Since the first attempts at banning electronic driver aids in 1994, the Formula One rules have been in a state of constant upheaval. But by failing to understand its past, the sport’s authorities have misdirected its future.
The changes to F1 since 1994 have radically altered the nature of the sport, driven teams to bankruptcy through escalating costs, and done little to improve the racing. Perhaps it’s time the most forward-looking sport in the world took a step backwards?
The 1992 and 1993 Formula One World Championships were, in the eyes of the press and public, pretty dismal affairs. Williams-Renault had been virtually unopposed – Nigel Mansell flattened his rivals in ’92, and Alain Prost, having levered Mansell out of the hot seat, dominated in ’93, only kept at bay in the early races by an inspired Ayrton Senna.
It fell to newly crowned FIA President Max Mosley to do something to â€œimprove the showâ€ – a phrase that has echoed through the paddock in the decade since, whenever some aspect of Formula One is deemed insufficiently entertaining.
In 1993 his proposals were twofold: one, to ban driver aids; two, to legalise refuelling. At the time he perhaps had one eye on the quality of racing evident in the US CART series, which Mansell had made his new home.
The ban on driver aids drew immediate support, not least of which from Senna who had lobbied Mosley as early as 1992 for their banning as they diminished the degree of skill required from the driver.
Legalised refuelling drew only cautious support from the teams at first. This support rapidly dried up from all quarters bar one – Ferrari, whose thirsty V12 engines had the most to gain from being able to refuel. Lacking unanimity, the other teams could not prevent the change becoming law – another theme we have become very familiar with.
As 1994 unfolded it transpired that the new regulations were doing very little to slow the cars and that speeds had escalated to the extent that the drivers had inadequate head protection in the event of a high speed accident. It was this that claimed the lives of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the same weekend in Imola and, two weeks later, put Karl Wendlinger into a coma while racing in Monaco.
Thus began four years of further reductions in car performance – the introduction of the underbody plank to raise ride heights, reductions in aerodynamic devices, cuts in engine power and so in. It culminated in 1998 with a narrowing of the cars and the introduction of the controversial grooved tyres to further limit performance.
Any concerns about â€œimproving the showâ€ were rightly put to one side in the interests of ensuring safety – even if some of the restrictions placed upon the cars in the name of safety were highly questionable. But as the new millennium began there remained the same dearth of real action that there had been back in 1992 and 1993. This was because of a fundamental failure to understand precisely why those earlier years had been so poor in terms of racing.
It lead, in 2003, 2004 and 2005, to further rules tweaks – qualifying has since changed so many times that it has lost all meaning, and all manner of complex rules now penalise a driver for failing to finish, and have dimished the value of winning by over-rewarding lower position finishes.
All of these recent changes miss the point. 1992 and 1993 were not dull seasons because of a shortage of refuelling stops – they were dull because one team had a superiority margin that was measured in whole seconds per lap. Mansell or Prost could have won as many races as they did making one, two, three, four or more stops for fuel. Often the only way a driver could get ahead of them was by not making a tyre stop and hanging on on threadbare wheels – as Michael Schumacher did to take a fabulous win in Portugal in 1993.
But the reintroduction of refuelling ended that possibility. Not only were drivers stopped from making audacious bids for victory by not changing tyres, but they were discouraged from making overtaking manoeuvres on the track as passing in the pits became a low-risk alternative. It’s no surprise that one of the best races of recent years – at Silverstone in 2003 – featured almost end-to-end overtaking as two safety car periods made refuelling stops irrelevant.
By reintroducing refuelling in 1994 the DNA of Grand Prix racing – that a driver must conserve his car for nearly two hours – was drastically mutated. It should come as little surprise that the quality of racing has suffered as a result.
What is needed to fix this is not endlessly elaborate qualifying systems or ever more complicated restrictions on the cars, but a simple admission that, after 12 years, refuelling has not improved F1. Sadly, this suggestion was not even a part of the FIA’s much-vaunted survey of the fans’ opinions.