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

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  1. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 16th June 2012, 9:20

    I’m still not convinced on DRS either way. I think that perhaps analysing it has become difficult, owing to the Pirelli tyres. I would be interested to see a race with and without it at the same circuit but of course that’s not going to happen. It seems to me that it is difficult to draw a conclusion on many things in F1 until they’re no longer around, DRS could be doing more than we give it credit for. Or less. I respect the FIA for at least trying to improve things for us fans, even though I don’t consider overtaking the Holy Grail that many do.

    I didn’t watch F1 10 years ago. It was on in the background at home but due to Schumacher’s performance and ITV’s dire presentation I wasn’t excited. That says it all for me!

  2. BigCHrome said on 17th June 2012, 14:00

    Don’t agree with a better calendar.

    In 2002 the FIA hadn’t yet destoryed most tracks by adding asphalt runoffs. They make the cars look much slower and kills a lot of the intensity of watching the cars drive around the track.

  3. otto said on 14th July 2012, 22:22

    One thing that was better in the past can be summed up in two words: Murray Walker.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th July 2012, 22:34

      Unfortunately, he’d already retired by 2002!

      • otto said on 14th July 2012, 22:39

        Indeed, which is why i just referenced the past. It’s really more about the deterioration in commentary quality in F1. Or to quote Gregory in Life of Brian, “Well, obviously its not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

  4. Servasedo said on 15th July 2012, 0:51

    Personally the one thing that bothers me the most is the safety car being brought out for the lightest of drizzle patches. It goes against the whole idea of racing in general. People pay to see these drivers race and see who can perform the best on a wet track, not to drive in a procession behind Bernd Maylander. Some of those races just kill the enthusiasm for the race…..it’s times like that where I can sort of agree with those who say F1 is more boring than watching paint dry. I’m all for driver safety but sometimes let the drivers take a risk and race.

    On a side note I’d keep the points system the way it is now. There’s no need to tamper with it any more.

  5. JohnnyHerbertsEyeSockets said on 16th July 2012, 10:43

    I’ve been watching F1 since 1992. I was at the peak of my interest in the mid 90s and went to the now legendary European Grand Prix at Donington Park. I got soaked but saw Senna at his best.

    By 2002 I was hardly watching it; it had got so boring.

    It has definitely improved over the last couple of years but I don’t like the new tyres; there seems to be a large element of luck involved with getting the set up right which takes something away from drivers’ ability. Look at Button, for example: one of the best drivers at getting the most out of his tyres in all conditions and he’s floundering. It’s great to see so many different winners but sometimes the points-scorers are not there on merit. I also agree that DRS has ruined the spectacle of overtaking.

    If proper tyres were brought back in like the ones used in the mid 90s (where everyone had the same tyres and they lasted a reasonable length of time before going ‘off) and DRS was banned, it would be much better. Another improvement I think would be to slightly alter the qualifying format so that if, for example, the third session is a wash-out, the times from the second session stood.

    • Gillis` said on 16th July 2012, 22:10

      “there seems to be a large element of luck involved with getting the set up right which takes something away from drivers’ ability”

      I think you’re wrong here. It’s the drivers ability which determines how the car gets set up, it’s not just how well he drives but how well he communicates with his engineers/pit crew to get the car where he wants it. In the end its the back and forth collaboration, which is why this is a team sport.

  6. OllieJ (@olliej) said on 27th July 2012, 12:13

    Hey, there was a link to this from the Guardian Sport website’s ‘Favourite 5 things from this week!’ Not bad — getting a mention on the world’s fourth most popular newspaper website!

  7. P Smith said on 27th October 2012, 7:26

    There should be email addresses to write to people on this site. Why hide them unless you’re afraid of standing up for your words?

    re: grooved tires

    The “writer” didn’t grasp the single biggest problem with grooved tires. With less surface to grip the road, the racing lines got narrower and narrower. It was like racing on a drying race track (wet and no grip if you go offline), but at every race and every corner. THAT was why grooved tires made F1 uncompetitive. The return of wider slick tires widened the racing lines and increased passing.

    re: refueling

    I’ll agree that different amounts of fuel did turn qualifying into a calculation game. But in-race refueling is as critical to strategy as tire changes. Lighter cars go faster, so gambling on fast laps to make up the time lost to pits stops was more important with refueling than now with only tires. And if cars are going to have built-in starters after 2014, then F1 could do as Le Mans racing does, dictate that the engine be off while the car is being refueled. That would increase safety during pit stops.

    re: more competitive teams

    There’s a maxim that applies to many fields: 90% of the technology costs 10% of the money, and 10% of the technology costs 90% of the money. In the 2000s, F1 budgets were bloated, some over US$500 million per year. How could small teams be competitive when only the richest corporations could build a competitive car? Toyota spent the most money of all without a single race win to show for it.

    When F1 had to start cost cutting in 2008, the 10% tech / 90% costs went out the window. Back field teams immediately became more competitive for that reason alone, they could afford the cheap technology that let them get close enough for a good driver to make a difference (re: Fisichella at Spa in 2009). If you need a real-world example of the 10/90 rule, think of the price to performance ratio of Subaru Impreza WRX sti compared to a Ferrari 360.

    Limiting cost does not limit innovation. Innovation is a matter of brainpower and creativity, not the materials you have.

    re: the different points system

    The FIA pays travelling expenses to fly-away races only for teams that scored points in the previous season. For back field teams, the new points system makes a single point much easier to get and saves them a lot of money…which makes the HRT, Cateram and Marussia’s failure to score any points in two years look that much more pathetic.

    Of all the F1 points systems, the only one I liked was 9-6-4-3-2-1. The rest have all rewarded winning too much (e.g. 10-6-4-3-2-1) or too little (e.g. 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1). If I had my way I’d make it 10-7-5-4-3-2-1 (a win is worth twice a third place finish) or 20-15-11-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 (decreasing gaps of 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 repeatedly down to tenth place).

    The FIM’s points system is a little better and more consistent than the FIA’s current system. It’s 25 for a win, with approximately a 20% drop off in points to the next place: 25-20-16-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. That or something similar might be better for F1.

    A cutoff rule could also be applied to make wins more valuable: the driver with the most wins, minus two, sets the benchmark. For example, if the driver with the most has five wins, only drivers with at least three wins would be eligible for the driver’s title. That may mean Raikkonen can’t win the 2012 title unless he wins at least two of the remaining races, but is that a bad thing?

    re: more top drivers

    Michael Backmarker raced against empty grids, he was only competitive when he had the single best car on the track. Every time Backmarker was in an equal car to other top drivers, he lost the world championship (1996, 1997, 1998, 2005, 2006) and in 1999, he lost to Hakkinen in the second best car. This is allegedly “greatness”? During the five years 2000-2004, there was only one competitive driver in a competitive car against him, Raikkonen in 2003. If the Williams had been reliable, maybe Montoya as well. Otherwise, the only car that could compete was Barrichello’s. Backmarker was a fraud, a manufactured champion, not a legitimate one. And that’s without mentioning Bennetton’s illegal technologies in their cars (e.g. traction control) or Backmarker’s cheating.

    Stewart is wrong in one respect: the 1980s were the greatest era of drivers. Prost and Senna were equally the greatest because they raced against each other and in the greatest era of drivers; the fact that three time world champion Piquet doesn’t get listed among the best of that era speaks volumes. Since 2009, we definitely have entered a new golden age of drivers, helped by the fact that the cars are fairly equal and the drivers’ skills are allowed to shine.

    re: improved stewarding

    Stewarding should be a full time job done by professionals, preferably ex-drivers and selected by the current F1 drivers. They should be people that the drivers know, trust and can talk to, people who the drivers have confidence in to make fair and consistent rulings.

    Biased officating isn’t the worst officiating in sports. The worst is inconsistent and incompetent officiating. When the rulings change depending on the way the wind blows or time of day, it becomes farcical. At least with biased officiating, you know what the rulings are going to be, and you can adjust for it or work around it.

    re: …and a few things F1 is still getting wrong

    The single biggest problem in F1 is cars that are not suited to the tracks, they’re too big for most of them, even some of the new 13 metre wide tracks. Widening and building new tracks is horrendously expensive (or it ruins their character), and you can’t make the cars physically smaller without affecting safety or having to redesign them. So what’s the alternative?

    There is a way to improve competition cheaply: reduce engine size and capacity. Smaller engines produce less power, which means more time is spent on the straights and more passing (and less blocking) going into corners. It slows the cars without creating artificial competition (i.e. DRS). And it doesn’t reduce innovation or technology. If you limit the square foot of the base of a building, it doesn’t limit how tall the building can be. The limits become the materials and the imaginations of the engineers.

    But as per usual, the FIA never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Instead of going to 4 cylinder naturally aspirated engines, they dropped it for V6 turbos. Stupid.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th October 2012, 7:50

      There should be email addresses to write to people on this site. Why hide them unless you’re afraid of standing up for your words?

      There are loads of ways to get in touch with me.

      The contact form can be easily found via the top menu. Go to “Contact” and then “Contact Form”. Not exactly ‘hidden’ is it?

      Then there’s Twitter, Facebook and all the rest (links at the bottom-right of every page). And of course the comments, where you’ll often find me replying to questions from readers.

      I don’t know why you jump to the conclusion that I’m “hiding” from people.

  8. Sam (@samcymruf1) said on 29th November 2012, 19:08

    I will put it like this
    Since 2002 the things that changed are:
    The rules
    The ban of fuelling
    The wings
    The noses
    The stewards
    The tracks
    Tyre wear
    Capacity
    The pit lanes
    The barriers
    The amount of teams and drivers.

  9. biohazard7720 said on 28th September 2013, 12:37

    I would agree on most of them. But 10 years ago, it was way more fun to watch… The cars were more good looking thanks to their wings (after 2009, i cant stand them, especially the rear one…), faster due to 3lt 20.000rpm V10, and not 2.4lt 18.000rpm V8 and the soon to come 1.6lt 15.000rpm V6, refuelling added to the strategy during the race, and sounded way better!. Also on that, FIA tries to make F1 more green, and have tha cars to start with hundrends of lt of fuel… Yes, i agree there is way more competition, and the teams in terms of performance are closer, but the overall pace is slower… How much time has passed since we saw a lap record in a tracks where the old cars raced? There are times that the pole is 2-3 sec slower than the lap rec.! For me thats not a good sign… As for the green part, there are 800m internal combustion vehicles on the planet running on fossil fuels. Maybe FIA sould first make an attempt to pass some of the technology to road cars to make the more fuel efficient, before screwing with F1. Just leave 24 cars to use alot of fuel and be fast… Thats their purpose…!

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