Formula One in 2018 didn’t deliver quite the result it promised in the first half of the season, but the lack of closeness in the final points tallies belies a year far from bereft of action or interest.
The racing wasn’t always great, but it was often very good. The rivalries weren’t always explosive, but they were often fierce. Not every grand prix served up an illustration of absolute driving excellence, but you rarely had to look far to find someone putting in the kind of performance that marks out Formula One drivers as a cut above the rest.
Perhaps that isn’t enough to make for an all-time classic championship, but good luck naming any sport that can one-up itself week after week, season after season. Nonetheless, the pessimism that tends to has dog F1 couldn’t help but pervade end-of-season reflections, calling out the difficulty cars had racing one another, which so often stymied on-track battles.
Criticism of the quality of racing is often saddled on Pirelli, but this to a certain degree misses the point. This year, for example, Pirelli was asked to bring softer compounds to increase degradation and therefore promote variability, but teams just had their drivers race at reduced pace to ensure a one-stop race was still possible.
Now Pirelli is considering supplying harder compounds in 2019 to at least allow drivers to race flat-out, but this will do little for variability.
The sophistication of aerodynamics is also rightly targeted as an area preventing drivers from racing closely and thereby pushing teams towards one-stop strategies to minimise the amount of overtaking required to execute a race, but slipperier cars won’t do much to help teams close the performance gaps between one another.
But more pervasive is the general lack of performance differentiation between teams, particularly as the year wore on. With few exceptions teams tended to perform according to their qualifying positions, which often reflected their place in the championship.
This trend isn’t entirely surprising given that teams and drivers are intimately familiar with their cars by the end of the season, doubly so given that surety in understanding the package is expressed by hundreds of engineers in each team, many of whom are involved in running simultaneous driver-in-the-loop simulations on race weekends to ensure the machine’s maximum potential is achieved.
From the point of view that Formula One is a technical exercise, this is an understandable and even desirable outcome. But is it right for the sport?
“Things are changing, sometimes for the good, sometimes less good,” FIA president Jean Todt told the UK’s Sky Sports. “I feel too much is happening that you don’t see — simulation, drivers simulating race circuits in the factory during the race weekend or any other period without any limitation.
“Clearly sometimes modernity is good, but it should be also a bit more controlled.”
Todt’s observations ask the question: is Formula One too focussed on being perfect despite itself?
It’s easy to point to Pirelli’s tyres for not stoking enough unpredictability or the current generation of technical regulations for making racing too difficult, but if teams are able to hone their cars to perfection each weekend, qualifying will simply place them in order of their potential and allow them to hold that position to the flag.
While it’s of course difficult and impressive to achieve this sort of metronomic dependability in a complex machine, all that work takes place at the back of the garage at back at headquarters, where it remains invisible to fans.
In many respects it is a parallel question to that of the place of weekend practice. Four hours of practice each weekend serves only to ensure each car operates at its optimum, working against the chance of close racing between 10 teams fielding 10 different packages at 10 different performance levels.
Evidence of this is the commonality of a rained-out Friday leading to better racing on Sunday because teams and drivers don’t have enough real-world practice and simulation data to lean on come the race.
“The level of sophistication in terms of simulation and strategy is so high that one doesn’t usually get such a variance, especially when it involves the top three teams,” F1 motorsport boss Ross Brawn said after the United States Grand Prix in which the fight for the lead boiled down to a last-lap battle between three drivers from three teams running three different strategies. “Teams had less data than usual on which to base their race plans, and thus the margin for error increased.”
Each Formula One car will naturally have differing levels of maximum potential, but what should be sought from a sporting point of view is to make it difficult for each team to operate their cars to that potential.
Therefore, instead of allowing teams unfettered virtual testing at base and so much free practice time at the track, all of which serves only to ensure the gaps between cars are maximised, F1 would do well to slash simulation time during weekends and reduce practice.
Less baseline data with which to set-up the car and plan tactics would leave teams and drivers to work more on the fly, to race by the seats of their pants, to strategise by instinct — relatively speaking, of course — which takes place on the track and in the public domain rather than behind closed doors.
More imperfections in a sport so often focused on being flawless has great potential to improve racing and in doing so — whisper it — bring Formula One closer to perfection.