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Will F1's qualifying 'musical chairs' end the boredom?

2016-03-17 10:27

Egmont Sippel

TURNING THE TABLE? Motorsport guru Egmont Sippel hopes the new F1 qualifying system will rev up the boring sport and allow another team to dominate in 2016. Image: AFP / Paul Crock

Cape Town - In many respects, it’s the fastest and most glamorous sport on the planet. Because of the machinery. In many respects, it’s the most complex and expensive sport on the planet. Because of the machinery.

And in many respects, it’s also the most frustrating and boring sport on the planet. Because of the machinery.

Yet F1, surely, is not only about the machinery. It’s about the drivers as well.

So, let’s ask one. Here he is. His name is Fernando. He’s been sitting in a McLaren for the last twelve months. Well, on and off in a McLaren, because the self same Fernando has been sitting at the side of the track, too, for perhaps six of those twelve months, waiting for his car to be fixed.

Driving fans crazy: How 'boring' F1 is trying to put the fun back

That’s because of Honda engines grenading themselves all around him at the tempo of a rattling Gatling gun. In Belgium 2015, Alonso and team mate Jenson Button carried engine related grid penalties of 55 and 50 places respectively.

And hey, when McLaren did manage to circulate, even the minnows picked them off like American snipers blowing plastic Putins out of the water.

The question, of course, is why? What happened? How did Alonso get trapped in such a slow coach?

Mañana vuelta al trabajo. Tomorrow back in the car. #mclarenhonda #test

A photo posted by Fernando Alonso (@fernandoalo_oficial) on

For, has he not been widely regarded as best in the world for many a moon, this Spaniard from Asturias, ever since he snatched the title from a blisteringly quick Kimi Raikkonen in 2005 and from a hard-charging Michael Schumacher in 2006?

Yes, he has. And yes, you may say that both those title successes were down to the machinery.

Not Alonso’s machinery, mind you; his Renault was quick and bullet-proof but definitely not as fast as the McLaren in 2005, and definitely not a match for the Ferrari after the mass damper affair of 2006.

But here’s the rub: Raikkonen’s Macca had the integrity of a politician’s promise. And Schumacher’s Maranellian V8 unexpectedly made a bid for freedom, as Martin Brundle would’ve put it, at a critical moment in Japan.

So, in the end, it was all down to the machinery.
And it still is, even though we’ve had spells in between where aero and tyres were more prominent, to such an extent that F1 now uses what some would call a gimmick to promote passing, i.e. a drag reduction system, better known as DRS.

Read: Top 5 talking points for the 2016 F1 season

That’s an ugly word, of course: gimmick.  But not as ugly as a lot of other words in F1. Like boring.

Or Bernie.

And nope, we’re not talking Bernie Sanders. The Bern might be a politician, but he, strangely – and perhaps against all odds – has principles.

We would also exhort Mr Ecclestone at this point to relax when people reference his name as synonymous with all the ills and evils in F1.

Ecclestone might’ve been up for corruption, and he might have beaten down the charges when it looked to all the world that he’d bribed a German court to the tune of $100-million to find in his favour, i.e. that Bernie has not bribed German banker Gerhard Gribkowksy.

Read: Bernie wins R1bn corruption case

And I’m not saying he did bribe the German court, or even Gribkowsky. I’m just verbalising what some people seem to think.
But you gotta hand it to the Bern: he was the one man in higher circles who spoke out against this terrible tragedy that was about to befall F1, when puny little 1.6-liter turbo engines were introduced for the 2014 season.

This is not an attack against 1.6-liter mills. It’s not even an attack against turbos. It is also not an attack against the volume of the noise produced by F1’s latest generation of engines.

Nope. The dimmed down volume I can live with.

But I can’t live with the quality of that engine and exhaust note, the very fibre of it, the tonal dissonance... for it’s no more than a low-frequency zombie-like rumble and hum, instead of a spine-chillingly high-pitched primal scream. It’s a swarm of locusts trying to puke their innards out, instead of a pack of jet-propelled Texas chain-saws cutting a swathe through the Amazon forests – and the Andes beyond, for that matter.

Surely, the very soul of F1 resides in that sound, the beautiful 18 000rpm scream that splits the universe not in two, but in a million fragments.

And yes, we had turbos way back when, pre-1989. And the show was magnificent, even when it was totally dominated by only two drivers, Senna and Prost in . . . well, you guessed it, McLarens.

How Alonso must wish for times like those to return to Woking.

Instead, modern F1’s prime seats are filled by Hamilton and Rosberg, who has now been dubbed Lossberg in the British press.

Which begs the question: what happened at the back-end of 2015? Was it the German who found something to up his game with, or was it the Brit who lost a bit of focus after his title triumph in the USA?

It’s difficult to say.

But here’s something to keep in mind: with six poles in a row, Rosberg has consistently outqualified Hamilton ever since the FIA checked tyre pressures on the Monza grid and found Mercedes’s to be too low.

Now, up the pressures, and you lose traction out of corners.

Could it then be that Rosberg is a bit more sensitive to a slightly more slithery rear end under acceleration?

Difficult to say. Lewis certainly is not averse to driving a car sideways, if need be – and that’s the slower option, as we all know.
Yet, fuel consumption throughout 2014 and 2015 suggested that Hamilton might certainly understand the demands of ‘coasting’ into corners a bit better than Rosberg.

And contrary to the theory that Lewis’s style is better suited to more grip and traction, Nico managed to set quicker times on softer tyres during this year’s winter testing at Barcelona.
It all adds up to deepen the riddle, of course.

Yet, answers to the real reason for the German’s big surge towards the end of last year will begin to crystalize over the coming weekend, when the F1 season kicks off in Melbourne.
If Lewis does what he did in the early part of 2015, namely to dominate the German early on, we might be in for a runaway season, especially if Mercedes still carries a big advantage in qualifying.

And that will depend on the machinery, as always? Well, yes. And no.

The FIA has introduced a complicated new quali system, whereby the slowest cars will drop out of each and every session at regular intervals of 90 seconds, and believe me, it’s going to create havoc out there; big names will end up in lowly grid slots, not only because they will miscalculate the right time to be on track, but also because there will be so many cars circulating that somebody is bound to be baulked.

Which all bodes well for the sport, if the Ferraris can take advantage of this. Qualifying has been their Achilles heel over the last couple of seasons, especially with Raikkonen who habitually struggles with the slow warm-up characteristics of the Pirelli tyre.

Speaking of which: did you realize that drivers can now choose between three compounds for each race – but that the allocation (so many sets of medium compound, so many sets of softs, so many sets of super softs, etc) would have to be finalised weeks in advance?

So, what happens if the weather doesn’t play along with choices you made millions of miles and months away from the real situation?

Well, you’ll have to live with it. Of the top runners, Hamilton will have one more set of softs over the coming weekend, meaning that he will probably have to make one more stop than the cars around him.

That’s to say, if everybody gets through Albert Park’s first corner unscathed.

Normally, the drivers are so psyched up to be back on track after such a long break, that somebody – somebody – triggers a huge accident.

Play it safe and get back into the rhythm first?

Not these guys, not F1 jockeys.

So, will Ferrari be there or thereabouts? Will they be strong enough to make 2016 a championship decided by driver’s skill, instead of just another runaway win by the strongest machine?

Here’s F1’s other mystery. In an age when Merc has dominated because of their very early start to the latest turbo era, way before Renault and Ferrari (and that’s how they got Hamilton’s signature, when the Brit was still driving for McLaren), we also have a ban on in-season testing, plus a ban on flat-out engine development.

So, once the engine advantage had been achieved with the original design of Merc’s V6 in 2012 and 2013, this advantage seems set to be carried through until next year’s regulation changes.
That’s plain stupid, to prevent meaningful engine development in an era dominated by engine performance, rather than aero or chassis or tyre performance – which seamlessly moves us on from the bad “B’s” in F1 (boring, Bernie) to the bad “C’s”: cost, and cost cutting.

So, has the ban on in-season testing and development helped to curb the costs?
Most in F1 says no. Teams have a budget, and they will spend it any which way.

What cost cutting has done, then, is to lead to a rule book which has locked Merc into a winning position from the beginning of one era of regulations, to the end of it.

And that leads to boring.

Might Ferrari possibly be in a position to stop this rot in 2016?

Well, quali might provide for a joker or two or three. And the Scuderia certainly seems to have cut last year’s average deficit of 0.7 seconds per lap in half, at the very least.

But the real challenge will still be on Saturdays.

If Raikkonen and especially Vettel can nail this aspect of the GP weekend, with or without the help of a system contrived to create chaos, 2016 could be far more interesting than 2015, especially in mid-field, where it will be fascinating to see if Williams and Red Bull can cement their positions as the best behind Merc and Ferrari, in the face of a renewed onslaught by the newly formed Renault outfit and a rejuvenated Force India, plus the super B teams: Haas for Ferrari, Manor for Merc, and Toro Rosso for Red Bull.

Yet, the main emphasis will again be on the machinery. That’s why it is imperative that Ferrari’s V6 can take the fight to Merc’s, and that Renault and especially Honda has managed to make big strides in an era designed to somehow subvert this need.

At the moment, neither looks set for a massive break-through.

And that’s what we need: a “B” for break-through, to counter the “C” for cost cutting, the “D” for DRS, the “E” for engine development caps or even Ecclestone and the “F” for FIA with all their silly regulations spewing forth from the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Yet, “F” also stands for Ferrari. And love them or loath them, but this is where the on-track battle will have to emanate from, this year.

If they succeed, and if the action is tight, we will all love F1 again.

If it’s not, we will keep on hating Ecclestone, the FIA and that awful sound produced by this generation of engines, which runs on a formula that has, thus far, made fools of the most successful F1 participants of the modern era, starting in the late 1970’s: Renault and Honda.
This needs to change, no?
Yes. It does.

Because it’s only when the game is no longer all about the machinery – in the sense that the power of one cancels out the power of the other – that the importance of drivers will step to the fore again.

And that’s what we need most, in F1: a fight to the hilt between Hamilton, Rosberg, Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso, Verstappen and the forgotten man of F1, Daniel Ricciardo, who, two years ago, stepped into a Red Bull and demolished his four times-on-the-trot world champion team mate.

The talent is there, to create a great sporting spectacle again.

Now we need parity on the F1 track. Please.

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