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. What if someone did a rival series with faster cars?
    Someone did. In the early 90s Group C cars were as quick or quicker on many circuits. Massive downforce, V-12s, massive turbo boost, made for some extraordinary cars. And they were leading edge by any means technically. It’s a disputed story, but it seems the FIA tried to kill it by requiring the use of the same motors as F1. There was also the recession, of course. But one could assume that, under the FIA umbrella, no rival, faster series would prosper.

    FIA long knives aside, presumably someone would try again now if the financial proposition were there. And as many have pointed out, faster doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive. CART used to scream all day about how they were the fastest series in the world, and it was much cheaper than F1. Technically true both, but it rang hollow around the world, and CART/Indy never came close to achieving the same reputation as F1.

    So maybe F1 has set the bar for speed at the right point. Noone complains that an Audi R-15 could theoretically dust the field at a GP, and no one complains that the speeds create unmanageable risks.

    Also, one great effect of the speed-diminishing rule changes is how it forces the engineers to recoup speed with less and less technical ambit. Look at how basic the 09 cars looked compared to now, 2 years later, and look how much performance has been recovered since they were stripped of their myriad aero devices and had increase structural requirements put on them. It is thrilling to see that.

    • Dipak T said on 28th February 2011, 18:30

      Noone complains that an Audi R-15 could theoretically dust the field at a GP, and no one complains that the speeds create unmanageable risks.

      As much as a techical marvel the Audi R15 is, I respectfullly would like to make this observation.

      No it couldnt.

      An F1 car would not be able to complete the 24hrs of Le Mans, and the R15 would be launguishing as the back of the F1 grid.

  2. When ever this argument comes up, it always ends up with a bunch of people, even the majority, which I find hard to handle, going on about being too fast, too unsafe, too expensive, blah blah.

    Human endevour is to make man better at what he does, and when an F1 car is being beaten for pure top end speed by a road car, then we’re not really pushing boundaries in the purest sense of a series all about who can get somewhere fastest.

    So, my suggestion : the F1P exhibition league. A prototype league, with a funding cap, but with the rulebook rewritten to allow a blank canvas approach to the concept of the race car. Safety is paramount of course, but we’ve be on top the in car safety for some time and arguably, the open cockpit is a disadvantage both aerodynamically and safety wise. Otherwise designers can use whatever techniques they want to employ in the design and production of the cars.

    This F1P league would allow the Adrian Neweys of the world to venture to create the fastest possible cars they can imagine.

    The challenges of this wil be different to the current cars, handling cars at such extreme speeds will be physically demanding and human strength and fitness will be crucial. Cornering speeds will require neck protection and when the speed of the car is greater than a driver can handle, the differential factor becomes the driver.

    Needless to say, tracks will have to accommodate the speed, perhaps with huge textured runoffs that scrub speed.

    There is a lot of discussion here, way more than one post can possibly allow, but for the sake off humanitys push in to the unreachable it should be done, after all, it’s only an exhibition league.

    Please don’t reply complaining about safety for fans and drivers a like. That’s a given. The principle is allowing the development of vehicles to their foremost achievable potential, and then racing them. Think Everest, moon landings, the bottom of the ocean, the sound barrier, the circumnavigation of the globe… Think of the reason humanity pushes forward, despite the danger.. That’s the F1P league.

    • Not a million miles off Keiths ‘Formula X’ in principle. But a different F1 flavour and a lot more ‘human endeavour’ notion.

      • So the best driver is the one that can stand the most ‘Gs’ ?

        Do we recruit these ‘drivers’ from lower formula or from the air force ?

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 1st March 2011, 11:18

        But you would have to run it a bit like Rally, with the cars on track separately to get the ultimate lap in. That might still be a nice format though.
        Just think of doing a real on track battle with those speeds (although fighter airplanes do so as well).

        • Hare (@hare) said on 1st March 2011, 11:36

          why? At what speed do you decide, ok.. we need to separate them? 200? 210? 250?

          • BasCB (@bascb) said on 1st March 2011, 12:20

            Good question. I don’t think it is just the speed, but the concentration needed just to run on track.
            But if these cars will have drive by wire, which they will defenitely have, engineers can probably counter that by having the computer assist to allow the driver to race.

    • Maciek said on 28th February 2011, 22:20

      That’s some cool ideas – but was F1 really ever about going fastest as the prime goal? That might sound silly, but I think that cars in every series are designed not only to go as fast as possible but to be on average the best over a certain race distance on certain types of tracks – which doesn’t necessarily translate into pure top speeds, since many other things have to be calculated into the designs. So you’re always going to have to compromise top speeds. Which doesn’t mean that F1 can’t/shouldn’t be faster. I guess the moment they started drastically reducing the number of engines allowed per year the speeds were inevitably going to come down in favour of reliability.

      • Hare said on 1st March 2011, 4:36

        F1 is constantly slowing down for safety reasons, and in the pursuit of refinement and manufacturer interests.

        Reaching the finish line before the competition is the name of the game in any form of racing. Being fast is important in that. Cornering is also important. It’s all in the balance.

        But F1 was and should be the all round fastest road car series IMO. F1P should be about pushing the limits to the technical potential, and seeing where the differential lies. It’s the point of human en devour, to go beyond our known boundaries.

  3. In terms of ‘speed’, F1 isn’t even the FIA’s ‘speediest’ series.

    Would anyone want to make a car that was better at doing what an F1 car does around the same circuits? They probably would and probably could, and probably for a fraction of the cost that F1 does it at. But the FIA and FOM would probably make life very difficult indeed for any series within its grasp that may look like it’s about to steal F1s thunder.

    For example, I’m told that the Superleague V12 4.2 litre engined cars are running in a relatively low state of tune. 750 bhp @ 12,000rpm from 4.2 litres isn’t really pushing the boat out (nice noise though). But speed isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of motor sport.

  4. AWiley said on 28th February 2011, 19:38

    I’m in the States, when I was a small boy I loved NASCAR. That series relegated technology to reign-in costs (although that’s honestly a farce because they still put a lot of engineering money into their cars)and focuses on so-called entertainment value. That was all good and great but at a certain point I grew an interest in engineering and discovered F1. All of a sudden NASCAR started looking like a cheesy reality show.I know that in order to pay for the show F1 needs some “entertainment-value” to lure in non-nerds. However, was it constant overtaking or a level-playing field or driver-drama that brought the 100K+ crowds to the old Nurburgring races? They would be lucky to see a car every 5 minutes once things got underway, much less any superficial “drama”. They came in droves to see all-out machines and heroically courageous drivers. That plus the noise was enough! If you think that F1 should head towards the NASCAR way of doing things, go watch football instead. I don’t watch F1 because it’s “relevant” (green) or entertaining in a tabloid way. I watch it because it’s an extraordinary adventure of speed, engineering, and courage in a world where iPhones pass as exciting engineering and the Concorde is grounded, along with the Space Shuttle after this year.

    • Maciek said on 28th February 2011, 22:28

      Well come on – the Concorde was just old; and same goes for NASA’s space shuttles – they really are an outdated technology that has done its duty, but it’s really time to figure out lighter, faster, cheaper ways to get into orbit. And it’s all good to be an engine purist, but what do you want, times change and you gotta roll with.

      • AWiley said on 1st March 2011, 2:08

        Yes,the Concorde is old, same with the Shuttle, that’s what gruffs me. There are no replacements in sight. We can’t do anything anymore unless it’s done “economically” or “sustain-ably”. True, economic restraint is a virtue, but if you hold to it like God’s law banality will be the result. I just like seeing limits being pushed. How ’bout we all drive eco-cars to feel good about our-selfs and watch uber-f1 as an escape? KERS and fuel restrictions are not going to save any polar bears (and 1000bhp engines didn’t kill any either). I Don’t care that pneumatic valves and carbon brakes will never make it to my VW. I watch racing for Speed not relevance!

        • BasCB (@bascb) said on 1st March 2011, 12:24

          Actually I know quit a lot of people happy with economic engines as it saves them a lot of money and stops when travelling, not for “feeling good” by being eco-minded.

          Why would you enjoy throwing away heaps of money, material and time invested in using a basically one-use space shuttle?
          Or having a car that is gas guzzling but achieves the same speed and comfort.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 1st March 2011, 11:25

      You do have a point, there.

      NASCAR went “low cost” with efectively a kit car, but still the biggest teams spend crazy amounts of money to get the little details right. Same is F1 with aero spending.

      And the Concorde and Space shuttle are a bit of the same. Taking innovation and then putting it one way and never look back from that path. Then suddenly NASCAR is losing crowds, the Concorde is dumped for safety, noise and environmental reasons (gas guzzling was too expensive) and the space shuttle was already an outdated concept before it made its first flight.

      But we have no alternatives, as they were so expensive to maintain nothing was left for innovation. So that is what is needed. Keep a reallity check on everything, and cost control to limit throwing away the money.

      Wow, that was a rant!

  5. Icthyes said on 28th February 2011, 19:51

    A lot of comments about an extreme racing series making it more about the driver. It doesn’t need to have extremes of speed, G-forces, etc. Nowadays Eau Rouge is a fright, but achievable by all drivers. Yet Kovalainen said last year that in his inferior (not his words) Lotus it was a challenge. Isn’t it revealing that the benchmark for speed Keith cited is at the track with the lowest downforce setting? This is where track design comes into it; every track nowadays seems to have 15+ corners, all dependant on good aero. If we have more Monzas, it might be a good start.

  6. Ok, so the lap time today is a little slower than the high water mark, but doesnt that make the 2010 fastest lap a little more fascinating? Despite the teams being regulated, restricted and scrutineered more on safety, isnt it great that the cars are still blitzing around the tracks in such quick times?

    Although motorsport is about being the ultimate racer in the ultimate car, the day of having massive engines which guzzle petrol quicker than a Geordie necking his pint on a night out, I think the move towards slightly slower cars for better performance is the right thing.

    We know how fast cars can go, and probably could go if they werent quite as restricted, but I think finding out how fast/far F1 cars can go on the smallest ammount to be the next logical step. Oil is getting more expensive, found largely in unstable regions of the world. The average regular car driver will want their car to go further on a tank of fuel compared with 20 years ago. Manufacturers respond to this demand, and try to make their cars as efficient as possible whilst maintaining a decent amount of power/torque/speed. To do this, they must develop their technologies in motorsport, i.e. F1.

  7. Adam Tate said on 28th February 2011, 21:58

    I don’t want to weigh in on this argument, I just want to say that I miss Montoya. I wish he could have found a happy home in F1 instead of defecting to Nascar.

  8. flyingj said on 28th February 2011, 22:43

    Some things I’ve never gotten. I mean, if you want to watch an overtaking fest and speed doesn’t matter, watch touring cars, or go carts or something. I’m a newish F1 fan, been watching sense 2008. I used to watch NASCAR before that, and the first thing I thought when I saw F1 for the first time was, “wow, they look way faster than NASCAR!” From, then on, I’ve been an avid F1 fan, becuase, on a road course (which is the most similar to the roads we drive on every day) basically no car is faster. And if F1 ceases to be the fastest road racing series on the planet, then I, and I suspect many of the drivers themselves, would change series.

  9. You cannot make cars go faster after a certain point, this is probably the fastest they can get at the moment, maybe a little faster like a few years ago.

    If cars become a lot quicker, overtaking will be near impossible, there will be a lot more crashes, it will become too hard for the drivers with increased G-force.

    A human body can only take so much, imagine a race with corners taken at 9G or more, impossible for a whole race, and the concentration level would be insane, brake 1/10th of a second too late and you’re gone.

    Therefore making cars faster is not an option, they are plenty fast enough !

    Unless of course you create new tracks made for a brand new type of car, but not faster cars on f1 tracks.

  10. Clay said on 1st March 2011, 0:44

    Haven’t time to read everyone’s comments but here’s mine:

    Ban wings. Have a degree of ground effect for faster corner speeds, and allow as much boost as people want, however this will be combined with fuel restrictions.

    The wings are what have ruined close racing. I always make the comparison to MotoGP, where they have more power than grip and no downforce and the racing is awesome. I just watched the ’07 season review and the race at Catalunya was incredible – look it up on youtube if you haven’t seen it. Tell me when the last time was that racing like that for the lead happened in F1…

    The changes to the cars have been done to control corner speeds primarily, at least in the last few years. But they are also in place to improve racing. F1 is all about the entertainment now, rather than pure speed or building the best car possible. So go the whole way – get rid of the areas of the cars that limit good, close racing – i.e. the front wings – reintroduce a degree of ground effect which is not affected by the wake of the car in front, and that should sort it out.


  11. manatcna (@manatcna) said on 1st March 2011, 1:28

    I wonder how long it will be before the engine size gets below 998cc

  12. uh that monza graph is bad.
    all it shows is the times when the engine regulations were reduced.

    cmon keith, you should know that. take a look at melbourne or another track that isnt 100% engine-based and has been little changed for many years. I know, for sure, that in Melbourne we’ll get a much different picture to the one you showed.

    • Adam Tate said on 1st March 2011, 3:54

      Great point Dave!

      I remember this last season that Vettel was lapping faster at Melbourne than any driver had since Schumacher in 04!

      Anyone else remember/can verify that? I think the commentators on Speed is where I heard it from.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 1st March 2011, 8:22

      that monza graph is bad.

      all it shows is the times when the engine regulations were reduced.

      cmon keith, you should know that.

      I do know that. It’s a big part of the point of the article.

  13. wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 1st March 2011, 2:39

    I don’t think it will ever come back, the more days it will go I believe F1 will be slower as they are trying to reduce cost & because of the aero rule which is to provide more downforce & the cars are getting heavier it will be tough to do lap time like they did in 2004.

  14. Oliver said on 1st March 2011, 7:16

    The current F1 is all about chicanes and hairpins and then a straight to cool the engines.

    F1 shouldn’t be about economy, we have other racing categories that cater to that need.
    Speed need not involve high costs.
    Constant changes in the regulations only add to the cost and deduct from the spectacle which only tends to bankrupt the smaller teams.

  15. Oliver said on 1st March 2011, 7:52

    The concorde maybe old and the Shuttle approaching that status, it is however an indictment of the current state of engineering that with the advances made in the area of computing we are yet unable to surpass these things made in the era of the sliderule.

    Even the designers of the Aries crew compartment module had to go back to the designs of the Apollo command and sercice modules to find out how they did the in-orbit module seperation.
    The relationship with F1 is that we are having few brave and bold thinkers and are looking towards a committee to make basic design decisions.
    Why I agree with AWiley is that F1 to all intent and purpose isn’t practical, old technology or not, and since I won’t be driving an F1 car to the supermarket, I need not be bothered about things like MPG or windshield wipers.

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