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