The last lap

I started watching Formula One with the 1998 Spanish Grand Prix – won by Mika Hakkinen – and since that day I have not missed a single race, watching around 95% in their entirety without fast forwarding. That makes a streak of 295 consecutive F1 races. However, over the last three years I have had a growing feeling that I may just be watching for the sake of watching. The powers that be have decided to make changes to the sport to ‘improve the show’ that have led to me feeling alienated. In this post I am going to outline these changes and then outline some of my own ideas that I think could make me love the sport again.

The problems

DRS (2011 – today) – The Drag Reduction System (DRS) was brought in as a solution to aerodynamic efficiency leading to a lack of overtaking in the sport. The system allows a following car within 1 second to open a flap in their rear wing to reduce drag and give them a speed boost along a particular straight. To me, this is an unfair system as you are being punished for being ahead. If you are ahead, you deserve the chance to defend in a position that is stronger or equal to the driver behind; there should not be a rule that enables them to drive around you.

Poor attendance at tracks (ongoing) – F1 has always attracted new tracks and races. Some of these – such as Circuit of the Americas where this weekend’s race takes place – have been a big success. However, poor tracks that receive a poor attendance do no-one any good: just look at Korea. A lot of the circuits that are on the calendar are there as a marketing exercise for car manufacturers or are the pet project of a rich consortium for their pleasure. The circuits are poor, the racing they give is poor, but they are being used for the world’s premier single seater series.

Ever younger drivers (2014) – To me the intention of F1 is to have the best drivers in the world doing battle on track. Having a 17-year-old racing next year does not reflect this. Max Verstappen has one season of single seater racing under his belt and yet in 2015 he has a drive with Toro Rosso. To me that is a joke and disrespectful to drivers who are working their way up the ladder properly and have gotten where they are deservedly and not on their name. If F1 is easy enough for an inexperienced 17-year-old to take part in then it clearly is no longer enough of a challenge.

Engine noise (2014) – This is a minor point for me; I love the new power units and their general efficiency against previous cars. I also don’t particularly mind that the lap times have dropped since last year. However, that all being said, I still personally prefer the high pitched whine over the lower grumble this year. The old cars just sounded better and faster.

Domination (2014) – Again, a small point for me. I sat happily through five years of Schumacher domination and four years of Vettel domination. However, with Mercedes a second and a half quicker than the chasing pack it isn’t close to being a fair fight. We need more equalisation between the engines, otherwise we can get ready for many more years of Mercedes driving straight past people if they have to start from the back.

Financing (ongoing) – Two teams have just announced their inability to take part in a race in the same week. Meanwhile the teams at the top of the sport are being given extra money for showing up. By all means have performance-based prize funds, however, don’t reward teams that already have more money for attendance. Based on figures in Autosport magazine 30/10/2014, the smallest team, Caterham, is spending approximately four times less per year than Red Bull (the biggest team that doesn’t produce its own engines), and yet it is that small team that is failing. The cost of third party parts needs to be reigned-in to help smaller teams.

In addition, the costs of watching F1 in 2014 are prohibitive; it is now harder to watch F1. Few will pay £50+ per month to watch the racing on Sky, and going to a circuit is also ridiculously expensive. For the cost of general admission at Silverstone I can go to approximately six BTCC race events (18 races of 30). If the teams and the circuits aren’t making money and the fans are over-spending, do we really want to be lining the pockets of the sport’s owners?

Bernie paying his way out of a bribery case (2014) – Should you really be allowed to PAY to end a BRIBERY case?

Double points (2014) – If a driver wins the championship because they won a race that was worth more than all the other races I will stop watching and not turn back. This rule in a sport where reliability is a factor is not sporting.

Poorly thought-through regulation changes – F1 has become so desperate to improve the ‘show’ that it is practically no longer a sport. Artificial overtaking now rules, with the championship potentially no longer won by the most consistent driver, but the one who gets lucky in the last race. Next year there are plans for standing starts after safety cars, because starts are “more exciting” (with the clear potential for yet more safety cars). I want to see racing where overtakes are earned, and where the best driver in the best car is not cheated out of the championship.

Possible fixes

Remove bonuses for ‘legacy’ teams – Instead give all teams an even share of the pot as soon as they have completed their first full season. Allow prize money to spread the best teams from the worst. In addition, if you want to engage the fan base, lower the cost of entry, because if no-one is watching, there is no money.

More difficult super-license – Having young inexperienced drivers does not do the sport any favours, to be in F1 you should have to earn your place by working up the ladder, not by jumping several rungs.

Allow for a maximum cost cap of £100m – In 2009 Max Mosley attempted to enact a restrictive £40 million cost cap. For the big teams this was never going to be achievable. however, setting the bar higher so that it is lower than the large teams spend and bigger than the small teams spend means that there is still a small window for buying success. This would need to be balanced for teams that also produce their own engines, perhaps defining a separate cost cap that applies to engine production, which in turn defines a maximum price that an engine supplier can demand from teams.

DRS limit – DRS as it currently stands diminishes overtaking. However, it has proven itself as a means for getting one F1 car past another. An approach that I would like to see taken would be to change the rules so that each driver gets 10 uses of DRS per race. They can then plan when to use that, whether it be to attack or defend or pull away. It would have the current provisos regarding no use during wet conditions or within two laps of a start/restart, however, could be used anywhere on the track.

Ask the fans what they want – Instead of a group of old men making decisions about what the fan base wants or the sport needs, would it be so hard for the decision makers to ASK and listen to the fans? There has been overwhelming negativity for a number of recent rule changes, the loudest response regarding double points. It may be that fans want dumb gimmicks, but do some research and explain how the results led to the decisions made instead of just deciding on things like double points or medals or standing starts after safety cars.

 

F1 is not the sport that I started watching in 1998, in many ways it is a shadow of its former self that has continued down a path of allowing money to dictate both success and priorities. The victors are currently neither the drivers, the teams, nor the fans, just those at the top raking in millions of pounds off the sport each year. The racing is almost as entertaining as it has ever been, however, gimmicks being piled on top diminish the appeal and I have questions about how challenging the sport is now for drivers.

Exploring Thursdays

Don't worry, this is not a blog post about the historical significance of Thursdays but more about how Beth and I are trying to get out and discover new things once a week.

In my first four months in America I lived based on the NFL schedule. Sunday, Monday and Thursday if there was a game on then I would be in front of a TV either in the Blomberg basement or a local bar. Now, with the NFL season all but over other things have to take up my time. 

This term Beth has no classes on Thursdays, she also declared at Christmas that as a present she wanted experiences instead of stuff. I also had the feeling that perhaps I had spent a little too much time down in the basement reading business books and working on little web projects. We therefore decided to head on out into the world and visit a museum or factory or interesting thing of cultural significance on Thursdays.

So far, we have had a great time going to three nearby places. First we went to the Coors brewery in nearby Golden. We also walked around the historic town the same day (Golden is tiny). Next we went to the Argo gold mine in Idaho Springs, taking in my favourite Colorado restaurant, which serves buffalo, at the same time. Then yesterday we a tour of the Hammonds Candy factory in north Denver. The machines in action in that factory were pretty impressive and we learned how candy canes and lollipops are made. Unfortunately they also had a shop where we may have spent a little too much. 

It is great because we are actually getting out of the house and experiencing things that we otherwise wouldn't. We have the next few weeks planned already as well with a tour of the Denver Mint, Coors Field (the baseball stadium) and Sports Authority @ Mile High (home of the Broncos) coming up. 

The rest of my week is filling up nicely as well. Monday is reserved for website work at the moment, Tuesday and Friday I work and then go to the gym and Wednesday I spend the morning volunteering with Denver Seminary's IT department. We have also successfully continued pasta Monday's in Denver and tend to get around eight people along each week. All is going well.

Review: Head Games

Motorsport has long had signs encircling tracks pointing out to spectators that motorsport is dangerous. From the biggest Formula One circuit to the lowliest kart track that message is loud and clear. Is it time for other sports to begin proclaiming the same thing? That is the question that Head Games deals with.

While the risk of injury in motorsport comes from the vehicles themselves, in other sports it comes from the act of playing the game itself. If you don’t stop the opposition in their tracks in American Football they will just keep running past you, in ice hockey it is also part of the game. This leads to hard blows to players’ heads. A blow to the head is never good news though and the NFL has been forced to come to terms with this. The movie primarily focusses on American Football but points out that concussions can come from practically any sport (the film dwells on women’s soccer for a while). Head Games is detailing the work done by Chris Nowinski and his team at the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston as they continue their research into how to find signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) – which can lead to symptoms of dementia – in people still living. Previously it has only been possible to have access to, and find signs in, the brains of the deceased. The film points out that unsurprisingly getting repetitive blows to the head is bad for you and the fact is brought home by showing us a former NFL player who can no longer recite the months of the year between January and June in order or remember a six digit sequence of numbers. The film also shows a study that NFL retirees have 19 times the risk of dementia of a normal member of the public.

The movie stops short of telling people not to play these violent sports but does suggest that perhaps parents should think twice before letting their children play, or keep playing after having a concussion. Head Games makes its points well and there is still a lot of research to be done by this relatively young team. If the movie is able to get a debate going and help make these sports safer then it has done its job.

It is obvious that after spending the nineties denying the effects of head shots, the NFL can no longer ignore the facts regarding concussions. For the past couple of seasons the rules have begun changing to start to minimize the risks and stop potential damage to the league’s reputation. As younger players start seeing the men they idolize clashing heads less often the hope is these changes will filter down. One thing to note is that concussions take a long time to heal, the NFL currently takes players out of the game but more often than not they are back the following week. The league perhaps needs to look into increasing the time that these players sit out before returning.

It may look like the league has been neutering the show but if it means one fewer suicide and more players retiring in decent health then it is surely worth it. What does this mean for us in the British leagues? We need to acknowledge that the problem is out there. Make sure no player enters the game with a concussion. If we see a player take a blow to the head then make sure he is fit to re-enter. While I have seen few, if any such hits in the British game it should still be a point of emphasis for coaches that players should not go in with, or aim for, the head.

As the movie points out one concussion is really too many.

Trailer for Head Games:

F1 Driver Rankings – End 2012

So another season of F1 has passed. This was my 15th, it also marked the first year, however, that I did not watch a race the whole way through. As a kind of protest against the Bahrain Grand Prix I suffered through the fairly poor BBC highlight show instead of watching the race live. Bit of a crap protest as I still watched… but I didn't enjoy it.

Anyway, it was another title for king Vettel, Red Bull once again supplied him with a car with which to take the title. The difference between Red Bull and the rest definitely came down this year and they started the season with the second or third best car out there. Alonso's achievement was far greater though, in the first race of 2012 the Ferrari car was the eighth fastest out there. By season's end it was still only third and yet Alonso took the fight to Vettel, losing out by just three points in a tense final race. Consistency was Alonso's game and he drove a near perfect season in a middling car.

So to my end of year rankings:

1. Fernando Alonso /
2. Sebastien Vettel +1
3. Lewis Hamilton -1
4. Jenson Button +5
5. Nico Hulkenberg +5
6. Kimi Raikkonen +7
7. Felipe Massa +12
8. Sergio Perez -2
9. Mark Webber -1
10. Nico Rosberg -6
11. Kamui Kobayashi +1
12. Paul Di Resta -1
13. Michael Schumacher +1
14. Bruno Senna +9
15. Timo Glock +1
16. Heikki Kovaleinen -9
17. Vitaly Petrov +4
18. Daniel Ricciardo -1
19. Charles Pic +1
20. Romain Grosjean -15
21. Pastor Maldonado -6
22. Pedro De La Rosa =
23. Jean-Eric Vergne -5
24. Jerome D'Ambrosio RE
25. Narain Kathikeyan -1

To me Alonso was clearly the best driver all season long. Hamilton drove better than last season and was largely let down by the team with reliability problems and issues with pitstops throughout the season. He drove fast but not necessarily intelligently and as it stands Vettel and Alonso are better drivers than he is. Grosjean and Maldonado both slip as each was involved in too many incidents, Maldonado because he is malicious and Grosjean because he is careless.

My big hope for the offseason is that both Kobayashi and Kovaleinen are picked up by teams for 2013, both deserve their drives and make F1 a little bit better. I am also pleased to see that Massa is back to where he needs to be in terms of pace finally, it appeared that the new Ferrari deal he received lightened his load and allowed him to concentrate on the driving again.

Rating the races

F1 this season is reaching a record 20 tracks in 19 countries. The racing so far this year has been unpredictable and exciting but there are some tracks that I feel do not do the sport justice with their layouts. In this post I will be ranking the tracks used in this year's world championship, my criteria will be how enjoyable I find them to watch/play in games and how good the racing usually is at the circuit.

 

  1. Canadian GP
    Montreal has long been my favourite track, it is the most enjoyable for me on any racing game with its mix of tricky chicanes, long straights and hairpins. It helps that the real life racing at the circuit tends to be superb and it is exciting watching to see who will make a mistake going into the final corner the 'wall of champions'.




     

  2. Belgian GP
    F1's classic circuit is still fantastic with the brilliant Eau Rouge still the best corner on the calendar. Unfortunately the track has been neutered further in recent years. I have seen some great races there as well with last year's race definitely up there. Hakkinnen taking Schumacher in 2000 being the one that sticks clearest in the mind. That said, I've always been poor round here on games…




     

  3. Monaco GP
    The racing might not be exciting on this circuit where passing is impossible but it is always a tense race to watch where an accident could happen at any time. This year's race might be remembered as a procession after the fact but during the race we had six of the world's best drivers duking it out for the win just waiting for one of the others to make a mistake. Watching the best drivers on edge round the streets is always awe inspiring.
     
  4. Brazilian GP
    This little circuit in Sao Paolo more often than not produces stonking races, so the infrastructure may have some issues (see advertising boards falling on the circuit during one qualifying session) but this track works so well as the climax to a season. If the championship is coming down to the wire you know the final race will live up to expectations (see Hamilton's title win or Schumacher's 'last' race in 2006).


     

  5. Indian GP
    So its a new track, as soon as I played it in F1 2012 I loved the layout, it really flows beautifully. The first race there did not necessarily live up to the billing but give the track time.
     
  6. Japanese GP
  7. British GP
  8. Singapore GP
  9. Australian GP
  10. Chinese GP
  11. Malaysian GP
  12. Hungarian GP
  13. Italian GP
  14. German GP
  15. Spanish GP
  16. Abu Dhabi GP
    This track showed a lot of promise but despite the glitz and glamour the track layout is just uninspiring. The flow of the corners lends itself to dull racing.
     
  17. European GP
    I have never clicked with the Valencia track, it just doesn't work for me. The racing has also been dull with the only exciting moments the track has recorded coming in the 2010 race with Webber's flying lesson and Kobayashi overtaking Alonso in the closing moments. 
     
  18. Bahrain GP
    Political troubles do not help this track which already battles with a poor layout and perennially dull races. Kill it.
     
  19. Korean GP
    The Korean track has had a troubled existence, first its miles away from the majority of the South Korean population, second it was still being completed during its first year. Add to that the circuit's inability to decide what track it is, some sections are wide open, some sections would be at home in Monaco with the walls close in. Then you have that daft chicane at the end of the second straight. To this track I say meh, should be better.

Ranking F1 – after seven races

It is time for the return of my F1 rankings. These are my first since the end of the 2011 season. What a start we have seen to 2012, seven races and seven different winners. I have been impressed by five of those winners' campaigns so far. You can probably work out the five from the rankings.

1 Fernando Alonso +1

2 Lewis Hamilton +4

3 Sebastien Vettel -2

4 Nico Rosberg /

5 Romain Grosjean NE

6 Sergio Perez +3

7 Heikki Kovaleinen -2

8 Mark Webber +2

9 Jenson Button -6

10 Nico Hulkenberg RE

11 Paul Di Resta -4

12 Kamui Kobayashi -3

13 Kimi Raikkonen NE

14 Michael Schumacher -3

15 Pastor Maldonado +10

16 Timo Glock -1

17 Daniel Ricciardo /

18 Jean-Eric Vergne NE

19 Felipe Massa -6

20 Charles Pic NE

21 Vitaly Petrov -5

22 Pedro De La Rosa -3

23 Bruno Senna RE

24 Narain Kathikeyan /

 

I think Alonso deserves to be top of this pile for what he managed to achieve with what was an underperforming Ferrari early on. Hamilton meanwhile has been consistently fast this year with the only faults committed by his team. We have also seen two overperfoming youngsters in Grosjean and Perez. Both have had fantastic starts to the year and both appear to have bright futures. I am less impressed by Maldonado, he moves up 10 places thanks to his superb drive in Spain but his personality still hinders. His move on Perez in Monaco stops me from taking him seriously and I still blame him for a similar move on Hamilton at Spa last year. He may be quick but he needs to temper that with a hold on stupid outburst.

 

Meanwhile right at the base, I am starting to wonder if Bruno Senna is capable at this level, he is not doing well at all in that Williams. If I had to drop three drivers from F1 at this stage of the season it would have to be Karthikeyan, Senna and Massa.