F1’s return to refuelling – one step forwards, five back?


The Formula 1 Strategy Group has done it again. As fans continue to cry out about the rising price of tickets and the collapse of the sport’s most iconic grands prix, the real issues have been addressed.

Refuelling is set to return to F1 in 2017, having last been a feature of races back in 2009. Back then, there were two key variables in races: fuel and tires. However, the longevity of the compounds supplied by Bridgestone meant that in reality, it was simply a trade off between less stops and a heaver car.

And it was rubbish.

Take the 2009 Italian Grand Prix as an example. Brawn GP had dominated the season, springing one of the biggest surprises in the history of the sport by emerging from Honda’s ashes after the Japanese manufacturer had pulled out to create a race-winning car. However, its form had begun to slump towards the end of the season.

At Monza though, Rubens Barrichello led home Jenson Button to secure a one-two finish for the team despite finishing a second down on pole position on Saturday, qualifying fifth and sixth respectively. Neither driver overtook a single car in the grand prix – yet they finished first and second thanks to a heavier fuel strategy that saw them pit once instead of twice like the other front runners.

This is the bizarre thing. The Strategy Group appears to be re-introducing refuelling in a bid to create – to quote the title of the FIA press release – “thrilling races”. Refuelling does not encourage overtaking. It neuters it. Drivers are happy to sit behind the car ahead as they know that they are running with more fuel and will take the position in the pit stops.

Let’s make it quite obvious with two stats:

– Average number of overtakes from 1994-2009: 14.94

– Average number of overtakes from 2010-2014: 48.77

Refuelling was re-introduced to F1 back in 1994 before being canned at the end of 2009. From 2010 onwards, the tires were made the greatest variable factor. Pirelli was given the challenge of spicing races up – and that’s exactly what it did.

One of the drivers’ biggest bug bears in F1 at the moment is that there is an inability to push constantly throughout a race. They find themselves thinking too much about caring for their tires instead of finding the optimum lap time. A longer lasting tire would alleviate this, and Michelin would be happy to supply it.

However, it would make refuelling the only variable. There would be a total lack of overtaking as the drivers would have an abundance of grip and wouldn’t want to risk a pass if they’re going to get ahead anyway at the next round of stops.

As for the expense… Quite clearly, F1 is in a cost crisis. Everyone knows that. Even the Strategy Group recognized that, saying that it would work on a sustainability report for F1. However, refuelling will only add to the costs of racing. Not only does it mean extra freight for the teams, but also extra personnel to deal with the refuelling. Once you factor in the safety problem as well, it’s clear to see why it was binned in the first place.

F1 said last year that it wanted to go down the greener route. Hybrid cars were introduced, and they are amazing bits of technology. The very fact that the cars are going quicker than their V8 predecessors despite firing on two less cylinders and using a third less fuel is astonishing. Sadly, this isn’t what the critics see. Sound and appearance is all that matters.

Barely a year after the first race of the new formula, the death knell is already sounding. Formula 1 may be all about speed, but in this case, a little more time should be given. Once again, the Strategy Group is moving a step forwards – better looking cars is undoubtedly a positive – but five steps back. It means higher costs. It poses a greater safety risk. It will also mean less overtaking, leading to less exciting races, and eventually leading to less fans watching.

The logic is difficult to understand. After taking a huge step into the future with this new technology, F1 is now moving backwards. It’s like buying an iPhone, realizing that it doesn’t have “Snake”, so then going out and buying an old Nokia to make up for it.

Refuelling needs to stay in the past. It simply doesn’t fit in with the modern outlook and futuristic approach that F1 tries to claim it has. That said, if it gets more fans through the gate and more people watching on TV, it will be deemed a success, but that is not the right measure for racing and a sport.

Whether F1 is trying to be a sport or a show remains unclear, though. Right now, we’re sitting on an awkward middle ground that feels like it is sinking – and fast.