Sunday Jun 19, 2005

Boring Sunday Drive?

As my fellow Formula One fanatic Robin Wilton has already blogged today, the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy was a farce of monumental proportions. Let's look at what (according to the press) has happened.

Michelin supplied a bad set of tires to their 7 teams, accounting for 14 of the 20 cars on the grid. Michelin did everything possible, including immediately flying out a whole new set of tires to Indy, but the new tires had the same design flaw that the old ones did. Michelin informed the 7 teams on Sunday morning, approximately 8 hours before the race that the tires were not safe to run at speed in the banked turn entering the start/finish straight.

Apparently the Michelin suggestion was to add a chicane (a quick set of flicking turns) in the middle of the high-load corner to slow the cars down, and reduce the load. The FIA said no. If the chicane was added, the race would be unsanctioned. The Indy track management offered to add the chicane, but the FIA said no. So what happens? The 20 cars all line up, take a formation lap (a slow lap behind the safety car to heat up the tires and make sure the cars are all roadworty). The three teams not running Michelin tires go to the starting grid at the end of the formation lap, and 14 cars enter the pit lane and procede into their garages, retiring before the race even starts. The cars left in the race included Ferrari (obviously a strong team in any season), Jordan (a team in upheaval after after an ownership change and major personnel attrition), and Minardi (well, Minardi is kind of the poor stepchild team of F1). Like there was \*any\* doubt at all who was going to win. Ferrari ended up running 6 seconds a lap slower than the cars were capable, out for a Sunday drive. BORING!

So who is to blame?

Michelin? No, engineering and manufacturing mistakes happen. They even came up with a suggestion to make the drivers safe, while maintaining the integrity of the race.

The Michelin teams? No, Driver safety is key. It would take a fool to expect a driver to get into a car that is likely to come apart (as two of the Michelin clad cars did during practice sessions) and go drive 200+ MPH. There are enough serious accidents and enough danger in racing without adding to the danger by running equipment known to be defective and dangerous. Without the modifications to the track, they were absolutely correct in choosing not to race.

Ayrton Senna, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Ratzenberger, Gilles Villeneuve, Alberto Ascari, Lorenzo Bandini, Fancois Cevert, Bruce Mclaren, Wolfgang Von Trips. If you recognize some of these names, all of these drivers were killed while driving a Formula One race car. It is a dangerous sport on the best of days with the best of equipment.

The non-Michelin teams? No, they had safe equipment, and their expenses for the weekend were already astronomical. To choose not to race, and stand beside their fellow drivers in the garage would have undoubtedly caused serious ramifications to their sponsor funds. Besides, if the FIA says there is going to be a race, and there are driver and constructor points to be made, it would be silly not to drive.

The FIA? Maybe. Perhaps if they had allowed the chicane to be installed, it would have been a race worth watching. If they had installed the chicane, the Michelin teams would not have been penalized for having brought unsafe equipment to the race. Bottom line, everything was done according to the rules. Perhaps a compromise of moving the non-Michelin teams to the front of the starting grid would have made up for the inconvenience of the chicane? Maybe a time penalty of some sort (drive through, stop-go, etc.) for the Michelin teams could have been offered if the chicane was added for them? Maybe forgetting about "points" and standings for once, and thinking about the show and the fans would have been prudent?

So... bottom line, who loses?

Indy. The people who own and manage the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now have hundreds of thousands of racing fans screaming for a refund. Through no fault of their own, the weekend's headliner show was a bust. They still have to pay the bills, pay the staff, and pay for all of the supporting costs of putting on the weekend's races.

The biggest loser? The fans. How many of the 200,000+ fans who paid alot of money for tickets, meals, time off of work, hotels, and souveniers are going to come back next year? Probably not alot of them. Formula One racing has been building a fairly large following over the past few years, with one of the major networks finally televising a few of the races for the past couple years.

This year's rule changes have already had a negative impact on the fans at the races. One engine must last two race weekends. This means that the headline drivers don't put in alot of laps in practice sessions. Who wants to pay to see a bunch of "third drivers" doing testing laps? Not me, I want to see Schumacher, Kimi, Coulthard, and Alonso cranking out laps while they test their setups, and occasionally spinning off into the gravel when they push past the edge. One set of tires per car per qualifying and race. There goes the excitement of the pitstop. Now more than a dozen guys rush out, surround a car, and watch one guy put fuel in. Wow, hold me back, I'm getting all excited watching that drama. (yawn) FIA, wake up, it is about the fans!

There had to be a compromise, but everyone was looking at their own interests, instead of the "end user consumer", the racing fan. There had to be a way to get the majority of the cars out on the track safely. There had to be a way to give the fans the show that they paid for. There had to be a way to get the sponsors of the cars, the sponsors of the television time, and the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the event and exposure that they paid for. And foremost, there must have been a compromise in there that didn't damage this sport in the eyes of the fans.

I now have serious second thoughts about traveling to see Formula One races. I have been to the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy, back in 2002. The trip cost me only about $1,000.00 USD total, since I drove there and stayed in a relatively inexpensive hotel 20 miles from the track. I have been dying to go to see one of the old tracks, like Spa Francorchamps (Belgium) or Monaco. With this risk of seeing a couple Ferrari's out for a Sunday drive, at the cost of several thousand USD (more like $10,000 USD to make a long weekend in Monaco live up to the venue), I am unlikely to roll those dice in the near future.

Did you hear that FIA? Did you hear that Bernie Ecclestone? Did you hear that Team Principals? Did you hear that tourism boards of cities and countries holding F1 races? Did you hear that team sponsors? I, Bill Walker, a huge F1 fan with disposable income to burn, will NOT be taking a risk with that fun money to travel and see a Formula One race. I'd rather take my kids to some amusement park and spend my Father's Day with them. I can always check the TiVo to see if there is any kind of decent sports to watch later (fast-forwarding through your sponsors' commercials).


Monday Mar 07, 2005

Suddenly It is a Sport Again!

As Robin Wilton pointed out in a comment to my last entry, Michael Schumacher did not finish the Melborne Grand Prix race Sunday. Michael \*always\* finishes a race, and \*usually\* wins. The man is a mutant behind the wheel of an F1 car. Combined with Ferrari's deep pockets, Jean Todt's team management and their top shelf engineering team, he has been dominant in F1 racing for quite some time.

Unfortunately, unless you have some fascination with watching Michael's Ferrari passing all of the lapped traffic with no one within 30 seconds of him in the final 20 laps or so of a race, his success did introduce a sense of predictability and boredom. There were several races last year where it seemed that the race got about 20 minutes of airtime, while Michael out for a Sunday drive got 60 minutes. Racing wheel to wheel, pit stop strategies and fuel load strategies designed to squeeze out one or two seconds to gain a position, aggressive (but within the bounds of reasonable safety) driving, those things make F1 racing exciting! Having more than three or four drivers on the grid with a snowball's chance in Morocco of actually winning a race without some catastrophic accident or freak event is a welcome change to the sport.


Changing the Rules

Formula One racing has been a standard "record all, keep forever" Season Pass on my TiVo since day one. A friend of mine introduced me to F1 racing about 8 years ago, and I have been hooked since watching my first race. I have even attended a race in person, with great front straight / turn one seats at the US Grand Prix at Indy. Being a race fan, and an avid photographer (with a darkroom at home) made this a double treat for me, especially with the incredible view of the infield portion of the track from the steps leading to the upper bleacher entrance.

I never really liked NASCAR, or any other racing where watching makes your neck get sore thanks to the "ping pong" effect of fast cars driving in boring ovals. Maybe I just don't know enough about NASCAR to get myself hooked, but the technology and incredible skills in Formula One are amazing to a geek like myself, who happens to have a habit of driving too fast on twisty roads.

This weekend was the first weekend of the 2005 F1 season. Every year, the governing body makes rule changes designed to drive innovation, and increase safety. The idea is that once you have engineered every ounce of downforce into the chassis, every pony of horsepower into the engine, and increased the stopping power of the brakes to the point that the drivers' eyeballs are bouncing off of their helmet visors, there is only the drivers' skills. Teams unable to afford a Michael Schumacher have no chance of consistently standing atop the podium (and getting the big sponsor Euros).

This season has brought with it \*huge\* rule changes. Teams may only use one set of tires for final qualifying and the entire race distance (150 km or so). Cars must use a single engine for two consecutive race weekends. The wing (front and rear) specifications have changed to reduce downforce and make the cars "lighter" in braking and turning.

So with all of these changes, the engines should be de-tuned to reduce wear (reducing power), the tires should be more slippery, and the car itself should be more "twitchy" on the 16 turns of the Melborne Australia course. The engineers have earned their paychecks. The laptimes around the 5.3 km track were only a couple seconds slower. Wow.





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