F1: Forget the gimmicks and software, give drivers the freedom to save Formula One

Forget the gimmicks and software, give drivers the freedom to save Formula One

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The Independent Online

Oh, the irony. The most sophisticated, hi-tech sport on earth, populated by some of the finest mathematical minds this side of space travel, needs a three-month turnaround to write the software to ensure the slowest drivers in Formula One know who they are.

I have news for the pit-lane algorithm gurus, following the revelations in The Independent on Saturday that the new gradual elimination qualifying format has been delayed until May: that detail is already known. 

The structural inflexibility of the sport ensures that we do not need a sophisticated timing system to identify two blokes in Mercedes livery as the final pairing in Formula One qualifying’s new world order, or two more in red as the most likely to mop up if Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg cock up.

Maybe it would have been more fun to run the new ejector system in Australia anyway – flicking drivers at 90-second intervals using an egg timer, or perhaps that old-tech solution, the team radio: “Oi, mush, you’re toast. Box, box, box.”

Quite what the brains trust at the Formula One Strategy Group imagine might happen when the thing is rolled out in Barcelona is anyone’s guess. What the sport needs is not cosmetic gimmickry, at least not of this type, but a profound shift in thinking that puts the drivers at the centre of the endeavour, not software.

Jody Scheckter, who won the drivers’ title in 1979 for Ferrari, was asked last week: “Where have all the characters gone?” The question flummoxed Hampshire’s quickest organic farmer, as well it might, since it was pointing in the wrong direction, assuming the fault lay in the men behind the wheel.

Ask yourself this: how much of a character would James Hunt be in today’s Honda-powered McLaren? He could fire up that baby with a bikini-clad admirer sat on his lap and you still would not know he was on the grid. 

Hold on a minute; maybe Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button should try it, complete with a lit Gitanes protruding from his crash helmet.

The idea that Alonso, or Button for that matter, are running character deficits is absurd. I don’t know that I have ever encountered a more political animal in all of sport than the Spaniard. His meltdown with Hamilton in Hungary in 2007 remains one of the most compelling hours of my sportswriting experience. 

Never has a pear been demolished with such relish in a public forum. Perhaps someone had engraved a picture of Ron Dennis on the fruit’s skin. Only the stalk was left, and that would have been in mortal danger had someone not stepped in to relieve it.

What Formula One struggles to comprehend is the primacy of people over machinery. 

Racing, save for a tiny priesthood, is not about the car but the driver. No one ever asked a Ferrari how it managed Eau Rouge flat out, or Hamilton’s McLaren in 2008 how it knew Timo Glock’s tyre gamble was on borrowed time in the Brazilian wet.

The sport might ask itself one simple question: how do we convey what these lads do? 

There is arguably no greater challenge in sport than powering a car round a corner at 200mph with another stuck on your bumper trying to beat you to the racing line.

The commitment required to hit the braking point on the straight, turn the car in and make the move stick is as deep as it comes. Try sitting in a two-seater version of these prototype rockets while at the same time keeping your lunch down. You would have more fun in a washing machine.

The maddest, baddest theme-park ride on earth does not come close to the head-scrambling, stomach-churning romp that is a spin around a high-speed autodrome. You would have to leave the earth’s atmosphere in a rocket to find yourself in a state further removed from the norm.

All of this has been lost in the modern era, which allows the big car manufacturers to set the agenda with strategies aimed at relevance to the automotive industry. Since when was the reclamation of energy under the bonnet the concern of the man in the street, no matter the benefits it might bring to mankind?

Formula One is a sport, not a laboratory for Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda.

Of course, we accept the connectivity but the balance and emphasis have to be right. For too long it has been skewed in favour of machinery. 

That is what the Strategy Group should be talking about, not tricking up qualifying. They will be spraying water on the corners next. Hold on…