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Fans and Teams Say the Show Was Boring, Bernie Says Be Patient

Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone

Bernie Ecclestone is making an effort to instill calm in the troops.  Amidst a unanimous clamor that the season-opener in Bahrain was exceptional only in the level of tedium it produced, Ecclestone has encouraged teams and fans alike to reserve judgment.

In the aftermath of Sunday’s race, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh called for an immediate change in the rules to enhance the show.  Whitmarsh has suggested that the easiest fix would be to have Bridgestone supply softer tire compounds.  As reported in Autosport, Whitmarsh said, “We were one of three teams that said we should have two mandatory pit stops because we were worried about [people] one-stopping. I think we have to re-examine that. But I think if we can now push on Bridgestone to have ‘racier’ tyres, we need a super-soft tyre that is really going to hurt if you take it to 20 laps. You shouldn’t be able to do that with a super-soft tyre and I think even the prime, if it’s a struggle to get it to do half a race distance, then you force [the issue].”

The current refueling ban has resulted in fewer pit stops.  Virtually all teams only a single stop, in order to comply with the rule mandating use of both primary and option tire compounds during the race. It had been hoped that with reduced opportunities for pit stop (or off-track) overtaking, drivers would attempt more overtaking of the on-track variety.  But most of the drivers on the grid reported that overtaking was impossible, due to the current aerodynamic profiles of the cars.  The technical regulation changes of 2009 which were intended to enhance overtaking possibilities (by reducing the amount of “dirty air” in cars’ slipstreams) have been a failure for the most part. Cars are still facing the same dilemma: if they follow another car too closely going into a turn, they lose downforce in the turbulence of the leading car’s slipstream.

Mark Webber, for one, complained that he’d been stuck behind Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button at various times during the race in Bahrain, without even having the slightest opportunity for overtaking.  “It got pretty boring,” Webber told Australia’s Daily Telegraph. “I spent 48 laps staring at a the gearboxes of first Schumacher and then Button and there was nothing I could do to pass them. I tried everything – different lines, pressure, everything. But they’re both good drivers and neither of them made a mistake.”

There seems to be a growing consensus that mandating more pit stops, either through a rule change, or by tweaking the tire compounds, would fix the problem.

Martin Whitmarsh went on to say, “I personally believe that more challenging tyres will help the spectacle of the show.  I also personally believe that we should have two stops mandated because we want to stop this. Today, if we had had a safety car on lap five, we’d have all piled in [to the pits] and we’d have all gone on the prime tyre and run to lap 49 without a stop. That was a real danger. I think that the tyres are allowing you to do that, I’m not trying to pass the blame [on to Bridgestone]. We are all in this together. We do need to look at mandating stops, we do need to look at the tyres and make them more fragile, and we do need to work on making the cars capable of racing close together and easier to overtake.”

However, the idea of requiring additional pit stops doesn’t fix the problem, it merely highlights the real nature of the problem.  Over the past ten or fifteen years, as the cars have become more aerodynamically sophisticated, their efficiency in overtaking has declined.  Position changes have frequently occurred during pit stop shuffles.  Teams developed elaborate fuel strategies to exploit this situation.  Race fans became accustomed to the process over time, and were able to appreciate a certain inherent drama in this aspect of the races.  But that didn’t change the fact that the actual level of on-track overtaking had diminished considerably.

Bernie Ecclestone has now urged the teams to avoid rushing to judgment. “I think there is nothing we can do immediately and we should not just knee-jerk into changes,” he said.  “The first race with new regulations was always going to be a learning curve for them all.  Now they know they can make improvements and be a bit bolder and we will get more action.”

He went on to address the real cause of the overtaking problem, which is downforce.  “It is basically the same problem we have had for the last few years about downforce and cars not being able to get close to the one in front to create more overtaking,” he said. “The teams know this but they won’t do anything about it because each team looks after its own interests: trying to win. I had a meeting with the teams and tried to explain to them what our business is about – racing and entertaining the public. It’s not about playing with computers and going fast over one lap.”

Double diffusers will be banned in 2011, which should help the problem.  But if the FIA and FOM want to put the sport on the right path over the long term, they will probably need to make further changes, such as limiting the total surface area of front and rear wings more severely, and banning the use of any secondary aerodynamic devices, such as dorsal fins, winglets and barge boards.  The ratio of mechanical grip to aerodynamic downforce should be shifted more in favor of the former, rather than the latter.

It’s entirely possible that Bahrain was simply a poor track for overtaking, especially in its newest configuration.  Some tracks naturally provide more overtaking opportunities than others, because of their layout.  Bernie Ecclestone is urging everyone to adopt a wait and see attitude, with the hope that some of the upcoming venues will provide a better show.  But this too misses the point, to a certain extent.  When you consider the time and money that are invested in this sport, and the size of the global fan base, the series really has no room for venues where on-track racing is effectively neutered.  Each and every venue should provide a minimum level of good racing.

The ultimate irony here, of course, is that for months leading up to Bahrain, most observers were swooning about how 2010 would be perhaps the most competitive and exciting season in a generation, as there were at least four top notch, competitive teams on the grid, with eight first tier drivers, four of whom are current or former world champions, and one of whom is the most successful F1 driver of all time.

Michael Schumacher, returning to active competition after a three year absence, allowed that while it was fun to go racing again, the race overall had been a bit…boring.  If that’s what it was like inside the cockpit, at speeds in the neighborhood of 200 mph, imagine what it was like for the fans.

Image by Peter Price, licensed through Creative Commons.

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