There was a lot of talk last weekend about IndyCar lap times at Circuit of the Americas being slower than Formula 1. It’s a reasonable comparison on a track with a bit of everything. But does it really matter that much?
Are race fans going to notice the difference? Surely it won’t mean a thing if the category that is deemed to be slower provides decent racing and the other is a procession?
In terms of offering a platform for passing, it’s not fair to compare Albert Park with COTA. But that should not muffle alarm bells that ought to be ringing in the F1 corridors of power, particularly when the cars for 2021 are being formulated as we speak. You have to hope someone is asking if it’s right that F1 cars are now so technically sophisticated that a missing scrap of carbon fibre allegedly ruined Lewis Hamilton’s race in Melbourne.
I’ve listened to detailed explanations of this flap’s vital role in dealing with so-called tyre squirt (move over ‘outwash’ and ‘vortex’; this is the 2019 buzzword). While totally believing such earnest elucidation, I found myself wondering if those having paid more than $300 to sit in the grandstands could give a stuff, even if they knew about the problem in the first place.
Bits break on racing cars for any number of reasons; that’s been the name of the game since the days when retirements outnumbered the finishers. And yet there have been examples of extreme damage when the driver has been able to adapt and remain competitive.
The 1986 Belgian Grand Prix comes to mind. Alain Prost was caught in a pincer movement at the first corner, the McLaren becoming airborne and landing on its nose. After a pit stop for a quick check over and a new nose, he rejoined 23rd and climbed back to earn a point for sixth. (He would win the championship by just two points at the final race.)
The full merit of his performance was not truly appreciated until the disbelieving McLaren mechanics found damaged front suspension and a bent engine mounting. ‘Bending one of those mounting plates in compression was unheard of,’ said McLaren designer John Barnard. ‘The car was like a banana! He needed an eighth turn of lock in order to keep the thing in a straight line.’ Prost spent 43 laps racing the car like that – at Spa.
Cars may have been less aerodynamically reliant thirty years ago but is anyone in charge today willing to accept that F1 has gone too far in the opposite direction? We get lengthy discourses on the intricate effect of these beautifully crafted flicks and flaps (and some not so beautiful; have you taken a look at the jumble of crap purporting to be a bargeboard?). But is anyone brave enough to ask: ‘Yeah, but do we honestly need so much of this aero nonsense that begins with the stupid front wings?’
And it doesn’t end with the effect of a lightly damaged floor. It was interesting – and somewhat alarming – to listen to Alexander Albon describe his debut in the Toro Rosso. In a race compromised by the tactical misfortune of being trapped behind Antonio Giovinazzi, Albon was learning about how the management of a F1 car and its tyres dominates the ability to go racing.
‘Following cars, you just overheat the tyres very quickly,’ said the Toro Rosso Driver. ‘As soon as you get clean air, the grip comes back so quickly.’ There’s always been degradation; it comes with the territory. But this particular handicap can’t be the way to go, surely?
Bahrain, a race track in the more traditional sense, will hopefully give us a better picture of what’s really going on. In the meantime, we have to hope that the F1 brains trust currently in session is prepared to tackle, if necessary, the fundamental flaw of having super-quick cars that can’t actually race.