Penalties for the sake of penalties

Another F1 weekend, another shopping list’s worth of penalties. The most recent driver who committed a felony was Max Verstappen, after he “stopped on the racing line in a potentially dangerous position”. Ignoring the fact that one would assume stopping on the racing line immediately implies stopping in a dangerous position, awarding him a penalty just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Verstappen said in his post-qualifying interview that he had lost all electricity in the car. He then tried to pull over to the side, but he was unable to use the clutch while in third gear, so he kind of ground to a halt right there and then. This explanation seems perfectly reasonable to me: it explains how his car ended up in such a weird position, and nothing in his story indicated he was intentionally trying to block the racing line.

And of course it wouldn’t have made sense to block the racing line, since he hadn’t set a time up to that point. If he tried to be a nuisance to the other drivers, he could have just as well stopped on the inside of the track, since that would also trigger a yellow flag for at least a minute.

And how dangerous was his stopping position anyway? The car stopped on one of the slowest parts of the track. Even without the aid of yellow flags, his fellow competitors, assuming they don’t have the eyesight of a mole, should have been able to spot the stricken Toro Rosso and take action to avoid Luciano Burti-ing into the back of him.

In conclusion: assuming he told the stewards exactly what he told the world in his post-qualifying interview, the stewards should have said “aaah so that’s why you didn’t pull over to the side. We get it now, good luck tomorrow.” Instead, they said “well it doesn’t matter that you weren’t able to get to a safe haven, the fact of the matter is you stopped on the racing line so we will punish you for it.” “But I just explained to you how this was beyond my control. Believe me, I know the protocol for when your car suddenly dies on you, I’ve pulled over a couple of times this year.” “That’s all well and good, but still you didn’t pull over to the side, so we’re going to give you a penalty.”

Joining Max Verstappen on the naughty bench is Nico Hülkenberg, after he collided with Felipe Massa in Singapore. In my opinion (and I believe this is a common opinion) is that Hülkenberg was indeed more to blame for that incident than Massa, although it’s only a marginal difference. After they collided, Massa was able to continue without any lasting disadvantage, until his gearbox failed 18 laps later. Hülkenberg on the other hand was launched into the barriers and retired from the race.

So Hülkenberg is to blame for an accident (which implies he ‘accidentally’ collided) that only really harmed him, as he saw a potential top eight finish go up in smoke. What did the stewards make of that? They gave him a three-place grid penalty for the next race.

Both penalties just don’t make any sense to me. Comparing this to soccer, there are two main reasons why a player would be penalised (yellow or red card): either he intentionally did something to disadvantage the other team (grabbing an opponent’s T-shirt, stalling the match etc.), or behaving aggressively (tackling another player). Applying these rules, it’s clear Max Verstappen would not have been given a card. Hülkenberg was being aggressive, but so was Massa. They were both fighting hard for the same piece of tarmac and eventually they collided. However, the only one to be disadvantaged was Hülkenberg himself, so again no reason to give him a card.

What’s the point of awarding drivers penalties anyway? It’s to make sure the competition between drivers is safe and fair. It’s to prevent a driver from doing the same dangerous/unsportsmanlike thing again. Especially in Verstappen’s case, what should he be learning from that incident? Is the FIA telling him he should pull over when his car fails, something he has demonstrated in the past he is capable of doing? Is the FIA trying to tell him he should always drive off the racing line just in case the electric system fails? Is the FIA just sour after they made a whole host of changes to prevent future Max Verstappens from entering the elitist of elite that is the FIA Formula 1 ® World Championship, and then finding out this scallywag is actually doing a great job?

Ok, so I might have got a bit personal there, but my point is: why award penalties when there is no purpose in giving penalties? Just give a driver a penalty when he made a clear mistake that he should learn from and stick to that.

The run-off areas

One of my favourite things to complain about in modern F1 (or motorsport in general) are run-off areas. Every time I see a driver bail out of a corner midway through and full-throttle his machine across the tarmac run-off area I can’t help but roll my eyes. In this post I will try to explain what I think about modern run-off areas and present some ideas on how it can be improved.

Imagine we are in an F1 car: we just nailed the apex, now we just need to accelerate out of the corner. The first thing we encounter on the edge of the track are so-called kerb stones. The original purpose of kerb stones was to have a transition between the track and its surroundings: if a driver runs slightly wide, the kerb stones ‘spit’ the driver back onto the road. This becomes clear if you look at Formula 1 photos from the time period 1970-2000.

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However, this concept seems to have changed in the last two decades or so: kerb stones are much flatter, but the surface is rougher. The biggest difference however is the width of the kerb stones: the kerb stones used to be somewhere between 10-50cm wide, but modern kerb stones can even be wider than an F1 car.

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The problematic part of having kerb stones this wide is: where does the track stop and does the run-off area begin? For example, at every Abu Dhabi Grand Prix there is always discussion whether running all four wheels beyond the white line but across the kerb stones is considered ‘leaving the track and gaining an advantage’. Kerb stones nowadays are so wide, they are effectively defeating the point of having kerb stones. Why not make the kerb stones narrowed and the track wider?

Another thing that bugs me about kerb stones is how the FIA has standardised the kerb stone type (‘Melbourne type’ or ‘Vallelunga type’ kerb stones). In the good old days, every track had its own kerb stones: Zandvoort had very narrow, high kerb stones, while Le Castellet had very smooth ones. It gave a circuit its own personality, something I will come back to later on.

On modern tracks, it is very common to see kerb stones with a patch of AstroTurf or artificial grass running along the edge of it. The purpose of AstroTurf depends on the surface of the run-off area: if there is grass or gravel, the AstroTurf is simply another transition zone, making the transition from track to grass/gravel even more gradual than with kerb stones alone.

However, if there is tarmac on the other end of the AstroTurf, the AstroTurf essentially fulfils the purpose of grass or gravel, which is to discourage drivers from leaving the track. In my honest opinion, AstroTurf is completely unsuited for this purpose, since we have seen time and time again that drivers are not afraid of running across AstroTurf with the throttle wide open.

At this point, I would like to bust two myths that surround AstroTurf. First of all, I have heard a couple of times that AstroTurf gives the same grip levels as grass. That may be, but that does not make it equal to grass for the following two reason: running across real grass will make the tyres dirty, which means the driver will feel the consequences of running wide in the corners to come. Also, unlike AstroTurf, real grass is not perfectly smooth, but a little bit bumpy, which means it’s less predictable and thus drivers are less likely to keep their foot on the gas when driving on grass.

Adding to that, AstroTurf is supposedly punishing drivers for running wide, i.e. drivers lose time when they run across AstroTurf. This is a matter of perspective. If we look at the image below, we see two lines: the green line is the ‘ideal line’, the orange line represents a driver that reaches the apex of the corner with too much speed.

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We see that indeed the AstroTurf is slowing the orange driver down, since the green car catches up between points 3 and 4. However, since the orange driver carried more speed into the corner, the time loss between points 1 and 4 is much smaller than between points 3 and 4.

Adding to that, let’s imagine a scenario where there is no AstroTurf, but a run-off area (such as gravel or even a barrier) that the orange driver will want to avoid at all costs.

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Again, the orange driver carries too much speed through the apex (point 2) and realises that, unless he slows down, he will end up in the run-off area (or barrier). So between points 2 and 3, he loses a lot of time to the green driver. He made a mistake by carrying too much speed, and as a result he is automatically punished for it.

My point is: if you compare the orange drivers from both images, it is much faster to run across the AstroTurf than to stay on the track. Hence the claim that AstroTurf punishes drivers for running wide is simply not true. We can also now see the difference between AstroTurf and grass: with actual grass, drivers are much more likely to behave like the orange driver in the second image.

But by far the most worrying trend in modern circuit design seems to be use of tarmac or asphalt run-off areas. In fairness, there are benefits: track day drivers are less likely to write off their expensive cars. For Formula 1, more tarmac run-off areas means less chance of a car getting stuck, which means less caution periods. In some cases, it’s also safer than for instance gravel: cars are less likely to flip, while motorbikes are less likely to get seriously damaged.

However, the main downside (in my opinion) is that these type of run-off areas don’t punish the drivers for running across it. A good racing track should separate the good from the average drivers. A corner that has gravel running along the length of it demands a certain respect: if you are uncertain whether you can keep your car on the track, you are less likely to take risks. If you are confident in your racing abilities, you will be able to take the risk and as a result you will go faster through the corner than your average opponents. It’s more challenging and thus it’s more fun to watch, too.

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One of the latest corners to be castrated is Monza’s Parabolica. Until last year, only the best drivers could carry a maximum amount of speed onto the main straight since only the best drivers could run their cars up to the edge of the track without going over it. Nowadays, anyone can do it. And if it does go wrong, no worries you can just keep your foot in and cross the start/finish line with the same speed as you fellow competitors.

I’ve said it before, but run-off areas are part of what gives a track character. Modern tracks have exactly the same type of run-off area, which means that every track just feels the same. It would be nice to have some more variation.

Let’s wrap this up, because I could go on forever about this topic. Is there such a thing as a perfect run-off area? No, because there will always need to be a trade-off between a challenging track and a safe track, not to mention different forms of motorsports prefer different types of run-off area. I do feel that the modern recipe of wide kerb stones next to AstroTurf next to tarmac is less than ideal.

How Formula 1 failed this week

This situation with Manor, Force India and the Strategy Group is a complete mess, made worse by some very incompetent journalism. From what I can make out from Bob Fernley’s statements, articles on for instance Autosport and Graeme Lowdon’s statements, Manor would need unanimous agreement from all eighteen members of the Strategy Group on Thursday to be able to run 2014 cars in 2015. There were at least four teams who would vote against it, but Force India happened to be the first to vote and of course this meant that there was no need to ask the other teams.

On Thursday night, the Strategy Group’s decision made its way onto the internet. Autosport reported that the “Strategy Group rejects Marussia request to run 2014 F1 car”. The article simply states that Manor “did not receive the unanimous support from rival teams”, but there is a hint that the smaller teams blocked their return. In stark contrast, BBC’s (or alternatively, Andrew Benson’s) headline was “Marussia comeback blocked by Force India no vote”. The article states that “unanimous agreement from rival teams” was required, “but Force India voted against.” Both statements are true, but unfortunately most people (including myself) interpreted it as ‘The teams would have reached a unanimous agreement, but because of Force India’s vote against it, their request was dismissed’.

This exploded on Friday morning. As can be seen in this F1Fanatic tweet: “F1 fans fuming at Force India for ‘blocking’ a Marussia comeback”. The top post on Reddit’s F1 page (one of F1’s largest online fan communities) for the entirety of Friday was a post called “F*** VIJAY MALLYA”. Eventually this post was removed by the moderators, probably due to its rather outspoken title.

On Friday morning, Bob Fernley defended their decision to vote against Manor’s ‘proposal’ to run 2014 cars. He said that “Given the lack of information, uncertain guarantees, and the speculative nature of the application, the decision was taken that it is better to focus on ensuring the continued participation of the remaining independent teams.” This is a completely justified decision, in my opinion.

But then Graeme Lowdon replied on Friday night that there was no application in the first place (this explains Fernley’s comments in the previous paragraph). Manor had asked the Strategy Group what it would take to modify a 2014 car for 2015, and one month ago they were informed that they could modify the car such that it complied with the Technical Regulations except four articles. According to Lowdon, they are currently working on the modifications.

So what was the vote about? To be honest, I still don’t fully understand why they needed to vote if the Strategy Group had already communicated the situation to Manor. Effectively, the Strategy Group’s decision affected nothing, because Manor weren’t planning to run a pure 2014-spec car anyway. They are modifying a 2014 car such that it can participate in 2015 under a set of regulations that were communicated to them last month.

Miscommunication is the key word here. The Strategy Group had a vote on something that should not have been on the agenda, and as a result people are now shouting at Force India for executing Manor.

Now, let’s look at the real culprits here. The Strategy Group consists of six FIA representatives (the governing body), six FOM representatives (responsible for promoting F1) and six representatives from the five ‘richest’ teams and the best of the ‘poor’ teams (as of 2015, Force India). This body is responsible for some of the worst decisions in recent history, for instancedouble points and standing restarts. The main reason for this is that most members put self interest ahead of the future of the sport. The Strategy Group does not function properly and needs to be abandoned.

What should replace it? That’s a difficult question. Ideally, the FIA should run the sport in the way they think is best, while FOM should promote the sport in a way it makes the most revenue; both parties talk to each other on how they could help one another, but they do not overstep their boundaries and in the end the one responsible for matter A should take decisions regarding matter A. In reality, FOM has an enormous influence on rule making. If the sport wants to move forward and have a clear plan for the future, FIA needs to put their foot down and start reclaiming control. Is this likely to happen any time soon? The answer is no.

Leaving that for what it is, what else went wrong the last couple of days? I think there are a number of journalists, including BBC’s Andrew Benson, who should be hanging their heads in shame. The news that emerged from the Strategy Group was very vague and indefinite, and some journalists interpreted this in completely the wrong way. The articles they produced were vague and ambiguous, and as a result a lot of people drew the wrong conclusions, resulting in the unjustified crusade to dishonour Force India. An apology won’t suffice, in my opinion.

So yeah, like many, I feel very, very angry about what has happened the last couple of days. The final words in Manor’s press release are “we just want to go racing”, and that is EXACTLY what it’s all about. Manor (and Caterham for that matter) would be a fantastic addition to the 2015 grid, and no matter how unimportant some people think they are, if they make to the 2015 grid, they are there because they deserve to be there.

Half-term driver rankings – top 5

After eleven races, the Formula 1 business shuts down for a couple of weeks. It is a time to reflect on the first races of the season, to look forward to the next seven races and to hope that the championship won’t be ruined by the final race of the season.

Starting with the reflecting, here is my personal top five drivers from the 2014 Formula 1 season after eleven races.

#5: Nico Rosberg

Perhaps a surprising decision, but indeed, the leader in the championship is only fifth in my list. Rosberg has not made any huge mistakes so far this season, but in general it appears that his team mate Lewis Hamilton has the upper hand, especially during the races.

Looking back, there aren’t many races where he outpaced Hamilton, without having to say “yes, but […]”. This became evident in Bahrain and Hungary, where he failed to overtake Hamilton on better tyres.

He has capitalised on Hamilton’s reliability issues so far and thus currently leads the championship, but in my opinion this isn’t a fair reflection on the performance of both Mercedes drivers so far.

#4: Nico Hülkenberg

Yet again, Nico Hülkenberg has shown this year that he has what it takes to drive for a top team. In a car that appears to be performing erratically from circuit to circuit (especially sensitive to the wind), Hülkenberg has consistently managed to get the most out of the car and finish well inside the points.

Whereas his team mate Sergio Pérez seems to be struggling with getting his tyres and brakes up to temperature all year long, Hülkenberg seems to be able to overcome these problems more easily. Yes, Pérez has had the podium in Bahrain and Hülkenberg hasn’t, but Hülkenberg’s consistency has brought him more than twice Pérez’ current points tally.

Apart from that incident with Pérez in Hungary, he has not done anything wrong so far this year. His highlights so far have been his race in Malaysia, where he finished fifth on an alternative tyre strategy, and Monaco, where he finished fifth after a great pass on Magnussen at Portier.

#3: Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo is definitely the surprise of the season so far, because I guess nobody expected him to outshine Sebastian Vettel in the way he has done so far. Of course it is flattered by Vettel’s struggles and reliability issues, but nonetheless Ricciardo has done a great job so far.

In qualifying and especially during the races, he has looked more comfortable than his team mate. As such he has managed to make his tyre strategies work very effectively, with the best examples being his two wins in Canada and Hungary.

But the thing that has been the most impressive is his refreshing opportunism during the races. He never gives up and is more tempted to put up a fight than other drivers. So far, this approach has really paid him dividends.

#2: Lewis Hamilton 

Second in my list is Lewis Hamilton, who has had to deal with a lot of issues outside of his control. It started with two race ending problems, and lately he has had to deal with failures in qualifying too.

The only thing you can blame him for are errors in qualifying. He has made errors during his Q3 laps in Bahrain and Canada, while his errors in Austria and Great Britain were disastrous.

But when all goes well, Hamilton just seems to be on a planet of his own, with four wins in a row early on in the season. To be honest, if the bad luck stops, I don’t see how he wouldn’t end up becoming the 2014 World Champion.

#1: Fernando Alonso

Number one in my half-term driver rankings is Fernando Alonso. The car still isn’t good enough to be a championship contender, but his consistency and determination seems to almost make up for that. It’s no coincidence he has managed to finish in the top ten in every race so far.

What really sets him apart from the other drivers is his ability to think during the races, to analyse a certain situation and to act accordingly. He is definitely one of the best overtakers, and perhaps the best defender on the grid.

His performances in the early part of 2014 have been phenomenal, especially his two podiums in China and Hungary. Comparing him to other drivers on the grid, Alonso is by far the best driver of the current crop, in my opinion.

Empty grandstands and finger pointing

Photo from the 2008 German GP at Hockenheim. Source: f1fanatic.co.uk

Photo from the 2008 German GP at Hockenheim. Source: f1fanatic.co.uk

With 52,000 people in the grandstands on Sunday, it’s undeniable that spectator numbers for the 2014 German Grand Prix were ‘low’ this year. In 2012, almost 85,000 spectators attended the Grand Prix, whereas in the Schumacher days, spectator numbers exceeded 100,000.

So why is that? It is very important for Formula 1 to determine exactly why that is, because without the fans, there simply isn’t a Formula 1. But instead, the parties are now blaming others.

Katja Heim, the Hockenheimring circuit advisor, said that Sebastian Vettel’s comments on how the engines sound ‘sh*t’ didn’t help. Also, the Austrian GP took away some 6000-7000 spectators – that last point sounds reasonable.

I can understand that some people don’t like the sound of the new V6 turbo engines and why that would turn people away. But it’s unlikely that a large number of people would have made up their minds and labelled the engines as ‘sh*t’ before hearing the engine with their own ears. And Vettel’s comments are from five months ago anyway, wouldn’t people have forgotten about those comments by now?

Bernie Ecclestone, known for his unbiased and insightful comments, suggested that many German fans bought tickets for the World Cup final, and thus simply forgot about their super-expensive grandstand tickets for the German GP, which was hosted seven whole days after that particular event. This makes about as much sense as comparing the Russian national football team to the Russian GP.

We’ve heard other culprits too: first off, the current crop of German drivers is not as beloved as Michael Schumacher was still is. Neither Vettel nor Rosberg has a fan base that comes close to Schumacher’s. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if Raikkonen was the most popular driver last weekend)

Other reasons include Mercedes’ image and popularity in Germany. Mercedes’ customers are either old people or taxi drivers; brands like BMW, Audi, Opel and Volkswagen are far more popular with the common man. Also, the Mercedes Formula 1 team isn’t really German…

The unusually hot weather may be responsible for the low spectator numbers on Friday and Saturday (I can see why some people would prefer to go to a swimming pool instead of the Hockenheimring despite having bought tickets). However, it does not explain the low numbers on Sunday.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m convinced there are two main culprits: the ticket pricing and the ‘show’. The cheapest grandstand weekend tickets cost €129 a piece, with prices going up to €550 for a seat at the final turn. The circuit camp site used to be relatively cheap – this year, the price exceeded €100.

Alongside that, Formula 1’s popularity has been declining over the years, which is represented in TV figures. Formula 1 has changed a lot in that time, so it would be very difficult to pinpoint the things that made people give up on Formula 1. Then again, one could conclude that F1 is becoming more road-relevant (V6 turbo engines, fuel flow limit) and more show-heavy (DRS, high-degradation tyres).

So it is very easy for the Bernie Ecclestones of this world to start pointing fingers, but it is way more complex. The main thing is that the core product, the actual experience of watching Formula 1, isn’t good enough and thus that the price you pay for the product is too high.

How can we make Formula 1 more popular again? I don’t know. What I do know, is that people that are high up need to realise that whatever they are doing, it isn’t working. And no, finger pointing is not the answer.

Vettel versus Alonso

One of the most exciting pieces of driving I’ve seen happened at Silverstone last weekend, between the two most successful drivers in Formula 1 at the moment: Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel left the pits after his second stop and rejoined the track in fifth, right in front of Alonso and Magnussen. On cold tyres, Vettel gets a poor run out of Aintree, with Alonso closing the gap down the Wellington straight.

Vettel covers the inside line into Brooklands; Alonso makes a late apex, similar to how he passed Kvyat earlier in the race, and tries to hang around the outside of Luffield. Alonso gets a good drive out of Luffield, Vettel again defends the inside line into Copse, but this time he has to concede the place. A brilliant piece of driving from Alonso.

But it’s not over yet: Vettel’s tyres get up to temperature and he’s now starting to show himself in Alonso’s mirrors. The pair complains at one another for exceeding track limits. Thankfully the stewards don’t interfere.

On lap 47, Vettel senses an opportunity. Again Alonso defends the inside line into Brooklands, but this time Vettel is already side-by-side with him. Alonso is having none of it and firmly shuts the door on him, almost hitting Vettel’s front wing.

Now Vettel tries to hang on around the outside of Luffield, but Alonso lets his car run a little wide and forces Vettel to the inside of Luffield. Alonso gets a snap of oversteer as he accelerates out of Luffield, onto the old pit straight.

Vettel draws alongside through Woodcote; the pair get ever so close to colliding, but they both make it to the braking zone of Copse in one piece. This time, it’s Vettel on the inside who brakes the latest and secures fifth place.

This was a titanic battle, between two drivers who know exactly how much space they can give each other. Brilliant racing, exactly how it should be: two drivers, two cars, brilliant corners, nothing more.

Standing restarts, terrific

The FIA has released its 2015 F1 Sporting Regulations, which included a revised section about restarts. Next year, a safety car period (except at the begin and end of a race) will be concluded with a standing start. When the safety car is deployed within two laps of the previous (re)start, there will be a rolling restart.

The idea behind these restarts is simple: shuffle the field such that slower cars get ahead of faster cars. In theory this will lead to more overtakes and according to classical FIA logic, more overtakes equals more excitement. Furthermore, it will produce some unexpected results, making the championship closer.

Let’s start with the good news. At least the FIA didn’t miss the obvious flaw of letting a standing restart be followed up by a standing restart: cautions breed cautions, as they say in the US. But then again, the idea is littered with other flaws.

Now, let’s look at some situations. We have a car leading the Grand Prix by thirty seconds with just ten laps to go. Now the safety car gets deployed. At the standing restart, he slightly messes up his clutch setting and he drops to fourth. Is that fair? Seems like a severe punishment for what is essentially a small error – he deserved to win that Grand Prix, yet the rules prevented that.

We now have a car that is doing a longer stint and has nearly completely destroyed his tyres. Just as he is about to pit, the safety car gets deployed and this car stays out. At the restart, all the cars around him are on much fresher tyres: as a result, he drops five places as his tyres just don’t seem to get any grip.

On the other hand, it would be quite interesting to see a car with phenomenal acceleration, a bit like the Renaults from ten years ago. These cars will jump a couple of cars at every restart, meaning that they could potentially climb from eleventh to first within three restarts.

A more sinister one: we have a team with one driver in second place, ten seconds behind the leader, and a car in twelfth position. Now, this team principal has no respect for sportsmanship whatsoever and asks the driver in twelfth place to do a Piquet. The safety car gets deployed, the race is restarted and the driver in second place takes the lead.

So yeah, there are quite some issues here already. The main problem I have with it is that it’s completely unnecessary, just a gimmick to make things more exciting. It’s weird that the same organisation that introduced slow-zones in the WEC earlier this year introduces a system in Formula 1 that does the complete opposite.

Sadly, standing restarts seem to be another Abu Double: everyone hates it, yet the FIA decides to ignore the criticism and do it anyway. It’s astonishing how the FIA keep getting away with things like this. The only difference with Abu Double is that standing restarts aren’t linked to one specific event, making it more likely that the change will be undone during the next WMSC meeting in Beijing on September eleventh.

In itself, standing restarts are stupid, illogical and unsportsmanlike, but nothing more than that. What’s worrying here is the trend: after DRS and dodgy tyres, this is the third Mario Kart-style gimmick that directly influences the races. Suddenly that sprinkler idea doesn’t seem that far-fetched anymore…