In the paddock: Edd Straw
Many fans and Formula 1 insiders want more ‘unpredictability’ in the sport – and while that’s a laudable goal, we shouldn’t introduce randomness as a shortcut
The best thing that could happen to Formula 1 in 2019 would be a genuine shock in the seasonopening Australian Grand Prix. Let’s say Antonio Giovinazzi prevails for Sauber – that would be an upset right up there with the greatest in GP history. Fans would be enthusiastic about how the formbook was turned on its head, delighted that a middling team could suddenly leap to the front. The days until the next race in Bahrain couldn’t pass quickly enough. So the unpredictable would be great for F1?
If this happened in 2019, it would be. But with so much talk about what GP racing should be and multiple ideas being chucked around in the everlasting quest to spice up the show, there’s a risk that shocks in the future could be unfulfilling.
Sometimes people express a desire for things to be more ‘random’. Usually, they are using that word as a synonym for unpredictable rather than literally, but even so F1 must be careful not to take the easy option and let randomness prevail. That would be nothing more than a shallow simulacrum of unpredictability.
The beauty of sport is that it has rules. Random factors are unavoidable and can impact the result, but over a significant sample set of sporting contests the best will usually win.
A good GP is not simply a case of a load of things happening, then somebody wins. That would be random, and have all the appeal of simply watching a roulette wheel spin without having staked anything on it. There need to be clear reasons for the victory; there needs to be a storyline to follow. If there isn’t, then surprise results become commonplace and cease to have meaning.
That’s why unpredictability and randomness are not the same thing. While the output might be the same – in the case of racing a wide variety of winners – the input is very different. One is entirely superficial. The other is something gloriously different.
So the objective is to increase the variables, while retaining the integrity and the sense of the racing. Often, this can look random and luck-based, but what is often presented as good fortune is often about far more than that. Take a wet qualifying session that concludes as the track is drying. Let’s say the last driver across the line takes pole position – lucky, right? Well, maybe not. They were positioned correctly by their team to capitalise on the best conditions and the driver nailed the lap when they needed to – as well as ensuring they started that lap at the right moment, which is a skill that some struggle with. But what if you are well-positioned and there’s a yellow flag because someone spins? Realistically, that is a risk that you take because in chasing the potential optimum conditions you narrow the window of opportunity.
An example of a truly random event would be to create a variable the competitors can do nothing about that impacts the race result. For the sake of argument, let’s say that three times a season the leader would be, at random, pulled in for a drivethrough penalty. That would certainly impact the result, but it would be an utterly preposterous thing to do. That is a random factor in the purest sense and not the right kind of unpredictability.
The other danger of random factors is that they risk rendering championships too amorphous. Sporting storylines are built on the concept of favourites and outsiders. For an upset to be worth talking about it must go against the run of play. If everyone gets a turn, that could prove almost as unpopular as domination.
Fans need to know where they stand. That means understanding the pecking order and being able to revel in the unpredictability within that. F1 teams want to eliminate randomness entirely and control the variables. The vast amounts of data analysis and the engineering might of the teams means there is less scope for going in the wrong direction with set-up or tyre use than there once was.
This is what makes ideas about cutting the amount of in-raceweekend data analysis interesting. It would make for a level playing field, and would ask more of the driver’s ability to interpret what the car is doing and the engineering team’s capacity to make changes accordingly. That’s the sort of methodology that creates the conditions for more unpredictability.
But ultimately, it all circles around to the same old problem.
The most problematic limiting factor in F1 is resources. A team’s ultimate performance potential is effectively the combination of its financial resources, facilities and quality of leadership. But the most powerful predictor of performance is budget, and at best F1 looks set only to slightly mitigate the problem of the biggest teams being rewarded simply for turning up. This means it will be in the technical and sporting regulations that the show will be impacted.
And when it comes to sporting regulations, it is incredibly easy to influence results by introducing randomness. But this would be unsatisfying. Generating true unpredictability, where results vary because of a multitude of variables and decisions, and teams and drivers have to navigate their way through a series of challenges that can’t necessarily be made easier by the brute force of resource, that’s a more challenging – but far more fulfilling – goal.
“TEAMS WANT TO ELIMINATE RANDOMNESS ENTIRELY AND CONTROL THE VARIABLES”