Not the right formula

At a time when the Formula One viewership is dropping alarmingly, the FIA’s initiative for 2015 threatens to alienate the fans even further. By S. Dipak Ragav.

Over the last few years, Formula One has been losing audiences — both television (the lifeblood of F1 business) and at venues. While there are many reasons for this, ranging from expensive tickets and some of the mature TV markets going for pay per view to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s complete domination over the past four years, the governing body of the Sport, FIA, also has to shoulder a part of the blame.

Recently, the World Motorsport Council, at a meeting in Munich, came up with certain changes to the sporting regulations for 2015, ostensibly with a view to making F1 more exciting and wooing back the spectators. However, some of these changes are perplexing, as the FIA has modified regulations that were fine to start with and have ended up with decisions that could further alienate the F1 fans.

Late last year, Formula One introduced a bizarre rule that doubled the points for the last race of the current season (Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, November 23). This ruling came in for widespread criticism. By placing a higher value on only one race, and that too the final one, undermines to a certain extent the work done by the driver throughout the season.

To illustrate this point, a driver, leading by a little more than 25 points (points awarded for a race win), can lose the title in the final race if he retires and his principal rival manages to finish even third, which will give him 30 points instead of the normal 15 points. For example, two of the closest finishes in the last seven years — 2008 and 2012 — would have had different champions in Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso (the eventual champions were Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel) had this rule been in place.

Similarly, the FIA ruling in favour of a standing start instead of the current rolling start after a safety car period from 2015 onwards is also illogical. The new rule, in effect, negates the purpose of a safety car, which is to slow the field until the track is safe and ready to resume racing. The only situation in which standing restarts will not be used is when the ‘safety car is used within two laps of the start (or restart) of a race or if there are less than five laps of the race remaining.’

As per the current convention, the safety car heads into the pits once the track is deemed safe for racing, and the drivers are allowed to race once they cross the safety car line, typically placed just past the pit entry before start/finish straight. The new rule means the cars will line up on the grid in their current order and will have to go through the start sequence once again.

One of the reasons believed to be behind this new rule is that the start of the race provides excitement and a standing restart would liven up the race. However, there are quite a few serious issues to this. A standing restart, while it may provide action and excitement, could also induce accidents, especially with cars on worn out tyres. This, in turn, could trigger another round of safety car period, which might further delay the race. With F1 struggling to maintain its viewership, a race that extends beyond 100 minutes (120 minutes is the limit for any race), could further test the TV figures.

A standing restart can also unfairly shake up a grid. A driver who has built a sizeable lead before the deployment of the safety car could be at a disadvantage if he has a bad start during the restart. Even worse, an unwise move from a competitor could send him crashing into the barriers.

Though a standing restart might seem like the start of a race, the situations are completely different. It is to be remembered that the tyres at the start of a race are fairly new and their temperatures are well maintained with tyre-warmers. No such option will be available during the restart, meaning drivers will have to resume on tyres that are out of their ideal operating range.

The new rule makes little sense when the race can be red-flagged instead of going slow behind a safety car only to stop and start again. A brief red flag period will also help save fuel that is otherwise wasted by cars following the safety car.

Another new regulation pertains to the Parc Ferme conditions that will be enforced from Practice 3 on Saturday morning and not from qualifying as is the case now. As per the new rule, the teams have to submit details of suspension and other specified routine work carried out to the FIA technical delegate before the cars leave for Practice 3. And they cannot be changed between Practice 3 and the race. This could mean that the teams and drivers might not be wholly interested in going out for Practice 3 — or perhaps they might perform just a few laps instead of using the allotted one hour — if they can’t use the data collected during practice to tweak the car before qualifying.

The F1 has also been quite reluctant to embrace the social media to promote the sport, as there is no viable revenue stream. To illustrate how out of depth the F1 promoters have been, take the case of Facebook. It has been a full decade since the platform was founded and only recently have there even been talks among the wise men to meet to understand how to involve technology and social media companies in the sport.

While the stakeholders keep meeting with the intention of improving the show, it, sadly, is not reflected in their decisions. It doesn’t help if the stakeholders themselves question the quality of their product. If the F1’s governing body and promoters want to really improve the show, perhaps they should listen to the fans who are only too happy to advise them via the social media.