Issue 10: Framing the debate on F1 in 2014

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11 April 2014

Negative news cycles

I’ve become increasingly irritated by the discourse and reporting on F1 since the season opener in Melbourne a few weeks ago. Since Round 1, I’ve heard and read about little else other than engine noise, dodgy fuel flow meters, economy runs and more recently, proposed mid-season regulatory changes such as shorter races. This is bullshit.

It’s also very disappointing that these negative news stories, which are constantly repeated by a few disgruntled members of the F1 world, are not being sufficiently countered. Much of the F1 media appears to have lapped up this propaganda willingly and seemingly with little thought or analysis of what’s really going on.

Why have the terms of the debate this season been shaped largely by negative stories about the state of F1? Putting aside emotional responses for now, I see it like this:

Red Bull and Ferrari, two of the principal sources of such negativity, are currently being flattened by the Mercedes steamroller. They don’t like it. But out-developing and overtaking Mercedes this season will be hard, although not impossible. It will certainly take time. In the meanwhile, the races pass by and Mercedes racks up win after win. So what do Red Bull and Ferrari do? They do everything they can to destabilise their main opponent and at the same time attempt to get the rules of game changed to throw the benchmark team off-balance and potentially create opportunities to improve their own lot.

Take the scale and intensity of Red Bull’s media war – and it is a war – for example. It’s impressive. Since Melbourne, we’ve been told that the fans aren’t happy with the sound of the 2014 engines, the flow fuel meters are ‘immature technology’, that the fans don’t or won’t understand fuel flow rates and that the 2014 powertrains have little relevance to the automotive industry. Both Vettel and Alonso have criticised the 2014 cars while in the eyes of Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, F1 drivers are now nothing more than glorified cab drivers.

F1 teams attempting to change the rules mid-season are old tactics. Ferrari and Red Bull in particular are well-practiced in this dark art. In 2003, Ferrari and Bridgestone lobbied hard for a mid-season change to the tyre regulations that forced the Michelin runners, including McLaren and Williams who were Ferrari’s main competitors that season, to race on a new tyre construction, which effectively handed the championship to Ferrari. And in 2013 of course, Red Bull’s media machine swung into action from the beginning of the season to lobby for a change in Pirelli’s tyre construction, which was agreed following the debacle at Silverstone. After that, Red Bull and Vettel had no competition. However, that this negative and self-serving propaganda about F1 in 2014 has hardly been countered is most distressing of all. Yet, it seems that every time a disgruntled team principal, team owner, engineer or driver opens their mouth to complain it becomes ‘news’, perpetuating the negative cycle.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Find the positives about F1 in 2014 – it’s not difficult!

So what’s good about F1 in 2014? For starters, these new hybrid powertrains are a technological marvel. Getting each of the main  components – the Internal Combustion Engine, Energy Recovery System and turbo – to work independently is relatively straightforward, but to ensure all three work together in harmony is a major technical challenge. Yes, the teams pay in the region of $20m-$25m for a season’s supply of powertrains, which is a lot more than last season. But that’s still a snitch compared to what the big teams spend on generating aerodynamic downforce, which has almost no relevance to the road car industry. Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari, with varying degrees of success, have all developed hybrid powertrains that produce a similar power output (760bhp) to last season’s 2.4 litre V8s, but are 30% more fuel efficient due to the greater power of the Energy Recovery System. What’s more the reliability rate in the first three races has been remarkable, with only seven powertrain-related retirements out of 66 starts. And the three OEMs have achieved this result after only a few years of research and development. Ask an OEM to do this without the aid of a test bed in the form of a premier racing series like F1 and it would take them much longer to achieve similar results. That’s part of the value of F1 for OEMs like Mercedes; racing engineers solve technical problems fast because success on the track depends on it. It was quite disappointing to hear Red Bull’s Adrian Newey claim that the 2014 hybrid powertrains have little relevance to industry. Naturally, this was part of Red Bull’s PR strategy. However, the problem for those that claim that the 2014 hybrid powertrains have no wider relevance is that they then have trouble explaining why Honda are returning in 2015, only seven years after exiting the sport. The Japanese manufacturer would almost certainly not be returning so soon if F1 cars were still powered by normally aspirated V8s.

Frankly, fuel flow rates are there for a good reason and what’s more the rules are the same for everyone. Furthermore, anyone who thinks that F1 is solely about engine noise is stupid. Yes, the noise of 20-odd screaming V8s was intoxicating, but look at what these new powertrains have given us. Watch the way the cars move around under braking and acceleration. The drivers are having to control, correct and hustle these cars round the lap. It’s a joy to watch. The new engine formula has also reintroduced power as a performance variable and by implication has (temporarily) reduced the influence of aerodynamic downforce. That is a good thing.

However, the great racing witnessed in the Bahrain Grand Prix was by far the best antidote to the negative news cycle. No team orders at Mercedes played their part in this too, helping to quash accusations of taxi driving or fuel economy runs. This will not stop the naysayers, but their propaganda war and case for snap rule changes has been undermined. Now, let’s get on and enjoy the 2014 F1 season.

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