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. slowhand (@slowhand) said on 28th February 2011, 15:12

    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.

  2. Mahir C said on 28th February 2011, 15:21

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. Tinakori Road said on 28th February 2011, 15:59

    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.

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

      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.

    • John Cousins said on 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!

  5. MondoL said on 28th February 2011, 16:13

    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.

  6. Ilanin said on 28th February 2011, 16:17

    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.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 28th February 2011, 17:15

      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.

  7. 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.

  8. SoerenKaae (@soerenkaae) said on 28th February 2011, 16:21

    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.

  9. Neil Davies (@neil-davies) said on 28th February 2011, 16:32

    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. ;)

  10. Dan Selby said on 28th February 2011, 17:03

    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.

  11. Calskid1 said on 28th February 2011, 17:13

    Formula1 HAD & HAS always been about who is the fastest driver! – it’s a race! This turns into how fast a car could get around track…the problem is track limits would eventually be reached! its a simple fact. If you were to let cars get faster and faster there would be reduced safety,overtaking and so on…

    Classic tracks would become extinct due to the lack of entertainment as we see drivers follow each other at silly speeds & are unable to overtake each other due to track limits…

    Could we continue to get faster? & at what cost?

    Yes we could but new tracks would have to be built, wider & longer than we have now to accomadate the goals which have been set – fastest cars, fastest drivers.

    The sport has took the good turn in going ‘slower’ if you can say that lol…the cars are still extremely fast and just in the limits of track capabilitys.

    Formula1 will continue to be great as long as the entertainment is always there and drivers have to drive the car (no traction control etc).

    this then concludes to if you want to see even more advances and increased speed in the sport then prepare to make the ultimate sacrifice – extinction of all current tracks. Monaco has pretty much reached its limits. – overtaking nearly entirely stopped there.

    • Andy C said on 28th February 2011, 17:34

      Interesting point for Monaco.

      Wonder whether the wing activation zone will be the tunnel, rather than the finishing straight. Or perhaps the run down to the hairpin after casino square.

      For what its worth, I think we lost enough people in F1 in the past due to the endless pursuit of speed over all else.

      When I see some of the fatalities in the past, you just wonder how many of those would have been saved, or OK in the current regime (i.e had their been barriers on circuits and gravel traps, had there been carbon fibre monocoques gilles villenueve may well have survided his horrendous crash).

      While I’d like to see the regs opened up (i.e turbo engines and a capacity limit, but no specified format) somewhat, F1 needs to remember it was not so long ago that lost lives were considered part of the game.

      Keith, I know thats not what you’re implying (speed at all costs)..

      whenever debates like this come up I think back to reading Jackie Stewarts autobiography, where he has a photo in there with about 16 drivers (4 of which were are still with us).

      I’m quite happy to accept slightly slower ultimate speed, as long as good safe racing can be achieved. But with innovation and excitement.

      Good racing is not necessarily about ultimate speed for me. Its about how exciting the racing is.

  12. To be honest Indy is kind of doing a bit better than F1
    in terms of faster cars. In the near future Indy cars could end up being faster than F1 cars. I read an interesting article on this I will try to find a link.

  13. Dutch_Alex said on 28th February 2011, 17:42

    Rules are so strict, in a way that they leave almost no room for different interpretations. Instead of saying: “You must have a 1.6 liter 4 cylinder engine and a kers system that produces 150 horsepower for 7 seconds”, why not say: “Your car can only use x liters of (normal) fuel in a race, it can have no more than 700 horsepower and you can only spend y million dollars a year on the design of (parts of) your car.
    That would have about the same effect in terms of limiting speed and cost, but would leave tons more room for teams to invent new ways to get the job done.

  14. Dipak T said on 28th February 2011, 17:58

    Lets seperate the cars from the tracks. Cars first.

    The pursuit for maximum BHP is not and will not ever be a secondary concern to any constructor, its the most important thing under their control (Im ignoring tyres as they are as important as power for laptime, you can go through periods of having a single supplier, wheras the moment F1 has a single external engine supplier it dies). However, the formula was never about having the most power full stop of any series, nor was it about having the highest top speed.
    Formula One is about racing the best racing cars in the world. Not the ultimate, the best. Are they? Yes. I may be wrong, but Im sure the regulations also allow for a Grand Prix to be held on an oval, and with adjustments to wings, gearing and the engine which would all be with the regs, they could thrash an oval (even if it will never happen).

    I personally dont have a problem if the FIA change regs to slow cars down and then allow them to get faster again. The problem is constantly slowing them down. The cars are underpowered as it is, for the downforce they have, but as the 2013 regs are meant to cause the cars to spend less of a lap at full throttle, this could massively improve things. Even the engine regs will work if they are kept stable and development is allowed – the cars will speed up.

    The tracks are a concern. In my eyes F1 is about racing at the best tracks, and while we do visit some corkers, there are a lot of duds, and Im talking about billiard table smooth, identical distances, same designer, and identical gradient (ie flat) tracks on the calendar. The run off doesnt worry me – as long as it doesnt interfere with the racing which at the moment it is – as safety is clearly important. Its just we have lost the amazing vairety in tracks. So many tracks are too short for F1 and some are too long to be marshalled. They dont need to be all 5km. Some can be flat out screamers – old Hockenheim. Others classic road course layout, with large gradients, and without the mess of hairpins and fast corners for the sake of it. And yes, some can be autodromes and street circuits.

    Although in the end, as long as F1 is about the best racing drivers in the best cars at the best tracks, it will survive – it has too much history and prestige behind it.

    Oh, and moving to remote controlled cars is a stupid idea. Nobody – I repeat nobody – will turn for a GP and F1 will die.

  15. Bernard said on 28th February 2011, 17:58

    The fluctuating lap times in that chart are more dependent on weather and track condition than regulations but there is undoubtedly a performance ceiling and has been for a while.

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