POWER PLAY

The sto­ries F1’s big­wigs would rather you didn’t know…

F1 Racing (UK) - - INSIDER - DI­ETER RENCKEN

the com­plex­ity of cur­rent F1 cars: Up to 1,500 highly qual­i­fied per­son­nel col­lec­tively de­sign, de­velop, and con­struct two grand prix cars, then field them on 21 Sun­days per year for su­per­star driv­ers, who are then un­able to ex­tract the best from their ma­chines un­less in­structed by their en­gi­neer which modes to se­lect at any given time.

FIA crit­ics blamed the Baku woes suf­fered by Lewis Hamil­ton, who was all at sea af­ter his en­gi­neers di­alled in the in­cor­rect en­gine set­tings for the cir­cuit, on the sport’s reg­u­la­tor, which had clamped down on pit-to-car ra­dio trans­mis­sions dur­ing grands prix (except for safety mes­sages), but such crit­i­cism leaves FIA pres­i­dent Jean Todt cold.

“But [the clam­p­down] was re­quested unan­i­mously. We were asked to re­duce all aids, all as­sis­tance given to driv­ers for the race, and this is part of that ap­proach,” he replied when asked to clar­ify the is­sue dur­ing the FIA’S re­cent an­nual Sport Con­fer­ence.

There, in a nut­shell, is F1’s big­gest ex­is­ten­tial threat: where once the sport blazed tech­ni­cal trails that were then adopted by the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try on a ‘win on Sun­day, sell on Mon­day’ ba­sis, Todt’s words neatly en­cap­su­late the di­ver­gent philoso­phies now at play, with the FIA sat be­tween two stools – on one side charged with pro­mot­ing road safety via elec­tronic sys­tems, and, on the other, pro­mot­ing mo­tor­sport, with­out them.

As the mo­tor mak­ers pro­gres­sively adopt au­ton­o­mous tech­nolo­gies, so driv­ers in­creas­ingly lose touch with the art of driv­ing, and, by ex­ten­sion, their ad­mi­ra­tion for coura­geous rac­ers who achieve the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble in 1,000bhp ma­chines tee­ter­ing on the outer edges of con­trol. Af­ter all, how could driv­ers of ve­hi­cles that deftly elim­i­nate wheel spin read­ily ap­pre­ci­ate the skills re­quired to com­pete in teem­ing rain?

ASC (sta­bil­ity con­trol) and ABS (anti-lock brak­ing) are sim­ply the start of a bur­geon­ing trend, and al­ready au­ton­o­mous cars have lapped race cir­cuits, set­ting times com­pa­ra­ble to those of the best driv­ers, while For­mula E is cur­rently toy­ing with Rob­o­race as a sup­port cat­e­gory. As the name sug­gests, this is a se­ries for driver­less cars. The danger, of course, is that rac­ing will im­prove this par­tic­u­lar breed, as it did so ef­fec­tively for road cars…

Lu­cas di Grassi, one of the most cere­bral F1 driv­ers, who now has piv­otal de­vel­op­ment roles in WEC and For­mula E, re­cently ob­served: “You now see tech­nol­ogy be­ing more im­por­tant than the driver,” ad­ding, “no racer wants that. Rac­ing driv­ers and mo­tor­sport is about who is the best driver on the race­track, not who has the best tech­nol­ogy.”

A tech fail­ure was Lewis’s down­fall in Baku, when he was not al­lowed to seek help from his en­gi­neers

The co­nun­drum, though, is that Fu­ture Kids are technophiles raised on hard drives and megawatts rather than coun­try drives and kilo­watts. They thus have no affin­ity for wheeled ma­chines, whether two or four, save for funky Tes­las or shared rides.

Ban driver aids and au­ton­o­mous sys­tems, and F1 be­comes ir­rel­e­vant as a tech­nol­o­gy­trans­fer plat­form for the in­dus­try, fur­ther di­min­ish­ing man­u­fac­turer in­ter­est in F1.

The net ef­fect will be that F1 would grad­u­ally re­turn to be­ing the mi­nor­ity in­ter­est sport it was in the Eight­ies, be­fore the ar­rival of tobacco money, big cor­po­rate bucks and Bernie Ec­cle­stone. It would be fol­lowed once again only by those who noses twitch at the whiff of high-oc­tane fuel. Al­ready the sport has largely been driven off main­stream TV chan­nels and the front pages of the world’s news­pa­pers.

One pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive would be for the FIA to em­brace emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies by en­cour­ag­ing their de­vel­op­ment in mo­tor­sport in an FIA Driver Aid World Cham­pi­onship. But any such move would rapidly de­stroy any no­tion of ‘sport’. Surely not even the most ar­dent geeks would shell out good money – via Ap­ple Pay, of course – to fol­low that se­ries, whether live or vir­tu­ally.

F1, then, stands on the thresh­old of ma­jor ex­is­ten­tial de­ci­sions: does it stick rigidly to its sport­ing ideals by thwart­ing the in­evitable on­slaught of tech­nolo­gies? Or does it sur­ren­der to driver aids and elec­tronic wiz­ardry, in the process pro­mot­ing mo­bile lab­o­ra­to­ries for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, whose only re­sem­blance to race cars lie in their sealed black boxes?

Alas, F1 does not know where it cur­rently stands, let alone in which di­rec­tion it in­tends to head. Fur­ther dither­ing will likely see it fall prey to the sort of dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies and/or cre­ative de­struc­tion that re­de­fined the travel, lit­er­ary and mu­sic in­dus­tries; in the hi-tech stakes it was long ago over­hauled by Google de­spite em­ploy­ing armies of bright en­gi­neers to make its ma­chines.

For­mula 1 must re­de­fine it­self as ei­ther a sport­ing spec­ta­cle or a tech­ni­cal plat­form, with­out for­get­ting that sim­ply fram­ing its 2017 reg­u­la­tions took two years and nu­mer­ous le­gal threats. Time is of the essence…

Is too much tech a turn-off?

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