While watching the British Touring Car Championship season opener last weekend (for the first time, I might add), I was astounded at how brilliant the racing is. It was just a constant stream of action that unyieldingly balanced the line between driving precision and loosely-controlled chaos. Apart from a few rather scary crashes, the racing was largely calculated and exact. Controlled racing is like a very tall mountain with a peak just wide enough for you to stand on. One’s precarious perch on it does not require much to be ruined, and the drivers in the BTCC did a brilliant job of making sure they did not fall into a chaotic abyss.
This astounding discovery made me think about the racing in Formula One these days. It is not often that we get to see a race in which each and every driver pushes for each and every lap. One needs only to read the post-race comments from Malaysia to realize that sentiment in Formula One over the racing is one of disappointment.
The tires arguably play the biggest role in the way the racing in Formula One pans out. Pirelli have received criticism, almost from the day they arrived in the Formula One paddock in 2011, for making the racing too manufactured and too driven by the gods of luck. This sometimes hostile criticism is one of the sad truths of the sport, as Pirelli have only done what has been asked of them. The Italian manufacturer was briefed at the end of 2010 by the FIA that there needed to be an increase of on-track action with tires that degraded quickly and provided chances for teams not normally a feature at the front of the grid the opportunity to shine. While much of this has been achieved in the past couple of years (with a peak in 2012), a new type of Formula One has emerged. A Formula One that does not allow its drivers the opportunity to drive flat out for an entire stint is not what the sport needs. Every single driver, from Red Bull down to Marussia, drives in constant fear of their tires hitting the dreaded “cliff”. Once reached, the cliff smacks you in the face with a car that is not only slow, but with grip that is struggling to remain in existence and a balance that is sometimes dangerous. If a Formula One car suddenly loses its grip at say, Eau Rouge, without giving any warning to the driver, there is a potential accident waiting to happen. Going 300 km/hr into a corner through which most everyone takes flat out on old tires raises a red flag to the driver only after they squirm their way out of the bend and back to safety.
Apart from the safety side of the sport, the actual racing is taking a serious hit in terms of its believability and authenticity. Putting the racing of today in juxtaposition with the racing of just 6 or 7 years ago makes for an unfortunate comparison. Years ago, the tires were so durable that one could drive flat out to their refueling window, pit, and go back out again on new tires and push as hard as they wanted for the next stint. While this was particularly enjoyable for the drivers, a lot of the time the races ended up looking like processions of cars with no hope of any passing. That’s not to say that all racing back then was processional, as some of Formula One’s most exciting races took place in this era. Ferrari, though, played a big part in creating this type of racing. Aside from just having the fastest cars for years on end, Ferrari also held Bridgestone and FOM around its little finger. This allowed them to give the rest of the field the middle finger as they romped to championship after championship. With Bridgestone under Ferrari’s control, they made tires that suited the Ferrari exactly, thus giving them an advantage over the rest of the teams that, for years, was insurmountable.
When Pirelli was brought back into Formula One they needed to make tires that degraded at a higher, more intense rate which, in turn, would require more pitstops. They also needed the penalty for staying out too long on one set of tires to be more severe, further emphasizing the push for more pitstops. For 2013, things may have gone too far.
I have defended the Pirelli tires ever since they arrived in 2011, but after doing some long and hard thinking, I may need to adjust my stance. Regardless of what anyone says, Formula One is no longer about real racing. Yes, the drivers are on the track at the same time and they do battle hard for position, but racing in the true sense of the word has all but disappeared. Drivers are no longer straining themselves in a race to drive flat out. The tires simply will not allow for it to happen. What happens now, is a rather pathetic excuse for racing, where the action is a mere facade ironically covering up something that isn’t even there. The racing has gone, and the drivers are not happy about it. It is hard for them to justify spewing out politically-minded responses defending Pirelli and the tires when they are the very things that deny them the joy of racing at 100 percent.
This all brings me back to the British Touring Car Championship. This series provides fans with one of the most exciting racing spectacles I have ever come across. The formula in BTCC should not even produce great racing; there is no refueling, there are no tire changes, and the cars are all very similar in speed and performance. How then, are the races so intriguing and captivating? How is it possible for Gordon Sheddon to start from last on the grid in the final race and end up only eight tenths off the lead at the end of the final lap? None of this should be possible. What makes this even more mind boggling, is that stuff like this happens on a regular basis. I did some research after discovering my love for the BTCC and found that these Herculean charges from the back of the field are not entirely uncommon. There is, however, an explanation for this racing enigma: Ballast.
The BTCC has a rule that those who do very well in one race will then start the next race with ballast. That is, they will run heavier for the next race in a bid to make the field closer on the track and positions more hard-fought. Formula One has DRS to solve its passing problems, but it is largely unloved by Formula One purists. It makes the already artificial world of Formula One just that much more of a sham. This is also one of the reasons that I am a huge advocate for the development of passive drag reduction systems. They allow for more top speed, and thus more passing, but it is achieved through technical innovation and hard work rather than through an afterthought regulation like the DRS of today.
I am going to make a rather radical proposal here, but bear with me, as it could help solve some of the problems that plague Formula One’s reputation. If a system of ballast removal could be implemented in the cars that qualify at the back of the grid, the racing could be much closer and the pain the tires cause could be assuaged. I suggest this not only because it would keep the racing close and more exciting, but because it goes about doing this in a way that is unseen by an observer.
One of the problems I have with DRS is that it is so blatantly fabricating the passing we see in F1. There is nothing inconspicuous about it and something within me doesn’t react well to that. I, along with many other fans, want there to be more passing. But the way the DRS goes about doing it not only makes the passing obviously fabricated, but it also makes it happen in one split moment. With the slower cars running lighter, the advantage they gain will be constant and under the radar. The DRS makes it blatantly obvious that the passing is not genuine and that doesn’t sit will with fans. If we are to have some sort of passing assist in the sport, I think we would all rather have it go unnoticed. You tell me if you agree or not.
While this will probably never happen in Formula One, we must, for now, live with the fact that things aren’t perfect. This is a hard thing for most Formula One fans to accept, and for good reason. We don’t call F1 the pinnacle of motorsport for nothing, do we? The BTCC is a bit of an enigma in the motorsport world. Its ingredients do not suggest for a second that any great racing should be produced. But somehow, a spectacle so enthralling ensues that I wonder why I ever watched anything else. If Formula One is to satisfy its fans in the long-run, maybe it should look to the BTCC for some help. They seem to know something Formula One doesn’t.