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

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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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”