The former Red Bull driver Mark Webber has warned that the new Formula One start procedure, introduced for the first time at this weekend’s meeting at Spa, could mix up the opening laps of a race and may present safety issues.
The changes – aimed at putting more control into the hands of the drivers – restrict communication on start procedures between drivers and the pit lane during formations laps and, crucially, have removed the ability of engineers to instruct drivers to adjust settings for the clutch biting point once the car has left the garage.
Changes in track, tyre and clutch temperature during the warm-up lap have made selecting the clutch setting a real science in the sport but one that now can not be adjusted until the race has begun.
Webber, who made 215 starts in a career that lasted between 2002 and 2013 and saw various versions of the start during that time, was explicit about the potential import of the changes.
“It’s a real art for the engineers to try and have the clutch temperature linked with the tyre temperature and the track grip – they are the three things you need,” he said. “You need the clutch talking to the rear tyre, talking to the asphalt and if one of those three things is out then your start is going to be affected – even if it is one to two percent, which will be easily a grid position or two or three.”
Webber retired from F1 in 2013 after winning nine races, all with Red Bull and has since raced in the World Endurance Championship for Porsche, taking a second place at the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. While in F1 he was one of the few drivers to often speak their mind and he was concerned their may be a risk of safety involved in the new procedure, especially if it casued some drivers to make a slow getaway.
“The new rule will be exposed for the first three or four races,” he said. “The worst nightmare is a stalled car. If you do have a stalled car, which is a possibility, then it can create a start-line crash.
“But we have the marshals also on the track with the flags. It will be a topic, particularly if somebody stalls at the front and visibility is compromised down the back. If it’s a wet start for example there is spray very fast and, if someone doesn’t get away well, that can be a problem.”
But despite these misgivings Webber also believes the attempt to improve the chances of races being more competitive during a period when Mercedes’ advantage is considerable is worth trying. “If you look at the stats, there is a huge percentage of people who watch the start and then, depending on how the race is going, less and less people watch the whole race. Even my relatives did that when I was racing, that’s how it is,” he said. “If they’re looking for more variation and more showbiz, it is something that could work, to have the leaders or favourites have a poor start to the race and then there could be an interesting trend to watch them fight back.”
Indeed, poor starts by Mercedes in the last two rounds at Silverstone and Hungary both produced gripping races but many drivers here in Spa were downplaying the potential effects come Sunday. They have practised formation laps on simulators during the summer break and some were still reserving judgement. “We need to do the first one to see if there is a change or not,” said Williams’s Felipe Massa. “It won’t change the mentality of the start. If don’t have perfect bite point maybe it will be a little bit difficult, and if you don’t have that maybe your first release will be a little bit slow.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010