Thursday, August 3, 2017

The "meh" Grand Prix

The Hungarian Grand Prix showed some of the worst aspects of Formula 1 racing. It summed up everyone's complaint about the sport. It was so devoid of any meaningful racing action that one of the podium hostesses inadvertently stole the show.

The race was mostly such a procession that the broadcasters' focus was on the leading cars. Among the top 5 cars there wasn't a single genuine pass. Given their pace and the tight nature of the track, the leading cars couldn't get enough of a run to make clean passes on their teammates. And given their lofty positions no one wanted to make a daring move for fear of damaging their tires or worst their car.

The drivers all blamed the track, but it's rather the F1 honchos, since they decide the car design parameters. F2 had a very entertaining session at this same track.

When you compare the action here to Indycar, or even the F2 race earlier in the day, F1 was rather boring, predictable, and lacking in any taut racing.

On average Lewis Hamilton was the fastest man on track. In a normal racing environment Raikkonen would have passed Vettel, then Lewis would have made quick work of Bottas, Vettel, and then battled it out with Raikkonen for the win.

So why can't F1 cars overtake each other on this track And have a hard time at most other tracks? This track is even so short that even the DRS gimmick doesn't give pursuing cars enough time to make a pass.

Formula 1 cars' reliance on aerodynamics to make speed and downforce is their long standing problem. Compared to Formula1 cars,  the F2 cars that raced earlier or even Indycars and Super Formula machines rely more on mechanical grip for handling and speed. Meaning the design of the chassis, suspension geometry, tire, weight distribution, ride height all are used to keep the car holding onto the road. There is still aero involved, in F2, Indy and Super Formula, but it's less of a factor compared to F1, and vice versa.

Aero grip is advanced, near space age technology. The higher the speeds the better it works. It really provides quite a show on acceleration and fast sweepers. Its development cost is stratospheric, it has limited real world application, and as witnessed in Hungary, it requires undisturbed air and does not allow for much close racing in confined quarters.

Mechanical grip is closer to real world road car technology, its development cost are more manageable, it allows for close racing as you see in Indy and F2. It is considered a step down from aero grip development and the cars tend to look unsophisticated compared to F1 machinery.

In my opinion if an Indycar were to be fitted with either the Mercedes or Ferrari engines used in Hungary, the same tires and with a competent driver, it would have over taken the leading pack and easily kept the lead by making quick work of lapped traffic. The reason so, is because it would be able to draw close to cars, since its body work makes do with more mechanical grip than aero grip.

If cars with higher mechanical grip than aero would provide more racing action, why doesn't F1 scrap their current rules book and adopt a whole new concept frame? The answer is one of exclusivity, and control.

F1 has been very lucrative for the established teams. Over the years they have amassed nearly unsurmountable knowledge about aerodynamics as it applies to racing vehicles. This knowledge alone is golden. It sets the established teams apart from any new entrant. No matter how much a new entrant is willing to spend to be competitive, or the caliber of the firm they choose to subcontract design work to, overcoming the challenge of years of aero knowledge is a task measured in hundreds of millions. In the case of a savvy new entrant like Haas, the aero curve defficiency makes them dependent on an established team. In the effort to keep themselves as the players in the sport for as long as possible, the F1 establishment will simply not budge to move the sport's chassis design language from a aero dependent grip to a mechanical grip dependent platform. The sport is lucrative, exclusive and the big players want to stay in charge of it. End of story.

As a side effect this has also ensured that only a small crop of heavily backed drivers can truly contend for a driving seat in Formula1. All lower formulas (Indylights, F2, FV8 3.5, etc) and all other types of racing, have mechanical grip dependent or dominant chassis. When drivers graduate from there, unless they were heavily sponsored to have used a team's simulator and test drive the latest F1 cars regularly, they will struggle to adapt, and F1 teams simply won't hire drivers who do not test drive regularly.

Formula1 can be made racier with more passing. However the desire to maintain a solid grip on the sport and only attract well heeled newcomers (drivers and teams) to add to the pot has kept the sport from truly being as entertaining as it can be.