It’s obvious Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s dominance of Formula One over the last few years has now triggered the FIA to make some changes. While most F1 fans can agree changes are needed, it’s the kind of changes being implemented that are rather stupefying at first read-through.
With history as a guide, we look back to the last time such a sweeping range of changes was implemented, during the last reign of a dominant German at the head of the field: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. And the changes made a decade or less ago have, in some respects, led to the sweeping changes announced on Monday.
It was in 2003, after the pair had wrapped up the titles in July the year previous, and made a mockery of the sport with team order use on two occasions (Austria and Indianapolis), that F1 put in a new points system for 2003. The 10-6-4-3-2-1 – which looks better with rose-tinted glasses each day compared to further ones – was dropped for a new one, 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1, that paid points down to eighth. Meanwhile, single car qualifying was added to replace the 12-lap, post three or four fliers, one-hour sessions of years past.
Schumacher still won out on the strength of six victories to Kimi Raikkonen’s one, but only by two points at year’s end. The single-car qualifying, meanwhile, meant you had provisional polesitters after one day that meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Because Jos Verstappen had been quickest after running last on a drying track on Friday, he ran last on Saturday but would slot into his usual grid spot of 19th anyway while in his Minardi.
Come 2005, Schumacher had put in another banner year the season previous with 13 wins and could make either two, three or four stops to win, and he still did. So the rulemakers set out to delay him again. Aggregate qualifying was introduced for two days of single-lap running in an effort to improve qualifying, but mercifully it was dropped after just a handful of races.
During the races, meanwhile, drivers now had to race on a single set of tires for the entire race, and it spiced up the action. Schumacher and Ferrari’s dominance on the Bridgestones in years past was wiped out as Michelin, despite its Indianapolis fiasco, offered a better performing tire for the duration while Bridgestone was sent to the woodshed by contrast. Fernando Alonso and Renault emerged as F1’s new kings, and Schumacher was dethroned for the first time in six years.
The long-term result of that decision was that eventually tire changes came back into play, Michelin withdrew, and we’ve entered an era of spec tires in F1 once more. The qualifying systems from 2003 to 2005 were so forgettable but brought us the knockout system, first introduced in 2006, that remains the highlight of most Grand Prix weekends.
This all brings us, conveniently, to the present. Bridgestone developed tires over the next five years from 2006 through 2010 that were in essence, too good. Tire strategy was no longer a major part of the race because Bridgestone made tires that held up for such long periods; that even with two different compounds, you had the occasional one-stop, dreary processional race even then. But because Red Bull had not yet mastered the chassis-to-tire balance, as they have with Pirelli, you had several teams and drivers still in contention down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.
The last three years, of course, have seen drastically altered measures – many would argue gimmicks – to attempt to spice up the racing. DRS has, frankly in this writer’s opinion, run its course. After three years, passing arguably has been made easier and less exciting because drivers are too busy playing the DRS game of “am I or am I not within one second, do I need to be ahead on this corner or hang behind instead” instead of bothering to set up for precise, targeted passes that take laps to complete. There’s a reason you remember Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber passing at Eau Rouge, for instance, as opposed to any DRS pass of note.
Pirelli, meanwhile, can’t seem to win either way. The Bridgestones were so durable that Pirelli were told to make tires that went off – which they did, but at a seriously compromised and quick rate. The spate of tire failures that occurred at Silverstone this year meant Pirelli would have to change its construction midseason to be more conservative. The new ones suited the Red Bulls best, and ho hum, Vettel and Red Bull haven’t lost since Anthony Weiner was a daily punch line and John Oliver was having a field day with it filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
The 2014 season was always going to be a year of sweeping changes anyway, with new eco-friendly V6 engines, KERS being implemented into the power units, lower noses, “penalty points” and a five-engine season limit all among those getting put into practice. Fair enough; that’s enough there to force you to read and memorize the rulebook.
But the steps introduced Monday – double points at the Abu Dhabi season finale, permanent driver numbers, a cost cap for 2015 and five-second penalties – all seem to miss the point. It seems the FIA has suggested these rather than fix the fundamental problem that F1’s product at the moment is often too uninteresting as it is, without even allowing the new 2014 changes to bear themselves out before putting these four ideas into practice.
The double points idea is ludicrous, plain and simple. At no time in F1’s 60-plus year history has any one race ever carried more points prestige than another. Whether it’s Abu Dhabi or Monaco misses the point. For any one race to have a greater championship impact than another negates the other 18 races as a result. It almost makes you want to see someone wrap up the title with a lead of more than 50 points going into Abu Dhabi anyway, so they don’t lose it on a fluke.
The permanent numbers? If F1 really wants to recapture its past, perhaps a return to the iconic team numbers, Ferrari 27/28, Williams 5/6, McLaren 7/8, Lotus 11/12, Mercedes (nee Tyrrell) 3/4, what have you, would have been a better step. No one associates F1 drivers with any car number and to build the brand awareness takes time; it’s not going to make a permanent impact in one year.
The cost cap? This almost brought F1 to civil war a half decade ago and further details are needed before I could make a truly qualified comment on this one. As for the five-second penalties, that’s probably the most sensible of the lot.
But all of the four won’t do anything against the more underlying factors of keeping F1 races interesting past the start of the race. Drivers should be able to push full stop if they want on a set of tires, regulations be damned. It’s why the Spanish Grand Prix this year carried so much intrigue; Alonso pushed and made four stops but still won over those who opted to run more conservatively to save time in pit lane.
F1 has always stood for technological innovation, drivers pushing at the maximum at all times, the build-up to a pass, the iconic sounds of Ferrari V12s or screaming V10s, and consistency in its points system. Regulation changes that come closer to recapturing those ideals, rather than the ones put forth on Monday, could do more to keep F1 on the right track.