragmatic.
At the FIA Sport Conference in Turin recently, he said to the attending delegates on the subject of the sport's future: "It's definitely important to have a good view of the safety developments over the years, it's been very good, but we – the Drivers' Commission – also have to look very much at the sporting view.
"You can learn circuits very easily and quickly today. We want to make sure we focus on the sporting future, because the younger drivers are maybe having things too easy and not learning enough respect.
"In future, we need to see the best from drivers, good technique with calculated risks – not being able to get away with something, or just losing a little bit when they make a mistake."
I totally agree. I want a sport that's as safe as it can be, but not one that's so stifled, over-regulated and over-complicated that the drivers can't make the difference in competition. Or one that becomes a contest of who can flirt best with track limits penalties and get away with it (or not).
The balance has to be correct, where it's the technology/driver split or having a good level of safety but not at the cost of the competition.