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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - EDD STRAW

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”

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