We all had the jokes lined up in advance. That the only thing the latest Strategy Group meeting would agree is the date of the next Strategy Group meeting. That and which of them was having tea and which coffee. But this time it can’t be accused of inactivity. However inactivity seems like a great idea compared with what it actually came up with.
To give some background the F1 Strategy Group is made up of Jean Todt (FIA President), Bernie (that old bloke) and six of the F1 teams, the 18 votes split evenly between the three ‘blocks’. While the teams represented are the five ‘grandees’ of Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren and Williams, plus one other based on constructors’ placing (currently Force India).
It came into being intended to streamline the sport’s decision making but its outputs – the proof of the pudding – haven’t always met with universal approval. It seems often gripped by the sport’s habitual inertia resultant from all of the individual players’ self-interest. Perhaps too it helps F1 be run as a carve-up of the big guys. And what in spite of itself it has been able to propose mainly has varied between the pointless and malign.
Yet this time as we found out from the FIA’s press release outlining the proposals from the latest Strategy Group get-together, it produced a vast and unique combination of the two. Some of the moves are however encouraging in themselves although we await the meat on the bone. But they did not get the headlines. Those instead were reserved for the surprise announcement that the group had voted for a return of in-race refuelling from 2017.
I say ‘surprise’ as while since its latest banning for 2010 there have been occasional distinct yelps for its return, there did not appear to be any sort of critical mass. And whatever is the case I’m far from convinced that it’s a good idea.
I am one who has never quite ‘got’ refuelling. Of course I can understand the attraction of something that helps F1 cars to get between the start and end of an F1 race as quickly as possible, but this positive is surely dwarfed by the negatives.
We’re not sure these guys are too keen on the return of refuelling after they had to chase Felipe Massa down the pit lane in Singapore (2008) when the Brazilian left his pit box with the fuel hose still attached (© Ferrari)
Of course a major problem with it is the unnecessary additional danger. Then there is the cost, which was the main reason it was dropped in the first place. And as we know cost control efforts have hardly moved on since. The bill from purchasing the equipment and hauling it around the world is considerable. Then there is that the staff to handle it have to be hired and trained. Then there are the additional costs from re-designing a car around a smaller tank…
But even these do not capture my main objection to refuelling’s return. To do so I’m going to adapt a wonderful phrase I encountered recently by journalist Raphael Honigstein, which he said of modern football but is highly apt here: modern F1 “is drenched in nostalgia but it has no memory”.
The FIA’s statement on the changes spoke of a plan for “thrilling races”. Yet none of those who hanker for a return to refuelling, who speak of how ‘exciting’ the races were back in the day of the previous refuelling era of 1994 to 2008, seem to recall just how far from thrilling things were then.
F1 racing cars very rarely raced each other. Without exaggeration all you would have usually was qualifying, a start, a first lap shake out and then….next to nothing. Pre-ordained fuel strategies would simply play themselves out and while the drivers certainly worked hard their contribution in some ways was futile, almost like they were simply along for the ride if they had the strength and stamina to hang on. Rob Smedley a couple of years back noted that what would happen then was that a race’s outcome would be known on a Saturday afternoon, barring disasters such as unreliability (an increasingly rare event) or rain. F1 after a while went the whole hog indeed and removed whatever lingering suspense remained by publishing the cars’ starting fuel loads on a Saturday evening.
The stats back up the contention too. The Clip the Apex website has compiled in-race on-track overtaking numbers going right back to 1981. From there being over 40 overtakes per dry race in the mid-1980s it fell gradually (reflecting possibly that the sport got less competitive in this time) though still by 1993 held up at just over 25 per race. But come refuelling overtaking totals fell off a cliff, by 1995 it was but 13 in each dry race on average and between then and 2009 it hovered around little more than 10 on-track passes per dry race per season consistently. A massive drop by anyone’s standards. And this was lost on no one watching.
There have been occasional distinct yelps for its return, [but] there did not appear to be any sort of critical mass
– Graham Keilloh on refuelling’s return
Then, devastatingly for the refuelling formula, in 2010 when refuelling was got rid of and there were precious few other changes the number of passes per dry race immediately doubled to 21.5. Of course we can argue about whether we’re getting too much passing subsequent to this with DRS and gumball Pirellis, but that’s another story.
We have qualitative evidence of this too. In the past few years Sky in the UK has done us a service by showing re-runs in full of old ‘classic’ races, and with those from this era of refuelling it is striking how little often happens in them, displaying all of the characteristics listed above. Bear in mind too that these are rounds hand-picked as being among the better of them.
So why was this? Well it was down mainly to a couple of things. One is that with refuelling the temptation to ‘wait for the stops’ (something of a mantra at the time) rather than pass on track became endemic. To give one example I recall watching the 2006 Bahrain race wherein Fernando Alonso closed on the leader Michael Schumacher midway through. But rather than an enthralling wheel-to-wheel battle between the two great men ensuing Alonso was told by his engineer on the radio to sit behind as he had more fuel aboard so he could pass then. That’s exactly what Nando did.
Schumi indeed was a master of this sort of strategy. For various reasons he tended to be more potent in a race than in qualifying meaning that while Michael in his pomp was usually the quickest out there on a Sunday also usually he had some cars to clear. His way about as commonly though was in the opening stint simply to sit behind his rivals – almost to the point that you could imagine his fingers drumming impatiently on his steering wheel – as he knew he’d be pitting later than those ahead. Sure enough they would peel in and Schumi would put in a series of stunning laps on low fuel, then emerge from his own stop still out front; the day done. It was devastating certainly and highly impressive in its own way. But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see him elbow his way through with real overtaking instead?
But refuelling putting a drain on wheel-to-wheel action went further too. For all that aerodynamics and the resultant problems of ‘dirty air’ were part of the contribution to the soporific fare, so too was the lack of variation in pace during a race, and it’s variation of pace that often creates overtaking. And with tyres no longer degrading much combined with refuelling which reduced races to a series of sprints variation of pace was reduced to next to nothing. Add to this too having the quickest cars starting at the front and the slowest at the back then we should not be surprised that they don’t pass each other – why would they? The cars simply move apart. And they did.
In current F1 there are certainly things that need to change. But a return to refuelling era is no sort of solution. The evidence is that it simply does not deliver the excitement that is attributed to it. You know how the saying goes too, that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to relive it. And even with the problems I’d much rather watch races from now than from then.
What about the matter of safety? It’s one of the reasons it was outlawed. Here Jos Verstappen’s car exploded in flames during the 1994 German Grand Prix due to a refuelling issue.
As noted there seemed no intolerable pressure from fans or from anywhere else to bring refuelling back either, and the F1 commentator David Croft perhaps revealed more than he intended when he said on Twitter shortly after the press release landed: “Wow, surprised at the reaction to the return of refuelling. Seems not all of you think it’s such a good idea.”
Was this the problem? That people within the paddock assumed there was more of a fan consensus behind its return than there actually was? I saw at least one veteran F1 journalist at roughly the same moment indeed calling refuelling “what fans are asking for”. Not for the first time it appears that the folks within F1 have rather flopped in working out what its public wants. Admittedly it’s not an easy task for a number of reasons, but still I’m not aware of many systematic efforts to gauge the fans’ views that have gone on. And judging by the reaction since the fans are at best split down the middle on the refuelling return.
There is another reason why I don’t back this move. As Will Buxton pointed out when refuelling was outlawed for 2010 the World Motor Sport Council then in addition to cost savings justified it as it would “increase the incentive for engine builders to improve fuel economy”. The big shift in engine regulations for 2014 was to a similar end too of course.
Now the sport on this latest evidence is trying to perform a u-turn. The broad thrust of the engine spec remains unchanged thankfully, though while the press release from the Strategy Group meeting did say they will maintain ‘a maximum race fuel allowance’ it did not commit to the maximum race fuel allowance. It might change in other words, presumably upwards.
So in other words just over a year after its implementation there is an attempt at significant rowing back on one of the most radical and hard-fought-for set of regulation changes the sport has ever experienced. And with it threatening to lose many of the good things about it, mostly of developing technology that the motor industry and by extension the wider public is crying out for, that will help reduce the use of finite fossil resources, emissions and the like. If nothing else F1 cars pumping more fossil in at regular intervals of the races sends rather the wrong message.
You suspect that only F1 could make this amazing achievement of creating engines that shove out more power and performance than before (as Mark Hughes explained the drop in lap time is down to the aero changes not the new engines) using a third less fuel and somehow treat it as something akin to a hand grenade with its pin out.
The Strategy Group’s outputs are not final and still have to go through two stages of approval from the F1 Commission and the FIA World Motorsport Council. Indeed rewind roughly 12 months and the same Strategy Group was trumpeting a wonderful wheeze to reduce Friday practice running to a single session starting at 5pm, only for it to evaporate with its first contact with air as all outside pointed out the many problems with it. Perhaps similar will happen here. It’s been known furthermore for F1’s power-brokers to offer something unpalatable so to get movement in something else that it wants. We can but hope this is at play again. Ted Kravitz for one said of refuelling after the announcement: “That one is the headline which I’m not sure is going to result in a solid rule change.”
Wow, surprised at the reaction to the return of refuelling. Seems not all of you think it’s such a good idea
– David Croft, F1 Commentator
But the group’s proposals can carry much momentum and the two subsequent stages can be little more than rubber stamping.
Then of course there is the dog that among all of this barely whimpered. The matter which F1 really does needs to change and has done for years, that of cost control. Indeed for Force India’s Bob Fernley it was top of mind in advance of the meeting: “The key thing is to look at cost controls,” he said. “We’re not capable at the moment of agreeing to bring in something like Max Mosley’s suggestion, for instance, of having a cost-cap and more [technical] freedoms – one that I would dearly love to consider. And if we can’t do that, let’s focus on key areas that we can all agree on to bring costs down for all teams.”
But there’s little evidence of progress on this. The press release did mention cost reduction but only in the vaguest terms. They have a plan, which they’re consulting on, but they can’t tell us what it is yet. More prevarication it seems. While as noted a few of the other changes of which refuelling is chief among them will add to the costs.
It might even be less encouraging than that. As was suggested by a few late last year rather than simply lethargy this may actually be strategy. In advance of the Strategy Group press release we all assumed that the big story would be the return of customer cars – Bernie’s time-honoured ‘solution’ to the cost and grid numbers problem. As it was there was no explicit reference to them but the plan mentioned does indeed appear to include customer cars as well as perhaps the big teams running additional cars. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff seemingly confirmed as much later: “The Strategy Group teams are prepared to offer a works-spec car to the other teams or potential new entrants. Another contingency plan, should we lose a team, is to run a third or fourth car ourselves” he said.
There was nothing substanial regarding cost cutting measures which could prove detrimental to the survival of teams like Force India, Sauber, Lotus and Manor (© Sauber Motorsport AG)
Fernley sadly confirmed as much too: “Fundamentally, what is absolutely clear from it all is that the grey areas have been removed, that there will be no cost control initiatives brought in. There won’t be any consideration given to an equitable distribution of income, and the engines are not going to be reduced in cost. The default for going forward in terms of a team failing will be as per contract, which will be third cars, and in the meantime they will evaluate the customer car programme…As an independent team we will have to now look at our business model, at how we survive, the same for the likes of Sauber, Williams, Lotus and Manor.”
So no remedy on cost control, instead the sport adapts to the symptoms by hacking off a limb. The move to customer cars and three or four car teams could fill up an article all on their own, but to cut a long story short for the sport to create a two-tier formula, and to effectively chase out its independent runners in the preference of manufacturers and a fizzy drinks company that may walk at a moment’s notice (and in some cases have), is a perilous game.
The sport undoubtedly needed changes but as argued in my previous article most of these could be achieved with relatively simple and short steps rather than with an overhaul. It certainly didn’t need this overhaul.
And as Phillip Horton outlined on Twitter there is an even bigger picture here: “Big point is this: what is F1 trying to be? Because lurching from one idea to the next gives it a massive identity crisis. Fixing problems which never existed and adding plasters to bones mashed up beyond belief. Refuelling out in 2010, back in for 2017. So what’s the long-term goal here? F1 has evolved, but it seems to be questioning its own core on an annual basis. There was a huge regulation overhaul for 2014. Now another one for 2017, decided early/mid 2015. Hardly time to see how 2014 rules worked…”
Which sums it up. We seem to have a sport that doesn’t know what it wants or what it is to be. One which has no faith in its core offering. Is in a perpetual state of the knee-jerk, frantically grasping at whatever the latest thing that is thrown in its vicinity on the off chance that it’ll resolve the matters that it doesn’t understand somehow, refuelling being merely the latest. And worst of all in this it is doing the sport a lot of damage. Hopefully, finally, the reaction to the Strategy Group’s latest announcement provides the wakeup call that those in positions of influence require.