Why speed isn’t everything in Formula One

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Having too many races isn't good for F1. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

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    In 2018, Formula One cars are faster than ever before. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.

    By design, Formula One sped itself up in 2017 with the introduction of sweeping aerodynamics regulation changes.

    Downforce was piled onto the cars to complement the approximately 1000 horsepower generated by the advanced turbo-hybrid power units and Pirelli began softening its tyres, with all things combining to generate substantially faster cornering speeds for lower lap times.

    Indeed there hasn’t been a race held so far this season that hasn’t featured the breaking of an outright track record, and last weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone was no exception.

    Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time of one minute 25.892 seconds was blisteringly quick, and the required mental concentration to better Sebastian Vettel by just 0.044 seconds in a tightly contested qualifying battle was such that the Briton labelled it the most intense performance of his career.

    Qualifying has returned to being an extreme spectacle for the first time in more than a decade, and standing trackside one can’t help but be blown away by the power of these machines as they’re corralled around a race track at a furious pace.

    In this sense, the current generation of rules has done its job by simply delivering faster cars. However, as Silverstone also demonstrated, so much downforce has also reduced the driving challenge on some of the sport’s most famous circuits.

    The Silverstone Circuit is now taken at full throttle for around 80 per cent of the lap, which indicates that an increasing number of its 18 iconic corners have effectively become straights – indeed turn one, Abbey corner, was part of a DRS zone, albeit with only the top three teams generating enough downforce to open the drag reduction system there without having an enormous crash in the style of Romain Grosjean or Marcus Ericsson.

    This is happening at every race track on the calendar. While we marvel at the speed with which the cars can take to the track, it is at the expense of part of the challenge of Formula One.

    Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo during 2018 preseason testing

    (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

    “I’m always a bit torn,” said Daniel Ricciardo in Silverstone. “It’s all well and good going fast, but if turn nine is full [throttle] and everyone’s doing it, it’s not really that exciting. It would be better with less downforce and sliding through there.

    “I know Sebastian [Vettel] and a few guys just want to see the lap time as low as possible, but also what you get with more downforce is a more stable car – so turn nine is as fast as we’ve ever been, but on an on-board it probably looks easy because we’re just turning.

    “Two or three years ago [under previous aerodynamics regulations] it was much, much slower but you were probably sliding a bit.”

    It’s ironic given more downforce was introduced to make driving more strenuous, but in retrospect, strenuousness was conflated with difficulty, and all the drivers needed to do was adapt their gym programmes accordingly to overcome the car.

    That’s not to say that driving a Formula One car isn’t difficult – it always has been – but the difficulty now appears to be more the strain of being precise enough to maximise corner speed rather than maximising the car itself.

    The real question is what challenge Formula One wants for its drivers. If the cars were to be stripped of downforce but power output continued to grow, they would be more difficult to control.

    However, they would also be slower, making F1 more comparable to other racing series – not that long ago GP2 cars were lapping within only a couple of seconds of the back of the F1 pack at certain circuits.

    On the other hand, allowing downforce to proliferate will cement F1’s place as the world’s fastest circuit racing category but at the expense of maintaining the difficulty of some of the sport’s traditional challenges, such as those presented by the fast, classic circuits.

    As with just about all things in Formula One, there’s no easy answer.

    Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel during 2018 preseason testing

    (Pablo Guillen/Action Plus via Getty Images)

    “It’s fun going fast, but it’s never fast enough, that’s the reality,” Ricciardo elaborated.

    “We’re doing one minute 27s or whatever we’re doing and we feel we could go quicker – even if we were going 10 seconds a lap quicker, we’re still going to want more.

    “We’re never going to be satisfied, so it’s just like, ‘Let’s just make it maybe a bit more exciting’. Or exciting’s not the word; just different.

    “But I don’t know – Sebastian would roll over if he hears me say that!”

    It is a philosophical debate with an array of different opinions F1 will have to resolve for the new set of regulations set for introduction in 2021.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart - but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • July 17th 2018 @ 6:24pm
      Scott Pryce said | July 17th 2018 @ 6:24pm | ! Report

      Good read Michael. as it simply sums up F1’s dilemma. Shall we go fast and continue with the boring racing or shall we put the excitement factor back in? In a way an F1 car has turned a full circuit. Once upon a time speed was sought after vigorously. Remember the talented engineers and mechanics inventing way to squeeze more speed from their cars. 1968 saw wings added to the cars and then the fight was on to aerodynamically design and build a car that stuck to the track. And that they succeeded. Now F1 cars can attain any speed they like, I recall David Coulthard testing a variable speed (automatic) McLaren F1 car. He never reached top speed and it was deemed too dangerous to race. And it is said you can drive an F1 car on the ceiling of a tunnel. So the answer is simple, revisit the 1980’s. Now that would soon give you a champion driver, and I say that with respect to all F1 drivers current and past. Visions of Mansell or Senna alighting from their race cars totally spent proved the cars were fast and difficult to drive, therefore victories, or finishing a race reflected a true race driver. Who could forget that battle at Monaco in 1992, and back then Monaco was effectively driven one handed given the tight confines and the cars having a manual gearbox, between Senna and Mansell. The great Murray Walker rated this GP in his top five of all time. A simple race at a great circuit yet it was what was once a typical F1 race.

      • Columnist

        July 17th 2018 @ 8:49pm
        Michael Lamonato said | July 17th 2018 @ 8:49pm | ! Report

        It’s a very difficult problem to solve, though. As much as we can take downforce off the car by regulation, engineers can’t unlearn the lessons of the past 50 years and will eventually recover the lost aerodynamic performance. Like you say, the only guaranteed way to remove downforce is to remove wings and heavily regulate the rest of the bodywork — but then that’s not going to fly with just about everyone! Maybe this form of motorsport, with its relatively open regulations and technical bent, is reaching the end of its course because everyone’s just too good at it now.

    • July 17th 2018 @ 7:30pm
      woodart said | July 17th 2018 @ 7:30pm | ! Report

      full throttle 80% of the lap. that statistic is amazing and should be a wakeup call . worrying about speed differences with other classes shouldnt enter into the equation.

      • Columnist

        July 17th 2018 @ 8:50pm
        Michael Lamonato said | July 17th 2018 @ 8:50pm | ! Report

        It’s a pretty incredible idea that aerodynamics is now so powerful in Formula One that aero-dependent circuits are now power tracks.

    • July 18th 2018 @ 5:29pm
      Simoc said | July 18th 2018 @ 5:29pm | ! Report

      Ross Brawn was saying F1 cars are around 20 secs a lap quicker than GP Moto bikes but Moto GP looks fast and furious (witness the Dutch GP two weeks back) and no-one complains about lack of speed there.

      It’s about the spectacle. The spectator can’t tell the difference between cars evenly going 250kmh or 300kmh. If the following driver can get closer without turbulence that creates a lot more passing opportunities. The changes may not have to be drastic to achieve that. It will be interesting to see what happens.

      Putting the start time back an hour is a killjoy for me. I don’t watch them now because of that.

      • July 18th 2018 @ 6:23pm
        woodart said | July 18th 2018 @ 6:23pm | ! Report

        agree with you simoc. the last few seconds arent noticeable. moto gp is FAR more spectacular and watchable. interesting to see moto gp is introducing aero regulations to slow bikes down, banning the winglets on front fairings. in NZ we get no fta coverage of f1, not even a delayed highlights package on the weekly fta motorsports show. get moto gp and indycar and world rallycross. no company wants to pay for f1 coverage. its not a show anymore. biff the wings and narrow the bodywork down to cut the downforce, and it would be a spectacle again.

        • Columnist

          July 18th 2018 @ 9:09pm
          Michael Lamonato said | July 18th 2018 @ 9:09pm | ! Report

          I think what you’re both touching on there is the fact that TV is still the principal vehicle by which F1 fans watch the sport. F1 can spend millions of dollars to speed the cars up by five seconds per lap, and maybe this is noticeable at certain parts of certain tracks when you’re there in the flesh, but you can hardly tell on the television. The fact that this pursuit has been detrimental to racing leaves the spectacle reduced overall.

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