Formula One Takes A Wrong Turn In 2014

2014 Ferrari F14/T

2014 Ferrari F1 car – Photo courtesy Ferrari North America

The FIA, governing body of Formula One (F1), banned active suspension and anti-lock brakes (ABS) for the 1994 season, ostensibly to curb costs and put racing first by emphasizing the driver’s role. Adherence to emphasis on driver skill has served the sport well in its rise to worldwide prominence.

Twenty years on, the start of the 2014 season saw the introduction of a host of new technologies aimed at increasing road car relevance and spicing up the show. It’s made a mess of the sport.

The various committees that govern F1 have forgotten the essence of racing. Above all it is a competition of speed between drivers, teams and manufacturers. It is the responsibility of the governing body to provide technical specifications and sporting regulations which offer close racing and financially viable access for the competitors. Requiring all new engines and powertrain technologies in the name of efficiency is not the way to go about it.

Amid global economic weakness it is believed more than half the F1 teams are struggling for funding, to the point of having to choose drivers based on how much money they can pay rather than mostly on merit.

We’ve gone from normally aspirated V8 engines to turbocharged V6 units with increased regenerative braking through the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and a thermally-based Energy Recovery System (ERS), and restricted fuel flow rates. This is in addition to the gimmick of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) in place since 2011.

F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport. But now the cars weigh more, generate more heat and aero drag, are less reliable and cost a lot more. And they’re ugly to boot. But worst of all they are slower. It is the opposite of elegant engineering.

If fuel economy is what the FIA wanted, one wonders how much of an improvement they could have achieved just by slowing down last year’s cars to this year’s lap times by limiting air or fuel intake without all the expenditure of new technology.

The FIA have failed to recognize that speed and fuel economy are two sides of the efficiency coin. They’ve done a disservice to the sport by placing too much emphasis on fuel economy in an effort to appear more “green”. Not nearly as many people care to watch a fuel economy competition as a good contest of speed.

As for the secondary issue of technology transfer from motorsport to production cars it’s simply misunderstood. Very little of the actual equipment is transferable. The true common thread is human capital. You want better road cars? Start with better trained people by putting them to the test in the crucible of motorsport.

Honda was known to reap the benefits of doing just that in the 1980s and early 1990s. Former CEO Nobuhiko Kawamoto, himself a former F1 engineer, successfully led the company through tough times in the early 1990s with the introduction of a slew of acclaimed road vehicles.

The cars Honda produced in that era clearly show that racing improves the breed by pushing people to think creatively and to act quickly. Hardware is just the outcome. There is little need for race cars to use the same technology as road cars.

Despite all the attention lavished by F1 on these new regulations and the accompanying technologies, my prediction is that the top teams (which can afford the most and best people) will find their way back to the top, clearly not without the usual political wrangling, as the season draws to a close in Abu Dabi. Nothing unusual about that. Except that this year will likely be the most expensive season yet, using slower and less reliable cars.

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