A number of controversial new rules will be introduced for the 2015 Formula One season. These have been met with resentment from much of the F1 community, but what effect will they actually have?
Titanium skid planks
The FIA has agreed to mandate the use of titanium skid planks on the floors of the cars, replacing the existing wooden plank. With the FIA far from forthcoming in their reasons for this change, the presumption was that it was designed to produce sparks.
A popular feature of F1's past, this has not been seen since mid-1994. The sparks certainly added to the spectacle, but low ride-heights were dangerous, leaving the possibility of the car 'bottoming out' at high speed. With the increase in artificial entertainment tools such as DRS, this move was seen as a pointless gimmick. And rightly so: sure, plumes of coloured smoke matching the teams' liveries billowing out the back of the cars like the Red Arrows might look great, but it's not F1. However, when Charlie Whiting finally broke the FIA's silence and spoke openly about the rule, it proved they could have avoided the hysteria.
“The purpose of making them (the planks) out of titanium is threefold,” Whiting explained to the media. “Firstly, it’s safer, because if they do come off they are about a third of the weight of the existing ones. Secondly, the titanium wears some 2-2.5 times more quickly than the metal currently used. Thus cars will have to be run a little bit higher to manage wear and teams won’t be able to drag them on the ground quite as much as they have in the past. The third effect is that you will see a lot more sparks, which some people think will look a little more spectacular.”
So almost two weeks after the new skid planks were first tested in Austria, we finally have an explanation. The primary reason is safety - and who can argue with that. The sparks are really a by-product, much as they were in the '80s and early '90s. With that revelation F1 fans should be able to enjoy the sparks rather than resenting yet another artificial intrusion into the sport.
From 2015, when the safety car is deployed the cars will no longer have a rolling restart, instead returning to the grid and going through a traditional standing start procedure. The FIA is yet to explain exactly why they are doing this, but unless they can produce an obscure safety reason, it is almost certainly for fan entertainment.
If they decided to listen to the fans, or drivers for that matter, they would quickly realise this is not what anyone wants. From the outside it appears the rule will punish drivers who have earned a gap over the competitors behind them and turn the race into something of a lottery. The start is where most position changes occur as it is notoriously hard to get away consistently well due to the many variables involved with launching an F1 car.
If the safety car comes out with only a handful of laps to go we could get some very strange results. What's more, if multiple safety cars are required we will witness hugely disrupted races that will lack flow.
The drivers' opinions should matter when significant decisions like this are taken, and the majority have been critical of the move. The exception is Fernando Alonso, who has remained impartial.
“I don’t have any strong preference on the restarts,” insisted the Spaniard. “When I arrived in single-seaters the restarts were like this [rolling]. In go karts, whenever there was a red flag, we had a normal start again with the lights. I don’t have any preference.”
Alonso is a vastly experienced two-time world champion, so his point of view should be taken on board. However he is also very astute when it comes to F1 politics and so it is likely he doesn’t want to speak out against the FIA and risk losing favour. Nico Rosberg has called the move dangerous, while Daniel Ricciardo said the new restarts would be exciting but unfair.
The biggest argument against standing restarts is safety, as statistically most accidents occur at the start of races. Charlie Whiting said he, “Doesn't see any added danger,” which coming from the Race Director should allay fears. However if there is a serious accident from a restart next year, the FIA will receive an unpleasant backlash from fans and the media.
There have been some more welcome changes to the rules. The nose regulations have been tweaked in the hope of avoiding the current 'ugly' front ends and to bolster safety. Aesthetically this should improve the cars, though F1 designers are a wily bunch and it wouldn't be surprising if they find further loopholes in the regulations and fail to conform to the FIA's ideal nose. The only real issue with this regulation is that it will further stifle innovation.
Some mild cost-saving measures have also been introduced, with reductions to windtunnel activity and more economically viable testing. Moreover, the regulations for the following season will be frozen by March 1st, almost four months earlier than in previous years. This means that teams will waste less time and resources on developing ideas that will later be outlawed, which will in turn promote confidence in car design. While this is far from the level of cost saving the smaller teams were seeking, it is at least a step in the right direction.
The general outrage over changes to the 2015 rules therefore appears, on the whole, to be unfounded. We can only wait and see how positively they will effect a race weekend. What we have learnt is that the FIA needs to be more transparent if it wants to regain some supporter confidence. Despite initial impressions, they do often have the best interests of the sport at heart.