Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams, Monza, 2004

The end of the pursuit of speed

CommentPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

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. They go fast enough for me. I see no problem at the moment.

    Judging F1 in terms of speed on straights is like assessing dragsters for their cornering ability.

    My best live memory of F1 is watching Mika cornering Becketts in the wet in 1999, not down Hangar Straight. But hey, each to their own.

  2. As I understand it, in an unregulated formula cars would now be able to achieve g-forces in excess of those that human beings can remain conscious at.

    So you would have an issue of cars either being driven remotely or automatically. Either way, it would practically be 100% technology and 0% driver skill and so lose much of its sporting interest (and be more like a space race).

    1. Actually, when thinking about it for a bit, this might be the formula of the future.

      Just imagine how much US/China/Russian/… defence money could flow into F1 if they would be able to create a racing series where the pilot sits in the box, but races the cars at those speeds on a real track.

      Wouldn’t it be just the SW, HW and training programm the military will be looking at for fighter airplanes? Imagine the possibilities without a pilot. And the cost savings from not having someone in there.
      That might just bring it forward, as a training ground and experimental incubator to go on from those UAVs bombing Pakistan/Afganisan.

  3. this is a very interesting topic.

    i’d say its all about compromise. money, safety, speed, excitement. you cannot have all of them so you must make priorities.

    F1 will always adapt to the world at large and now amidst financial woes and environmoental issues f1 had to react. for people who prefer speed and excitement (like me) this seems like a let down and hope that the future will be brighter. i think china could become a major player in 10-20 years time as they become the No.1 ecopnomy and develop their own car industry. (save this comment and post it later when it happens :))

    since we are talking about what could be, what about this: We have a racing series without human drivers. These would be AI machines designed purely for speed. No safety needed so no run off areas, no crumple zones, no safety cars. They could handle 10Gs in the corners and braking zones. It would be a technological showcase and great entertainment. Of course this would not replace conventional motorsport.

  4. The pursuit of speed may not be relevant anymore, but I believe that it is crucial for Formula 1 to constantly be at the forefront of the pursuit of technology. A colourful, 200mp/h, political, noisy glamourous automotive laboratory if you will.

  5. There is a limit to what the Human Body can endure over a long period of time and subjecting the drivers to the kind of G they experience over a 10-15 year career has untold effects, something F1 needs to look into in my opinion. The speed spikes are interesting, there is a big jump in the early 80’s with a constant climb, i was thinking ground effect but i’m sure it was earlier than that?
    I agree most people watch for crashes though, but i think that’s more of a reflection on F1, crashes are the only excitement left, the ever present fear of death is long gone and although i don’t want to see drivers hurt or killed, it was undoubtedly what drew most people to F1 in the 1st place. I’m willing to bet F1 viewing figures went up a fair bit after Ayrtons’ death.

  6. Just bring back CanAm…Seven Litres of ground shaking hell on wheels…sweet!

  7. Excellent analysis. I just wish F1 would be faster than now, same as 2004. It’s not too fast. It’s reasonably fast.

  8. i should read the whole comment trail before i post. i see that several people beat me to it. sorry for that

  9. Formula ‘X’ can not exist for a simple reason. The number in place of the X is smaller as the Formula becomes more important (Formula 3000, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1), therefore Formula X should have X<1. Formula 1/2 sounds bad, as does Formula 0. So Formula 1 is the maximum.

    1. Formula 3000 was the GP2 of its day. Nice try, though.

      Also, Keith, whenever I hit the reply button your website is identifying me as sumedh. Gods knows who it thinks he is…

    2. Formula π?

  10. To be honest, I don’t care one bit about stifling aero rules, nor do I care about F1 not being the fastest possible, as that’s beyond the limits of human survival.

    What I do dislike is the reduction in straight-line speed. I think there should me a maximum level of downforce (if this is measurable) and as long as the cars pass the safety tests, the rest is up to the teams; V12s, turbo V4s, petrol, hydrogen, whatever. At the first race the cars’ bhp will be measured and the amount capped at whoever has the highest, then it’s freed up in the off-season for engineers to have another crack at it. For one, the increased braking distances would be good for overtaking.

    But if there is a remote-controlled Formula X, I look forward to Hamilton being world champion in RC cars again ;-)

  11. While I think todays tech rules are too constraining The last major “unrestricted” series I can recall was the CAN-AM. While it was a wonderful series it was dominated first by McLaren and then by Porsche which in effect killed the series as no one could (or would) compete with the unlimited Porsche turbo motors. I don’t think we want to see technology become the dominate form of competition in F1.

  12. I think even the current level is too fast to be honest, with many challenging corners are now easy flat or very nearly flat. Giving cars more downforce and grip will make corners happen all too quickly. Give cars more power and less grip I say. I would like to see car control skills being more visible to viewer, like Schumacher’s pole lap in 96 Monaco where it was obvious that he was hussling the car like mad. Nowadays cars look too like they are on rails. I’d gladly trade 3-4 seconds a lap.

    Also didnt the Monza circuit change in 2000, 1st chicane was 2 chicanes before and they reprofiled the 2nd one after Curva Grande? Speaking of circuits, they also resurface old tracks with grippier tarmac, make curbs easier to negotiate etc, which contributes to the problem above.

  13. As you say, it’s only a difference of 10kph, hardly a massive difference.

    – 10kph + safety = :)

    Safety will eventually reach it’s peak on the cars, then it will be getting rid of the less safe tracks. Then they should concentrate on making the cars faster.

    And maybe the cars will be faster again in 2011 anyway.

  14. As a follower of F1 since 1967 I appreciate the rule changes to hopefully bring about more passing and an end to the parades after two laps.
    Having been a F5000 formula racing mechanic and a small bore formula driver, I see racing as a competition and a thrill, almost a force of nature the way it can drive people to do things against their own self-interest. As a mechanic, being gridded on the front row for the first seven races of the 1973 Tasman series and the team winning the championship is a thrill that never goes away. Pulling the engine out of a Formula Ford and putting a shaft-drive motorcycle engine to go into the Formula Continental class and ending up second in the championship, my first year of racing as a driver, is another huge sense of satisfaction.
    After seeing Warwick brown’s Lola rolled into a ball at Surfer’s Paradise in 1973, I appreciate the safety of the present days’ race cars and all the effort and rules that have brought that about. Having made an error and going off at turn four at Laguna Seca and hitting the barrier straight on at over 120 MPH, I will always appreciate the modern technology that allowed me to drive home that day(tires don’t work any better on dirt than they do on grass, at that speed. You can turn the wheel but your direction doesn’t).
    All that being said, I have come to see motor racing as an endeavor that definitely has limits in nature. One of those limits is peak oil. It saddens me but since we are bumping up to that limit, I don’t see how F1, or even motor racing itself, can continue on into the indefinite future. At some point, it will have to stop if we continue to use fossil fuel and don’t change over to something else. And if it is not peak oil, then climate change will certainly dampen the enthusiasm for motor racing when people are starving.
    My humble proposal is that F1 leads the way and changes to using hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source. Yes, electric motors don’t make the ground rumble and we could even burn it instead of using fuel cells, but we might be able to see some motor racing competition down the road, thirty or forty years from now.

    1. I’ve thought the exact same thing for a while now, albeit for different reasons.

      Instead of tiddly little “green” initiatives like very low power KERS (which was already in road cars years before), and going back to small turbo engines, why doesn’t the FIA do the obvious?

      Tell teams they can have a homologated V8, or a completely unrestricted Hydrogen engine. Just like the turbo era, there will be a period where H2 engines are either too heavy, underpowered, or slow, but the teams know that the single golden thing in F1 is opportunity. If you’re first in with an idea, and get it working, you’re the pacesetter. See the Double diffuser, Red Bull’s rear packaging, Carbon Fibre, Turbo, active suspension, etc etc etc etc etc. First out of the gate with a working new technology will be the winner.

      And I can see F1 teams driving the development of H2 engines far further, and faster, than I can see them “leading” the development of KERS technologies.

    2. John Cousins
      2nd March 2011, 5:11

      Hydrogen is a great idea and can be produced easily by wind/solar etc.
      But don’t use Hydrogen in fuel cells… Simply burn it in a conventional engine. The only real emmission is H20 and that way we retain the sound!
      I can’t say I could watch electric cars race. It would remind me too much of scalextric!

  15. Restriction in regulations are necessary, otherwise it would be endless refination, no innovation.

    In two years all the cars have the same fducts, the same double diffusers, the same whachimacolits. Imagine 20 years with the same regulations!!

    You have to restrict things to allow genious to shine. Innovation comes from a need to surpass a constraint.

    Let’s put the constraints in order to help realworld cars. Hybrids, safety, electronics, gas. One at a time, so every year, we find ourselve more or less in the same place, but innovation is what makes you upfront of others.

  16. I find Keith’s wording to be pretty disingenuous. Except for a dip in 1988, when turbochargers were banned, the lap speeds rise until the year 1994. Keith presents this as:

    “Somewhere along the line the governing body decided it wasn’t enough merely to limit the rate of development.”

    The deaths of two drivers that year does not, apparently, merit a mention as a potential reason to attempt to limit the speeds that F1 cars are capable of attmepting.

    1. I haven’t ignored safety at all. It’s mentioned in the second paragraph. Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger are not the only drivers to have lost their lives since 1976.

  17. The end of the tyre war probably had some impact. I know that as the times tumbled because of the tyres that the FIA were having to find other wars of controlling speeds anyhow (and the graph at Monza from 06-07 doesn’t change much). However, when Bridgestone were the only tyre manufacturer it felt like they stopped going for outright speed as they had noone to compete with and that they just wanted to showcase very good, solid tyres which was very clear last year I felt.

  18. I do not understand why people are so much against constant rule changing. What is the problem with forcing designers and engineers to be creative? I know Formula 1 could have kept their rules from 1980, and just kept them the same. Would we then have seen the double diffuser? Would we have seen traction control? Would we have seen KERS? Would we have seen an f-duct? Would we have seen a front exhaust or a split roll hoop?

    My best guess is no. I have learned that in a design or ideaprocess, you have to know the term “kill your darlings”. You have to stop using time in something that will not work, or will not get better without a gigantic amount of effort. On the short term it might give some speed to have the same regulations. But in the developement of new technologies, changes the rules constantly is key. This forces people to go new ways, and keeps teams from spending big sums of money on tiny improvements.

  19. Just to answer the question in a slightly different way – I think that, possibly, the idea of creating an unrestricted ‘Formula-X’ championship entirely in the virtual world could quite easily become a TV sport in itself. A governing body could set up a range of tracks in a virtual world with as-close-to-real-world physics as possible and then let teams design, ‘build’ and enter their cars into virtual races on them. Drivers could control them in immersive virtual reality so they would ‘be there’ without the hassle of unsurvivable G’s. Computing power is such now that it’d be easy to have virtual cameras to cover every conceivable angle of a race and present it completely photo-realistically.

    Of course it would never replace real life motor sport, but it’d be fun. ;)

  20. I had this idea for a feature where current F1 drivers could drive old cars on a simulator up against another old racer’s lap time round the same track. Could be great fun.

    You could even take it a level up and simulate a race using one of the new drivers in a simulator up against a grid of say, 1980’s finest, at Monaco, for example.

    It’s just another way that F1 could flex its technical muscles whilst still appealing to current, old, and new fans.

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