Why are we asking this now?
Because the 2009 Formula One World Championship season kicks off with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend. The sport is returning to the BBC and this will be the first season where new rules governing the design of the cars and the scoring of the races will come into force.
Why have so many changes been made this season?
Last year's season was superb, with a nail-biting finale that pulled in huge audiences, but F1 is all about renewal. It is reborn every season, with new cars and driver-team combinations. For 2009, the governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), sought to arouse fresh interest in the sport. Principally, it wanted to generate more overtaking to spice things up, and to introduce technology that has a greater application to future road cars.
Why are F1 cars so ugly?
An "overtaking working group" set up by the FIA, which comprised engineers from McLaren, Ferrari and Renault, carried out empirical studies of how to improve the chances of overtaking. Under the old F1 rules, they calculated that the driver of a following car needed a lap-time advantage of at least 2.2 seconds in order to be able to mount a successful challenge. They sought to cut that to about a second, and also to reduce the turbulent wake from the leading car, which took away aerodynamic grip, or downforce, from the pursuing car's front wing. When the following car lost downforce, it would tend to run wide in a corner, or under-steer, frustrating the driver's chances of overtaking.
By making the rear wings much smaller, they shifted the aerodynamic balance to the front of the car, where the wing was made much wider to generate greater downforce. Additionally, for the first time in 40 years, driver-adjustable wings are allowed so that, twice per lap, the driver can dial in greater downforce so that he has a better chance of passing the driver ahead. The result is a breed of cars that are not pretty, but as the 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen says: "It doesn't really matter how it looks. If it's fast, it's enough."
So will there really be more overtaking?
We will find out, but here's what Brawn driver Jenson Button had to say yesterday: "On the two circuits that we've tested on, there has never been any overtaking anyway really. Barcelona and Jerez are very difficult for overtaking. I probably followed two cars in testing at Barcelona. I didn't try to overtake. You are on different strategies so you are not going to take the risk in practice either. I felt I could follow a little bit closer but it wasn't enough to make a move around Barcelona. Hopefully, it is going to be different at somewhere like Melbourne where there are opportunities to overtake. Hopefully, there will be more of them."
Why is there so much fuss about the scoring system?
There is a strong case for suggesting that the man who wins the most races should be champion. In some ways, there is a sporting purity that the fastest man should get the spoils. That's why [the F1 boss] Bernie Ecclestone suggested, after the British driver Lewis Hamilton won last year's title with five wins to Felipe Massa's six, that the Brazilian would have been a more worthy champion. But historically the championship has embraced other aspects besides sheer speed: reliability, consistency, canniness and strategy.
Why not increase the number of points awarded for victory?
This is exactly what the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) has suggested. It wants the current 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 scoring system to be changed to 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1 – so that the winner earns three more points than the second-placed driver. Ironically, the two men who oppose that line of thinking are Ecclestone and the FIA's president Max Mosley, who at the end of the 2002 season changed the points scoring system to the current 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 in order to stop Michael Schumacher having another runaway year in 2003. FOTA, and drivers such as Button, believe that introducing a winner-takes-all system could confuse fans. FOTA's global market research suggests that F1 spectators would rather see the winner score more points to reward his success.
Why has there been so much fuss about the Brawn, Toyota and Williams cars?
The area of controversy is the upswept section of the floor of the car situated between and behind the rear wheels, known as the diffuser. This helps airflow beneath the car to speed up and has a strong influence on the amount of downforce generated. This is even more crucial this year with the smaller rear wings. Rivals argue that the Brawn, Toyota and Williams cars exploit a loophole in the rules by using a step in the diffuser, and thus do not comply with the spirit of the regulations.
What about the treadless tyres?
Following a conversation in 1997 with the retired F1 driver Sir Stirling Moss, who remarked that historic cars with treaded and treadless, or slick, tyres rarely raced together, Mosley hit on the idea of introducing grooved tyres for 1998. They put less rubber in contact with the track and thus slow cars down. Now Mosley wants to improve mechanical grip, that generated by the tyres and the suspension, to counteract some of the reduction in aerodynamic downforce. Hence the return to slicks.
Does F1 waste resources?
Yes and no. It is, by its very nature, high-tech, and that is part of its appeal because it represents a superlative. Motor racing has historically "improved the breed" where road cars are concerned, with the development of things such as the disc brakes we now take for granted. New for 2009 are kinetic energy recovery systems, which store the energy generated while braking and, via push-button controls, allow the driver to use an extra 85 brake horse power for 6.6 seconds each lap. Of course, this can help a driver to open up further overtaking possibilities. But taking a wider view, it is an environmentally conscious technology, and its development for future road transport will undoubtedly be speeded up in the crucible of competition. It is an attempt to endow F1 with a "green" image at a time when it ought to be demonstrating an ecological conscience.
So how is F1 handling the economic downturn?
Not well. Team bosses Flavio Britore of Renault, Ron Dennis of McLaren and John Howett of Toyota, held an emergency meeting with Ecclestone last week "to discuss payment of money owed by CVC Capital Partners [the effective owner of the commercial rights to F1] to the teams and... agreed sums owing from the 2006, 2007 and 2008 championship years". Meanwhile, the sport faces an 80 per cent decline in corporate hospitality. Honda, anticipating that the recession would lead to tough times for the sport, withdrew its team in December. The sports leaders hope that the new rules to create a more exciting spectacle will go most of the way towards addressing these problems.
Are F1 cars becoming too sophisticated?
* Their aerodynamic sophistication is far too complex and has no relevance to road cars
* Just one kilogramme in the wrong place can significantly upset the handling and balance of a car
* Too much money is spent building lightweight cars and then ballasting them to the minimum weight
* They may be technically complex, but they utilise the same operating principles as road cars
* They do not use the traction control or power steering that drivers of road cars take for granted
* F1 cars were more sophisticated 16 years ago, when they used computer-controlled 'active' suspension