The Essence of Racing

Jenson Button, McLaren

Photo courtesy McLaren

At its core racing is a contest of speed over a fixed distance or for a period of time. The context I’m referring to here is circuit racing, where multiple cars are on a track at once. They’re not only competing for position by trying to go faster than one another, they’re also jockeying for the same physical space with each driver trying to pass the one ahead. This brings so much more than pure speed into the equation.

Test of Driver Skill

Driver control is a central tenet of the sport. On-track competition pushes drivers to each call on a full array of skills to maximize speed, including accelerating, changing gears, turning (in both directions I might add), and braking, while outmaneuvering opponents. While strategy is important, it should be secondary. The primary excitement is in the action on track. That is the purpose of racing and that is what gets the attention of the audience.

Qualifying

Before a race can begin the starting order must be determined. Each driver’s starting position for the race should be determined by his fastest lap in a qualifying session preceding the race. The fastest driver in qualifying starts the race in first place on pole position, followed by the second fastest qualifier, and so forth such that the driver that posts the slowest qualifying time starts the race in the last position, unless that driver does not qualify for the race at all, or another driver is penalized and is then moved to the back of the grid before the start.

Qualifying determines the fastest combination of car and driver in the ultimate sprint. If possible, it should be undertaken on a track that is initially open to all competitors at the same time. The current F1 method of doing three knockout qualifying sessions is an excellent model. I’m glad everyone came to their senses and reverted back to the current system.

The Race

While it may appear the objective of a race is to go as fast as you can and beat everyone else to the finish, a more studied observation would reveal it’s actually like a high speed chess match in that there are specific phases – namely beginning, middle, and end phases – blended together. Some times the phases are punctuated by pitstops.

The Start and Beginning Phase

A proper race begins from a standstill. The position of each car is fixed relative to the others. The alternative is a rolling start where the cars are lined up and positioned in the order they are to start the race, but the start has far less precision than is possible with a standing start.

While qualifying times often come down to differences of thousandths of a second, a rolling start will negate all of that because it is impossible for drivers (even if they wanted) to maintain exact speeds and gaps between their vehicles approaching the starting line in a chaotic rolling start with multiple columns of cars (generally two side-by-side) where there is no way to monitor even the correct positioning of cars beyond the first few rows.

Even the quaint Le Mans-style starts of the past, where drivers were lined up across the track from their cars and ran to them at the start of the race, were more appropriate in terms of accuracy than rolling starts.

Barring that, a single file rolling start is certainly preferable to one with multiple columns. It’s also a good way to perform a restart should the race have a caution period (i.e. yellow flag), and the restart should always occur at the start/finish line.

The start of the race is often the most exciting phase. The cars are close together. As a result the battles are intense and no one has any idea what is going to happen. Anything is possible with every driver doing his best to balance the trade off of defending the position he has and attacking for the position ahead, while avoiding any incidents that would jeopardize progress toward the race’s next phase.

Pitstops and Middle Phases

As the race goes on, the gap between first and last place tends to naturally string out and the pace settles into a rhythm. Part of this is due to the fact that the leading cars and drivers, as demonstrated through qualifying, tend to be faster than the trailing cars and drivers.

Further, the lead driver is less likely to be embroiled in a battle for position. At most he is defending from those behind, but by definition is not attacking a driver ahead, meaning he can generally drive his preferred racing line and put in clean laps while those behind are losing time squabbling for position. He has come out of the opening phase in the lead.

The days before pitlane speed limits seem just short of insane now. There was a lot more danger but the action didn’t seem better. Speed limits are a reasonable and a good idea. Unfortunately, pitlane speed limit penalties have on occasion spoiled a good battle.

Pitstops themselves, though, seem superfluous and contrived now. In the era where tires couldn’t be made to last they made sense. The equipment just wasn’t capable of going the distance. These days, for races where the cars usually have enough fuel capacity to last the distance, the changing of tires seems monumentally wasteful.

I’d like to see tires that can last the full distance without a major change in traction levels. Tires don’t have to offer the highest possible grip levels, but they should offer consistent grip for the duration of a race to enable drivers to push to the limit. If there is only one tire manufacturer supplying the tires to a given series, tire parity among competitors is easily achieved.

As the middle phase shakes out, in addition to the likely decreasing number of battles as the cars string out, the cumulative effects of driver errors and fatigue, mechanical reliability, and race strategy begin to manifest in earnest. In a “boring” race, nothing changes because everything runs like clockwork.

It’s when someone makes a good move, a bad move, or is unlucky relative to the competitors that the order gets jumbled up. In a long race with many competitors something usually happens. The drivers who come out of the middle phase strongly have positioned themselves to potentially win the race.

End Phase and Finish

The first driver to cover the race distance or, in a time limited race, the greatest distance, without breaking the rules wins. It’s as simple as that.

However, to get there the old adage of “to finish first, you must first finish” is as true as ever. The corollary is that no race has ever been won at the first corner of the first lap. But many a race has been lost there. The winning driver must survive the beginning and middle phases of the race, and position himself to be competitive in the end phase. This includes being prepared for unexpected occurrences as time grows short.

Other competitors may start to drive more aggressively toward the end as they spot opportunities or grow desperate to maintain position. Drivers and equipment may be fading or failing. Teams and race organizers may take actions that change the face of the race.

For example, Nascar, and by extension its sports car racing arm, IMSA, seems to frequently find a reason to throw a yellow flag near the end of a race to “bunch up the field” – making it resemble the race start (or restart) – in order to have a closer finish. It’s inauthentic, but it does have an effect.

All of these factors combine to maintain a degree of uncertainty until the very end. The longer the outcome is uncertain until the checkered flag is waved, the more exciting the race – if not with the race leader then at least with other positions further afield.

The Championship

A championship racing season consists of a set of races to determine the most competitive driver and team over the course of a season. More than any one race, the driver who performs best over a racing season is crowned champion. Every driver is stronger on some tracks than others. The set of races should take place on a variety of track layouts to test adaptability.

Winning a race proves a driver outperformed all others on one occasion. It could be mostly attributed to skill or luck – it could be a fluke, or superior equipment or teamwork. However, a driver who wins a meaningful championship proves his mettle because he can attribute that result more to consistent skill than luck. Even more so if he wins multiple championships.

If at all possible, rules should not be changed during the course of a season unless for urgent reasons of safety or to close glaring loopholes. Unfortunately, some times it appears it does happen for reasons of manipulating the racing in order to “improve the show”.

There are quite a few parallels between how championship series are administered and how societies are governed. In basic terms, one might say that series that award leading competitors proportionately greater rewards, such as in points or prize money, are elitist. Series that penalize excellent performance, such as by assigning reverse qualifying grids, “success” ballast, or Balance of Performance (BOP) restrictions, are socialist.

Both distort purity of competition, detract from its quality, and encourage corruption (i.e. gaming of the system). It’s hard to strike an appropriate balance. But this is what every series should strive for to provide the best competition possible. It does, however, depend on one’s definition of “best”. And “best” for those in charge may vary from what you and I think.

Tracks Matter

Great tracks matter. Some need to be upgraded but their places need to be preserved and utilized rather than allowing hallowed ground fall into disrepair by laying fallow (e.g. Imola, Hockenheim).

Instead of chasing the all mighty dollar and accepting what amounts to legal bribes to hold races for a couple of years to enable political statements by questionable regimes (in places that have neither a history nor a passion for the sport itself), organizers would do well to maintain and grow the reputation of the sport in places that have either proven to be or are likely to become excellent events (e.g. Singapore, Yas Marina).

Locations should be proven first with junior series before being awarded top billing. They should earn their place in the championship by demonstrating there is real interest from a real fan base – a truly sustainable business model.

Beautiful Cars

Not only do race cars have to be fast, they should be easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, some rulemakers have done their best to show that, in addition to not knowing what racing is about, they also do not possess a tasteful sense of aesthetic.

IndyCar has continued a decade long streak of fielding some of the most ungainly open wheel cars ever known. F1 is not immune to this with all manner of awkwardly proportioned, grooved tired (1998-2008), stepped-nose abominations (circa 2012-2013). And of course there is Nascar with what are overweight boxes with different stickers for headlights and grilles to mimick various production vehicles.

At times the best looking race cars have been those that began as cars one could actually buy in a showroom from the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, and Aston-Martin. At least production cars usually have to look good to sell. Perhaps this is another reason sports car racing is thriving. Rulemakers would do well to remember that.

Role of the Teams

Each team is an independent organism within the larger ecosystem of the series and the world of racing at large. Its purpose is to field the best overall campaign each season in order to thrive in that ecosystem (much like the drivers). To do so it must provide the best cars and support possible to its chosen drivers. During each race, each team is there to support its cars and drivers, and to handle strategic issues during the race.

“Unfair” advantages are okay if within the letter, if not the spirit, of the rules. Breaking rules is cheating and must come with consequences that deter the cheating acitivity. While the teams should have some say in how the sport is run, they each naturally have their own interests first and therefore should not be allowed to wield control over the decision making process of the series, either by refusing to act or by leading with their own agendas. The tail cannot be permitted to wag the dog.

Rules Are Paramount

Rules should be clearly defined and enforceable. Fewer is better, much like the late Colin Chapman’s “add lightness”. Keep it simple! The purpose of the series is to establish the spirit of racing, set the tone, and to be consistent. That is the governing body’s role. Get out of the way and let the outcomes be decided on track.

The FIA appeals process and the World Motorsport Council (WMSC) interests no fan. Ever. It adds nothing to the show and may not even be composed of legitimate racers. Who are they and why should anyone care?

Further, if a rule can’t be reasonably enforced it is, at best, only a guideline.

Auto racing has been with us for over 100 years. While the cars, tracks, and technology (e.g. TV, digital timing, video, etc.) have evolved over that time, the race formats have changed largely only in detail because they don’t have to.

Specifically, I’m referring to the sprint race format: A relatively brief contest of speed on a closed circuit having both left and right turns, where each car is driven by one driver from beginning to end. Pitstops may or may not be involved.

However, many sanctioning bodies have tried to change things up by constantly fiddling with formats and rules in an attempt to spice up the “show”. Most of the time they fail, like changing the way to draw a circle. Often the outcome is egg shaped.

There are plenty of other forms of racing or “racing” (what promoters pass off as racing but doesn’t fit the above criteria).

Consistency & Conclusion

Fans don’t care about minutia and overly complicated rules – nor should they. Most are casual observers. And even the hardcore don’t tend to be enamored by complexity either. Simple is good.

It doesn’t involve arbitrary and artificial constraints such as mandatory pitstops, tire changes, the use of a minimum number of tire compounds, or anything like the Drag Reduction System (DRS), radio restrictions, and so forth.

DRS is wrong for taking control from the driver, restricting who can use it and when. If a car is equipped with DRS the driver should have full control over its use.

Let me put it plainly. The outcome of a race should be dependent only upon the drivers and their equipment, and to some extent their teams. The series is there to provide and enforce the rules of engagement. Rules have to be clearly enforceable. Otherwise they’re just guidelines with arbitrary penalties.

With few exceptions, not external interference whether from the and most definitely, never ever any influence from the audience or visitors. It’s never a good thing.

Fanboost is a terribly misguided idea. The audience should never, ever have direct influence over on-track performance. For that reason alone I rarely follow Formula E.

Any time someone suggests as harebrained an idea as fanboost they are demonstrating clearly they do not understand what racing really is. They are not racers, merely out to create a spectacle and that is a mistake. It’s disingenuous to call that racing. It is an approximation of the idea of racing created by people who aren’t racers, for fans who don’t know it’s not racing.

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