April 19, 2013

Seeing is not believing

It was tough to decipher how strategies would play out in China © Sutton Images

I’ve spent the past week in a confused state. Not because of an extended St Patrick’s Day celebration. And not because I had been listening to Eddie Jordan trying to talk himself up to speed on BBC TV’s China GP coverage after six months blathering to himself on his boat, cut off from racing society.

The bewilderment was caused by watching the Shanghai race and not knowing what to make of it. I found it disturbing when, about half way through, I quietly said to myself: ‘I’m not enjoying this.’ Okay, it was fairly early in the morning for a pensioner and I’d had a lively Saturday night, daring to stay away from bed until after 10pm. But, prior to the Chinese GP, I would have thought admitting an F1 race was not to my taste was as unlikely as walking away from a pint of Guinness before I’d drained the glass.

Yes, I knew there were bound to be different strategies because of the tyres but, even so, the whole thing quickly descended into what I imagine it must be like attempting to play two games of poker at the same time.

‘So, lemme see; he’s on the Medium tyre and he has yet to run the Soft, so he’s basically in the same race as that Force India, which is not as quick and, anyway, they’re challenging that Ferrari which is on the same tyre but he stopped three laps earlier which means, if you add the number you first thought of, subtract Charlie Whiting’s age, apply multi-21, bear in mind it’s front-limited (the buzz word for commentators this year), then it’s as Christian Horner rightly says with such authority: ‘Com’on Seb; this is silly’.

On Monday, still searching for clarity, I listen to the BBC Radio 5 Live post-race podcast. I’m quite shocked when my old mate Gary Anderson offers the robust opinion that ‘anyone who couldn’t see that was a good race needs to visit an optician.’

Gary, rather than doing the voice-over for a ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ ad, is making a judgement based on his vastly superior technical understanding and a love of running a race from the pit wall. He has been talking to the teams beforehand, got himself fully briefed on the possible scenarios and gone through the race thoroughly enjoying every strategic nuance.

But most of us sitting at home don’t have either that knowledge or, dare it be said, the wish to see the 56 laps as a game of high-speed chess. We would quite like to witness a race.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a grand prix should be like a Formula Ford race on a club circuit somewhere near you. I do believe there should be an element of endurance; a need to see the long game and make sure tyres and machinery last the distance while going as fast as you can.

But, for me, the Chinese Grand Prix went too far the other way, particularly when DRS made overtaking childishly simple and Fernando Alonso – with typical racing intelligence – was able to get close to a competitor in the detection zone, pass him through the corner and then open the DRS to pull away on the following straight. Please don’t tell me that’s racing.

Suitably admonished by Anderson, I spent the week in, as I said, a state of sad confusion. Then, over lunch today, I caught up with some reading, including a report by Mark Hughes in Autosport. Mark wrote: ‘The real race was a cerebral one, being contested on the pit counter, the drivers just speed monkeys expressing the performance of their package, being instructed on the most efficient way to run their race.’

Thank God for that. I’ve just cancelled my appointment with Specsavers.


Posted by Luke on 29/04/2013

50/50 on this, I understand the arguments against the current rules and I am not a fan of drs. I am also not a fan of rose coloured glasses. F1 always looks awesome when you look back, remember all the highlights and forget about the snoozefest races between the one or two epic ones each year. The tires are the same for everybody and there is nothing artificial about that. Some of you really need to put your f1 2002 review dvd back into the player and remind yourselves just how tedious flat-out lights-to-flag best-car-always-wins could be.

Posted by Probus5002 on 21/04/2013

There have been seasons when the excitement was in qualifying and the race was processional. ThIs season, we have teams who don't even bother with Q3. I agree with Maurice's view that the tyres mean that the first 90% of the race is impossible to read because of the tyre stops. To make things even more pointless, DRS makes overtaking too easy or predictable. Roll on 2014 when we have a new formula.

Posted by Yves Ferrer on 21/04/2013

Maurice has it on the button!
Fans aged slighlty over 65 have seen too many things to be fobbed off with glib explanations and flaky justifications for what is sold as 'racing' nowadays!
DRS and tyre strategies are mind games for anoraks; the rest of us wish to go back to Arnoux and Villeneuve banging wheels for several corners or the Senna/Prost duels, or the Mansell/Piquet Kyalami 'chicken' game!
Bernie won't allow it and FIA are too frightened of him anyway... Youngsters will soon tire of this silliness when the next craze comes along and then what? Wither F1?

Posted by jules on 21/04/2013

IMHO, i think the tyres need to play a part in modern day F1 racing. Otherwise, you will just get Vettel getting on pole for every race and winning every race from pole because RB does have the fastest car on the track. The tyres have been able to put some unpredictability into modern F1 racing and puts more pressure on drivers and the teams to drive intelligently. Most of the top 10 drivers on the track can push the car to the limit but if they don't have a fast enough car, Vettel and Webber will just finish 1 and 2 every race. I remember the days Schumacher at Ferrari was dominating the races. He got so boring because he was winning everything.

Posted by Efti on 21/04/2013

To all the people out there, the problem with today's racing is that it has become known as the "show". So I think that the racing focus has been somewhat lost or pushed into the background. It is therefore questionable to call it a sport now.

Posted by peter on 21/04/2013

Exactly F1FanaticBD; Strategy is definitly more important. The smarter driver will win the race unless he encounters a "desperate" driver. Then watch out for a collision or the like.

Posted by Bill Rasmussen on 20/04/2013

Thank you Maurice. You expressed my sentiments exactly. There are many of us who are F1 enthusiasts that want to see a RACE, not a farce. What is called racing today is actually contrived. Having followed the sport since 1966, F1 has had its ups and downs. But, what we have today is antithetical to what F1 has always been about.

First of all, having tires decide races is ridiculous. Yes, I know that tires have always been part of the equation, but nothing like what we have today. Instead of a tire strategy, how about a race strategy? Let the teams choose what compound to use and do not make them have to change compounds. And, have 3 compounds at a race: a soft qualifier, a medium and a hard compound that wears like iron.

Second, get rid of DRS. It is artificial. Have a driver pass on a turn, not on the straightaway.

Lastly, allow the teams a degree of freedom in designing their cars. There is too much regulation and stifling of ingenuity. I don't want to see all the cars equal.

Posted by SteveM on 20/04/2013

"Although Red Bull won both championships, the over-reliance on aero capabilities has been blunted by tire strategies."

Leaving aside the fact that RB won three titles, is it REALLY the job of the tyre maker to slow down particular teams? It seems that a lot of people are perfectly happy with the FIA/Pirelli coming out with an "anti-RB tyre".

Posted by SteveM on 20/04/2013

Well said, Mr Hamilton. As a race this GP left a lot to be desired.

Posted by David on 20/04/2013

For everyone complaining about difficult to read races, I don't remember anyone objecting during the refuelling era and at least now we generally get overtaking on track from the performance differential of the tyres rather than just in the pits.

For those objecting to DRS I agree wholeheartedly. It's an abomination to racing and should be equal to everyone to make the playing field level.

Oh and on the subject of unequal rules, let everyone pick their tyres on the grid and let them use whichever tyres they want in the race.

Posted by Jack Blackburn on 20/04/2013

"‘So, lemme see; he’s on the Medium tyre and he has yet to run the Soft, so he’s basically in the same race as that Force India, which is not as quick and, anyway, they’re challenging that Ferrari which is on the same tyre but he stopped three laps earlier which means, if you add the number you first thought of, subtract Charlie Whiting’s age, apply multi-21, bear in mind it’s front-limited (the buzz word for commentators this year), then it’s as Christian Horner rightly says with such authority: ‘Com’on Seb; this is silly’."

This lovely paragraph is funny as current F1 is ridiculously bad.

Posted by Joel on 20/04/2013

There was plenty happening in the race, but nothing about it seemed pure. It brings no more joy than processional races of years past, but at least that seemed like a race.

China was just a bad example. But I am starting to really miss genuine hard fought passing.

Posted by NickW on 20/04/2013

I agree really, technically interesting, but boring as a race.

The problem however goes back to aero. Racing started to die once aero got going. Remember that Monza late 60's race with four covered by one second, all slipstreaming (I think Stewart won from 3rd the lap before). Not now.

All the tricks - DRS, KERS, tyres - are to get around the lack of racing imposed by aero. That is what needs sorting.

You cannot uninvent technology, but I thought the Handford wing as used in Indy for a bit would be a good idea, but it didn't catch on for some reason. Something like that is needed.

Posted by neil hudspeth on 20/04/2013

Great pov; made me smile and nod unwillingly in agreement. The fact that I was actually there on the back straight before the hairpin and did not have the benefit of any commentators, I was chuffed that I actually "got it". My poor friends around me though, whose experience of modern day F1 was limited, were left perplexed and confused. Sport? Perhaps,but not as we know it.

Posted by Tony Taylor on 20/04/2013

With races like there you'd think Sportscar racing would be more popular. Grand Prix are turning into concentrated Le Mans. With he new formula next season and a concentration on energy efficiency it will be more like it than ever. I just hope it doesn't get as bad as the eighties when people ran out of fuel before the end or the most economical car won.

Posted by Riku Jungell on 20/04/2013

Most of the race felt pretty lackluster to me too. Even with Kimi taking the 2nd place, which usually cheers me up, this race just left a bland taste in my mouth. If you were doing math during the race about all the possibilities, it might've been interesting, but otherwise it was... well, nothing special, if even that.

Posted by Dr. Aki Bola, Esq. on 20/04/2013

Tires. Some drivers didn't even try to qualify at full speed. The race became another tire endurance meet. Awful. Maybe Pirelli really believe we will all rush out to buy tires that fall apart after a few laps. Me, I will buy anything but Pirelli.

Posted by Nanbawan on 20/04/2013

The DRS is a disgrace to proper racing and particularly on the Shanghai track with that long straight. Like said in the column it even forbid counter attacks. DRS doesn't make overtaking childishly simple, it makes it a formality : "Oh, I'm in front of you good Sir, you're entitled to pass me then. Don't worry I won't defend, not that I could anyway..."

Since apparently the FIA uses the statistical overtaking count to evaluate the quality of racing, I should introduce them my radical idea that would suit their logic ; it's called the OSES : the Overtaking Statistics Enhancing System. It's very simple, it just cuts the engine of the defending driver...Guaranteed results !

As for the Pirelli tyres, personally I like what they're trying to do but the problem seemed to be that the softer compounds are not up to the task. Too fragile but also maybe too unpredictable which makes team go conservative. They're don't add enough performance and maybe not having to use both compounds may help.

Posted by t on 19/04/2013

I'd have to agree, it was a fairly dull race for the casual viewer. I do not have Sky so I watch many of the races in highlights now, but prior to 2012 I followed the races with live timing alongside the race coverage. Then it was easier to follow who was quick, who was slow, who was due to pit.. now it's a broken story.

Posted by Chris Guy on 19/04/2013

I agree with you, Maurice but how could it be changed for the better?
Tyres seem to be at the root of the problem, so:
1) Why do drivers have to use both compounds in a race? This is an artificial rule with no basis in common sense or racing spirit. If one tyre suits a particular car, let them use it. Cars have different characteristics, so it is illogical to expect them to all use the same tyre at all times.
2) Why limit tyre numbers? If a team want to use more tyres, let them. Any advantage gained would be tempered by time lost in more pit stops.
Pirelli might object on cost grounds but surely a compromise is possible; all teams would not necessarily adopt the same strategy.
3) I realise that it is not possible for all compound to be brought to every race but if teams were consulted then a more favourable compromise may be possible, rather than just accepting Pirelli's choice, however well meaning that may be.

Posted by Patrick Brookings on 19/04/2013

I could not agree more!
I have been watching F1 since my teenage years, I'm 43 now, so I have seen a lot of changes during the years.
While there is obviously still some kind of excitement in F1 today, it is a far cry from what it used to be. Tactics and strategy are the most important factors these days, and you cannot deny it has taken a lot of excitement away.
Seriously, they should ban most of these 'gadgets' they have these days, such as DRS, KERS, not to mention the questionable tyre types and the strategies that go along with it. Let the drivers truly race each other, and don't let the outcome be decided by strategy all the time.
I regularly watch old races from the 1980's, when it was a joy to see drivers like Mansell, Senna, Prost, Piquet, Lauda fighting it out amongst each other.
Somehow I doubt we will ever see such excitement again in F1.

Posted by Mariano on 19/04/2013

Nice article. I guess we should get rid of DRS and tire choice should be free. I'd like to see a car going fast all the race in softs and other cars playing conservative on hards. I remember Jean Alesi completing the 91 German Grand Prix without stopping.

Posted by Klaus on 19/04/2013

Couldn't agree more! The whole tyre strategy became so convoluted that I had the same feeling: 'What my eyes are seeing is not what's really happening'. Might as well watch just the first five laps and then last five. No, wait! Seb changed his tyres with four laps to the end! Make it then 'watch only the last three laps...'

Posted by Jim St. George on 19/04/2013

From Wikipedia: "Suspension of disbelief is often an essential element for a magic act or a circus sideshow act. For example, an audience is not expected to actually believe that a woman is cut in half or transforms into a gorilla in order to enjoy the performance."
The ticket prices in F1 are quite high. I think that they just want us to enjoy the show and not think too hard about it.
It's confusing, disappointing, and insulting to me, too.

Posted by Viraj Ambetkar on 19/04/2013

The races since Pirelli became the sole tire supplier have been fascinating to stay the least. Although Red Bull won both championships, the over-reliance on aero capabilities has been blunted by tire strategies. RBR's little struggles so far this year to manage the wear-rate on its tires may be down to the exceptional downforce they have enjoyed while cornering for the past few years. This increased focus towards mechanical grip will definitely mix up the order and improve the spectacle. I do agree that due to dual DRS zones this year at most tracks, overtaking is a little too easy (and it needs to be addressed by the FIA sooner than later), but I bet most fans don't like to see a procession of cars either.

Posted by F1FanaticBD on 19/04/2013

If you have more horsepower in your car, pass you your opponent, and move away, I think that is considered as part of racing.

All the drivers know about DRS, everyone has the ability to use it, so the intelligent driver uses to his advantage, is not that a part of racing?

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton