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Musing #8: The state of Formula 1

The 2016 season of F1 is officially under way with its first test day and it would be atypical of me to not have an opinion on something that I have been following for well over 2 decades now. It is always exciting to watch the cars run for the first time but I do so with much trepidation these days. With the rules remaining largely stable and the engine token system still in place, it is difficult to imagine Mercedes not leading the way once again when push comes to shove. More worrisome is the indecision over the 2017 rules which indicates that the sport is now stuck in no man’s land. Late decisions always favour the teams with deeper pockets and that is likely to be the case in 2017, irrespective of the extent of changes. Thus, a lot will change and then nothing will change.
The larger question today is whether F1 is still relevant today as a spectacle. F1 is the epitome of technological development in cars and the efficiency of the present V6 engine (thermal efficiency exceeding 45%) along with the associated recovery systems MGU-K and MGU-H that make up the power unit is simply astounding. That cannot in anyway be a regressive step as some would like to portray. Neither is the common argument of “domination is boring” be a valid excuse for I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the domination of Schumacher in the early part of the millennium. Domination borne out of ingenuousness has been a common trait of F1 and that is what makes the sport what it is.
If it is not the machine, then it must be the man. To this point, I am inclined to agree quite a bit. One would accuse me of looking at the past with rose tinted glasses, but there was something gladiatorial about watching Senna and Schumacher compete on the race track, even though their tactics might have been questionable at times. The skill as well as physical exertion that a sport comprises of was on display all the time. Perhaps, seeing a driver jump out and dance instead of pant has taken some shine off the bellicose aspect of the sport. Also, the level of skills required to compete have come to question with the relative success of a 17-year old (however talented) and the prevalence of paid drivers. Hamilton, for all his successes on the track gives the impression of being someone who is driving to win rather than being driven to win like Senna and Schumacher. A case in point is his performance in the latter part of 2015. To that end, Vettel and Alonso seem to be cast in the same mould as the champions from the past, unfortunately bogged down by uncompetitive machinery for the most part. All this makes the classification of F1 as a sport a little hard to digest.
One may still classify F1 as entertainment but for the fact that DRS seems to have killed off the most exciting aspect of any race – overtaking. With slipstreaming and late braking being not quite called in to play, yet another differentiating aspect of the driver has been buried deep under. The sport is now at the mercy of weather to roll the die and thereby guard the viewer from a sleep fest. The age old adage of “keeping it simple” seems to have been lost on Bernie, Todt and other people that matter. Senna had rightly attributed his best races to a time when there was parity in the machinery and absence of politics. While F1 can never devoid itself of these aspects, it just needs to do an introspection and highlight aspects that would further differentiate man from the machine. A good point to start would of course be to punish drivers for even the slightest of mistakes without the slightest compromise in safety for they are professionals after all. Track design has simply made that difficult to achieve. Another aspect would be to simplify aspects of the car that have no bearing on real life car design. One can appreciate the mechanical aspects of car design but aerodynamics seems to have gone crazy, as illustrated by the ridiculously complex front wings. A return to simpler, mechanically driven car design is very much the need of the hour.
Perhaps, the aspect that matters the most is appreciating the intelligence and dedication of the fans. One has to only look at MotoGP for a motorsport that is particularly engaging. Colourful characters who express themselves on the track as well as off it fills you up with nostalgia. Also, it chooses for the most part, to visit countries that actually understand and follow the sport. One doesn’t need to look beyond the F1 calendar to understand where the sport is once again going wrong. Nowadays, I can’t even get the Codemaster F1 games to excite me anymore as it brings a feeling of déjà vu with it every year, contrary to the countless hours I spent modding and playing Grand Prix 4. Perhaps there is still a silver lining to all this that no one knows about yet. For me, I will keep following F1 and hope to be able to keep my eyes wide open come March 20.

Image Courtesy and copyright: Reuters

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