Yes, F1 is a bit rooted, but us moaning about it isn’t going to fix anything

Formula One sends out the SOS; expect a reply in 2021

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It was evident in a recent video interview Clarkson did from an English beer garden that his ambitious bits of bushy face furniture have been cultivating themselves over the European summer, presumably in an effort to make it down to Jezza’s mouth, where they could get a taste of all that delicious French wine he likes to tip in there.

The eyebrows still have some work to do, as they’re barely down to the great man’s cheekbones.

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Coincidently, Formula One also has a whole lot of work to do, according to a very well-lubricated Clarkson. I’ll save you having to find the beer garden interview online, and instead provide an approximate transcription here: “F1 is more boring than watching a plant grow… blah, blah … to fix it they should get rid of the stewards and reward dangerous driving... slurp… actually, build the cars stronger so they can bash wheels; if Mercedes doesn’t like it they can f**k off; actually Ferrari can f**k off too, burp...”

You get the level of deep insight the former Top Gear host was happy to provide.

To be fair, Jezza was just having a boozy stab at the category of motorsport that has copped more stabs over the years than Janet Leigh in the shower scene from Psycho.

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In fact, if you Google ‘F1 is boring’ you’ll find articles from seemingly astute observers of motorsport dating back to over a decade ago. Probably longer. In fact, I suspect racing fans have been making these observations about F1 since 1979, in the immediate aftermath of the French GP. YouTube it and you’ll witness Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux attacking each other over the closing laps, vaguely sportingly, like a couple of scrapping mynah birds. At that moment, the realisation dawned on anyone watching that no F1 race would ever again reach these highs, and the moaning officially began.

Ricciardo warned no race wins until 2020 at Renault

But the reality is, F1 is a victim of its own greatness. Perched at the precarious summit of motorsport, the category is defined by its ultimateness; to be at the cutting edge of technological development, driver safety, efficiency, and thrusting a perception of social responsibility. The gazillion-dollar budgets needed to part of this quest naturally attracts the beautiful people, but the awkward reality is that the whole show often doesn’t produce great racing.

And let’s not even talk about the sound of the cars. Okay, maybe I will. I attended the German GP recently, and it was my first live exposure to F1 in its current 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid form. I know this is a well-trod observation, but on the Saturday in qualifying, I sat in the stand often wincing at how horrible many of the cars sounded. The Toro Rosso’s were especially aurally offensive. Who knew a Honda racing engine could sound like cutlery stuck in a garbage disposal unit when its driver is off the throttle?

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By contrast, when Mick Schumacher did a handful of demonstration laps in his father’s Ferrari F2004, the unadulterated  shriek of the 3.0-litre V10 rang out across the entire complex, and had everyone - marshals included - rushing to any vantage point they could find to soak it all in.

But lamenting this is an utter waste of time. It’s as pointless as saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if people driving in traffic got off their phones and concentrated,” or, “if only modern music sounded more like the Ramones, and less like Ed Sheeran.”

The world has changed, and F1 has had to change with it. Behind closed doors you can bet that Chase Carey and the bosses of Liberty Media wish they could race at circuits without acres of Tilke-designed run-off, or allow the drivers’ helmets to be seen above a low-cut, halo-free cockpit. They probably also wish they could smoke in the boardroom, or tell the admin assistant with the great legs that she looks pretty today. But, no we don’t do that anymore, and there’s no going back.

So operating at the cutting edge is cruelling the spectacle, and even the drivers are finally speaking up about it.

Max Verstappen, for one, believes that having the fastest cars in the sport’s history is something to be questioned, not celebrated.

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“The differences between the teams’ power units are still too great because of the complexity,” the hard-charging Dutchman says. “F1 could close that up a little bit by making it not that complex; I understand we have to stay with hybrid engines, but I think it can be done in a better way.”

But ask another driver, and they’re just as likely to bemoan the aero package. Renault's Nico Hulkenberg reckons the regulators need to consider a radical rethink of the current template.

"The biggest issue is to pin down the aero regulations so that we can have good, close, clean racing," says the teammate of Our Daniel.

“We need cars that produce much less wake and turbulence. I feel following another car now is as bad as it's ever been. Especially if you get really close; if the guy in front of you has a wobble and makes a mistake, the sudden loss of grip you experience is sometimes drastic. You’re just forced to get out of the throttle or you’re going to go off. It’s like pulling the ground out from below your feet.”

Even the drivers who are barely out of short nomex trousers, who you’d think may still be pinching themselves about making it to the top category, aren’t shy about calling out F1’s problems. Like McLaren’s Lando Norris: “If you’re racing someone, you want to be racing them, not just waiting for their tyres to drop off and then just passing them down the straight or something. You want to be side to side, seeing who can brake later, who can nail the corner the best...”

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So will the announcement of new regs, due in 2021, produce the desired result? F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn has declared that drivers have been consulted in the decision-making process, and that the new rules will be signed off in October.

The fundamentals of the powertrain rules appear to be unlikely to change, but aero surely will. As wings have become ever more complex and highly loaded, the rule makers seem to be at least ready to acknowledge that the cars have become too sensitive to running in another car’s wake.

There are two concepts under investigation for 2021, but both aim to reduce the importance of the wings by creating more downforce via the design of the underfloor. Reducing the extraneous bodywork with the aim of cleaning up the car’s wake is the other big one. On this front, expect to see a blade positioned over the top of the front tyres’ top surface, along with the return of the wheel fairing. The blade helps clean up airflow passing over the tyre, reducing the turbulence created by the low-pressure area behind it. The wheel fairing then helps with cleaner airflow passing around the sides of the tyre. Theoretical result? Drivers can tuck in behind an opponent, and stay latched-on through fast corners without their car feeling like it’s suddenly on an ice rink. This will create more chances to pass under brakes into the next tight corner.

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Then there’s the current issue of limited shared ‘spec parts’. There’s a huge amount of design input on the current cars that is near-identical in concept, albeit slightly different in execution, but adds virtually zero performance advantage. To introduce more spec parts in F1 will reduce costs for the smaller teams, hopefully allowing them to inch closer to the top outfits. Of course, the better-funded teams will divert their resources into the areas of development that remain free, so from that side, F1 will still reward deep pockets and skilled developers.

We’ll know more about all this in October, but that still leaves season 2020 to struggle on in the current malaise.

This Sunday afternoon, as the field at the Hungaroring explodes off the grid, expect to find Jeremy Clarkson’s eyebrows (probably with Jeremy Clarkson attached) propping up the bar of an English pub, telling anyone who’ll listen that the whole F1 circus is hopeless joke.

But I still reckon he’ll glance up at the screen from time to time, just to be sure.


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Ash Westerman

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