In the realm of international sport, the old uttered axiom of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is, for better or worse, routinely ignored.
Rules and structures are redesigned as often as team kits and car liveries. One day, the European Tour Order of Merit becomes the new-improved Race to Dubai, the next, the Uefa Cup becomes the shambles that is the Europa League. Competitions change, regulations change, but unanimous approval is rarely reached.
Formula One is no different.
In November 2008, back before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix provided lucrative competition for the ultimate race of the season, Brazil's Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo was the scene of the most exhilarating climax F1 has ever seen.
On the final turn of the final lap at the final grand prix of the year, Lewis Hamilton passed Timo Glock for fifth place to secure his maiden Drivers’ Championship by a single point. Hollywood directors could not have scripted it better.
Yet four months later and the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA), the sport’s world governing body, had changed the rules: tyre compounds were altered, aerodynamic restrictions were radically overhauled and a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers) was introduced.
More modifications arrived last year and the result was an unprecedented scenario where, going into November’s year-ending race at Yas Marina Circuit, four drivers were still capable of winning the world championship. It was billed as the most competitive, closely fought season in recent memory.
Yet, once again, four months later and the FIA has changed the rules.
The start of the 2011 season, regrettably postponed in Bahrain earlier this month, belatedly begins in Australia on Friday. As the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 rights holder, attempt to drive motorsport at speed towards an ultimately unachievable state of perfectness, the 12 teams who take to Albert Park for the weekend’s first free practice will be met by a number of new regulations.
Several innovative rules have been incorporated into the FIA’s updated handbook, while some of the sport’s more antiquated clauses – including the prohibition of team orders – have been removed.
Mike Gascoyne, the venerated chief technical officer of Team Lotus, says that while some of the adjustments and additions will improve racing as a spectacle, a nimble-fingered approach must be employed.
“We need to be careful not to be making constant changes when we have had, not just last season but in the past three or four seasons, fantastic championship battles involving two or three teams going down to the last race,” said Gascoyne, a 47-year-old Englishman who has been involved in F1 since 1989. “Hamilton winning on the last corner of the last race for instance; you can’t write that scenario. So what are we changing it for?”
The most important modification is likely to go unobserved by the casual spectator. Bridgestone, the Japanese tyre manufacturers, have withdrawn from Formula One after 13 years to be replaced by Italian suppliers Pirelli.
While such a change on a regular road vehicle would often be regarded as insignificant, Gascoyne – as well as several others – view the deviation from Bridgestone to Pirelli as “the single biggest change for this year”.
It will be a decisive factor not only by way of how each driver adapts to the new compounds – of which there are six variations – but also how each team reworks their race strategies to conserve rubber and minimise pit-stops.
Pirelli’s tyres have been designed to be far less durable than their predecessors and the rapid degradation of the softer, quicker prime tyres was exposed during winter testing.
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault’s reigning world champion, said one- and two-stop strategies were “impossible” and suggested some races might require as many as four – an unprecedented figure considering last year saw most teams limit themselves to a single stop. “Everyone wanted bigger difference in the tyres, bigger degradation and we certainly have that,” Gascoyne said.
“Pirelli have been very brave in going the whole way. I know Bridgestone were always very reticent because they didn’t want drivers ending the race, getting out and saying they lost the race because of the tyres.
“But you are going to see a lot of pit-stops, lots of last minute calls from the drivers, lots of action in the pit-lane – the teams are going to be a lot more closely involved and it’s really going to spice up the racing.”
Vettel’s German compatriot Michael Schumacher posted the fastest lap time of the week at the final test in Barcelona, and the Mercedes GP driver said the new tyres and the reintroduction of Kers (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), which the 12 constructors mutually decided not to use last year, will heighten the unpredictability of the sport.
“The main difference is you will see a lot more happening due to pit-stops and Kers,” Schumacher said.
“Overtaking could play a much bigger part this year, which is what we all want to see.”
Kers is a technological advancement that retains the energy expelled while braking and converts it into additional acceleratory power accessible by pressing a button in the cockpit. Introduced in 2009 in a bid to promote more passing on the track, a gentleman’s agreement last season saw its use suspended in order to reduce spiralling costs and make F1 more accessible to new teams.
This year the energy saving system returns and, when utilised, can reduce lap-times by up to 0.4 seconds. However, due to the relative costliness and the additional 30kg weight it brings, several teams will not be running it, including Team Lotus.
The most innovative of changes implemented this season sees the introduction of a rear wing that is adjustable from the cockpit and is designed to reduce resistance, produce quick bursts of pace and make overtaking a more prominent sight at grands prix.
The system’s availability is unlimited during practice and qualifying, but when the race starts, it can only be used at pre-determined sections of the track and only when the driver is one second behind another car.
“When you leave the slip stream you kind of bounce against a wall of air,” said Mark Webber, Red Bull’s Australian driver. “The adjustable rear wing can make the car more streamline and give you between 7kph and 13kph more speed.”
However, Webber’s teammate Vettel has already voiced his concerns regarding the new technology.
“Overtaking in F1 has always been difficult,” he told Gazetto dello Sport last month. “Whoever manages to get past gets the same sort of admiration as a goalscorer in football, [but] there is now a risk that the public thinks overtaking will be too easy.”
Gascoyne, who confirmed Lotus will use the wing, is in agreement and said he would “strongly advocate” only allowing it to be utilised at select tracks.
“I would strongly advocate there are some circuits where you already get plenty of overtaking and you just don’t need [the wing], so for those circuits we don’t use it – we don’t want it to be too easy,” he said.
“But, vice-versa, there are some very processional races: Valencia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, so let’s use it there and see what happens.”
The FIA have confirmed they will continue to assess the wing and its impact on racing throughout the first quarter of the season.
But even if the new technology achieves widespread success, it is unlikely to prevent further changes being made – that uttered old axiom will once again be overlooked.