The end of the pursuit of speed


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

  1. Wificats said on 28th February 2011, 13:21

    I am of the feeling that Formula One can only be allowed to get so fast, before it starts to stray too close to the limits of the drivers physiology, to the detriment of the racing and to safety as well.

    Having a certain level of performance, with the method of attainment dictated by the regulations is useful for keeping the sport from stagnation, freshening up the competition and driving progress in different areas of technology.

    To my mind, the main problem in F1, since about the mid 90’s (and especially after the rule change in 1998) is that the cars are now too mathematical and predictable. Whereas in the past, driving was hard because the drivers really had to tame the power of the car, and there was a struggle to keep it on the road through the faster corners, now it is more a matter of aiming it in the right place and having faith in your aerodynamics. Both ways look pretty spectacular, but having unpredictability makes the racing much better, something that we see in the wet, when the grip is more uncertain and the drivers are having to fight the car, making their talent more of a deciding factor in any battle between drivers.

    I think that the rules have held the sport back too much in this regard, and the cars are now too good, there are too few failures, which dulls the racing a little, and the power is toe little for the available grip, as the lack of difference made by getting rid of traction control shows. I agree with what Keith said in a post on “Making Formula One Better” from last year that the cars should have more power than grip, a maxim that need not hold technology back, but would maintain the excitement.

  2. Shimks said on 28th February 2011, 13:27

    Excellent idea for an article, Keith.

    Personally, I don’t want F1 to get any faster. It’s already dangerous enough. We don’t need more speed. We need more overtaking and better tracks.

    However, I can see a new series developing which is focused on maxing the speed of vehicles. This series would need purpose built tracks with massive run-off areas. I’m thinking something like the landspeed record in the Nevada desert but with 26 competing cars instead of 1. I would definitely watch that!

    I have no problem with F1 not being the fastest series.

  3. In a quest to improve the show by trying to increase overtaking, the main draw for fans -‘the pursuit of speed’ is being cast to one side.

    • Dobin1000 (@dobin1000) said on 28th February 2011, 13:47

      If you are interested in the speed above all else then surely Nascar, Indycar or drag racing are the disciplines you would be more interested in?

      I am mainly interested in the ‘racing’ aspect, which is why I would prefer to see the rules changed to stop cars trying to overtake being disadvantaged rather than adding 20 miles an hour to everyone’s speed, which wouldn’t actually change the spectator’s experience very much.

  4. Less opinion please Keith, more facts.

  5. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 28th February 2011, 13:36

    I would say the pursuit for speed ended when Formula 1 realised that speed doesn’t necessarily mean you lap any faster. The Holy Grail of Formula 1 is now no longer your BHP but your downforce % points.

  6. John H said on 28th February 2011, 13:46

    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.

  7. 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).

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 28th February 2011, 13:54

      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.

  8. vjanik said on 28th February 2011, 13:59

    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.

  9. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 28th February 2011, 14:09

    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.

  10. maxthecat said on 28th February 2011, 14:10

    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.

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

  12. Eggry (@eggry) said on 28th February 2011, 14:25

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

  13. vjanik said on 28th February 2011, 14:27

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

  14. 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.

  15. Icthyes said on 28th February 2011, 14:50

    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 ;-)

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