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