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

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

  1. William Brierty said on 14th June 2012, 15:54

    I agree about how dull the 2002 season was, in fact my policy was watch qualifying, the first lap and then see who won on the news later that evening. I adopted that policy as of the second race of 2001 until the second race of 2003, because I was quite disappointed to have missed such an exciting race as the 2003 Australian Grand Prix. However I don’t agree with this negative view on DRS. In 2002 track position and a long 7th gear would have won you the race, even if you were doing Minardi speeds through the corners, but now genuinely faster cars can pass using the DRS. Remember how many races were ruined by front-running cars getting traffic after pitting and being unable to pass, or having to wear out its tyres to pass? Does that happen now? No. And remember what the FIA said? The length of DRS zones would take several seasons to perfect, because of course the aim is just to get the cars side-by-side in the breaking zone. OK, that was not the case in the rather DRS-extreme Turkey ’11, Abu Dhabi ’11, Korea ’11, Canada ’11/’12, but at races like China ’11/’12, Spain ’11, India ’11, Australia ’12 and Britain ’11, I think DRS was perfect, simply allowing a greater chance of an overtake.

    • Robbie (@robbie) said on 14th June 2012, 16:46

      Imho I see nothing wrong with doing away with the phenomenon of faster cars being held up by slower cars ad infinitum due to aero dependancy and the handcuffing that goes on when one is in dirty air, but I do not like an artificial gadget as the solution, especially when it takes the extreme of making the car being passed look silly and helpless in what is supposed to be the pinnacle of racing. I do appreciate that they are working on it, that there is some improvement, particularly I think when the DRS zone is shortened. But ultimately I wish for a continuation of mechanical grip through the tires, and reduction in wing useage (diffuser trickery, EBD, F-ducts) such that the cars are less aero dependant, and thus the need for a gadget can be eliminated. I have always appreciated that F1 prefers not quantity but quality of passes…they wish passing to be rare enough and difficult enough that we talk about certain daring passes for years to come…and I don’t see how DRS helps that. I think it panders to those who think more passing is better just for the sake of it being more. I think a little more passing than we had in 02 is better, but F1 doesn’t need to be Nascar. Even Nascar laughed at DRS.

      And I am not convinced that we the fans have no say in this. I think that if viewership fell off the cliff for whatever reason changes would be made. Something made them go to DRS. Maybe it wasn’t for the fans. Perhaps FIA decided they needed to appease the owners/sponsors of the lesser teams and show them that they have a chance to be competitive so they will stay in F1. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the majority of fans’ reaction to DRS in a negative way last year that has caused them to tweak it to where it is now, with likely further tweaks to follow.

      I still prefer JV’s opinion that he expressed back when they introduced grooved tires, which he thought was a mistake and Keith now is saying “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.” What JV called for back then was a return to the big fat slicks of the 70′s. His opinion being that those fatties provided so much drag down the straightaways that in order to achieve any kind of respectable speeds you had to run less wing…thus killing two birds with one stone…fat slicks providing great mechanical grip, and the necessity to run less wing, thus making the cars less aero dependant and providing for seat of the pants racing by the driver using skill and mechanical grip, as opposed to being held up ad infinitum, or in some people’s opinion worse, a gadget to make the passing look and be too easy.

      • William Brierty said on 14th June 2012, 17:51

        Oh God not you again, but I’m not being sucked into another one. I like DRS when the DRS zone is the correct length, like China this year, you and JV don’t like DRS, fine, everyone’s got an opinion. End of.

        • Robbie (@robbie) said on 14th June 2012, 18:26

          Exactly, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and a forum like this is where opinions get expressed. And sometimes people don’t agree. And sometimes people half agree. Why does this seem so hard for you to get? “Oh God not you again?” Gimme a break. The majority of us don’t like DRS, including Keith. Shall you be giving the “Oh God not you again” to him too? My goodness if you can take off the “only my opinion counts” blinders you might actually see that some of us don’t mind the season we are having but think that it can be even better and more real knowing as you correctly have pointed out it is a work in progress. Outlandish isn’t it? These opinions, these discussions, these debates. The horror…the horror!

  2. AkaSparks (@akasparks) said on 14th June 2012, 16:18

    DRS is a nightmare. The whole concept of ‘sport’ is the defense and offense split a roughly 50/50 chance of succeeding in their goal! With DRS the defense has essentially no chance.

    Being Canadian… the best comparison is watching a break away in hockey… you tell me what is more exciting: Break away’s with a goalie in the net or break away’s with no goalie? With DRS it’s like watching 25 empty net break away’s a game.

    I’m not a fan of Hamilton but he definitely deserved the Montreal win… just wish the defenders could have at least tried to defend.

    • John H (@john-h) said on 14th June 2012, 19:27

      Ah that sinking feeling when a talented defending driver is helpless to a guy with less rear wing.

      It’s so frustrating knowing that the people that run the sport do not agree with the majority of the fans with regards DRS. We are told it is a work in progress well for Pete’s sake try a race with no DRS zone but with the Pirelli tyres and see how we get on.

      There is no control experiment.

  3. Dizzy said on 14th June 2012, 16:54

    2002 wasn’t necisarily boring, While it maybe was dull at the front at times there was some great racing going on a bit further back.

    Also I think its intresting in that how you watched F1 in 2002 changed your opinion of races.
    For instance while the world-feed directors often stuck with the lead cars, The F1 digital+ director would go to where the best racing was so races always seemed a lot more exciting & intresting when watching via that service.

    i actually think 2004 was worse than 2002 because there was less action going on overall & no f1 digital+ service to save you from the often abysmal local directors.

    as to whats changed & improved, I think the only thing really wrong with f1 now is drs & the tyre rules. ditch drs & allow pirelli to bring all compounds to all races to give teams/driver total freedom on how they run there races & i think we’d have some great racing.

  4. StefMeister (@stefmeister) said on 14th June 2012, 17:08

    I think one problem with DRS that people overlook is that its seemingly reducing the will to do anything else.

    When DRS was introduced we were told it would be a temporary solution in place untill 2014 & that we would get a lot of changes to the cars to create better racing without the need for things like DRS.
    However because those within F1/FOTA now see DRS as been a huge success they have scrapped most of the aero changes for 2014 & DRS now seems to be something thats been talked about as a more permanent solution.
    Abu-Dhabi was also going to make circuit changes to encourage better racing yet they also scrapped the proposals having seen DRS ‘work’.

    Paddy Lowe for example came out a few months back & openly said that DRS takes away the need to make any further changes to the cars.

    DRS is nothing but a band-aid thats covering up the underlying problems rather than actually fixing or improving them. The real problems that hindered racing the past 10-15 years are still there & will remain there as long as DRS stays.

  5. Gubstar said on 14th June 2012, 17:23

    There have been lots of improvement as Keith has stated, and I agree with them. But DRS is definately an issue. Surely with the tyres this year being so random, we dont need DRS to improve the overtaking, as the difference in wear is enough for someone to make an overtake. Like the previous comment, DRS is a bandaid covering the real problem………..aero grip Vs mechanical grip. If we had late 80′s – early 90′s levels of both, but the modern day safety standards and materials to build the cars, we would have a better show without the gimmicks. And then at least drivers could then have a shot at defending a position. The cars would also look better, especially the proportion of the wings

  6. Juan Pablo Heidfeld (@juan-pablo-heidfeld-1) said on 14th June 2012, 17:24

    One thing missing from the current grid is Juan Pablo Montoya :(

  7. th13teen (@th13teen) said on 14th June 2012, 18:14

    I agree with most, apart from the DRS! I am sorry, but you moan about dreary races and the same old same old! Don’t complain about DRS, maybe they should limit the amount of times you can use it per race! But, Just think how boring this season would be without it! You said it yourself the top 15 are covered by a second! How the bloody hell, would the cars be able to overtake with those sorts of margins (forgetting about tyre degredation)

    However in some ways I would feel they should re-introduce refueling for races such as Monaco, that are the dull of all dull races (spectator wise)

    • PeteF12012 said on 14th June 2012, 19:54

      Just think how boring this season would be without it!

      i don’t think it would be that different as pretty much all of the ‘excitement’ is been generated by the tyres.

      all drs is doing is producing boring & unexciting highway passes that are harming the quality of the actual racing & not helping it.

      • Robbie (@robbie) said on 14th June 2012, 20:03

        Yeah I agree PeteF12012. I think the cars would still be as close, and I think it would all be about tire degradation…who nailed the setup vs. temp combo such that they are hooked up that day, who happens to be in what window at what time, who’s tires are falling off the cliff, and who is trying to make them go the distance in spite of that (often but not always) inevitability. I know for myself if there were only two options I would prefer a bit of a procession and having the drivers know that they simply have to hang it out there and try to pass at some point, as opposed to simply hanging back and yawning their way by on DRS.

  8. bosyber (@bosyber) said on 14th June 2012, 18:14

    I think I can agree mostly with what you are writing Keith, though I’m not up on the details. The end of 2001, and 2002, marked a period where I didn’t have good access to F1, nor time to watch. I also lost quite a bit of interest during 2002, to be honest, which resulted in me only seeing parts of the next three seasons (sadly, I didn’t miss that one Indianapolis race, sigh) and only again seeing much of 2006, but even then, I didn’t see all of 2007 either (tiresome the HAM vs. ALO stuff :-p).

    For me a lot of stuff is better nowadays, not the least, as @blunt and @bullfrog say, the greater openness and more information that we see. Maybe if I had discovered F1Fanatic before 2008, I would have returned earlier :)

  9. th13teen (@th13teen) said on 14th June 2012, 18:17

    If your car is quicker you can re-take on the next lap in the DRS zone! So whats the problem!?
    Just watch oval racing, its basicly DRS for 200 laps, all they do is retake each other over and over!
    However as I said they really do need a cap to say 15 times a race to use DRS, or something like that!

    • John H (@john-h) said on 14th June 2012, 19:35

      That’s exactly why some dislike oval racing though. The art of defensive driving was part of F1 driving skill. It’s been chepened somewhat nowadays.

    • PeteF12012 said on 14th June 2012, 19:57

      Just watch oval racing, its basicly DRS for 200 laps

      and thats why hardly anyone watches oval racing now.

      nascar oval attendance/viwing figures have plummeted the past few years & indycar hasn’t drew a crowd on an oval outside indy for the best part of a decade.

      cart had that hanford wing on the big ovals & it produced nothing but drs style passing & everyone turned off & the crowds at the ovals they ran it were practically zero.

      • Robbie (@robbie) said on 14th June 2012, 20:27

        Yeah guys I think it comes down to the quality of the pass, no? @th13teen…what’s the problem? The quality of the DRS pass. I get your comparison to oval racing, but somehow I can at least wrap my head around drafting…but yeah Pete I forgot about that Hanford plank…that was not good either. I definitely prefer Indycars and Nascar on road/street courses and wish there were more of a proportion of the races leaning toward them. @th13teen…I like your idea of (if we must have DRS) limiting the number of times a driver can use it in a race.

    • matt90 (@matt90) said on 14th June 2012, 20:49

      What if your car isn’t quicker? The overtake is over, like a motorway pass, no excitement at all anywhere, whereas if they defended, the driver behind would actually be challenged to make an exciting pass before disappearing into the distance.

  10. Mike the bike Schumacher (@mike-the-bike-schumacher) said on 14th June 2012, 18:37

    This almost spans how long i’ve watched F1 for. I agree with most of what has been said, however, if this was done just last year, u could not make the comparison of 1 driver domination and an open championship. I don’t think it’ll ever matter about the rules, tracks, difficulty of overtaking etc, there will always be open seasons and ones dominated by a single driver. Even look at the year after 2002, 2003 was open as hell! 3 drivers in the championship and 8 different winners i think. 2010: 5 contenders, 2011: 1 driver. So I don’t think u can say that because this year has more drivers in the championship hunt, that it is an ‘Improvement’.
    Also i prefer the 02 calender, at least there was no gutless circuits with just fancy architecture, *ahem abu dhabi* altho some additions such as China are good.
    As for the points system, i think by 02, the tide was just beginning to turn in terms of reliability and number of cars finishing the races, so the introduction of points to eighth in 03 was about right. It should never be easy to score points, think 02 system was right for its time, as is the current one.

  11. Fixy (@fixy) said on 14th June 2012, 19:02

    I agree with all the pros and all the cons. However, I don’t care if F1 is enjoyable if I can’t see it as it’s on Sky.

  12. John H (@john-h) said on 14th June 2012, 19:32

    I’ve been quite critical of 2012 on this site but this article is helping to change my opinion on things.

    I have watched F1 since 1990 and there is one thing that is missing a little bit… That sense of danger. Safety should always be priority of course and in no way would I want things to be more dangerous, I’m just stating how that sense of danger that got you nervous at the start of a race has now diminished… which I guess is actually a good thing.

  13. GeorgeDaviesF1 (@georgedaviesf1) said on 14th June 2012, 19:33

    Started watching in 04, love it. DRS needs fine tuning a little, nothing major adds to starategy slightly, other than that, nought wrong. Although would love V10′s back

  14. charles (@charles) said on 14th June 2012, 19:35

    Micheal Schumacher would disagree that it improved

  15. Gillis said on 14th June 2012, 20:02

    This is kind of a side issue I have:
    With concerns over cost and testing periods, why does the race calender dance all over the world? They were in Montreal last weekend, but will be back in North America towards the end of the season. WHY? I would think travel costs would be greatly reduced if they just moved to the next closest track. With some consideration for weather (Bahrain in July probably wouldn’t be a good idea) I think a more cost effective calender could be arranged.

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