Game of Chance

The author bemoans the arbitrary manner in which a complex rulebook and extraneous events determine the outcome of so many Formula 1 races.

Image: formula1.com

I have been a fan of Formula 1 for as long as I can remember. I can recall both the highs and lows of the sport over many years. The former includes Lewis Hamilton’s magnificent first World Championship in 2008 when, driving a McLaren, he took the championship from Filipe Massa by a single point when he overtook Timo Glock on the last corner of the season finale in Brazil to finish fifth. At just 23 years old, he became the youngest ever World Champion in just his second season in the sport.

Hamilton would go on to take six more World Championships driving for Mercedes but, sadly, he has never been given the full respect he is due for this achievement, which equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of seven World Championships and, with 103 race wins, exceeded Schumacher’s previous record of 91 wins.

Unlike most of the carefully schooled, PR-savvy and never knowingly controversial automatons that drive for F1 teams, Hamilton is quite outspoken on social issues. Whether it is this unvarnished authenticity or simply the colour of his skin that makes him ‘controversial’ is a moot point, but it is extraordinarily depressing to read so many stupid and ill-informed comments denigrating him on F1 blogs.

Another high point for me was Jenson Button winning the 2009 World Championship. The Brawn GP car was genuinely the fastest in the field and many put this down to its innovative double diffuser rear end. Button was an excellent driver, but probably not exceptional enough to be a Formula 1 World Champion, all other things being equal. He was gifted the championship by the behaviour of the other teams. Rather than immediately develop their own versions of the Brawn innovation, they spent the early part of the season trying to have it outlawed and Brawn GP retrospectively disqualified.

When the FIA finally adjudged the double diffuser to be legal, it was too late for the others to catch up. In any event, it was later discovered that the double diffuser was only worth something like 0.3 seconds per lap on what was already a very fast car. Given how F1 tends to be dominated by the teams with the biggest budgets, it was nice to see a minnow like Brawn GP, which emerged from the ashes of Honda’s ignominious departure from the sport at the end of the 2008 season, beat the big boys at their own game. Brawn GP would, of course, go on to form the basis of the Mercedes F1 team.

Image: autonewsinfo.com

Amongst the lows, I would recall that terrible events at Imola in 1994 when three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna was killed in a high-speed crash during the San Marino Grand Prix. Senna was not the first racing driver to die that weekend: Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger had been killed in a similar incident during qualifying the previous day. At least this dual tragedy led to very significant improvements in safety for F1 drivers and there has been just one further driver fatality in the intervening 28 years, Jules Bianchi(1) at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Another low was the farcical events at the 2005 US Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where all but three teams pulled into the pits after the formation lap, leaving Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi to fight for the win and points. The Michelin tyres run by all the other teams were discovered to be at risk of blowing out on the high-speed banked turn 13. A compromise was proposed whereby a chicane would be introduced to slow down all cars, but the three remaining teams, running more robust Bridgestone tyres, refused to agree to this.

The race was reduced to little more than a procession in front of a rightly outraged and jeering crowd. Formula 1 was deservedly ridiculed and, after two further seasons, withdrew from the US for five years.

And then there were six… Image: motorsport.com

To win a Formula 1 race and a championship requires a combination of speed, skill and strategy. It is a team sport and requires an extraordinary collective effort from drivers, engineers, tacticians, pit-crew and many more specialists working effectively together to achieve a common, shared goal. And yes, for better or worse, it also requires a great deal of money.

In recent years, however, the outcome of far too many races, and the 2021 World Championship, have been decided by extraneous events totally unconnected to the performance of the leading drivers or teams. It typically goes something like this: in the closing laps of the race, Driver A has built up a strong and increasing lead, thanks to a better pit-stop and tyre strategy than Driver B running in second place, who is now on the wrong or worn tyres. A back-marker crashes, which precipitates a deployment of the safety car.

This happens just as Driver A has passed the pit-lane entrance. Driver B, running five seconds behind, is called in for a tyre-change and rejoins the race having lost no places because the following cars have pitted behind him. By the time Driver A reaches the pit-lane entrance again, the safety car has caused all the leading competitors to close up significantly. Driver A is now faced with a grim choice: pit and lose the lead or stay out to be challenged by Driver B on new, soft tyres that give him a big performance advantage. Either way, Driver B will win, thanks to an extraneous event entirely unconnected to their relative performance in the race.

The reason I have depersonalised this description is that, whatever my personal preferences towards drivers, it is a non-partisan argument and the circumstances I describe can benefit or disadvantage any driver. Yes, I know that a sudden rain shower can precipitate a similar change of fortune, but the problem here isn’t the weather or crashing backmarkers, it’s the way that the F1 rulebook governs these events.

The 2021 World Championship was decided in favour of Max Verstappen in highly controversial circumstances which are fully explained here. In summary, Lewis Hamilton was leading the season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and was in total control of the race when a late crash by a back-marker, Nicholas Latifi, precipitated the deployment of a safety car.

This gave Max Verstappen the opportunity for a ‘cheap’(2) pit-stop that would put him on new tyres. The Race Director, Michael Masi, made a major error in his interpretation of the rules and called the safety car in too early, giving Verstappen the opportunity successfully to challenge Hamilton for the race lead, and take the World Championship.

Image: theguardian.com

Irrespective of whether you are a fan of Hamilton or Verstappen, or simply a neutral hoping for a great race, the result was highly unsatisfactory. Hamilton was unfairly robbed of an eighth World Championship that should have been his and Max Verstappen’s first World Championship win was tainted by the controversy.

The FIA’s report on the incident confirmed Michael Masi’s error but let the result stand because Masi had acted “in good faith”. Masi duly fell on his sword, but the controversial rules on pit-stops under safety car and VSC(3) conditions remain unchanged and have again influenced the outcome of races in the current 2022 season.

This happened again at the Dutch Grand Prix on 4th September and, for me, was the last straw. I will no longer be devoting my attention on Sunday afternoons to a game of chance, the result of which seems to depend on dumb luck as much as skill. I’m sure I can spend my time (and the monthly sports channel subscription) more productively. I won’t be returning unless and until the FIA injects some common sense into its rulebook. Based on all known form, I shouldn’t hold my breath.

Postscript: As I type this, the Italian Grand Prix has just finished. During the race there was much talk of pit-stop and tyre strategy as commentators tried to distract attention from the inevitable result, another win for Verstappen in what is clearly the fastest car.  The Dutch driver now leads the 2022 Drivers’ World Championship by 117 points, equal to almost five race wins, with six races to go in the 2022 season.

(1) This observation in no way minimises the tragedy of Bianchi’s death but is intended to highlight the sport’s greatly improved safety record.

(2) When the field is circulating more slowly under safety car or VSC (see below) conditions, cars that choose to pit lose much less time relative to the field than when the field is circulating at race speeds.

(3) VSC stands for Virtual Safety Car, a system whereby cars are limited to a speed that the FIA determines to be around 30% slower than a typical racing lap. This means that cars can continue to circulate safely while maintaining their relative positions and gaps from each other.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

27 thoughts on “Game of Chance”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. The only thing that interest me about Formula 1 and racing cars in general is the technology and how the designers can bend the rules in their favor. I’m thinking of Gordon Murray here, but there are numerous other examples.

    I have no opinion at all about decisions and rules made by committees or whoever does these things. In my view the winner is the winner and everyone has to deal with it. This probably indicates how much I don’t care, but so be it.

    I haven’t watched a race for a very long time. I gave up watching TV ages ago. Something I highly recommend. It frees up time and money for reading, exercising and other useful ways to pass the time. If you substitute the hours you spend watching TV on something more productive, your life will improve. Guaranteed. Not watching Formula 1 is a good start.

    Rant over. P.S. I know you hate rudeness, Daniel and I’m sorry if this comment is a bit rude. I have no bad intention and everyone can watch Formula 1 or TV is they chose to do so. I just seem to have a strong opinion in this case.

    1. Not at all, Freerk. I have come to the same conclusion about F1 and only watched part of yesterday’s race because my now cancelled monthly sports TV subscription doesn’t expire until the 18th September.

      I’m done with F1. (A catchy slogan, don’t you think? 😁)

  2. I was delighted with the outcome of last season, as I didn’t think Hamilton deserved another championship and it had been getting too boring. Hamilton is very talented, but his success was partly due to having the fastest car run by an exceptional team. No way was he head and shoulders above the rest.
    Now it’s getting boring again, because while Ferrari have a faster car than Red Bull, they aren’t smart enough to convert that into wins, however good their drivers are.
    Agreed, too many results are down to luck currently, but the whole thing has become too commercialised with too many races, which distort the statistics.

    1. Hi Mervyn. Point taken, but I would guess that you would have preferred Verstappen to have won in less controversial circumstances. Given his dominance this season, he may wrap up the 2022 championship at the next race, which is good for him but bad for the sport.

    2. Part of my support for Red Bull last season was the Honda engine – ditto my support for Marc Marques when he was dominating Moto GP.

    3. But when I sit into a driving seat,( at the age of 74) and check the seat is as low as it will go, and nicely reclined, it isn’t Max or Lewis I’m thinking about – it’s Jimmy Clark.

  3. Hi Daniel. What you pointed out really takes whatever fun was left out of a disgraced – at least in my eyes – sport. To tell you the truth, I had stopped watching F1 even before Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident due to FIA’s abhorrent embrace and whitewashing of authoritarian regimes with deep pockets and big audiences. I think there’s no more reason to respect the corporation running this show…

    1. Good morning Konstantinos. Agreed: under Bernie Ecclestone’s control, F1 was transformed from a sport into a money-making machine and that’s how it remains. I imagine the cancellation of this year’s (and future) Russian Grand Prix must have been rather painful for Liberty Media and the FIA, but they still race in many countries with very dubious human rights records.

    2. And if we’re completely honest, the whole Grand Prix thing looks more and more like a relic from a bygone era: an era that many of us don’t look at with rose-tinted glasses, and so we can see many of its cringe-inducing aspects.

    3. I remember a survey from the early Nineties that showed that F1 fans watched F1 because they liked sports in general and a good show and event in partiuclar whereas rally sports spectators went there because they liked rallying (that obviously was before the silly WRC regulatoins with their show oriented Mickey Mouse events).

      Personally I’ve never been interested in F1, only in some cars when an underdog was succcessful like Matra or Hesketh. I always preferred motorcycle races like IoM TT or rallies from the Seventies (before mad Group B) or Nineties (after Group B and before WRC).

  4. Daniel I completely agree with you.

    Lewis Hamilton is absolutely one of the sport’s greats, and was unfairly denied an 8th Driver’s title last season.

    He is just such a complete racing driver, and races very ‘clean’ – his recent clash with Alonso was notable for its rarity (and Lewis apologised for it afterwards).

    Verstappen is clearly hugely fast but his willingness to crash into other drivers for his own advantage is a disgrace. He has much to learn, but I doubt he will.

  5. Good morning Daniel. I admire your stamina to have watched F1 until yesterday. Respect. That’s what you call real suffering.
    I have given up far earlier. The last race I remember with joy was the one in Barcelona when Schumacher “went over water”. After that, I realised at some point how much F1 had changed from a race to a circus.

    The TV broadcast on a German channel became more and more of a show, and the “stupid chatter” of the presenters to fill the airtime became (for me) more and more unbearable. (Maybe the good memories of Barcelona are also due to the fact that I watched this race in another European country).

    I then went to the first race of the ELMS in November 2003 and saw real honest racing again after a long circus period.
    But the ACO has also turned this race series (as well as the 24h) into a circus over time.

    More and more absurd rules were added, just like in F1, which in the end were just an arbitrary intervention in the racing – and all arbitrariness was justified with the killer argument “safety”.

    Call me stupid, but I never understood the point of a safety car – except for the fact that a car manufacturer could very prominently show off its product in prime time. (The fact that the ACO officials, after Audi provided the safety car, were all also driving inexpensive Audi cars is surely just a coincidence…)
    Of course, the cars should pass the accident site at a slow speed in order not to endanger the recovery work. However, it is sufficient to wave the yellow flags – or more modern traffic lights at the side of the road – in front of and at the scene of the accident. But not at places that are several kilometres away from this spot.
    And it insults the intelligence of the drivers (and spectators) to assume that they cannot remember, after the first drive by, that there is a yellow zone in turn 3.
    A safety car destroys the lead that a driver has painstakingly built up. A yellow zone does not. But what do I know…

    Frozen developments during a season, like in F1, prevent further development, which is also part of racing – after all, you learn from race to race.

    But it’s not just F1 that has been regulated to death.

    After years spent with LM and its series, I said goodbye to it too.
    The introduction of spec classes in prototypes and BoP – the ultimate tool to eradicate concept competition in a series – in sports cars/GT was the final nail driven into my racing coffin.

    For me, there was a time when “racing was life and everything in between was just waiting”.

    My life has changed. I don’t miss the F1 circus or the ACO show.

    On my calendar of life, I still have a visit to the LeMans Classics and the Festival of Speed. Finally, I don’t go to bad concerts any more – or at least have appropriate knowledge to leave the event early.

    1. I remember well the discussions around the introduction of Safety Cars.
      They were a copy of the US style Pace Cars that are sent out on the track to slow down the leader and allow the rest to close up. They just could not call it Pace Car in F1 and so they invented the safety blurb.
      Real, down to earth racing with proper cars – as opposed to video games on wheels – can be foud in the Long Distance Cup with half a dozen races, all held on the old Nürburgring Nordschleife. That’s the series where Sabine Schmitz excelled with her team Frikadelli Racing (meatball racing).

  6. I share you withdrawal stand.

    Have pulled myself out of F1 viewing probably three seasons ago.

    Yes sure I can spend my time (and the monthly sports channel subscription), as you rightly opted.

  7. I lost my interest in F-One when Senna died, now if I wanna watch a real race, I tune into the GT/Endurance series.
    Even F-Two is more exciting than F-One.
    Oh, watching old 1970s/80s F-One races on YouTube can be interesting as well.

  8. Good afternoon Daniel. I also agree with you – particularly having watched the most boring race yet at Monza yesterday. I had thought the new car designs this season would liven things up but the opposite has been the case.

    On the plus side, the monotony of an F1 ‘race’ never fails to put me to sleep for at least a 30 lap nap mid-race on a Sunday afternoon.

    1. Good afternoon vwmeister. Yes, the monotony affects me in the exactly same way, but at least it’s an effective way to catch up on some ZZZs.

      It must be genetic…😉

  9. This post might attract a fair few comments…

    I share your views to an extent, Daniel, with the difference that I (contrarian view, it seems) still enjoy F1. Last year was acrimonious and could have done without the last three or four races, probably. On the other hand, it gave us a gem like Brazil. The outcome of the last race was unsatisfactory, but over the whole year, I think either driver was equally deserving. I can understand the frustration with the arbitrariness of the rules, but one of the things I like about F1 is the multiple storylines playing out simultaneously, but on different time frames: one on a race level, one on a season level and one over the career of a driver/team (“there’s always next year”). Over a season, luck tends to balance out somewhat (or favour those who don’t really need it, like Max this year, or Schumacher and Vettel in their respective dominant seasons). Otherwise a sport dominated by so many disparate factors – human, technical, commercial, regulatory, commercial and commercial (😁) -will never be free of manipulation, either within or outside the regulations. Being more interested in the storylines than perhaps the actors, I find it hard to be all too partisan. That doesn’t mean I can’t get riled up about perceived wrongs, but I am fully aware that in the end F1’s just escapism, which suits me just fine in today’s world.

    A note (rant?) on partisanship: being Dutch I am legally required to support Max Verstappen (we get a tax hike otherwise, the perfect way to coax a Dutchman into doing anything).* I am happy that a Dutchman is doing well in a sport where the Dutch presence has always been minimal and furthermore, the Dutch sporting history is littered with examples of promise extinguished in bad luck or just-not-good-enough. On a personal level, I can’t stand him or Red Bull, though. Lewis, especially since 2011, has for me been a most inspirational human being (let alone driver), showcasing his emotional growth to us viewers. Toto Wolff’s emotionally intelligent leadership obviously fits him like a glove. That he also happens to be one of the sport’s greatest only makes it more remarkable. Last year I found myself rooting equally for Verstappen, just so it doesn’t end up one of those promising careers that ultimately under deliver, and Lewis out of personal admiration and a desire to see him truly dominate the stats to shut up the doubters (some hope, but still). Needless to say, Verstappen’s current dominance leaves me cold, but fortunately there are other storylines to follow (who knew there was another, much more palatable, Dutchman who could race decently well?). Anyway, I kept watching while Schumacher or Vettel were dominant, so I don’t see a reason to quit now. Which is absolutely no guarantee for the future… 🙂

    *to pre-empt any controversies or misunderstandings: this entire sentence is a joke.

    1. Hi Tom, that is a very thoughtful and well argued perspective, exactly the sort of comment we really appreciate at DTW. Chapeau!

    2. Very well said, Tom, it was a pleasure to read your balanced and not at all controversial comments. In fact, you’ve made me feel quite shallow for viewing F1 so superficially. You’ve given me food for thought. Dank u wel.

    3. My, thanks, Daniel and vwmeister! I certainly didn’t mean to make anyone feel shallow. We all have our hobbies, and mine is thinking too much 😉. It just so happens that F1 is in my cross hairs. I’m just happy to have something innocuous to think about…

    4. I too still love F1, a habit that started when I was a small child in the Gilles Villeneuve days.
      Some things irritate me, but they mostly have to do with the television coverage that we have access to (we get the British Sky coverage in Canada). Every race they interview the same people, repeat the same conspiracies, and generally go about in the passion-less manner of those who have been doing the same job for too long. It’s far too predictable and repetitive. They also have the very British habit of looking at the “history books” instead of looking at today’s race.

      Add to that the visual choices made during the race and I can understand why many would give-up. Is there anything less exciting than a “perfect” zoom shot where a car appears to be stationary when it is actually moving at 300 km/h? I’m sure it’s a technical tour de force, but it sucks the life out of the images. Same thing with super-tight shots, where you can’t see what line a car is taking, and therefore can’t understand why things turn-out as they do. We aren’t living in the low-def TV world any more, we can afford to give the images a bit of room to breathe.

      It’s still a fascinating sport in spite of all this. The combination of teamwork, individual effort, technical advances, and strategy is addictive.

      I disagree with the premise that it has become a game of chance. It was always a game of chance. There is a lot of randomness, but that is part of the sport, and teams make decisions based on that.
      Last year’s finale was a clear example, where one team gambled that the race would finish behind the safety car, and the other team gambled the other way. Is it different from a penalty shoot-out? One thing that has become clear is that they need to change the safety car procedure. The current process is too slow. There are obvious ways in which it could be sped-up, for instance by allowing cars to take their positions right away instead of waiting for the track to be completely cleared. The current process was a reaction to a tragic accident, but that accident was caused by the lack of a safety car. The unintended consequence is that the safety car drives around for several extra laps.

    5. Hi Bernard. With regard to safety cars, you say that “The unintended consequence is that the safety car drives around for several extra laps.” but that’s precisely what didn’t happen in the season closing race in 2021. Masi called in the safety car when only a few cars (the five between Hamilton and Verstappen, coincidentally!) had unlapped themselves, which gave Verstappen a chance to challenge Hamilton, which he did successfully. Had Masi implemented the regulation correctly, the race would have finished under the safety car, or with only one corner at racing speeds remaining. That’s hardly a matter of good or bad luck, but a mistake in the implementation of the regulations, as was found to be the case in the FIA investigation that followed.

      A penalty shoot-out still involves a significant element of skill, on the part of the goalkeepers and penalty takers.

    6. Daniel, that’s precisely why they need to re-think the rules. Sports traditionally abide by the referee’s decision, and in this case the decision was to re-start the race when it was safe to do so. Unfortunately, F1 had painted itself into a corner where it had to follow a protocol of “unlapping” all cars, regardless of whether they have any prospect of scoring points, or of influencing the outcome. It’s a lose-lose decision, as we saw this weekend. Nobody was happy: not the drivers, not the teams, and especially not the fans.
      My opinion is that they should let cars unlap themselves as soon as practical, and not wait for stragglers to catch-up before re-starting. It seems that this year’s rules go in that direction (it’s hard to tell when the commentators are confused), so some progress has been made. Unfortunately the track couldn’t be cleared in time this week, so we didn’t get to see what everybody wanted: a last lap race for the win (and podium, and other positions). Sometimes the outcome really does come down to a loose cog in a gearbox, or a back-marker missing a corner, that’s part of the fun.

    7. Hi Bernard. It seems we have taken different paths, but have reached exactly the same conclusion about the F1 rule book. 👍

  10. Late to this race; got stuck behind a back marker…

    Until fairly recently I too watched and read about as much formula one as possible. Now I tend to dip into the BBC online coverage after the race, if only to see who has been more petulant this time. I don’t like Channel 4’s coverage and no longer have the time nor inclination to spend hours watching egos and bank balances being massaged.

    Yes, there’s plenty of skill out there but the racing is neutered by all these rules and regulations. These days the cars neither look nor sound good. I want a screaming V10 not a farty six!

    Nothing new under the sun; motor sport has been staged from the very beginning.

    I prefer formula E and the WRC. The former has some real rough and tumble with usually a different winner. The rally boys also have an edge.Must be something to do with all that gravel and mud getting into corners and crevices that tarmac drivers have no idea about.

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