Zurich Gnome

The journal of a Swiss-based motor-racing enthusiast.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


It was interesting to read Daniel McCalla's piece on pitpass on his ideas for a new formula. It's great to read something that deals with a lot of the issues in motorsport at the moment and proposes a potential way ahead. Of course, one man's meat is another man's poison, and I suspect my taste isn't the same as many other people's.

I'd like to think I have an idea about some of Daniel's points, having helped run a professional Formula Renault team in the 1990s, and even got involved with racecar construction. But let's have a look at Daniel's suggestions - I think that there may be issues with some of the points, but it's an interesting way of highlighting the problems within the sport, and maybe giving a better understanding of how the sport works to a wider audience. So thanks to Daniel for throwing down the gauntlet!

1. Central Preparation

No, no, no, no, no. I am not interested in watching single make series, and I am definitely not interested in centrally prepared cars. In fact I think the Parc Ferme regulations at the moment are a disgrace and help nobody. I used to love being at a GP circuit on a Saturday evening, walking down the pitlane, looking at the cars being worked on and hearing an engine being started every now and then. But that's gone now.

Race mechanics love three things: cars, women and beer. It's bad enough trying to find something for them to do to a one-make car over a weekend without telling them they aren't allowed to do anything. There are only so many times that you can clean wheels. Go to a BTCC meeting and wander through the paddock where the support series are. There's loads of mechanics standing idly around waiting for their thirty minutes of action. They all have to be paid for this too, so in my view they may as well do something useful. But with no work being done on cars, there's no punters so there's no women for them to look at, so they'll all end up down the pub.

Central preparation is fine for rich businessmen that want to play at racing Minis or Lamborghinis. I never really liked it when Jonathan Palmer was running Formula Palmer Audi. For a top level sport it's a disaster. No two race cars are the same, adjusting the setup is a complicated business and you need to have all the people working as a team. A key part of a driver's job is motivating his mechanics. If all cars are prepared by the same mechanics, who decides which drivers get the new bolts and which ones get the re-used ones? Who gets the best engine or the new set of shock absorbers? Even if there isn't a best engine, someone will believe there is and the best drivers will want it. Remember the story of "Patch", the Formula Ford engine? And if racing cars are so over-engineered that they won't break at all, then they're too heavy to be called racing cars.

And there's another point that nobody seems to consider. Today's racing cars are the historic cars of the future. If all series are one make series, there'll be much less interest in them in 30 years time. One of the joys of the Goodwood Revival meeting is the variety of machinery on offer. I want to see different solutions to engineering problems, V6s, V8s and flat 12s. If we had a fuel based formula we could have rotary engines too. Of course, today's F1 cars are currently too difficult to maintain for that to become a reality, but there's no reason that needs to remain the case.

2. Children are the future

I think this is a really good point. I was taken to Goodwood when I was about four, and the bug bit. I still have my Grandstand tickets from F1 Grands Prix at Silverstone in the 60s when Grandstand seats were more affordable. They cost around £2.50 which, adjusted according to the Retail Price index, is around £30 in 2005 terms. So a family of four could sit in relative comfort for about £120. And there was an impressive series of support races too. Formula 3, BTCC (except we called it saloons in those days) and even the big Sports Cars of the day. A good value day out.

But then there was no need for the promoters to hand over all their cash to Bernie, so they could afford to charge sensible prices. What we need is a benevolent commercial rights holder and as we'll see below, that will not happen. Because one day those rights will be sold to someone who knows their true worth and is keen to extract maximum value from them. If you don't believe that, I have a second-hand car I'd like to sell you.

3. Racing on the Sabbath

Another interesting thought. Again, at Silverstone in the 1960s, GPs were held on Saturdays, so maybe it's not quite so radical. When Nicola Foulston was running Brands Hatch, it was mooted that races could be run mid-week, behind closed doors, thus getting rid of the need for expensive insurance. Most people watch sport on television these days, so why not go the whole hog and hold races in the evenings under floodlights. And instead of using the trucks that Daniel wanted to move the cars around, they can carry the lighting equipment!

4. King of all circuits

Jack of all trades, master of none. A road racing car will need to be compromised if it is used on an oval. And vice versa.

In the same way that I'm interested in watching the 100m sprint at the Olympics, but don't even know if there is a sprint in the decathlon, I am not interested in compromise in motorsport. I want to watch sport at its highest level, whether that sport is football, golf, skiing, rallying or motor racing. I simply do not bother watching anything else. That includes A1 GP, Champ Cars and the BTCC. If one of the four Golf Majors is on TV I would rather watch that than a Champ Car race. If it's not one of the Majors, I do not watch golf. I watch the European Champions League Cup final. I do not watch the UEFA Cup final. I watch Arsenal, I do not watch Spurs. I do not have time.

And that, in essence is the problem with creating a market for a new series like Superformula. There is so much choice in the leisure industry there is no room for second best. The cult of the celebrity means that only the very best drivers will be known. A series like Superformula would need to have "name" drivers, but they'll all be in F1. Millions of people watch F1, how many of them could name three GP2 or A1 GP drivers? Come to that, can I? It is impossible for any series other than the leading one to compete. If F1 and NASCAR do not shoot themselves in the foot, Europeans will watch F1, Americans will watch NASCAR. F1 is just about managing not to shoot itself in the foot at the moment. NASCAR is doing a fantastic job. The FIA should watch and learn.

5. Qualifying

I never had a problem with the old 12 lap qualifying. Actually that's not true; before it was limited to 12 laps I thought it was even better. If there's a dull point during the TV coverage, switch to pre-recorded interviews with drivers and team owners. Show technical explanations of how various bits on the cars work. Don't ruin the sport because the TV presenters and journalists don't have the ability to present an interesting and reactive programme.

To be honest I really don't bother watching qualifying these days unless I'm in the house not doing anything. If they scrapped it completely it wouldn't worry me. Let everyone out of the pit lane 30 minutes before the race, as they do now, and give them fifteen minutes to set the grid. Cut out the middle man and scrap Parc Ferme. Finish qualifying and line up on the grid. That would actually get me watching the TV 30 minutes before I usually do. Isn't that a thought for the TV presenters?

6. Commercial Breakdown

I believe in market forces. I also know from bitter experience that a significant number of people that are involved in motor racing are crooks. It is the nature of the beast. Send three racing drivers into the pub. The one that buys the drinks will be the slowest on the track. He will brake first. Motor sport is about competition and getting someone else to pay for everything is part of the game. Fixing prices for sponsorship cannot happen. Deals will be done. Let's say a race seat for a series costs £100,000. Some teams will extract more from gullible drivers, some drivers will get race seats for much less. And still not pay the bill. Deals will be done. Ask Mike Lawrence about this. You know what he will say.

7. Points and Prizes

Back to Silverstone in the 1960s. The race programmes used to list the distribution of prize money for each position. Round about 1971 that stopped, simply listing an overall prize fund (in Swiss Francs) that would be divided according to a predefined formula. Now the Concorde agreement covers those arrangements but we are not allowed to know what's in it. But we do know that the higher a team finishes in the championship, the more cash it receives. So I guess F1 fits in with this view of Daniel's. Is there any prize money for GP2 or F3. I don't think so. A team that gets better results is able to charge more for its race seats. Market forces again I'm afraid.

And the powerboost button? It's an artificial fix. I don't want to see easy overtaking, I want to see racing. Of course, overtaking moves are the goal of racing and there's nothing better than seeing a skilful driver hounding an opponent into the tiniest of mistakes so that their exit speed from a corner is compromised. Casual viewers do not understand about racing and think it's just about putting your foot down more. It's not. I think TV coverage is partially to blame for this. When I see a great overtaking move, I want to see a replay of the two corners before, not just the bit where the cars are alongside each other. At that point it's job done. Kimi passing Fisi in Japan last year was a great example. When you saw them going through the chicane, you knew that Kimi had won the race. Passing Fisico at Turn one was academic at that point. I want to see the chicane, not turn one. Racing, not just overtaking.

Like Dan I have my own ideas. One thing I would do would be to allow the use of regenerative energy. Brakes currently generate so much heat it's not true. Wasted energy. Which is pretty criminal when you think about it. Why not let the teams build devices that slow the car and retain the energy so that it can be used again. Like a powerboost, but with no limit on how often it's used. Competition will develop these devices amazingly quickly and we'll start to see them on road cars, which will help to cut CO2 emissions and give F1 a more responsible image. Why do I have to think of this? What is the FIA up to? Why have they not offered me a highly paid consultancy job?

That of course is just one thought. We need Dan's ideas and many other people's too. It's clear that Formula One is too expensive, but it's a market place and teams will spend what they want to. Personally I'd like to see free development of engines, but with the proviso that a manufacturer must sell them to any registered team that wants them. And set a maximum price, say $10 million for a supply of engines for the season. If Ferrari or Toyota want to sell them at a loss for marketing reasons, fine. The FIA would distribute the engines at the track so that there is no preferential treatment and if a manufacturer leaves the sport, no problem, just call those nice people at Cosworth.

We need to get rid of artificial regulations that penalise drivers when their engines blow on the slowing down lap. We need to allow drivers to show their skill. But the best road-racing drivers will always gravitate to F1. And while that means that a series like A1 GP or Superformula will struggle to attract cash (and therefore top drivers) there's no reason why we shouldn't think about how the sport works and showing that we care. Thanks to Dan for doing just that.


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