In October 1993 the first meeting of the FIA World Motor Sports Council announced that refuelling would be re-introduced into F1 for the 1994 season.
Earlier this week the same body confirmed refuelling will be banned in 2010 – leading to a mixed reaction from fans.
I’ve been surprised how many comments have been posted here complaining that the banning of refuelling will make F1 less entertaining in 2010. I’m convinced it won’t – here’s why.
The wrong rule
Refuelling was brought back into F1 at the beginning of 1994 as the sports’ governing body scrambled frantically to find a way of spicing up ‘the show’. The 1992 season and much of the early part of 1993 saw some decidedly unimpressive racing.
The reason for this was simple: Williams had created a car that was whole seconds faster than the opposition at most circuits. At one race in 1992 the closest car in qualifying to Nigel Mansell’s FW14B was a staggering 2.7s slower. Williams enjoyed a comparable margin of superiority in 1993, though as the season went on McLaren and Benetton began to narrow the performance gap.
It was the norm at this time to see the Williams cars lock out the front row of the grid and disappear off into the distance at the start of the race. This did not make for entertaining racing, and the FIA began pushing for the reintroduction of refuelling in the hope it would cause more changes in the running order.
Bringing back refuelling in 1994 was a knee-jerk reaction to their superiority. As it happened, come the start of the 1994 season Williams’ performance advantage had been completely eroded anyway.
Had refuelling been used in 1992 and 1993, would it have made any difference to the extent of Williams’ dominance? Absolutely not. Their cars were capable of winning races by whole minutes or more.
The death of strategy?
Still, there are many fans who enjoy the strategic dimension refuelling brings to F1. Should they be concerned about its extinction?
I say not – drivers will still have to make pit stops to use both types of tyre, and this will open up some interesting strategic avenues that could also have a positive affect on the racing.
With no fuel levels to worry about drivers will have much greater strategic freedom. We could well see some drivers nursing their tyres throughout the race on a one-stop strategy, while others make two or three changes of tyres. Alternatively, drivers could adjust their strategy on-the-fly, abandoning plans to make extra pit stops in a bid to keep track position.
This was a common occurrence until refuelling killed the practice at the end of 1993. At Portugal that year Michael Schumacher scored a fine second Grand Prix victory at Estoril after deciding not to make his planned second stop for tyres, holding Alain Prost back.
The flying pit stop returns
With drivers no longer taking fuel on board during pit stops we will see the return of ultra-quick tyre changes.
Will any of the teams be able to beat the current record for a four-tyre change? The mark stands at a scarcely-believed 3.2 seconds, set by Benetton on Riccardo Patrese’s car in the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix.
At present drivers have to set up their cars to work between weight of around 610kg (minimal fuel) to 680kg (maximum fuel).
Next year that 70kg spread could double or more. We will in all likelihood see drivers with better-performing cars at different stages during the race. Given the limited setup time drivers have at a race weekend, getting race setup spot-on at the expense of perfecting a one-lap low-fuel qualifying setup could play dividends.
Again, this has produced some wonderful races in the past. Nigel Mansell won the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix from 12th on the grid in a dry race because he’d nailed his race-day setup. The following year Alain Prost won at Mexico from 13th in much the same way.
Winning on the track
Above all else, banning refuelling places a much greater onus on drivers to overtake their rivals on the track.
They will no longer have the option to delay trying to overtake a rival on the assumption that they can pass them by making a later pit stop for fuel.
Refuelling has provided the odd moment of interest in the 15 years since it was re-introduced: Schumacher’s win at Hungary in 1998 for example. But I have seen far more races rendered dull by drivers ‘passing in the pits’ instead of on the track, or ruined entirely by faulty refuelling rigs.
I’m delighted to see a return to real racing in 2010. As ever I’d like to know what you think and it would be particularly interesting to see if those who started watching F1 before 1994 see things differently.