Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fuelish Thoughts

Refuelling in Formula 1 is, as far as I'm concerned, a bad thing. I allude to this from time to time, but until now, I don't think I've ever actually gone through my reasoning on this in any kind of coherent way before.

Given that I think the reintroduction of refuelling into Formula 1 in 1994 has been the biggest wrong-turning that the sport has taken in the time that I have been following it, I think this is something of an omission on my part. It strikes me that the three week gap in the Grand Prix calendar is as good a time as any to set the record straight.

An unnecessary risk

You might be well aware that Motorsports Ramblings is perhaps not the biggest fan of the health and safety brigade. I don't like it when drivers die any more than the next person, but motor racing is fundamentally dangerous, and in my view, it can only be made entirely safe via the kinds of compromises, for example to circuit design, which will eventually kill the very essence of the sport.

Nonetheless, I'd like to see refuelling banned because it is potentially very dangerous. Dangerous not just to the drivers, who have, to some extent, made their Faustian pact in pursuing their dream, but to mechanics, journalists, VIPs, and anyone else within the vicinity of the pitlane.

Enabling refuelling to take place during the race requires that each team has fuel-rigs with hundreds of litres of highly flammable liquid stored in the pitlane. Pitlane accidents are rare, but not completely unheard of. Likewise, the requirement to move heavy rigs around in order to refuel a car and get it out of the pitlane again as quickly as possible in a high pressure situation adds its own dangers.

The fact that there has not been a serious accident in the 14 years since refuelling was reintroduced in F1 indicates that the risk is very small. It does not mean that this risk is non-existent. The reason I bring it up is that the potential consequences are so dire. Remember Jos Verstappen's pitlane conflagration at Hockenheim in 1994? That spectacular blaze occured when just a litre of two of spilt fuel ignited on hot bodywork. If an entire fuel rig caught fire, the potential exists for a Le Mans 1955 kind of catastrophe (after all, press offices and corporate hospitality boxes are normally built above the pitlane these days). And in this safety-conscious era, F1 might never recover from such a disaster.

Dumbing down

My second argument is that the existence of refuelling dumbs down Grand Prix racing. Of course, in a sense, it does exactly the opposite - all those complicated strategies require the input of some serious pitlane brainpower and the likes of Pat Symonds and Ross Brawn have amassed a considerable reputation as masterminds of the art of calling the right time to refuel. From the point of view of the driver though, things are simplified. When a driver had to start the race with the fuel he needed to go the entire distance, he would begin with a car some 200kgs heavier than it is in qualifying trim. As such, the car behaves quite differently - it puts more strain on the tyres and brakes, and its handling characteristics will change significantly over the course of a race distance.

These days, a driver no longer needs to think about looking after the tyres or brakes in the early stages of the race, when the car is fat with fuel. Neither need he adapt to the very different handling of a 700kg F1 car on full fuel. Strategic thinking and intelligence are less important - fitness and the ability to run off a series of qualifying-style laps instead become all important. To me, that's less interesting. When I started following F1, the ability of guys like Alain Prost to 'read' a race, and to (in the words of Fangio) master the art of winning the race at the slowest possible speed, was a major part of the sport's appeal.

No passing, please

My most fundamental gripe with refuelling in F1 is that I think it reduces the amount of overtaking we see in the sport. That's overtaking as opposed to position changes. Sure, refuelling promotes position changes, as it provides an opportunity for a quick guy who has qualified poorly to move up through the order without having to find a way past on the track (simple fuel up heavy, sit behind the slower cars in the early laps, then go hot-lapping when everyone else comes in to refuel).

The thing is, pit-based changes of position aren't all that exciting. Overtaking is the lifeblood of the sport, and if a battle for the lead between two front runners can be resolved without them actually swapping places out on the track, I for one feel slightly cheated.

Now it could be argued that refuelling doesn't actually make overtaking any less likely - that's the fault of the laws of physics - or more exactly, the ever greater understanding of how to apply them that F1 designers have acquired over the years - it merely makes it seem that way because with passing ever more difficult on track - its at the fuel stops where places swap.

I don't think that's the whole story. I think refuelling discourages overtaking still further in two specific ways. Firstly, it reduces the temptation for a driver to gamble on an on-track pass. A pass on the road can be a position gained, but there's also a risk that it might all end in an accident. I'm not sure what proportion of crashes in F1 occur during attempted passes, but off the top of my head, I'd expect its quite high. If the only way you're going to find a way past is on the road, its usually still a risk worth taking - but if you're confident you can find a way past in the pitlane when you both come to refuel, why take the chance?

That's not the only way in which the current sprint-stop-sprint format of F1 inhibits overtaking, though. The other one comes back to the 'dumbing down' argument: If there is less variability in how a car handles over the course of a race, there is less chance that different drivers, or different cars, will be quick at different points. When someone whose car handles well on heavy fuel disappears off into a lead only to be reeled in by someone else, whose car is set up more for running on less fuel towards the end of a race, there is a greater probability of overtaking. The current format mitigates against different people being quick at different points of the race - and hence against overtaking.

The same is as true, if not even more true, of tyres (though without refuelling, this becomes more of an issue, because a driver can always decide not to pit for tyres, and sacrifice grip for track position). After all, when was there last overtaking in the race at the front end of the grid in F1 at Monaco? 1975? 1985 maybe?

No, 2005. There was refuelling, of course, but in 2005, drivers had to run the entire race on a single set of tyres. Hence the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella were quick in the early stages of the race, but were sitting ducks towards the end. In Alonso's case, for example, this led to the Williamses of both Heidfeld and Webber passing him for position in the closing laps. It was the most entertaining Monaco Grand Prix in years. With refuelling banned, you would not need to ban tyre changes (which, it could be argued, is dangerous, as drivers are encouraged to gamble on pressing on with dangerously damaged rubber) as the 'don't pit for tyres and try to take advantage of track position' strategy would always be open to any driver or team prepared to take the risk.

Nothing gained...

Is there really any argument for retaining refuelling? Something I have missed? Well, if so, I honestly don't know what it could be. It might be argued that refuelling encourages position changes. As I've said already, that may be true, but its not a price worth paying - nobody watches F1 in order to see changes of position in the pitlane. Perhaps the additional 'strategy' element adds a layer of interest to the sport? I'd argue that by homogenising car set ups and removing the gambler's option of running the whole race on a single set of tyres, it does the reverse. And besides, this is meant to be motor racing, not high speed chess. I've even heard know-nothings argue that pit stops are exciting to watch, and refuelling encourages more of them. Perhaps they are, at first sight, but after over 20 years of following the sport, I'm no longer enthralled by them. I want to see more on track action.

Could refuelling be abolished? I'd argue so. It has not become intrinsic to the sport. Sure, the teams might need a couple of year's notice to deal with the expensive business of designing quite considerably different chassis in order to carry twice as much fuel. Mr Mosley, if you're reading this, I know you're prepared to think radically when it comes to the future F1 rules. I've heard suggestions about regenerative braking, hybrid engines, spec-chassis and all the rest. So have a think about it eh...

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Anonymous Matt said...

Wouldn't tracks that offer better overtaking opportunities be a much cleaner solution?

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Clive said...

Refuelling has always been around in F1, of course, and I enjoyed the Brabham team's reintroduction of it as a tactic in 1982, when they were running the horrendously powerful but thirsty BMW turbos. It threw a nice spanner in everyone else's works, leaving them wondering whether they should chase after Piquet in the hope of passing him during his pit stop, or ignore him because the engine was bound to explode anyway.

But I have been against enforced pit stops from the beginning. My overt reason was the safety one - it was a clear instance of the FIA making the sport more dangerous, whilst protesting that they were determined to make it safer.

But my secret reason was that it spoils the races, plain and simple. I have no time for any regulation that allows a driver who has worked to be in front being overtaken through a slightly mis-timed pit stop. Same for the safety car - I've seen too many drivers robbed of race wins they deserved through the safety car erasing the lead they had earned.

But let's hit them with the safety aspect - they can never shout us down on that one. ;)

12:55 PM  

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