Here's hoping Formula One gets even more boring

BY foxsports • March 17, 2010

With luck, the deadly dull Bahrain Grand Prix was not an unfortunate one-off but the first in a parade of mind-blowingly boring races that will ruin the Formula One season.

Because a complete lack of racing spectacle could be just what is needed to finally force the remarkably conservative sport to swallow its medicine and accept radical changes that would a) enable cars to actually overtake each other and b) give fans what they want, which is races consistently worth watching and not the bus-like procession of vehicles seen in Bahrain.

Of course, not all races this season will be quite that bad. Occasionally, there will be rain, which makes things more interesting. But, one hopes, not too interesting.

``It's like climate change, it's got to be bad before it can get better,'' says Peter Wright, a veteran F1 engineer and consultant to motorsport's governing body, the FIA. ``It's got to get bad enough for people to actually have the real will to do things that they wouldn't normally do.''

Fundamentally, F1 lacks the essential ingredient for an absorbing spectator sport: unpredictability. The sad truth is that many people within the F1 industry have long known that the cars, as they are now designed, are not really very good at overtaking each other. But they've been reluctant to do much about it, mainly because the teams spend so much money on their cars that they don't want to shake things up too much.

F1 has long talked about the need to make overtaking easier, it has even had groups studying the problem, but it has not made this its absolute priority. The boredom of Bahrain was no fluke. It was another sign that the F1 emperor has no clothes, that having the fastest, most expensive cars does not make the formula the pinnacle of motorsport, as it claims.

``The root cause is that the cars are not good racing cars, the formula is badly designed,'' says Tony Purnell, who led the former Jaguar team and helped devise last year's failed FIA attempt to cap F1 budgets. ``The will to please the public really isn't there.''

``The sad thing is that there are solutions but no one is really brave enough or forceful enough or probably convinced enough that they will do anything about it,'' he says. ``When they look at the politics of change they all just groan and say 'Well, I don't want to fight that battle.'''

Quick fixes being suggested following last weekend's season-opening debacle - such as shaking up the order of the cars by making them pit twice during a race - aren't the longer term cures that are needed.

Asking Bridgestone to make things more interesting by supplying tires that either don't work so well or quickly fall apart isn't the solution, either. Drivers who lose out because they are poor at managing their tires will only complain, making the Japanese manufacturer's products look bad. It would also only be an artificial way of hiding F1's fundamental problem of racing cars that, as blindingly fast as they are, still struggle to overtake.

One of the big reasons for that is aerodynamics. F1 cars are designed so that air passing over and through them forces them downwards. That downforce glues the cars to the track and, in turn, helps make them fast, not least because it allows them to race super-quick through corners without spinning off.

But F1 cars work less well when their airflow is disrupted - as it is when they find themselves in the windy wake of another car.

In that situation, only if the car behind is far quicker than the one in front - nearly 2 seconds per lap faster, says Wright - can it overtake. And F1 teams employ armies of engineers and spend millions to make sure that their rivals don't have such a performance advantage. The result too often is a very expensive stalemate.

Eradicating downforce and making F1 cars slower is a nonstarter. Fans and teams would likely rather quit. But there is a range of other possible solutions, some more complex than others.

Circuits could be altered to make overtaking easier, possibly by changing corners and even inclining them so that two cars could race through them at the same time. Wright says the FIA has a group looking at this and quizzing drivers about what makes some tracks more conducive to passing maneuvers than others.

Another possible remedy that Purnell says was discussed at a meeting on overtaking hosted by the FIA last November would involve installing electronics that would alter cars' aerodynamics when they are tucked behind another car and enable them to overtake more easily.

Alternatively, cars could get a power boost, like the KERS system some teams used last season, that drivers could deploy once or twice a lap to get them past cars in front.

One idea championed by F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone would introduce short cuts at circuits that drivers could take a few times to get past cars in front. Initially, it seemed ludicrous but much less so after Bahrain.

Whatever solutions F1 adopts have to involve more than mere rule-tinkering. The outcome of races must become far less predictable. Overtaking must be made easier, although not too easy. F1 is not and should not be NASCAR, with cars racing around with their noses stuck in each other's exhaust pipes. It is a delicate balance, but surely achievable for a sport with F1's financial means.

With seven-time champion Michael Schumacher returning this season to race against the likes of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, F1 promised thrills. It talked the talk. Now, it must walk the walk or stand accused of fraud.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.


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