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The Way It Is/ What's it all about Mr Mosley?

by Gordon Kirby
Way back in the deeper recesses of the twentieth century there was a famous old saying, ‘racing improves the breed.' It was automobile racing's mantra for many years, but as we all know, times have changed dramatically. In American racing, at least, technology has been choked off at the pass and entertainment rules. The Spec Car Age has arrived and it's all about the show and close racing with NASCAR setting the standard, like it or not.

But apparently I've underestimated FIA president Max Mosley and the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association by suggesting that Formula One is also headed down the spec car route. A couple of weeks ago Mosley announced he has reached agreement with the GPMA over F1's technical issues and said that everyone is on the right track to negotiating over the course of next year a new Concorde Agreement (which governs the financial and commercial terms of the F1 world championship) for 2008-'12. Mosley and GPMA chairman Professor Burkhard Goeschel, who is a senior advisor to BMW, also revealed their general ideas for rediscovering the concept that, ‘racing improves the breed'.

Mosley and the GPMA have agreed that F1 will begin pursuing green technology in 2009 with the introductuion of regenerative braking. In 2010, recovery or re-use of heat lost by the engine will become part of the new formula followed by the introduction of biodiesel fuels. Mosley says we may also see smaller-capacity turbocharged engines in 2011 or ‘12.

Mosley and Goeschel are also talking about permitting some version of stability control which is already beginning to appear in some road cars. Stability control is an electronic system which automatically adjusts steering, throttle and brake controls so that the uneducated driver can safely negotiate any corner. BMW is in the vanguard of applying these systems to its road cars.

"We are combining active steering with electronic micro systems and anti-roll bars to a new functionality," Goeschel says. "Electronics and software technology will play a major role in car technology in the future, so that is an area we are discussing [about permitting in F1].

Added Goeschel: "F1 is an area to train our engineers to take decisions and in developing future technologies. [What] will keep manufacturers in F1 is if F1 is focused on future technology for the car industry."

Earlier this year Ferrari spokesman Luca Colajanni told me essentially the same thing. "What is important to us is that there is always a link to our road car production," Colajanni said. "For a manufacturer like Ferrari, that is the way it must be. The link between the race car and the road car is critical to Ferrari. We tend to transfer a lot of the technology that is used in Formula One to the road cars we produce. We want to avoid having a Formula One car that doesn't require that kind of technology so there is no need to transfer it to our road cars and there is no connection between Formula One and the road cars."

So Mosley and the GPMA have made a pact to keep new technology as a continuing component of Formula One. All this may be great for the manufacturers and for the F1 teams, the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone as a way of keeping F1's primary money tree alive and well. But of course, the big question is what will it do for the fans? The FIA's own poll of F1 fans this year revealed that by far the number one issue was more passing. But what is the FIA doing about it? The answer at this point is nothing.

Mosley says he's not quite sure what F1 must do to make its overall show more entertaining. He appears not to understand that the whole F1 scene is far too antiseptic. It's more of a testing and development laboratory, designed increasingly for the benefit of the participants. The fans are far removed from the action and entirely banned from the garage area. The message is: Thou shalt not come within a mile of this sacred ground! It's all part of F1's ultra-exclusive profile which attracts many sponsors and some high-rollers, but over the years has steadily dissuaded and soured many old-line fans across Europe, F1's heartland.

Another aspect in all this is that as far as I'm concerned, F1's pitstops are ridiculous. They are the antithesis of the massed pitstops seen in American racing where there's huge amounts of frenetic, crowd-pleasing action with a limited number of crewmen allowed over the wall. In F1, the cars come in one at a time and are lost amid a platoon of crewmen. It's all for the folk in the pitlane, the pressbox and the TV audience, but ignores the fans in the grandstands and is a classic example of F1's powers-that-be missing the point.

To put on a better show, F1 also needs more cars. The world's top racing series surely should attract both a bigger and more deeply competitive field. In F1, as in Champ Car and IRL, we've become accustomed to seeing only eighteen or twenty cars, rather than twenty-six or more like it used to be in both F1 and CART in the eighties and nineties. But now that F1 has become the almost exclusive preserve of the manufacturers there's little or no room for any little guys.

Given F1's marriage with the manufacturers, Mosley and the GPMA's attempt to bring some useful green technology research to racing is laudable. I've always advocated a return to ‘improving the breed' and believe the only way the Indy 500 can successfully recreate itself is to go to a more open, technologically-relevant formula. But on the other hand it's an adventurous move and in the case of Mosley and the GPMA it looks to me like they may be missing the point that the human element--the man or woman in the cockpit--is the most important draw to the sport.

Four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time CART champion Rick Mears was one of the sport's most sublime talents, a man with a deft touch who was at his best on the fastest tracks, ovals or road courses. For most of Mears' career data acquisition didn't exist but when data systems and onboard computers began to appear Rick embraced them wholeheartedly.

"I think I was probably one of the first drivers who took the computer back to the hotel and looked at the graphs and compared mine with my teammates' graphs," Mears comments. "Playing with the computer helped me drive better because I could see smaller things with the computer that are very difficult to feel. So you could actually fine-tune closer and make it better. I enjoyed that end of it.

"Today, the computer element is so strong," Mears continues, "the engineers can sit there and watch everything in real time as you're running around out there--steering angles, throttle position, tire pressures. They can see what's going on almost before the driver and at some point I feel like we rely too much on that. I like more the seat-of-the-pants feel from the drivers. The driver is the one who's out there and he should be making the decisions. But on the other side of the coin, the engineers are getting so good at reading that material they help the driver out. It's interesting. But from a driver's standpoint, I would like a little less of that.

"As far as the automatic shifting and traction control and ABS braking that a lot of different series use these days, to me, that takes away from the driving. Then you're racing engineers and computers. It's about whoever sets it up best, instead of you feeling like you've got an opportunity to do a little better job modulating the throttle or the brake and not missing shifts. That's an advantage you've worked hard for and you've earned, and a lot of the electronics take away from that."

Mears believes today's many electronic driver aids have made the modern style of driving more about aggressiveness and less about finesse. "It becomes a thing of unscrew your brain and leave it on the wall and go out there and get it done. The bottom line is it's still racing, but I think it takes away from the guy who has maybe a little more ability."

There's no question in my mind and many fans seem to believe the same thing, that we've already reached the maximum of electronic gadgetry in racing. Anymore electronic systems management--particularly to achieve optimum handling--serves no useful purpose for the show, the entertainment factor, or the all-important primacy of the human over the machine. So it will be interesting to see where Mosley and the GPMA take F1 come 2010 and beyond.

Another fascinating part of F1's changing landscape is the slow death of the traditional European races. Imola in Italy and Spa in Belgium seem to be on their last legs as venues in Asia and the Middle East in places like Malaysia, China, Bahrain and Turkey are able to pay much bigger fees to the FIA, often helped by government subsidies. TV ratings for F1 in most European countries, Spain most notably aside, have fallen steadily in recent years. Nor are the crowds at most European races anything like as big as they used to be.

In the UK, much hand-wringing has been going on over the future of the British GP at Silverstone beyond its contract through 2009. Retired world champion Damon Hill has taken up the seemingly thankless job of president of the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) which runs Silverstone. Jackie Stewart, who is an extremely canny operator and businessman, tried and failed at the same task. At Stewart's suggestion, the much less business-oriented Hill has accepted the challenge and becomes the unlikely man in charge of bringing new investment, sponsorship or government backing to keep the British GP going beyond 2009.

Incredibly, the wealthy and well-connected denizens of the BRDC seem incapable of selling sponsorship. They need the likes of a Humpy Wheeler or Eddie Gossage--unabashed, NASCAR-style snake oil salesmen--to get out there and drum up some interest, but the Brits seem to be fixated instead on aping the Asian and Middle Eastern model of asking for hand-outs from the central government.

This idea is entirely foreign to motorsport here in the USA. Modern motor racing has always been the most brazenly commercial of sports, as well as being truly Darwinian. Even during CART's bankruptcy the last thing on anyone's mind was asking for money from the government, although one of the reasons CART went bankrupt was because a lot of money was spent during Chris Pook's days at CART's helm to keep some teams in business and the situation isn't much better in Champ Car today.

I remember writing eight or nine years ago that Tony George's dystopian vision was introducing communism to American open-wheel racing and that his way of doing business was doomed to fail in such a deeply capitalistic sport. Some people asked what on earth I was talking about, but it's clear today after George's central government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting teams, drivers, and races, and helped destroy the free market base of open-wheel racing in this country. I hope Max Mosley and the FIA aren't inadvertently and in a very different manner pushing F1 in a similar direction.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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