If Ayrton Senna was alive today, he probably would not have enjoyed watching the Formula One races! The great Brazilian, like many purists, would have been upset at the evolved role of drivers in the sport. Motorsport takes on its purest of forms when the driver pushes his car to its limits, trying to reel in the leader, and then passes him, then fights to hold that position… At times, we can only feel sorry for what a driver in F1 has now become, his instincts and skill reigned in to fit the role of a nurse managing those delicate, round inventions called tyres, following the protocols and precise radio commands from his race engineer and team principal. Where are the James Hunts, Keke Rosbergs, and the Juan Manuel Fangios?
Take a look at the opening race of the 2013 F1 season. The latest edition of ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone’s circus began with the Australian GP at Albert Park in Melbourne on March 17, won by Kimi Räikkönen in his Lotus-Renault ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel. The Ice Man and his team have hit the early form, no doubt. Räikkönen claimed after the race that “the car was not pushed” to its full pace. “That is a great sign. But we have to keep developing to be competitive,” he added. If Lotus keeps up with the upgrade tempo of Red Bull and Ferrari, we could see Räikkönen fighting for the title towards the business end of the 19-race season.
But the talk of the town in Melbourne was neither Räikkönen’s flawless drive, nor the show by Force India’s comeback-boy Adrian Sutil, who had led the race for a considerable time before fading off to finish seventh. The gurus were out praising the bold two-stop pit strategy of Lotus (most of the teams opted for three stops), and the superior way in which Räikkönen managed his tyres to ensure his second victory for Lotus after his triumph at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi last year.
The season-opening race had its twists and turns, including heavy rain during Saturday qualifying that forced the postponement of the second and third sessions (Q2 and Q3) to race day. Räikkönen, after qualifying seventh, was in the reckoning from the start even though seven drivers led the race at various points. Sutil, who led twice (lead changing during pits-stops), was arguably on a par with Räikkönen in his error-free drive. But, leading the pack during a race is meaningless in the rather complicated world of F1 these days, where many factors determine the winner. In other words, the best driver needn’t always end up on the podium.
From pit-stop strategies to managing tyre-wear, to the optimal usage of KERS and the DRS, it’s a high-octane chess game out there. In Melbourne, unlike the old days, the deciding factor was not a brilliant passing move, but the calculations made by the pit crew. This has been the case for a long while now and with each passing year, Ecclestone and his planners, which include tyre supplier Pirelli’s think-tank, throw in added variables to complicate things further.
Soon after the race in Melbourne, Pirelli’s motorsport director, Paul Hembery, proudly said their ploy of releasing supersoft and medium tyres ensured the season-opener was exciting. “We took the deliberately bold decision to come here with the supersoft tyre in order to spice up the action,” said Hembery. “We believe that this worked very well, with a variety of different two and three stop strategies. Kimi Räikkönen and Lotus understood the tyres perfectly. Although they were often in different places on the track, Räikkönen was effectively racing Alonso, who was on a three-stop ‘sprint’ strategy, during the second half of the race. Seeing how those different approaches played out at the end was intriguing. It’s also worth pointing out that Raikkonen drove the fastest lap of the race on lap 56, the penultimate lap, on 22-lap old medium tyres.”
But sir, it is not that heartening to know that it was Pirelli, and not the tired 22 drivers, who ensured “an exciting” race in Melbourne.
Lotus’s strategy was the same for Räikkönen and his young teammate Romain Grosjean. But the Frenchman struggled with set-up issues and tyre-wear. Even with a three-stop strategy, Sutil also had a torrid time with tyre-wear during his supersoft stint late in the race. Vettel, despite having a fast car right through the weekend, which put him on pole, also struggled with tyre management. His crew is keen to rectify it in the next couple of races, tinkering, no doubt, with the downforce of the car. Both the Germans in essence skated across the finish line, their grained tyres not a beautiful site to behold.
So what does it take to win in F1 these days: A car that is fast but also easy on the delicate beauties which Pirelli provides; a upgrade programme through the season; and then a driver, who understands how to nurse the car across the chequered flag, listening to the voices, not his inner ones like the boys from the old days used to, but the ones crackling through his helmet radio.
Remember Räikkönen’s victory last year at Yas Marina and his famous reply to his race engineer, when the latter reminded him to keep his tyres warm during a safety-car period in the race. “Leave me alone, I know what I am doing,” the Finn had said. Räikkönen, in his own words, is a throwback to the “fun days” of racing—he loves to drive hard and enjoys adventure off the track too. But in Melbourne, the 33-year-old also showed he understands what it takes to win in modern F1. In the technocratic world of F1, being “old fashioned” is
not tolerated and the Finn knows that.
But, motorsport has always been about pushing the limits of technology. That should be the case too, as long as the lobbies involved in shaping the future of the sport don’t forget the original spirit of racing. After all, a race fan doesn’t pay to watch the engines win, or the tyres last. The only time when a Vettel or an Alonso goes all out is when their backs are to the wall. Last year in Abu Dhabi, while Räikkönen won, Vettel had one of the best races of his career. Starting from the back of the grid, he finished third, displaying racing in its most glorious form.
The world of motorsport still offers little mercies—the MotoGP and the World Rally Championship (WRC) still retain a bit of the pure spirit of racing. That takes us back to Senna who had once said, “Karting was pure driving, real racing and that makes me happy.” The Brazilian knew F1, with its complexities, would never be just a basic test of driver mettle. But what he perhaps never imagined was how drastically the drvier’s role would change.
The administrators claim the changes began when the cry for a safer F1 became louder after Senna’s death. But, it is clear that the evolution was fuelled more by marketing strategies, that too during the Michael Schumacher–Ferrari era of domination, when the races became so “boring” that Ecclestone and co. feared the fans would lose interest. The current rules ensure lead changes, and, like the start of the last season showed, it can churn out different race winners (2012 saw seven different winners in the first seven races). But were the best drivers on the day winning?
Formula One still enjoys its wide fan base. The spectators, evolving themselves with the sport, claim, they enjoy the “finer aspects of racing behind the action on track”, which is great indeed. But they don’t realise what they are missing either.