2002 to 2012: Ten ways F1 has improved in ten years


Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Montreal, 2012The standard of racing in Formula One has been a hotly-debated subject for several years.

Those who write the rules need to satisfy often contradictory demands. Such as embracing high technology, yet controlling costs. Or, providing an exciting spectacle – but one which is also safe.

This has led to changes in how tracks and cars are designed, and provoked the introduction of technologies such as KERS and DRS, not to mention the current generation of tyres.

The merits of these individual changes have provoked considerable debate, not least on this website. But if we take them all together, and look at the big picture, F1 seems increasingly to be getting it right.

Turning back the clock ten years, we had a one-sided championship, dreary races and a shrinking grid. Here’s how F1 has improved since then.

Slick tyres

2002: Grooved tyres
2012: Slick tyres

In an attempt to cut cornering speeds and improve safety, grooves were added to F1 tyres in 1998. How successful the experiment was can be gauged from the fact that no other major series copied the move – bar GP2 for a single season in 2005 – and the plan was scrapped ten years later.

Multiple sports car champion and former F1 driver Derek Bell summed up the shortcomings of the tyres when watching the Canadian Grand Prix in 1999: “They’re some of the most uncomfortable looking racing cars I’ve ever seen.”

The tyre war gave the drivers some of their grip back, but this also served to undo the point of grooved tyres, which was to slow the cars down. Happily, F1 has since navigated its way out of that backwater and reintroduced proper racing slicks.

No tyre war

Jarno Trulli, Renault, Magny-Cours, 20022002: Bridgestone vs Michelin
2012: Pirelli control tyres

The ‘tyre war’ was a big part of the reason why the 2002 season was so one-sided and dull. Because it wasn’t a “war” at all, it was near-total domination by Bridgestone.

That in itself might not have been a problem had Bridgestone’s development not been centred around a single team, who in turn centred all their efforts around a single driver.

The team was Ferrari and the driver was Michael Schumacher. Ferrari swept the board, winning 15 races. The drivers’ championship came to its earliest ever conclusion – the title was decided in July with six races left to run.

In 2006, the FIA decided F1 needed to have a single tyre supplier so tyre performance and cornering speeds could be controlled for safety reasons. Pirelli took over as tyre supplier in 2011 and, at the urging of the teams, have supplied tyres designed to challenge the drivers and technicians.

This they have certainly succeeded in. The result has been more exciting and unpredictable races. The tyre have also lessened the importance of sheer downforce in car performance, and allowed cars to race closer together.

The result has been closer, more exciting and less predictable racing. Would I go back to the days of a single driver enjoying bespoke tyres and crushing the field every weekend? No chance.

Refuelling banned

Mika Salo, Toyota, Sepang, 20022002: Refuelling
2012: No refuelling

The introduction of in-race refuelling to F1 in 1994 was a classic example of a knee-jerk introduction of a concept that worked well in another series (in this case, IndyCar), without adequate thought being given to whether it would work in Formula 1.

In-race refuelling works in IndyCar racing because safety car (caution) periods are more frequent, encouraging teams to pursue risky strategies in a bid to gain track position. That usually isn’t the case in F1, and other factors such as longer tracks and one pit box per team mean that in-race refuelling made F1 races more predictable, not less.

The necessity of refuelling also gave teams the luxury of avoiding having to make passes on the track. Instead of trying to pass they could hasten or postpone their inevitable pit stop, allowing them to find clear space on the track where they could lap quickly without the inconvenience of having to overtake anyone.

Happily, the refuelling ban in 2010 largely did away with that.

More teams

2002: 22 cars at the start, 20 by the end
2012: 24 cars

The escalating cost of competing in F1 took its toll on the world championship in 2002. Despite the arrival of the new Toyota team, the season ended with fewer competitors than the year before.

The Prost team folded before the season began and Arrows disappeared after the German Grand Prix. On both occasions there was no-one ready to stump up the cash to take over the teams and keep them going.

The situation today is better, if not ideal. There are more teams competing, but those at the back are still under pressure – note Marussia and HRT’s failure to appear with their new cars in pre-season testing.

However we have had a stable entry list for the past three years and the teams are still working to keep costs down and increase their share of the sport’s enormous earnings.

Hopefully in the near future another entrant can be found to finally get F1 back up to a full grid of 26 cars – something which last happened 17 years ago.

More competitive teams

Start, Suzuka, 20022002: One team far ahead of the rest
2012: Top nine covered by a second

Formula 1 is much more competitive now than it was ten years ago. At the 2002 Spanish Grand Prix the Ferraris had nine tenths of a second in hand over their rivals in qualifying.

At the same race this year the 15 fastest qualifiers from nine different teams were covered by less than a second.

While the 2002 season was all about one driver in one car, now F1 is closer the talents of the drivers count for more – as Red Bull’s Helmut Marko admits: “In times of stable regulations the cars become more and more alike – and when that happens the driver becomes key again to make the difference.”

More top drivers

2002: Two champions, seven race winners
2012: Six champions, eleven race winners

Two years ago Jackie Stewart hailed the current group of drivers as the best F1 has had since the sixties.

Since then it’s got even better – the return of Kimi Raikkonen and the ascendancy of Sebastian Vettel means we now have six world champions on the grid – more than any other season in F1 history.

Back in 2002, Mika Hakkinen’s retirement (or “sabbatical” as it was called at the time) meant there were just two world champions in the sport and one of them, Jaques Villeneuve, was lumbered with the disastrously uncompetitive BAR.

Nico Rosberg and Pastor Maldonado’s maiden wins this year means almost half the field are race-winners.

Better points system

2002: Points for the top six
2012: Points for the top ten

It’s not uncommon to see 20 or more cars finishing the races now, so it makes sense to have a points system that reflects that. If anything it could do with being extended further.

Ten years ago the value of winning was proportionally higher: A win was worth 66.6% more than finishing second, today it’s fallen to 38.8%. I preferred to see winning rewarded more highly, but the system we have now remains a (minor) improvement.

Better calendar

Sergio Perez, Sauber, Buddh International Circuit, 20112002: 17 races
2012: 20 races

The best thing the current F1 calendar has going for it over that of ten years ago is that it’s longer. The world championship has become more worldwide, with China, India, Singapore, South Korea and others joining the roster of venues.

When it comes to the quality of the tracks on the calendar, it’s hard to choose between the two. The short, compact A1-Ring produced some good races (though not in 2002) and Imola was a superb setting for a race, although the track had been infested with chicanes. Magny-Cours had little to commend it.

The new additions since then are, at best, a mixed bag. Valencia and Yas Marina are particularly poor but Singapore is at least distinctive and the Circuit of the Americas looks promising.

Other tracks have been tweaked in the interim, usually for the worse. They include the Circuit de Catalunya, which has lost some of its charm, and Spa-Francorchamps, which sprouted a truly horrible new chicane in 2007. The upgraded Silverstone is an exception.

On balance, I’d take the calendar of 2012 but it’s a matter of quantity over quality.

Less testing

2002: Unrestricted testing
2012: Limited in-season testing

This year teams will cover around 75,000km of testing. That’s a fair amount, more than ten Grand Prix distances per car. But it’s dwarfed by the amount of ground being covered ten years ago – over 267,000km, according to Forix.

The restrictions placed on testing in recent years means that the sessions which do take place have much better coverage. This doesn’t just include the test sessions themselves, but also practice sessions at race weekends, where fans can rely on seeing much more activity on track.

Testing restrictions prevent teams from spending their way to success, the positive effects of which we have already seen in closer field and fewer teams dropping out of the sport.

Limited testing is a big part of the reason why Formula 1 has improved in recent years, as Lotus team principal Eric Boullier explains: “Part of the unpredictability is coming from the fact that we have no more testing. You have to come with new parts and new ideas in Friday testing. You cannot do it one week [earlier] somewhere in Spain; you have to do it on a race weekend.”

Improved stewarding

Start, Sepang, 20022002: No drivers on stewards’ panel
2012: Stewards panel includes drivers’ advisers, more information given on some rulings

Stewarding has always been and probably always will be a contentious issue. But in recent years the stewarding process has become clearer, the rules more transparent, and the decision-making progress improved by the addition of drivers’ advisers to the stewards.

One moment from the 2002 season which sticks in my mind is Juan Pablo Montoya’s penalty in the 2002 Malaysian Grand Prix, quite one of the most astonishingly egregious verdicts ever to come down from the stewards. Even Schumacher, who had collided with Montoya at the first corner at the start, felt it was the wrong call and said so.

At times these days it still feels like some decisions take too long, the rules are not sufficiently clear or the punishment does not fit the crime. But do I have more confidence in the stewards now than ten years ago? Yes.

…and a few things F1 is still getting wrong

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham, Montreal, 2012F1 has got more things right than wrong in the last ten years but it’s not all rosy.

I’m no fan of how the rules have forced a strange look upon the current cars, with out-of proportion front and rear wings, oversized rear endplates and (for the most part) stepped nose.

I like the current ‘knockout’ qualifying system more or less the same as the simple hour of free qualifying used in 2002. However the rule forcing drivers who qualify in the top ten to start on the tyres they qualified with does nothing for the racing and strikes me as rule-making for the sake of it.

The quality of F1 broadcasting has clearly improved, but here in Britain its pricing has become a significant concern. Although ITV’s ad-ridden coverage in 2002 was nothing special, it was at least live and free-to-air. Those who wanted more in-depth coverage had the option of subscribing to F1 Digital+ on Sky.

If ever a service was before its time, it was F1 Digital +. In Britain at least, digital television coverage was far from widespread when the service was canned at the end of 2002. Today only half the races are live and free-to-air, and viewing figures have slumped by around one million. F1’s television model in the UK in 2002 was surely a better deal for the viewer.

Finally, there’s DRS. An ill-conceived and grossly unfair gimmick which has done more to harm racing in F1 than improve it, as the Canadian Grand Prix surely proved.

Over to you

Were you watching F1 in 2002? How does the sport now compare to ten years ago?

What’s changed for the better, and what’s changed for the worse? Have your say in the comments.


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153 comments on 2002 to 2012: Ten ways F1 has improved in ten years

  1. matt90 (@matt90) said on 14th June 2012, 14:08

    I think I agree with just about every point (particularly DRS and one tyre manufacturer), although I won’t make a decision on the quality of tracks until we see how the promising COTA actually turns out, although I look forward to both that and particularly New Jersey next year.

    Other points:
    Although frozen engines and the change from V8’s has good points, I prefer it like it used to be. 1000bhp engines were much more exciting, and engine development is in my mind an integral part of F1’s history. I probably wouldn’t have minded about the loss of V10’s if the V8’s had been developed properly, with less restrictive rev limits. I hope they don’t freeze the new engines soon after they’re introduced, although it unfortunately would make economic sense. I just hope that they find other areas to save money to justify loosening up engine rules. I also hope something can be done in the future to loosen up more of the technical regulations, but that will rely so much on whether budget restrictions are used or if costs in other areas are significantly reduced.

  2. duncanmonza (@duncanmonza) said on 14th June 2012, 14:09

    2002 wasn’t a great season, but some seasons in that era were great, such as 2000 and 2003.
    Personally, I don’t like the look of the current cars or DRS, I’d prefer the Bridgestone slicks and the 2003-2009 points system, and I wouldn’t mind a bit more power and downforce.
    I do, however, like the lack of refueling, and the control tyres.
    My dream for Formula One is just to have close rivalries at the top, such as 2007, where the top 3 were seperated by 1 point, or 2000, where the top 4 were separated by 10 points, 2/3rds of the way through the season. Also for limited strategy, I prefer it when the best driver wins.
    I think 2010 was the best season I have watched in the last decade.

  3. Girts (@girts) said on 14th June 2012, 14:15

    I was watching every Grand Prix in 2002 just as I do now and I can basically agree with all 10 points. However, I think that 2002 was particularly dull and that we need to turn the clock only some years back or ahead to find a very good season. In 1997, one of the very best years in the F1 history, you would see a different picture:

    1) Slick tyres
    2) Healthy tyre competition: All the leading teams were using Goodyear but the Bridgstone teams managed to score some podiums, too.
    3) 22 cars (there would have been 24 if Lola had managed to get their project running)
    4) Good competition: 9 of 11 teams managed to get on the podium at least once. The 1997 season saw 6 different winners and 15 different drivers on the podium in 17 races.
    5) I don’t think that a high number of world champions on the grid neccesarily means it has a relatively high quality. Nevertheless, there were 4 existing or upcoming world champions and 15 existing or upcoming race winners on the 1997 grid.
    6) Pretty good-looking cars
    7) High unreliability, which increased the excitement and probably helped the weakest of 19 different drivers to score points even though only the first six got them then.
    8) A couple of good circuits that I miss now were then still on the calendar, like Imola or Spielberg.
    9) A championship battle that went down to the wire and an epic finale at Jerez
    10) If I remember correctly, there were less penalties for ‘causing avoidable collisions”, which, in my opinion, should mostly be avoided.

    I agree that more races, testing restrictions, the current qualifying format, probably also no refuelling and a couple of other things make the 2012 even slightly better than the 1997 was. But F1 changes, goes up and down all the time. I believe that 2002, 2004 and 2011 were low points but I think that the sport has been in a healthy shape for most of the time during the last 15 years.

  4. Nick.UK (@) said on 14th June 2012, 14:47

    Just something i noticed regarding the coverage in the UK. The BBC highlights for Canada only cut out 11 minutes of track action, so you could argue that it was just as good as it was before minus a few of the tedius laps in the middle. When you consider Monza is only an hour and 20 minutes anyway (in dry condictions) it’s possible to think that we may end up able to watch the whole race, just a couple of hours delayed.

    What does annoy me though, is that Eddie Jordan no longer attends races that are not live by the looks of it. He was in Australia, probably just as it was the first one, and maybe he chose not to attend Bahrain for a different reason. But to my knowledge he wasn’t in Malaysia or Canada; and I’m quite dissapointed in his apparent lack of effort this year.

    • Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 14th June 2012, 15:24

      Yeah, it was great to have a two-hour highlights show (I hope they do it again with the US Grand Prix) but I suspect the highlights show from Monza won’t be as long because it’s prime time.

      They’d have had to cut more laps out if Eddie Jordan had been on the show, just to fit him in… but at least he wasn’t writing a blog that gave the impression he was there, unlike James Allen.

  5. Overwatch (@overwatch) said on 14th June 2012, 14:49

    Well we can say that the tyre situation turned around in 2005 and maybe 2006, except obviously Indy 2005…

  6. TED BELL said on 14th June 2012, 14:52

    Ten years ago when one team dominated it was actually good for Formula One as they reaped the rewards of getting it all right, and the competition simply couldn’t keep up. This what GrandPrix racing has always been about… unlocking the key to that competitive edge where the advantage gained by clever usage of talent throught that team resulted in race victories. I call it the Chapman affect.
    The seven driver victories in seven races this season pales in comparison to when Schumacher was wiping up all who came before him in the F2002.

    • Robbie (@robbie) said on 14th June 2012, 16:05

      While I don’t disagree with the sentiment of a team reaping the rewards for getting it all right, and that being what F1 should be all about, I am vehemently opposed to how FIA/MS/Ferrari went about their effort…by selling out and “foregoing the spirit of racing for the sake of share value” as Patrick Head put it way back when.

      To me what MS did was prove what an F1 driver can do when given a designer car and tires and a non-competing teammate by contract, the team an extra 100 mill just because they were Ferrari, and veto power on rule changes as well as the power of 3 seats on the board vs. everyone else’s one. So for me, while their numbers compilation looked impressive, it was not an apples to apples comparison of MS to the other drivers on the grid, to an extreme unprecedented before and I predict never to be repeated again.

      I can appreciate much more the domination of SV last year without all the extreme treatment that MS had.

    • David-A (@david-a) said on 14th June 2012, 17:13

      I have enjoyed the 7 winners in 7 races, but I otherwise agree Ted Bell!

    • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 15th June 2012, 23:36

      Ferrari were able to dominate due to their vast resources and funds as much as anything else. Schumacher did help significantly though, there is no denying he was a great driver.

  7. DaveW (@dmw) said on 14th June 2012, 14:52

    Good timely piece. As a victim of Ferrari domination in the 90s—getting up at the crack of dawn to see Schumacher romp to another 30 second victory, I agree that this is a bright new day, relatively.

    I still disagree about the refueling. I don’t know how people say that taking it away forced people to pass on the track. It’s no different than now as you have to stop to change tires. The Lack of refueling didn’t compel Alonso to try to pass Hamilton and Vettel on track on Sunday instead of trying the undercut. It’s safer, is all. If there is a real advantage to getting rid of refueling its that it makes pit stop performance more important. There is now real drama there…to see whether McLaren will screw up again.

    The other key point is the quality of the drivers. Why is this? It could be because careers are longer now. 6 of the drivers from 2002 are on the grid now. 3 of them are champions. I find that fairly amazing.

  8. xivizmath (@xivizmath) said on 14th June 2012, 14:59

    2002: V10’s
    2012: V8’s

    2002 wins by miles for me.

  9. vjanik said on 14th June 2012, 15:00

    Brabham invented refueling in F1 in 1982. (so long before 1994)

    My oppinion on refueling (or racing in general) is give teams the freedom come up with interesting solutions to win races (like the idea that a lighter car is faster and even alowing for a pitstop you can win a race like that). The less rules we have telling teams what they can and cant do the better. Why do teams have to use both types of tyre for example?

  10. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 14th June 2012, 15:07

    The necessity of refuelling also gave teams the luxury of avoiding having to make passes on the track … Happily, the refuelling ban in 2010 largely did away with that.

    I think there’s still a stink around in F1 from this.
    The teams seem unwilling to depart from what their simulations and strategy programmes tell them to do, and risk extra tyre changes late in the race. Hopefully Lewis Hamilton’s success in Canada will encourage teams and drivers to wing it a bit more. Easily said in hindsight, though.

  11. Tom (@newdecade) said on 14th June 2012, 15:09

    The tyre degradation also gave teams the luxury of avoiding having to make passes on the track. Instead of trying to pass they could hasten or postpone their inevitable pit stop, allowing them to find clear space on the track where they could lap quickly without the inconvenience of having to overtake anyone.

    Also which year had the predictable dominant winner and finishing orders: 2001 or 2011? It is a little unfair to pick on the early 2000s, especially when 2003 was one of the most exciting seasons of the decade. If someone goes on to dominate next year, will that still be compared favourably to 2003?

  12. Carlitox (@carlitox) said on 14th June 2012, 15:14

    I remember that back in 2008, when I learned about the rule changes, I said I wanted to change the height of the front wing (more close to the floor), keep its width, keep the rear wings as they were, and clean up all the bodywork, no flaps. And of course, slick tyres, with the rear ones a bit bigger than the front ones (this become true in 2010). For me that would’ve helped get rid of the turbulence while still mantaining a good look of the cars.

    Still, I always think, what would F1 have been like in 2002, if Pirelli was the only tyre supplier (regardless of whether they were slick or grooved)? It’s interesting to think about that…

  13. Hotbottoms (@hotbottoms) said on 14th June 2012, 15:28

    I agree with most of the list, but there are few “improvements” that I disagree with:

    I don’t think the new point system is any better than the old one. It’s great regarding the mid-field battles, but it does little to encourage winning. Not only does the second driver get propotionally more points compared to winner than before, but so does every driver from 3rd place to 10th. This might artificially keep the fight for the championship up longer for more drivers than before, but it also makes winning races less significant and retiring a catasthrophe. Winning three races in a row doesn’t give a driver a huge advantage over other drivers, but if a driver retires three times in a row, he’s in big trouble.

    I also like the look of the 2012 cars. I don’t know if they’re better than the cars ten years ago, but I don’t think they look worse either.

  14. Julian (@julian) said on 14th June 2012, 15:39

    The first thing I thought when I saw this article was the one thing we currently have wrong but didn’t back then.

    The ugly out of proportion cars. Glad it got a mention in the end. Haha :)

    Great article as always Keith. Keep up the good work.

  15. Chris (@tophercheese21) said on 14th June 2012, 15:54

    Great article and a great read. Although I think DRS. Is ultimately a force for good, in hat, it’s still a work in progress, yes the passing in Canada was too easy, so for next years race they can make it shorter so it’s not so easy next time. I guess it’s more or less a process of trial and error; what works asunder what doesn’t.

    But at the same time you have people who hate DRS because they think it provides artificial overtaking, and I guess it’s a case of: “everyone likes shooting, but no one likes getting shot”. So if you love overtaking someone with DRS, but at the same time, you don’t like it when someone does it to you.

    At the end of the day you just have to accept the rules, because that’s just the way it is. And let’s face it, my opinion, and 99% of anyone else’s opinions make 0% impact on what the FIA choose to do with the sport.

    • William Brierty said on 14th June 2012, 15:58

      Exactly, well said. F1 is what it is at the moment so watch it, enjoy it, and if you’re a purist just wait, because, inevitably, the F1 regs will change again with the eternal evolution of the sport.

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