The end of the pursuit of speed

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Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams, Monza, 2004

Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams, Monza, 2004

When did Formula 1 stop being about the pursuit of speed?

Since the beginning of the world championship changes have been made to the formula in the name of safety and cost controls.

But those needs have become increasingly dominant and, as a result, the sport has never been as tightly regulated as it is today.

Somewhere along the line the governing body decided it wasn’t enough merely to limit the rate of development. Now the goal appears to be fixing the cars at their current performance level.

That much is clear when you look at how average lap speeds have stagnated in the last decade. Monza, a circuit which has changed little in 35 years, provides a good indication:

Fastest lap speeds at Monza, 1976-2010

Year 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Average Speed (kph) 206.019 212.887 214.11 220.765 223.394 236.004 234.286 241.153 245.405 248.341 250.18 242.864 249.403 252.989 257.415 253.949 257.209 249.033 245.933 247.135 250.295 244.413 251.989 248.953 253.658 259.827 258.564 262.242 260.031 256.753 256.34 248.682 251.398 254.444

Juan Pablo Montoya’s 262.242kph (162.95mph) lap of Monza in 2004 set the high watermark. Today’s F1 cars lap around 10kph slower.

To the prior constraints of safety and costs we can now add a third, as Formula 1 faces growing pressure to be more environmentally responsible.

The consequences of that for the regulations are already known: in 2013 engine capacities will be cut from 2.4 litres to 1.6, and hybrid technology will play a greater role in engine design.

Red Bull’s X2010 project for “Gran Turismo 5″ offered a fascinating glimpse of what F1 might look like without technical constraints.

But can designs like this only exist in the virtual world? It’s an idea I explored here a few years ago.

Would anyone dare to create a rival to Formula 1 that could usurp its claim to have the fastest racing cars in the world? And where could they race that would be safe enough?

Have your say in the comments.

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150 comments on The end of the pursuit of speed

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  1. Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 28th February 2011, 12:40

    The problem with allowing the cars to simply get faster and faster is that the teams with bigger budgets will simply spend more and more and more money trying to go faster. While I realise that this is exactly what they do now, the difference is that if they were simply allowed to do as they pleased, the other, smaller teams would die out as they could not keep up with the big teams. I for one don’t want to see the likes of Sauber and Williams die out like that. While the current guise of Formula 1 might seem castrated, I’d rather see a castrated racing series where there is at least some room for competition than a free-for-all arms race that will kill privateer teams off.

    • apeman (@apeman) said on 28th February 2011, 12:46

      Doh! You beat me to it ;)

    • Mike "the bike" Schumacher said on 28th February 2011, 12:54

      We’ve already seen the death of privateer teams such as jordan, minardi, tyreell arrows etc. Williams were always going to hang around for a while anyway and Sauber is just struggling to stay in it really

      • Feynman said on 28th February 2011, 13:05

        And the birth of Lotus, Virgin, Genii-Renault, HRT, Force India

        Tyrell begat BAR, begat Honda, begat a smashin’ Brawn BGP-001, begat Mercedes

        And what of the current WDC and WCC privateer team, Red Bull.

        All part of the natural ebb and flow, the cycle of life, old teams die so new teams can be born.

      • sato113 (@sato113) said on 28th February 2011, 19:45

        Sauber are doing fine now. lots of sponsors.

    • NNot really, it’s not directly related to money is it? You seem to have linked a side issue (but an important one).
      The cars are no faster now than they were 20 years ago; even HRT could make a car faster for the same amount of money without such strict technical limits. I’d argue with the technical limits it’s even more expensive to make a faster car because without throwing money at it you don’t make the small little gains you need to be competitive. It is possible with a budget cap but freer regulations a smaller team could come up with something to knock the big boys off their perch. However this is still unlikely.
      Its got nothing to do with competitiveness (little to do directly with money) and everything to do with control and safety

      • Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 28th February 2011, 14:54

        It is. Teams with more money are able to research, design and develop new technologies faster. With today’s development rate, it’d be impossible for teams like HRT to keep up with the big boys.

        It’s easy to compare this problem among other industries. Look at Apple, Microsoft and all those enterprises. They obviously have no limit for creating new stuff.

        It’s easy to see Microsoft struggle to keep up with Apple in recent years. And we’re taking about one of the biggest corporation in the world!.

        The technological battle is enourmous everywhere: Playstation vs Nintendo vs Xbox, for example. Just see how much time it took Playstation to implement the same controller, which they eventually copied.

    • verstappen said on 28th February 2011, 13:13

      Considering the powerplays, it might work if you combine unrestricted rules with restricted resources, or even a budet cap. So we’re in fact half way…

      I do wonder what would happen if you set these conditions. I guess the big teams will always be able to attract the best personel, even if what they can pay and how many they can hire is limited.

    • Another issue with letting cars get faster and faster is that the tracks have to be made suitable, and they become less useful for other forms of motorsport. A few years ago I knew quite a few club-level bike racers and they were not keen on the proposal to change Brands Hatch to make it suitable for F1, because it would have destroyed much of the character of the track. A track that is challenging and exciting in an F1 car is not so interesting in a slower formula, for drivers or spectators, and there are a lot more club-level races than F1-level.

      When you’re adapting the tracks to the cars rather than the other way round, something is out of balance.

    • Damon (@damon) said on 28th February 2011, 14:58

      “The problem with allowing the cars to simply get faster and faster is that the teams with bigger budgets will simply spend more and more and more money trying to go faster.”

      Not true.
      There’s no logic in what you say.
      Don’t the teams spent their money to get the cars faster and faster already/anyway?
      The teams’ aim is to make the cars as fast as possible within any rules they are given. So whether a specific set of rules allows having faster cars or not makes absolutely no difference in that respect.

      You can allow the cars to be 210cm wide, let them have larger wheels, wider tyres, huge wings like in the 80s and turbo charged 1400bhp engines, but ban all the technologies that are very costly.
      In this way, you’d get cheaper, yet faster cars.

      • Poul said on 1st March 2011, 17:54

        I’m in on that concept!! Except… let’s get rid of the wings all together so we can back some seriously brutal racing!

        Monster machines that can follow each other as close as they want and it will all be down to driver skill and engine engineering. It’ll be just like mega gokarts :-)

    • I disagree with the idea that less technical contraints means a spending war. A well thought out recource restriction agreement not only makes F1 more affordable, it places more emphasis on innovation for performance.

      In terms of where the regulations have been heading, I think it’s more the constant change that restricting performance. The 2009 regulations, including restrictions to the double diffuser, continues to see massive innovation and performance jumps, the limits on aero flicks and swishes reduces the capacity for big teams to through money at aero solutions and forces radical thinking in aero dynamics. Previous limits on mechanical soulutions banned in the petty politics of the Max Mosley era should now be loosened increasing the scope for mechanical innovation.

      I think the pursuit of speed can be reclaimed, the circuits are what they are, if a disaster is going to happen, you can never cover all the possibilities when large objects go out of controll at high speed. However so long as driver protection remains assured, an spectators are in safe positions, I think the survival cell, so long as it remains capable of resisting the forces F1 cars performance might inflict upon it, means we can now start to loosen technical restrictions in certain performance areas. If we can do so to improve the closeness of the racing then hurrah.

    • Spaulding (@spaulding) said on 28th February 2011, 17:44

      Part of the problem is that, unlike other race series, there is no championship for the private teams. In several other race series, they include additional prizes for the small, nonmanufacturer teams to keep them involved and boost innovation and variety.

      • Wouldn’t work in F1 as every team is technically seperate and private. Doesn’t matter what insitution owns them. Torro Rosso bucked the establishment for a bit but the law makers got on them as we all know. Satellite teams using bought chassis completley illegal.

        • US_Peter said on 28th February 2011, 22:06

          Not to mention the fact that it almost seems harder to keep manufacturers in the sport than privateers these days. All recent exits have been manufacturers…

    • Jarred Walmsley (@jarred-walmsley) said on 28th February 2011, 18:46

      How about a compromise, we limit the amount that can be spent on certain aspects of the cars for a say 5 year period, e.g. from 2013-2018 the engine development budget is limited to £10 million per year and the rest of the car is budget free as it is now, then 2018-2023 the aerodynamic development budget is limited.

      This way we would get improved speed but the smaller teams wouldn’t be disadvantaged in £ terms as the development budget is limited?

    • August said on 28th February 2011, 21:32

      A simple solution to teams spending ever more would be to allow any other team to be able to buy the previous years championship winning car for a fixed and deliberately low sum. So spend as much as you like you only have the advantage till the end of the year when everyone else can buy cut price technology.

    • bleeps_and_tweaks said on 1st March 2011, 8:46

      Great comment @Prison Monkey. My thoughts exactly. While I would love to see Mclaren and Ferrari let loose again to create monsters like the MP4/4 etc it would have been almost impossible for a team like Red Bull to enter F1 and compete if some of these regulations had not been in place. It’s a balancing act.

    • Sean Newman said on 1st March 2011, 18:17

      Worse than the death of teams, the death of people!
      If speed were unregulated the slightest mistake or technical faliure could cause MASSIVE crashes.

      Energy = (1/2) mass × speed2 (squared)

      Small increases in collision speeds = much bigger crashes.

      Forget changing the tracks it’s much cheaper and safer to slow the cars down, Most of the excitement in F1 for me comes from high speed racing. Racing being the main thing. Watching mini racing is exciting. They don’t go fast.

      So the answer to Keith’s question “When did F1 stop being about the pursuit of speed?” It was when we realised it didn’t matter.

  2. apeman (@apeman) said on 28th February 2011, 12:44

    The main problem that I see with removing design regulations is that there would inevitably be a much larger performance gap between the teams. This would increase the likelihood of one team having a car that can run away with the championship without a good battle. I don’t think a title fight like last year’s would be possible without the regulations.
    On the other hand, it is frustrating when you don’t see any progress in terms of speed!

    • thatscienceguy said on 28th February 2011, 13:01

      Is it frustrating though? Do you really notice, and does it affect the racing at all?

      I’ve never really sat there and thought “I wish these cars were hyperspeed fast”. They’re pretty damn fast at the moment, mindbendingly fast compared to a ‘fast’ road car, and only a handful of drivers in the world can really handle them at the absolute limit.

      If they were 5 seconds a lap faster, would you really notice any difference, and would it really add to the spectacle or the quality of racing at all? No and no. The speed is fine, the quality of racing is the important factor.

      • Totally agree, if they moved too fast it would be impossible to watch! Just imagine monza without chicanes, it would be like an indy circuit. Sure the lead would change lots, but the race is so boring that I am sure people only watch for the crashes

      • Yes, you would, especially on TV!

      • kowalsky said on 28th February 2011, 14:58

        of course you’ll notice. Even more watching live.
        I already said that watching vettel at valencia’s first corner, was disapointing. But if it is the first time you watch a f1, i understand it can look fast, because for the young fan, there is no reference point.
        I follow f1 for over 30 years, and i have to admit that i still watch it regularly,but it doesn’t give me a buzz like it used to.
        The best era for me, was the turbo era.
        If the fia only allowed to get a little of that back, in 2013, and let the fans to feel, how it was then.
        Please let full boost at least on qualy, so we can get that feeling back again.

        • Good points, but then i think that it is when you start following something that becomes the benchmark of which every other season is measured. It is always in the beginning that it gives the thrills, the tears all the feelings. Then you get older, more hardened and it just don’t give that kick anymore. A bit like drugs. I am not old enough to know about that in F1, but i feel that when i play modern video games. Back when i was a kid playing the first call of duty it was just the business, and i still think that Call of Duty 2 is the best game ever made, but i think it has something to do with me getting older, not games getting worse. If you see what i mean.

          • kowalsky said on 1st March 2011, 15:03

            why then i still get impresed when i watch senna on a qualy lap at monaco, and i don’t when a i saw webber last year. Can you explain that?

          • The Last Pope said on 1st March 2011, 19:58

            @ Kowalski. Don’t forget Monaco had some very dangerous corners back then, Karl Wendlinger was very lucky to survive his 1994 crash there. Its much safer now, which would explain why it seems less exciting to watch.

      • g.rizzle said on 2nd March 2011, 1:37

        If you watch footage of Sebastian Vettel driving the X2010, you can get a sense of what overly fast F1 cars would be like. Although it is just a computer sim, and he does manage to set a very fast time, he spends the first few laps all over the place, and can barely keep the thing on the road. Even as it is now, drivers barely have time to process everything. With a full field of 250+mph cars, there would probably be even less actual racing because the drivers would be too busy staying on the road to plan out overtaking maneuvers. And if humans can no longer handle the cars, do we have to turn them over to robot drivers?

        Speed trials are for NHRA and Bonneville. For better F1 racing, I rather like the idea of massively overpowered karts…

  3. BasCB (@bascb) said on 28th February 2011, 12:45

    Nice one on calling it Formula X, any clues of weather Newey read it?
    I would like to see a series trying something like going to that limit (except for the remote controlled thing, that is a bit too much, although it might make it more afordable for less safety based cost).

    On the other hand, I am looking forward to see engeneers get just about as much traction out of a combination of electrical and combustion engines with boht operating at their best range of power.

    Formula one is (for me) not that much about total power or highest speed (oval racing is faster and drag Racing humilitiates its power) but about getting that power on the track and keep it in cornering to extract the best lap out of the car.

    • Sush Meerkat said on 28th February 2011, 13:53

      Nice one on calling it Formula X, any clues of weather Newey read it?

      I reckon all the teams read Keith’s site (i.e. this one), because Keith will make an article and two days later you’ll hear a team principal quoting him almost word for word.

      Bunch of workshy charlatans!

      If Horner now says “Sush Meerkat and his puritan work ethics should get off our backs” then that confirms my theory.

    • There was a series called Formula X in around, I think, 2004. It was a one make championship for cars which had changeable bodywork, meaning they could be single seaters or sports prototypes.

  4. Icarus said on 28th February 2011, 12:46

    This is not endemic to F1, they’ve been doing the same thing at Indycar, especially on ovals. So I doubt anyone would be able to make a faster series without serious security implications and breaking the limits of what human can endure.

    • Feynman said on 28th February 2011, 13:22

      Simples, remove the driver … and let computers drive and race. Dress it up as autonomous vehicle testing “to reduce road accidents and make roads safe” or some such nonsense.

      F-X1, the rulebook is a sheet of A4, that describes the box you need to paint on the ground, and how to assemble he limbo bar, if the car fits within the box, and rolls under the bar, it is legal to race.

      Instead of supercomputers being stuck in chilly old server rooms, give them some laser sensors and vision systems and let them go and race each other.

      Go as fast as you can, burning as much money as you can get your hands on … extra points for rockets and jets and flames. Hyper exotic CFD aero, winglets on top of winglets, 4 wheels, 6 wheels, 8 wheels and a fan … and don’t stop till we get a sub-60second lap round Monza.

      • THIS. I like the thought of this. I suppose untill we sort out a computer capable of that sort of thing, remote controlled by the drivers?

        • bosyber (@bosyber) said on 28th February 2011, 17:21

          I guess with remote control, the limiting factor would be response – both a small lag in controlling the car and feeling its reaction, and good feedback from the car.

          Considering that at the moment F1 drivers really want to have a literal feeling of how stable and on the edge the car is at any moment on the track, that would need a lot of development of force-feedback like stuff.

          Hm, maybe that means that instead of cars, gaming industry can help develop :)

    • Electrolite said on 1st March 2011, 23:47

      How is it you’ve got the same avatar as me? It’s a snapshot of a very specific moment of a very specific music video that I made myself :P

  5. Dobin1000 (@dobin1000) said on 28th February 2011, 12:49

    I couldn’t see anyone trying to surpass F1 currently, if only because of the capital that would be involved in setting up a new series using cars that would lap circuits faster than F1 cars do, either with increased engine power or different aerodynamics. Maybe if the world economy improves drastically in a few years the funds would be there.

    For it to be licensed by the FIA it would need to match F1 in terms of safety, and with increased speeds the adjustments to existing tracks for safety alone would create another expense. I have Gran Turismo 5 and using the X1 it is obvious how much would need to be changed at Monza (to take your example and as it is one of the circuits you drive the X1 on in the game) to make it safe for someone to leave the track at high-speed – especially as it is a fan-car and once it is off the track the downforce drops drastically.

    Unfortunately I think we have reached the limit in terms of what drivers can handle and the risks governing bodies can take with the health of competitors and the public. That is unless a new material that is as far advanced from carbon-fibre as carbon-fibre was from steel or aluminium.

  6. And where could they race that would be safe enough?

    Nowhere, that is the problem. The limit is not technology, but the ability of the human body to withstand g-forces, not to mention the tensile strength of human bone!

    I totally understand where you are coming from Keith – I trained as a mechanical engineer, and a big reason was because I love fast machines – planes, trains and automobiles. This was before I heard of the Green movement ;) ). But there is a biological limit that supersedes the technological, and I think F1 has hit it.

    • verstappen said on 28th February 2011, 13:21

      But isn’t that the only limit which you need to take into account?

      I mean: design the cars as fast you want, as long as your driver doesn’t pass out. And they could wear a G-suit.

      Ok, then you still need to adjust some (all) circuits to keep the safety up to date.

      If you do that (and as I said above, combine it with a resource restriction), there suddenly is I think much room for improvement in terms of speed.

      Then again, would it really make F1 better? I like it now as I’ve done over the past 16 years, so I think in the end compromising between safety and speed is ok. It does challenge the engineers to come up with things like the Renault Exhausts etc.

  7. There’s nothing to stop someone founding a series with regs that allow cars to go faster than F1 cars – but the FIA certainly wouldn’t endorse it! As for circuits, well there are plenty of modern facilities with oceans of run off to catch you if you run out of talent mid corner at 250mph in your Red Bull X2010 alike racer. With all other regs taken away, the limiting factor would quickly become the drivers. There have already been incidents where cars have reached cornering forces high enough to impair the drivers – Champcar 2001 at Texas is the obvious one, but even current F1 drivers admit to having to prop their elbows against the cockpit sides and hold their breath through some ultra fast corners. These forces would be almost impossible to manage with a military style G-suit, as these manage forces generated in pitch (up and down), whereas the forces in racing would be lateral (side to side).

    Still a remote controlled 1400bhp monster with active ground effects would some spectacle!

    • G-Suit? You’re not pulling +/- g in the vertical, the g forces are all front/back and sideways so surely all they would need is a decent harness, a neck support up to the job and tethers to tie your hands/feet to the controls

  8. I want a series to rival F1. How aboutcalling it – Ultimate Motor Racing (UMOR)?

  9. The thing about the RBX1 is that while it has no technical limitations, the G forces that it creates when cornering (somewhere like 8G at max) are so high that no human could withstand them in reality for any real period of time.

  10. Dan Selby said on 28th February 2011, 12:57

    It’s an interesting concept, Keith. Now would be a very interesting time to try something like this.

    We have many lower classes of formulae, and many argue too many. What a genius way to pull the spotlight over to something other than F1 or its lower formulae.

    It’d require a good few years of studying and planning, as well as huge investments.

    The problem is timing. Are we too far along now to try something as ‘gung-ho’ as this? Are we living in a world that’s too obsessed with being green, or is F1 simply buckling under pressure?

    Either way, many die-hard F1 fans (and to a certain degree Joe Public) arn’t happy with the direction Formula One’s heading, in the sense the rules and regulations are only being tightened, and as you mentioned, speeds slashed.

    A group would need to be created with designers (cars and tracks) with a huge wealth of experience to discuss how and where something like this could be created. You can’t help but feel a new purpose built track would have to be created in order to hold a race. Certainly this inaugral race would need to be leaning more towards safety than spectacle, to be on the safe(r) side.

    It’s a tremendous opportunity, given the appropriate backing and thought processes, for a group to genuinely be able to say “The fastest race in the world – Period”.

    I don’t think there’s much doubt that it’d create quite the buzz, perhaps even to casual racing fans.

  11. I may be wrong but I thought the max G force in an F1 car was under braking with about 7g being recorded.
    If this is so then to obtain higher speeds the braking distance needs to be increased. Which probably would mean a restriction of the brake pad material and/or the size of the swept area.

  12. I doubt anyone will be able to set up a rival series to compete with F1 mainly because F1 is just too established.

    However I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future a motorsport series which is already currently going, such as Indycar, manages to lap quicker than F1 cars do because of regulation changes.

    You often see comments from fans saying that to improve the racing F1 should do things such as get rid of wings and return to steel brakes, while this would probably work it would also mean F1 cars would be slower than junior series, which is why I think it would never happen.

    The main reason why F1 speeds are restricted is due to safety, and I just don’t see this changing in the future. Cost pressures and environmental concerns may also be factors but if these were the only reasons speeds would still increase but just at a slower rate.

    • I doubt anyone will be able to set up a rival series to compete with F1 mainly because F1 is just too established

      I think that’s true. Le Mans cars have a lot more freedom but it seems to get largely overlooked. F1′s self promotion of being the best motorsport is arrogant but it’s also how most people still see the sport and I think that’s for a plethora of reasons such as the series still has open cockpits and has Monaco.

      I also agree that safety concerns are the main driving force and not the worry of igniting a spending war (I also think that with restrictions and the ability to change the rules at the drop of a hat help keep the teams competitive though).

      I wish F1 was a bit quicker and perhaps it would be feasible as F1 is getting safer all the time -not that it should be taken for granted- but I’m a little sad when I think that the best motorsport in the world with the best engineers appear quite tame to how they could be.

      To answer Keith’s question it probably happened quite a few years or maybe even decades before Senna’s death as their have always been safety concerns and small acts along the way but Imola was a major catalyst.

  13. Werner Berger said on 28th February 2011, 13:18

    What is wrong with level performance? Not really much in my view. The powers that be in F1 could do worse than creating a balance for the multitude of requirements that all the different stake holders have.

    Keeping cost in control is also a good recipe for better entertainment as the field is bigger and relative performance gaps have become smaller. There is more consideration given to prevent top teams from running away with competitive advantages than ever before. As a result we had a thrilling season of 2010.

    Growing performance would be bad news for the circuits and the promoters. One thousand horse power cars sound exciting but such power with the super efficient chassis of today would require a massive increase in circuit safety. Crash zones would have to be increased at massive cost and spectators further removed from the action. It would not be good for the fans.

    Instead we will be seeing a fuel cap and a fuel flow limit that is designed to absorb all the efficiency advances that F1 engineers can achieve by development and better rules. It makes perfect sense. One part of the championship is about the constructors. The best engineers are getting the best results from a fixed budget and a common rule book. It is the same as the engineering contest in real life. The better brains should win and not the bigger pocket books.

  14. DASMAN said on 28th February 2011, 13:20

    I’ve never been one to worry too much about last years laptime and how fast are they now? I’m much more focussed on the level of competition and technical innovation. I really hate that so much is design frozen on an F1 car. I don’t care if a team develops a brilliant solution to something and ends up being 3 seconds faster than everyone else. F1 is not just about pushing the boundaries of speed, but also pushing the limits of ingenuity within the regs. So I guess what I’m saying is reletive speed is more important than ultimate speed to me.

  15. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 28th February 2011, 13:20

    The pursuit of speed strikes me, personally, as a cheap thrill. Yes the speed is phenomenal regardless of a 10kph drop and perhaps you could argue the politics surrounding the limitations is what bothers people, rather than the limitations themselves.

    The thrill for me is working in those limitations, both driver and team. The sheer dynamic of everything this season such as KERS & DRS is fascinating to watch, have to think about and develop.

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