The F1 circus has recently worked its way into a bit of a tizzy.
Dwindling viewing figures, complaints about racing being simultaneously 'dull' and 'artificial', and the sky-high cost of running a team has got the entire paddock asking how they can make the show more interesting while saving money.
So far, suggestions have ranged from the hopeful to the downright moronic: making the skid trays out of aluminium purely to produce sparks, taking value away from ticket-buying fans by reducing the cars' track time, and adding the kinds of noise enhancing exhausts which even the most shameless wannabe-racer would be embarrassed to pick up from Halfords and strap to their 1.1 Corsa.
All in all, it's a bit of a shambles. While sparks, monstrously loud engines, and forcing the cars to go wheel to wheel via standing restarts and DRS provide for exciting racing on the surface, they lack the substance of having these things happen organically. It's a definite case of all fur coat and no knickers.
With F1 clearly not knowing what direction to turn in to secure its financial future and maintain its status as the pinnacle of motorsport, it should cast an eye to its racing cousin – the World Endurance Championship.
The WEC, with its Le Mans centrepiece, is flourishing. An expanded calendar, a rapidly growing LMP1 division, and huge fan interest are giving real credence to the idea that it is the hyper-advanced Le Mans Prototypes, not Formula One cars, which are at the peak of motorsport. However, by taking some lessons from the WEC, F1 could right the dodgy path it has set itself down and once more sit unquestioned at the peak of global motor racing.
The millions that Audi, Porsche, and Toyota (and from next year, Nissan) have poured into the design of their cars will provide them with a base design until the current regulations expire in 2016. That's three years of racing for the cost of developing one car. While there'll obviously be investment in refining both the aerodynamics and super-advanced hybrid systems the cars use, the massive cost of the basic design will last for three years.
This stands in stark contrast to F1, whose ever-changing regulations force the teams into building a new car every year. While F1 teams will never stop with the upgrades and refinement either, giving the base designs a longer shelf life would stop the massive annual investment of designing a new car from the ground up.
In fact, F1 is the only series obsessed with the new-car-every-year idea. While minor upgrades are the norm everywhere, base cars often don't change; the NASCAR 'Car of Tomorrow' introduced in 2012 should be good for the next several years, while the new IndyCar chassis will run through 2018.
Parity, Not Punishment
Stop me if you've heard this story before in F1: a team comes up with a piece of tech that gives them a big advantage and isn't explicitly banned in the rules. Their rivals then either petition the FIA to get it banned, or spend the next several race weekends bemoaning the cost of cloning it, with the tech being outlawed at the end of the season anyway.
In the WEC, where more open regulations allow for a number of different approaches to the same end effect, there isn't the same outcry if one team has an innovation that others don't. In LMP1, this often happens with the internals of the car, with the FIA dictating fuel and power limits that keep machinery relatively equal. Imagine an F1 where rather than lodging complaints over innovations such as blown exhausts and intricate FRIC suspension, the FIA simply worked to reduce any dominance rather than eliminate it. You could then keep the tech, enjoy some benefit, and your rivals won't have to sell their kidneys to pay for researching their own versions of it.
For those of you who didn't follow Le Mans this year, allow me to tell you a story. In Wednesday qualifying, Loic Duval had a horrific accident which sent him to hospital and wrote off last year's winning #1 Audi. According to the rules, Audi had to race the chassis they'd put through scrutineering with the three drivers they'd registered, and in light of Duval's crash it was clear that neither of those things were happening. It seemed they'd be heading home. However, the stewards realised it would take away from the race if last year’s winning car wasn't on the grid, and so allowed Audi to rebuild the #1 around a new monocoque, draft in reserve driver Marc Gene, and race anyway. On the Sunday afternoon, they came second.
Compare this with F1's stewarding, which insists on placing blame for every incident and disqualifying cars for minor technical infringements, and it is easy to see which mentality is better for the sport. However, all credit to them, at this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix the stewards have made noises about keeping out of investigating every racing incident. This was seen in not penalising Sebastian Vettel for his clash with Esteban Gutierrez.
Support the Privateers
In F1, everyone from mighty Mercedes to lowly Caterham compete for the same prize pool in the constructors’ championship. It doesn't matter whether you're a massively well-heeled outfit with manufacturer support who can run at a loss, or just trying to scrape by on pay drivers and not go bust – they’re all fighting for the same prize.
Over in the WEC LMP1 class, there is a separate champion for outfits who go it alone without any manufacturer support. Granted, there is only one team in there at the moment – the spirited-but-slow Rebellion Racing – but the theory behind it remains valid; privateer entries aren't expected to compete with the powerhouse manufacturer ones.
Imagine if, along with the overall constructors’ championship, there were also manufacturer and privateer championships. If you take away Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull Racing (who are Renault's factory team), and McLaren (who will be Honda's factory team), it would give the rest something else to fight for and another battle for the fans to watch.
The WEC is no utopia and has its own unique challenges and problems, but they've dealt with some of the issues currently plaguing F1 and their solutions shouldn't be ignored. Instead of focussing on strapping aluminium to the sides of cars to make them spark and bunching the field at restarts to shake things up, the sport should take a leaf from the WEC's book and instead focus on cooperation, stability, and building meaningful battles throughout the grid.
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