With recent outbursts relating to the declining popularity of F1, one of the major reasons that is being cited for it is the over-emphasis on technical aspect, which has made the driver’s job easier, resulting in several races which have been reduced to a mere procession of cars following each other.
But the major question here is, are the complaints are legitimate, or has the state of F1 always been like this and it is only recently that critics have taken up this topic for discussion?
Just a few days ago in an interview conducted with Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 supremo was highly critical of the direction in which the sport was headed. Describing Alain Prost to be the greatest driver, he went on to add, “Prost had to look after his brakes, his gearbox, everything. He did a good job so he finished more races and he finished in a better position. Whereas today they don't have that problem. They sit there on the starting grid and there is an engineer that starts the race. It is not on. When the lights go off they should be on their own. It is an engineer's championship.”
Ecclestone is indeed right when he says that F1 has become too reliant on engineering aspect, but still it cannot be denied that driver’s skill is still required in order to win the championship. With all the technical aids, though the driver’s job has become easier than earlier, but the complexities of driving have also increased.
In the modern era, a driver is required to master the different functions on the steering wheel, tyre management, brake management, ERS management, DRS deployment, etc. Thus, while today’s drivers are getting a lot of assistance, they must still co-ordinate several things which requires a high level of competence. In no way has a driver’s job become easier in the modern era; it has in fact become more complex.
With this in view, the argument still holds good that maybe today, the engineering aspect of the sport has taken precedence, and certain measures to subdue it a little bit may hold good for the sport.
Further, it should be remembered that F1 has always remained a driver’s as well as a constructor’s championship in which the world’s greatest manufacturer’s compete for supremacy; thus the engineering aspect of the sport cannot be totally ignored.
First of all, the argument up for discussion is the aspect regarding truth of Ecclestone’s statement. In the ongoing season, Mercedes has again obliterated all opposition to secure Constructor’s Championship two years in a row. Seeing them leading almost each and every race over the past two years does give a sense that championship is now getting too reliant on who engineers the best car. Also, another thing worth noting is that the past few seasons have given the notion that the best engineered car will win the championship, regardless of who is on the driving seat.
Another crucial aspect worth considering is in regard to the technical complexity, which requires drivers to manage several things like, tyres, ERS, DRS, brakes, etc which has perhaps taken the attention of drivers away from pushing to the limit. Almost 10 years ago, this wasn’t the case, when drivers used to go against each other on full throttle with few things to distract them from driving as compared to the myriad requirements today.
The major problem arose in 2009, when there was radical revamp of rules and regulations, which introduced DRS, KERS and several other technical aids. Also, with tyre management taking prominence during the past few years, the complexities have only increased.
Veteran F1 racer, Mark Webber, who has been a staunch critic of the current state of F1, recently said: "They're just not stimulating for the drivers and this is rubbing off. The fans can see this. Over the course of the five or six years they've got many, many things wrong to try and make the sport better. It's become a sniff too artificial."
But both the above arguments are only partially true.
Can’t get no domination
First, regarding the dominance of Mercedes in recent years being bad for the sport, it should be remembered that this is nothing new, but has usually been the case. Ever since F1 came into existence in 1950s, several manufactures have dominated the sport over a period of time.
Red Bull was the dominant force before Mercedes for four consecutive years, before them there was the Schumacher-Ferrari era in which they dominated from 2000-2004.
Going further back in history, similar examples are in abundance like McLaren’s domination in 1980s, Lotus’s dominance in late 1960s and also Mercedes’ legendary domination in mid 1950s. Thus, it can easily be argued that where were all the critics when these teams were dominating. Instead of criticizing such periods, several of these eras have now been described as one of the greatest in the sport. So domination isn’t damaging the sport, but has always been the state of F1.
Focus on technical advancement
The fact that too many technical regulations have decreased the driver’s influence on the car while making the driving aspect itself too complex to manage cannot be denied. But it should be remembered that F1 is not only about who is the best driver in the world, but rather it is also about the fierce competition among manufacturers who utilize the most cutting edge technology to gain an edge over their rivals.
Had F1 only been about finding the best driver in the world, manufacturers would not have been present in the sport at all. The fact that these manufacturers are provided with the incentive to compete at such a grand stage and gain a chance to establish their supremacy at global level attracts them to F1 in the first place.
Thus, manufacturers are part of spirit of F1 and they cannot be left out. They should be allowed to showcase their technical or engineering excellence, because if curbed too much it will automatically lead to their departure, which will massively affect the commercial standing and perhaps eventually even the existence of the sport.
One can thus glean that the statement mentioned by Ecclestone is only partially true. There is no denying that F1 has now become too engrossed with technical aspects, but with the sport being the pinnacle of technology as well as racing, the engineering aspect will always subsist.
Has there really been a move away from drivers’ skill?
It cannot be denied that however cutting-edge the technology is, it should not overly influence driving ability. With the advancement of technology, the decrease in requirement of driver’s skill has been easily apparent. Usually, with increasing employment of technology, several aids which make driving easier also find their way into the sport. This tends to make racing boring in some ways, however, and certainly F1 cannot exist like this.
There is a need to find a middle ground through all of this, in which the drivers are able to display their skills with the manufacturers able to showcase their world class machinery.
Recently, former FIA president Max Mosley, summed matters up succinctly. ““It is supposed to be a double competition - men and machine - but if the engineering competition starts to take over from the human competition, Formula One, in my opinion at least, loses an essential element. I think there is a big argument for back to basics, where the driver has a steering wheel and maybe even a gear lever, and brakes and an accelerator and a very powerful engine and he has to get on with it.”
Thus, surely a radical overhaul of rules and regulations is required in the near future and with several major changes being planned for 2017 onwards, which include “making the cars faster, louder, harder to drive and more aggressive looking”, hopes for a more competitive and interesting F1 could not have been higher.