Tom’s Take: Why Formula One Sucks

I got a call from my driver coach/ace guitar player friend, Mitch Perry, shortly after the end of the French Grand Prix broadcast. Man, he was pissed! While I love rock and roll, and came of age during the eighties when Perry played in a bunch of notable “hair bands,” which certainly earns my respect — our real bond is our mutual love of motor racing. We often have long chats about motor racing, particularly Formula One, a favorite topic for both of us, as he and I have followed the sport pretty much all our lives.

As we chatted, Perry, ever the statistician, reminded me of the albatross that was the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix, which saw F1 cars racing in Las Vegas in a parking lot of the storied casino in 1981 and 1982, then by the CART series in 1983 and 1984. The track, which looked like a amputated bear claw, was noted for getting drivers to literally vomit in their helmets — between the heat and constant zig-zagging of tight-radius corners.

In speaking of this last grand prix, Perry said he would rather see a race at Caesar’s than Circuit Paul Ricard, which hosted last weekend’s French Grand Prix. On TV, it too looked like a “parking lot” course. There are certainly other choices of tracks in France, including Claremont-Ferrand (now known as Circuit de Charade) and Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours — and wouldn’t it be awesome to see F1 on Circuit de la Sarthe at LeMans? How about a historic return to Circuit Reims-Gueux? Yes. I know they would have to close roads.

His frustration matches mine to the point that Mitch still gets up on Sunday mornings to watch. I now usually will watch an abridged replay later in the day (hoping no one will spoil the outcome), as I have largely lost my intense interest. I still know who the drivers, teams and tracks are, but have largely lost the fire in my belly for making an appointment with the broadcast of the races — or making trips to see them.

Consider once, my best man, during the wedding toast, warned my then-new wife of my penchant for very early Sunday mornings, shouting at the television. Heck, a week after returning from my honeymoon, I left with another of my groomsmen to the 2000 USGP at Indy. Not so much anymore.

A couple of years ago, I was very excited about the acquisition of Formula One by American company, Liberty Media. Until then, the series was run since the mid-1970’s by an Englishman named Bernie Ecclestone. Mostly, Bernie was a very savvy businessman and promoter — who became richer than the Queen through the years, as he owned the television rights and administrated the top-tier international series.

An American company’s ownership still seems odd, considering the cachet of F1 never really took solid footing in the United States. Yes, there have been US Grand Prix at tracks and street circuits all over the country, from New York to California, Indiana to Texas. But while many of the tracks — and in some cases the events — still exist, there really isn’t a quality foothold. There was hope that the United States would play well into the series — but that is really still to be seen.

Dan Gurney’s Eagle F1 car from 1967

As the series jets around the planet to first and third-world countries alike, it has begun to really lose its luster. This is sad. Even sadder, it is not for the same reasons I lamented on IndyCar and the month of May. The IndyCar race at Road America over the weekend was a far greater spectacle in both competition and excitement. What is causing this degradation of what was by far the ultimate racing series? I have a few observations:

THE CARS

As the Formula One machine morphed from a front engine roadster in the beginning of the modern age in 1950, to the twitchy 1300 hp turbo cars of the mid-1980’s, to the hybrid land-based space ships they are today, numerous rules have been imposed on constructors. Many fans will remember the exhaust scream of 19,000 rpm’s from the 1990-2013 seasons where the engine size gradually decreased from 3.5 liters to a paltry 2.5 — but added crazy technology such as electronic valve systems — as mechanical systems couldn’t keep up with the camshafts. Imposed engine supply limits also played into the mix as the FIA attempted to make the sport more affordable (ha-ha! Consider the nearly $1Billion annual budgets of the top teams).

In previous years, competitors used “qualifying” engines, as the chassis and driver were what made the grid position. These “grenade” engines were essentially designed to last barely 4 laps of crazy horsepower to get to the front of the grid on Saturday — where a more reliable “race” engine would then be put in for Sunday, designed to last, perhaps, two laps past the race distance. Now engine rules require multiple race weekends be run on the same “stamped” power plant, or be penalized in a most Draconian way.

Now we have turbocharged, hybrid 1.6-liter motors, think a Prius with a turbo, that sound like a fart. Yes, I said fart. Frankly, IndyCar motors sound much better. There were complaints from the beginning of this formula from promoters all over the world who said the piercing scream of a Formula One motor was part of the attraction. Needless to say, and ironically, that complaint fell on deaf ears.

Add to all this, the bodywork now features a “halo.” While the cars essentially remain “open cockpit,” these halos shield the driver from the perils of debris and manliness. A halo in 1977 could have conceivably saved Tom Pryce — but he and the corner worker with the fire extinguisher died valiantly.

Reflections on deflections. (Sky Sports)

THE TRACKS

Getting back to Mitch Perry’s original complaint about Circuit Paul Ricard — which looked like a big giant painted parking lot — let’s explore the tracks themselves. In the early-to-middle part of the modern era, Formula One races were contested on airfields, public roads, and city street courses. Notables included airfield Aintree, street circuit Monaco, foresty Spa-Francorchamps, super-long Nürburgring, and the crazy high-speed banking of Monza — even the Indianapolis 500 was a race for Formula One championship points. As the series progressed, permanent circuits, in some cases combined with public roads were developed. Quiet towns like Riverside, California, and Watkins Glen, New York, in the U.S. hosted the circus too.

As the cars moved to rear engines and power plants became increasingly more ferocious, the circuits where they raced became increasingly more dangerous — not only for the drivers themselves, but the spectators too. Trees and snow fencing, full of onlookers, lined the twisty, high speed tracks. Think on the tragedy of Wolfgang von Tripps at Monza as his Ferrari took himself and 15 spectators into the hereafter after colliding with Jimmy Clark. Clark himself would perish in a Formula Two race just six years later, as he left the Hockenheimring into the trees. Safety made a slow but determined march through three decades in different ideas including catch fencing and sand pits. Then along came Hermann Tilke.

Herman Tilke is a German civil engineer and hobbyist race driver. He developed a great relationship with Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA in the mid-1990’s when he neutered the famed Österreichring in Austria, and later the beautiful Hockenhiemring in Germany, in the name of safety and spectator viewing. So began a slow march of track design and development with very little geographic elevation change and way too much runoff area. For many fans the phrase was coined “tilke-ized” when referring to the boring oversized go-kart tracks known only for their great VIP accommodations, fabulous grandstands, landscaping, and paddocks.

They painted paradise and made it look like a parking lot. (Circuit Paul Ricard)

Steve Matchett once commented to me on the topic: “They can build a man made island in the Persian Gulf, but they can’t add elevation to modern Formula One Tracks…?” Needless to say, one Tilke track, the Circuit of the Americas, has some dramatic ups and downs, but still does not penalize a car and driver for putting a wheel off. THAT my dear readers, is the hell of modern Formula One.

As I have often (right here on Turnology) described in other racecar drives on tracks: You use ALL the pavement. Many tracks I have driven have offline pavement that helps you carry speed through an exit — and you use it. For Modern Formula One drivers this concept has been used beyond good racing strategy. Side-by-side racing is really exciting! But when a driver never runs out of pavement, and does not slide onto grassy surfaces, losing traction and steering, where is the risky strategy?

THE DRIVER

Drivers’ meeting circa 1972 (Autotrend.com)

There was a time when the personalities were just that: Personalities. Think James Hunt, Gerhard Berger, Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna — just to name a few. Then at some point — and it might have to do with the advent of Finnish drivers — the pilots became robots whose brains, words, and actions became as static and sterile as the technological marvels they were driving. I guess we have the off-track exploits of Kimi Raikkonen, but to listen to an interview is like watching paint dry. Perhaps there is the absence of Murray Walker to draw these guys out…

Needless to say, as Mitch and I lamented about Formula One, it gave me the fodder I needed to sit down and write it out. I pray for a genuine Formula One renaissance.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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