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Are the F1 cars of 2014 too slow?

After many previous complaints about the effect of the new regulations, in the Spanish round many felt that this year’s F1 cars had got too slow. But is it all that it seems?
Friday, May 30, 2014

May 30, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- Those minded to denigrate the 2014 spec of F1 if nothing else have to be admired for their persistence.

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Many of the arguments against the new way have come and gone, largely discredited. But on each occasion the malcontents have found a new implement with which to continue their battering against the barricades, almost without missing a beat.

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No one would finish the races, they said – nope, we had but five mechanical breakdowns in the opening race and the trend since has been broadly downward. The Grands Prix would be dull, confusing as well as hideous ‘taxi driver’ runs (thanks Luca for the phraseology) in fuel-saving – not really, fuel has hardly been mentioned and indeed it’s thought that the Mercedes runners at least have been using less than the 100kg limit in some races.

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The race in Bahrain meanwhile was the most diverting most of us could remember in a good while. Even the noise about the noise seems to be quietening (perhaps aided by the Wacky Races exhaust showcased by Mercedes in the Barcelona test).

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But now – no whit abashed – they have moved onto the latest implement to wield at the recent orthodoxy. That the cars aren’t quick enough.
It all puts one in mind of the maxim of evolutionary biologists, that’s not the strongest that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most adaptable. It appears to apply to F1 antagonists too.

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For much of the early part of the 2014 campaign it’s been hard to judge the pace factor compared with what we had before (although there was some grumbling about it in pre-season testing), given we had a succession of wet qualifying sessions and safety car periods disrupting the races. But in the Chinese race the victor Lewis Hamilton completed the full 56-lap distance taking only 26 seconds longer than the Shanghai winner did 12 months previously, while this campaign’s Bahrain pole time was less than a second off the 2013 equivalent.

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But come the Spanish round it all changed. Someone noticed that the GP2 cars circulating on the same track in the same weekend weren’t setting lap times all that far above those of F1.

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In the end there was but four seconds between the best of the F1 and GP2 cars on the stopwatch while Stephane Richelmi’s GP2 pole mark would have got him eighteenth place on the F1 grid.

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Other mirth was made in response to the Caterham GP2 car setting a quicker lap time than the Caterham F1 sister machine.

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Caterham has been consistently the slowest car on the grid. (LAT Photo)

Given the Montmelo track is one mainly about chassis rather than engine – in contrast to Bahrain – it suggests that the drop-off in F1’s pace is most likely explained by the changes to chassis regulations, such as trimming the wings and effective outlawing of the exhaust-blown diffuser. Plus the heavier cars and less grippy tyres are likely playing their parts too.

It’s ironic given the vast majority of the ire towards F1 2014-style has been directed at the power units; there has not been nearly as much agonising over the chassis regs. Indeed, the 2014 F1 car has tended to fly in the speed traps.

The fact that the cars now have more torque than grip is a welcome development from my point of view. As Tony Brooks once noted: ‘There should always be more power than the chassis can comfortably handle. The car should look a handful’. Seeing the top drivers of the age have suddenly to wrestle their machines this campaign has been a joy.

Plus while we may not like it – given the ideal is for F1 to be all about progress and going faster than before – rationally effort simply must be made to control the speeds of F1 cars over time.

This is mainly so it’s not to end up in a situation – given designers are very clever – wherein the circuits’ safety arrangements become obsolete, as was so in the ground effect era of the late 1970s and early 1980s almost overnight due to sky-rocketing speeds.

In that period that tragedy scarcely imaginable, such as a car going into the crowd and killing several spectators, was avoided was down only to sheer fortune. There were at least a couple of near misses.

While in Monaco things were back on line; Nico Rosberg’s pole time being about two seconds off that of the previous year, as well as roughly the same as Felipe Massa’s pole mark of 2008. Little to panic about, to declare the end of F1 as nigh in response, in other words.
Meanwhile the GP2 pole time was now five seconds shy, as well as only would have been good enough for second last on the F1 grid (beating only Marcus Ericsson).

More broadly even the four second gap between the best of F1 and the best of GP2 that got everyone going in Spain doesn’t in fact strike me as outrageous. Overlaps between times on the F1 grid and those of the formula just below are nothing new either.

To take an extreme example, in the 1967 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring (that’s the Nurburgring as nature intended) due to a relative paucity of F1 entrants the organisers decided to fatten out the numbers by allowing F2 cars to circulate at the same time.

One such F2 car was piloted by Jacky Ickx, and his best qualifying time therein was good enough for third place on the F1 grid (sadly for him the arrangement was for the F2 cars to start behind the F1 ones on a separate grid, so his fine effort didn’t count for much in effect).

We shouldn’t forget either that when it comes to the new style of F1 machine what we have now is only the beginning. New regulations mean a steep rate of discovery, particularly so in this case given the regs are such a grand departure from before.

Fernando Alonso for one in pre-season estimated that in-year development alone would find somewhere in the region of three to four seconds per tour. Whereas I assume the GP2 car isn’t likely to change any time soon. So right now is as close as it’s going to get.

And how about I add the sacrilegious point – is it all that important? After all the margins we’re talking about here between F1 now and before are a few seconds a lap; that’s a few seconds spread out over a distance of anywhere between three and seven kilometres.

Would many of those observing at trackside, without the assistance of a stopwatch or some kind of side-by-side comparison, be able to tell the difference with the naked eye? Really?

Jackie Stewart indeed commented on this very matter some years ago: ‘Speed is relative’ said JYS. ‘If all the cars are travelling at the same speed, you can’t tell the difference between 160 (mph) and 200. I know I can’t, and I probably have as trained an eye as anyone.’ I suspect anyone that can would be in a tiny minority.

Alonso also noted in pre-season that whatever the lap times the challenge of driving a Formula One racing car remains: ‘If (asked whether) I feel less or more emotion driving these cars I feel the same. Because when I drive go-karts I am 20 seconds slower or half a minute slower than Formula One and I sweat so much and I enjoy so much and I have the same emotion. As far as you drive at the limit, the timed lap you do or how quick or slow you are in a timed lap I think it doesn’t change the emotional point of view or the nice feeling driving.’

We being vigilant about the state of F1 is no bad thing in itself. It shows that we care, as well as that we’re wary of potential threats to the sport we love.

But perhaps also we underestimate F1’s resilience. After all it’s survived worse than even the most pessimistic have the 2014 regulations throwing at it – much worse. And despite all of this over time the sport’s trajectory has if anything been upward, to get stronger.

As Clive James once explained: ‘whatever happens to the formula, Formula One, it’s still number one’.

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