March 16, 2015

F1 Melbourne 2015

I still can't comment over at Wonderduck's Pond, and I wanted to make some comments about the F1 season opener.

There were supposed to be 20 cars on the circuit. One team couldn't even get its cars to run; they didn't even try to qualify. One of the McLaren cars didn't reach the starting line on race day; its engine exploded.

And there were other misevents, and when all was said and done, the two cars from Mercedes finished 1-2, only about 2 seconds apart. Third place was fully 30 seconds behind that.

Only 11 cars finished the race. Which means every car but one got points. The one that didn't was the other McLaren, which apparently is using a 2-stroke lawn mower engine as its powerplant.

Mercedes performed the way they should. They did what they were supposed to do. Everyone else needs to go back and finish clown school. If the season continues like this, then this year will go down as the worst in F1 history.

They may as well toss a coin right now between Rosberg and Hamilton, award the winner the driver's championship, award the constructor championship to Mercedes, and call the whole season off. That'll give everyone enough time to design cars that work for 2016.

What's the problem? It's the assumption that they Must Have 10 Teams And 20 Cars every year. What this race proved is that it can't always be done. There are three teams which shouldn't even be participating this year, for one thing.

At the beginning of the season, before the first race day, there ought to be a season qualifier, where each team has to prove their cars can run 80 laps on some track, somewhere, at a reasonable speed. If they can't, they don't get to participate that year. If that means only 14 cars, so be it. If it only means 8 cars, such is life. At least you'll get a race season that isn't a gross embarassment.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Rants at 06:58 PM | Comments (12) | Add Comment
Post contains 335 words, total size 2 kb.

1 The teams would probably go for that, as it would be another chance to actually run the cars to see what works and what doesn't.  Currently, the rules limit testing to an incredible degree, and also limit the number of changes you can make to various bits from the previous year, and then drop a limit on when those changes are mostly locked in for the rest of the season.  Basically, the teams have to design everything in isolation, put it together for one week of testing in Jerez, and if they don't get any problems sorted in that week, they're pretty much screwed for the whole season.

Posted by: David at March 16, 2015 07:09 PM (+TPAa)

2 Speaking as an engineer, reducing testing is ALWAYS a bad thing, because nothing ever works quite like the engineers think it will.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 16, 2015 07:50 PM (+rSRq)

3 The problem with only running a limited number of cars is that it sucks for the fans, especially if those cars spread out after lap 1; it's like, hey, what we have here is a high-speed parade, not a -race-. And it was a pretty crappy race as they go. You can have a good race even if someone's in first place by a mile, so long as there's action somewhere on the track, but if there's not, well...

Developing F1 cars is expensive, and there's only so much money in the sport, and an awful lot of that money goes directly to an investment company who got control of the racing league through some -extremely- suspicious business deals a long time back. Nobody, not a single team on the track, turns a profit from winnings. Red Bull is only doing it for the sports drink advertising. Ferrari is mostly in it for the brand prestige, even though they get a special extra hundred million a year for Being Ferrari. The bottom-ranked teams are trying to compete with teams spending six and eight and ten times as much as they can possibly afford and it makes it extremely difficult to make a better-performing car.

It's not "well, duh, go make it faster." Any team on the track could make their car faster in a dozen ways without even really exerting their brains. It's "make it go faster within the confines of an absolutely byzantine set of specifications, rules, limits, where many of your most creative ideas will let you do better for a race or two before the league bans them." (That's happened a couple times in the last two seasons - with "blown diffusers" that vented exhaust over aerodynamic elements for extra downforce, and with Mercedes' "double DRS" system which vented air all the way from the rear wing to the front wing to "stall" the front wing and allow for downforce-reduction on straights). Wonderduck has occasionally paraded an entire cavalcade of "funnies" put forth by people thinking outside the box in past years... cars that had fans to suck themselves to the pavement, cars with more than four wheels, all sorts of wild stuff.

And when you do think of something, you simply can't try it out. You're not even allowed to go try it out, except for a small testing period in the off-season. You can't run your call at all during the season except for a short testing break and on race weekend in designated practice times (and on the track, which is why it was so important that Button finish the race with his dog of a car; that's 58 laps of data he brought home!)

The real limiter, though, is the contracts. The various circuits have contracts with F1 and F1 promises to deliver, reportedly, 16 running cars. If F1 doesn't do that, they're in breach, and that's a lot of money loose on the table. More to the point, F1 pulls hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of the sport and doesn't put too much back in; it can't afford a stoppage, because the risk of the teams and the tracks and some other bright boy with a silver tongue and a bit less greed could literally rip the entire structure out from under the league. It'd be a hell of a way to end things... and it would have happened ages ago if F1 wasn't so good about playing the teams off against each other.

The first race last year was pretty bad too - lots of cars dropping out for technical problems, Riccardio's 2nd place finish in his rookie drive DQ'ed for technical issues, etc. They usually get the major bugs out pretty fast.

(Yeesh, I went on a bit...)

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at March 16, 2015 08:22 PM (a38fD)

4 It's the assumption that they Must Have 10 Teams And 20 Cars every year.

The contracts between F1 and Race Organizers don't actually assume this.  The minimum number of cars making actual attempts at racing at the event is 16.  According to the definition of the contracts, we had 20 cars attempting to run at Australia.  Only a software problem prevented Manor from doing so. 

We had one driver withdraw due to a back injury after qualifying; the regs say that a driver has to participate in one session during the weekend to be allowed to race, and since the injury occurred during the final session before the race, the team could not replace him.

One car had an engine failure on the way to the grid.  Regrettable, but not unheard of, particularly for an new and untested lump.  Another car had a gearbox problem; considering how precise F1 gearboxes are, it surprises me we don't have more of those.

So there you have five cars not taking the start.  None of the circumstances could have been expected.

There are three teams which shouldn't even be participating this year, for one thing.

Whoa there, hoss.  I can only assume you're thinking Manor, McLaren and Lotus here.  Manor, you can make an argument for exclusion.  McLaren?  A new engine manufacturer, and you want to kick out one of the Big Three in F1?  The only way you can improve is by doing; if you prevent them from doing, you prevent them from improving.  Lotus managed to turn zero official laps on Sunday.  One car was knocked out due to an accident not of the team's making, the other suffered an engine fault... and Renault engines seem to be bad this year, kinda like last year.

There's a lot of things wrong with F1.  Excluding teams isn't going to cure them.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 16, 2015 08:22 PM (jGQR+)

5 What I was thinking was Manor, Lotus, and Toro Rosso.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 16, 2015 08:42 PM (+rSRq)

6 Toro Rosso finished 9th and a late DNF by their 17 year old rookie driver, Max Verstappen.  They qual'd 8th and 12th, perfectly respectable.  You can actually argue that they're doing better with the bad Renault engine than Red Bull is, in that they have been more consistent with it.

Speaking of Red Bull, please note that they qual'd 7th and 13th, and finished 6th and "did not start (failed gearbox)".  Not all that much better than their junior team.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 16, 2015 09:32 PM (jGQR+)

7 Yeah, both Lotus and Toro Rosso were lookin' pretty racy this year. And for once, Maldonado's crash wasn't his fault! Heh.

Sauber also did quite a bit better than anyone was expecting, for a team whose owner had to -hide from the court bailiffs- to avoid having their cars repossessed by an irate driver. (There's your financial problems...)

Manor is the long shot, though ol' Marussia was the best of the back-markers last year and actually put some points on the board. Of course even then it was by hanging on as Monaco took a toll of the cars up front, but hey, that counts too. Damn shame about what happened in Japan though.

If anything, Force India should have been on your list - they're running better than McLaren, but not by much.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at March 16, 2015 09:52 PM (a38fD)

8

Yeah, both Lotus and Toro Rosso were lookin' pretty racy this year.

"Racy" compared to what?

Neither Lotus finished, and Toro Rosso's one car that did finish was lapped.

Toro Rosso is Red Bull's younger brother, wearing BigBro's castoffs. (I have an older brother; I know how that is.)

Anyway, I'm not making that comment based on a single race; I'm basing it on several years. The three teams I mentioned have not been competitive for the last few years, if they ever were.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 16, 2015 10:23 PM (+rSRq)

9 I'm not making that comment based on a single race; I'm basing it on several years. The three teams I mentioned have not been competitive for the last few years, if they ever were.

Two years ago, Lotus were 4th in the Constructor's championship, had one win, were on the podium 14 times, and looked poised to make the permanent jump to The Big Time.  They've been remarkably creative in their designs, though that hasn't paid off as well as it should.  They were definitely let down by the Renault power plant last year (and probably this).

It's true, Toro Rosso has never challenged for wins (save for one fluke wet race in Italy with some kid named Vettel driving for them).  However, they are solid runners that occasionally surprise the bigger teams.  They have experience, and financially they appear to be secure.

Manor... well, we know about their nightmarish financial problems.  They may still go away.

But F1 has always been a sport about the Haves and the Have Nots.  The teams that can throw money at their problems do better than those that can't (exception: Toyota).  If you limit entries to teams that can pony up $150million or more per season, you're only going to have three or four teams.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 16, 2015 11:17 PM (jGQR+)

10 You haven't explained why that would be a bad thing.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 17, 2015 06:29 AM (+rSRq)

11 You haven't explained why it would be a GOOD thing. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 17, 2015 09:10 AM (jGQR+)

12 Uh. I explained why it would be a bad thing, right?

At the end of the day, the circuits have to have people showing up to pay the ticket prices or the circuits don't make money, and if the circuits don't make money they close (or at any rate don't host F1, which costs them a lot of money whether anyone shows up or not).

Having a lot of cars on the track is much better for the fans at the track. You can run F1 with a very small number of cars - it's been done in the past - but those are not typically very "good" races, as they don't stay in a pack. The faster guys start out in front and pull away, and the slower guys fall behind, and after a few laps nobody's really racing the other drivers anymore, because everyone's spaced out.

More cars on the track means that more cars are in proximity to each other. F1 cars are hard to pass under ordinary circumstances - if you don't have optimal airflow, your aero doesn't work as well to keep you stuck on the track, and "behind some other car" is very non-optimal airflow. (That's fine if you're on the straight, 'coz you don't want that drag right then - but sucks going into a turn, when you really need the downforce!) Even a small difference in performance can be magnified when the slower guy is up front.

(This is also why F1 plays games with the tires. They COULD easily get tires that would run the whole race just fine, but they want pit stops, because that shakes up the running order of the field and shakes up the parade...)

So even the slower guys are contributing, in their own way, so long as they're not SO slow that they become a "mobile chicane" instead of a fellow competitor.

Now, another solution that's been floated is to have fewer total teams, but have each of them running more cars. The teams hate this solution because those cars aren't free! More cars means more engines, more chassis, more drivers who need to get paid, more mechanics, more tools and support equipment, and you're shipping that stuff all over the world too. And the lower-ranked teams don't get all that much of the prize money, so even if you just chopped off everything, and had the top five teams and four cars each, the extra money you'd save in prizes might not cover the added expenses.

On the other hand, if you're running more cars per team, you're guaranteeing that there are several cars in the same performance band, which can make for some exciting racing. On the gripping hand, the teams hate it when their guys are racing each other hard, because one slip and suddenly they're out two cars! A lot of teams simply don't permit it; it was something of a miracle that Mercedes let Rosberg and Hamilton go at it like wild men last year for as long as they did, and eventually Rosberg hit Hamilton and got the riot act read to him for it.

But if you don't have enough cars on track, you don't have enough butts in seats, and if tracks don't make enough money from tickets they don't put on the show. Nominally it would be possible for F1 to reduce the fees to the point where the lower dollars were sustainable... or they could pay out enough in prizes further down the ladder that teams could survive in lower positions without going bankrupt in the first place.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at March 17, 2015 01:02 PM (zJsIy)

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