Finally, a new season is upon us again! It’s been a long, cold, dark winter, but at last we can start to look forward to the (slightly) louder roar of engines as the season kicks off in Melbourne next week. So, in anticipation of that, my feeling was that it was an opportune moment to have a few pre-season reflections.
What is unfortunate is that a lot of the excitement of the new season has been dampened somewhat by some off-track headlines that have hit recently which will be focused on first, namely the revamp of the qualifying format and the new ‘halo’ cockpit protection which has been presented.
For those who have not heard, qualifying will be taking on an elimination-style format, knocking out the slowest drivers at 90 second intervals in the three qualifying sessions. As a sport, we can all accept that we probably over-think things, but this is worse – this is under-thinking things and just throwing it out there anyway. The fact that this is having to be hurried out at such late notice is indicative of what a mess the whole thing is. The drivers have publicly said they don’t like it, the fans have said they don’t like it (76% of F1 Fanatic subscribers to be exact), and yet our governing body has ploughed on regardless. So now, instead of qualifying reaching an exciting climax where all 10 cars in Q3 are trying to get pole position, the session will slowly peter out to the point that there’s only two cars on-track. Fundamentally, the grid for the race will not be changed dramatically but we will lose the most exciting part of Saturday. At a time when everyone wants the sport to be more simplified in cars and rules, they are going the opposite direction and making it needlessly and unnecessarily complicated.
The reason for this change though – and this is something that really, really bothers me – is that people, and the media in particular, saying that Formula 1 is not exciting enough and something needs to be done. I completely do not agree with this – yes, there are a few shortcomings but nothing like the troubles which are being reported. We enjoyed some absolutely fantastic races last season (Hungary, Britain and USA to name but a few) which afterwards no-one would dare say ‘F1 is too boring’, but you have one race which isn’t epic and it’s crisis stations. In any sport you will have the more forgettable and the less forgettable, as a football fan also I can testify to the number of drab games I have experienced, and you have to accept this in any sport. Not every race will be a classic, but what keeps us watching is that this race just might be.
Fundamentally, the sport has run for over 50 years and is still popular, not because of stupid gimmicks but because of it being the pinnacle of motorsport, and this is what we need to focus on: making the cars faster, and freeing up the regulations so the cars can run closer and allow for more overtaking. The problems with Formula 1 are not on the track, they are in the board room. No leadership, knee-jerk decisions, and a lack of understanding of what the fans want is the main issue. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long bemoaned that Formula 1 focuses too much on trying to acquire new fans instead of keeping the ones they have happy, and this is what needs to change.
Moving on though to the ‘halo’ cockpit protection which has been put forward. Some will disagree with me I’m sure but I don’t like it, and I haven’t since the idea was first suggested last year. My gut feeling is that it causes as many problems as it solves, therefore what is the point? My primary concern is getting out of the car if it’s flipped upside down – from the looks of it this would be a major issue. But not only this, I question how much protection it would actually offer. One of the incidents that has prompted this was Massa’s accident when a spring struck him in the helmet – would this design really guarantee this wouldn’t happen again? I see major gaps in the design which a spring could easily get through. I also still really question the visibility of the drivers with this contraption on the car. Kimi came out after driving with it and said it was ‘OK’, a word terribly open to interpretation depending on the tone he used (or didn’t use – this is Kimi after all!), but I still worry considering the limited field of vision drivers have anyway. And also, though more of an opinion – it looks awful.
In my mind, Nico Hulkenburg put it best: the fact is you have to accept an element of risk in motorsport. You will never be able to make the cars completely bulletproof, and the fact is Formula 1 has come such a long way when it comes to safety. The crashes that some of these drivers has just got out and walked away from are immense (I recently watched the documentary of 1: Life On The Limit which demonstrated this very point), crashes which never would have been survived even 20 years ago. The run-off areas for cars are getting bigger and bigger, the tyre barriers are getting bigger, at the end of the day you do just have to accept some risk.
Jules Bianchi’s crash was an absolute tragedy, it truly devastated me and I hope to never see it again. But the show must go on. We will do everything we can to ensure driver safety, but we shouldn’t change the open cockpit nature of the sport which has stood for the entire history of the sport.
Lastly, a few pre-season predictions! Unfortunately seeming like another dominating year for Mercedes followed by Ferrari, but I’m really looking forward to seeing how teams battle it out from there down from Red Bull, Williams and Force India, through to Toro Rosso and McLaren, with Renault, Sauber, Manor, and Haas towards the back. Incidentally, this is how I feel the grid is going to go. Ones to watch for me are Pascal Wehrlein, Max Verstappen (again), and the Force India boys.
Footnote: A few friends and I are participating in the Badger GP Fantasy Grand Prix (badgergp.com/fantasygp). Feel free to join – you select 3 drivers and 3 teams, and each week you put in your predictions to earn extra points! Once you’ve signed up, join our ‘Formula Pun 2016’ League with the passcode 9862329 – the only stipulation is that your team name MUST be a pun of some sort. As an example, my team name is ‘Does My Haas Look Big In This’. Good luck!