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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