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F1: Exceptionalism Expected

Adrian Newey recently said he regrets the stifling effects the current F1 rules have on design creativity.  His viewpoint, as F1’s most dazzlingly creative design mind for the past twenty years, is pretty easy to understand.  My viewpoint, as a deeply engaged fan with an understanding of the sport’s history as well the difficulties it’s currently facing, is that the rules are making F1 more like checkers than chess.

While not yet a spec series like NASCAR, IndyCar, Grand-Am, or DTM, the current F1 rules are a straightjacket that funnel designers down to ever more similar and inevitable conclusions.  Thirty years after the the ground effect’s heyday, everyone in racing knows an awful lot about how air behaves, and with the modern F1 car covering a finite dimension and broken up into boxes of specified sameness, this knowledge is bound to lead people to similar solutions.  Any old F1 salt will tell you it’s impossible to unlearn something, but this truth highlights Newey’s lament:  As our knowledge base expands, making more and more design and engineering solutions inevitable, we need more broadly drawn rules to allow for exploration beyond our ever-growing known universe.

With the current trend toward spec racing, it seems we are being told that the only level of interest we the fans can manage to digest and understand is the human drama of a driver on driver battle.  Was Gordon Murray not a human?  Colin Chapman?  Why does the human drama have to be restricted to the driver in the cockpit?  Many are not the brightest bulbs around, and on top of that they are stifled by teams terrified of upsetting sponsors so even our enjoyment of them is reduced to a single-plane relationship.  What I’ve learned from modern drivers:  the race is going to be long.  For sure you can’t win it in the first corner, but you can definitely lose it.  It’s best to just keep the car on the road and see where it is at the end of the race…which will be long.

Lotus 88

Colin Chapman’s Lotus 88. From auto123.com

My kingdom to have a pre-season test when teams would lift the garage door on a Brabham BT46 or BT55, a Lotus 88, an Arrows A2.  The excitement to see these cars race ran deeper than just watching a driver win or lose.  We watched ideas race.  We waited to see if the ideas so visibly on display would allow the driver to shine, or would doom them to a season of woe.

Brabham BT55

The Murray-penned Brabham BT55. From cliptheapex.com

We watch ideas race now, but because of the straightjacket rules, we are told that if we want to get more deeply involved with a team, we better manage to muster some emotions about the shape of their exhaust exit and its success or failure at producing the Coanda effect.  Almost a decade ago Williams raced a car with a horribly ugly ‘walrus’ nose.  I wanted it to win so badly just because it represented diverse thought and risk taking.  It was a total flop and by mid-season, with standard issue nose in place, the car could only be differentiated from the rest of the field by its sponsor logos.

One could see the effects of the strict and stagnant rules last season, when Mercedes, Williams, and Renault added themselves to the list of winners, and Sauber and Force India very nearly joined them.  The budgets of some of these teams compare favorably to McLaren’s and Ferrari’s catering tabs, but because of the rules the Big Boys are unable to use their financial firepower to find a new solution, that trick part beyond the inevitable.  Double-diffuser: Banned.  Blown diffuser: Banned.  Tuned mass damper:  Banned.  Rear brake steer:  Banned.  F-duct:  Banned.  Torque vectoring front axle:  Banned.  The list goes on.

Hurrah! you say, at last the winner is not a fortnightly foregone conclusion!  A bore, I say.  For here is where I approach my consent with Adrian Newey from a different angle (but one I’m sure he’d agree with…as long as he has access to Dietrich Mateschitz’s seemingly bottomless coffers) –  from a fan’s perspective, racing should be chess, not checkers.

Nascar nailed its colors to the checkers mast early.  People want human drama.  Drivers are humans.  Therefore the drivers became their oversized numbers and sponsor logos, and drive and fight in the same car as everyone else (and please don’t tell me the Gen 6 cars are one iota less ‘spec’ than the CoT abominations) so the dim-bulb viewer doesn’t have to think of any parameters other than did he win it or did he bin it.  The people in charge seem to think that the viewer can’t handle anything with a more nuanced list of reasons for success or failure.  Smokey Yunick is an integral, multi-layered, hero/villain in Nascar lore not because of his driving exploits, but because he may or may not have built a damn 7/8 size Chevelle!  We can digest more than just simple gladiatorial drama and we demand it!

I loathed it when Roger Penske brought the push rod Mercedes/Ilmor engines to Indianapolis in 1994.  I seethed at his cleverness in exploiting a loophole.  But I secretly loved that there were still loopholes to find and squeeze through.  As a fan, I was engaged on multiple levels.

Standing at the hairpin in Montreal in 1995, with my fingers entwined in the mesh fence, I could tell when the Ferrari was leaving the pits.  The sound of its V12 was so shatteringly sharp, a seeming octave higher than anyone else’s V8s and V10s.  I could feel the crowd inhale with expectation and excitement to see one of its darlings, the scarlet cars from Maranello.  In other words, we were all engaged on multiple levels.

This is not a paean to the good old days.  I don’t want to regress in any way.  I, the racing fan, and Adrian Newey, the racing genius, want the same thing…progress.  If the technical rules were allowed to breathe within something resembling the Resource Restriction Agreement currently tabled, F1 might even be tempting once again to another card carrying genius, Gordon Murray.  It was his striking and outlandish failure, the Brabham BT55, that eventually morphed into the all-conquering McLaren MP4/4 that so nearly won every race in 1988.  And is that year forgotten as a boring processional?  Rather the opposite.  1988 is a high water mark in F1 history, an unbelievable confluence of men and machines resulting in unbridled, multi-faceted, drama with heroes (Senna or Prost, Murray, Honda) and villains (Prost or Senna, Jean-Louis Schlesser).  Last season Alonso came close to stirring up similar drama when he said he wasn’t just battling Vettel but also Newey.  It was exciting to have another layer of intrigue and interest added.  Now I would love to see what would happen if we could just take off the straightjackets.

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About nicholasdamato

Nicholas D’Amato is a seasoned observer of all things automotive, a gushing fount of opinion, a writer with motorsport in his blood, an aesthete and a scholar. Which is strange because really he’s just a bass player. For years, Nicholas has toured the world, ostensibly to perform great music, but he knows it’s really to soak up as much car culture as possible as he bounces from country to country, city to city. As if to prove a point, his writing has been featured in EVO Magazine and Bass Player. He is a regular contributor to https://downshiftautos.com/.

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