Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Economic downturn and F1 safety

In light of the economic crisis that has impacted global economies, thus impacting the economy of Formula One, the sport has to be very cautious that dramatic changes for 2009 and drastic proposals being considered does not impact safety. Most notably for 2009, Formula One is implementing a kinetic energy recovery system and dramatically reducing downforce. Now, the FIA and F1 teams are looking at more sweeping changes such as a ban on refueling and a further restriction of testing, in addition to the standardization of components ranging from engines to brakes. This technical upheaval amidst these global conditions is bringing up eery feelings of 1994.

What occurred in 1994? Formula One saw itself under threat by North American open-wheel series, CART or Championship Auto Racing Team (preceding governing body to Champcar). This is series closely affiliated with the Indianapolis 500. The series was growing in world wide popularity and was seen as a real contest between drivers instead of the technological and spending competition between cars that was F1. 1993 was seen as the zenith of Formula One technology and drivers were scientist in race suits. Many claimed that F1 was so advanced and the cars were so easy to drive, any slouch could win provided he had the car.

In response, the FIA and Formula One enacted major changes for the 1994 season. Cars were stripped of many aids such as launch control, traction control, ABS, power brakes, fly-by-wire throttles and active suspension. Also, they more rigorously employed the safety car and re-instituted refueling.

During the 1994 pre-season, 3-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna remarked, "it's going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I'll risk saying we'll be lucky if something really serious doesn't happen. It was a great error to remove the electronics in the cars. The cars are very fast and difficult to drive;" and indeed the cars were difficult to drive. Formula One suffered a rash of testing and racing accidents: Jean Alesi, JJ Lehto, Karl Wendlinger, and the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. In response to this situation, the FIA instituted further changes aimed at reducing downforce and horsepower to help ensure drivers safety; drivers were again skeptical. Martin Brundle commented, "if we are fundamentally changing the car to go to the next race with an unknown quantity it does not strike me as particularly safe." About a week and half later, Lotus driver Pedro Lamy was nearly killed in a crash testing the new modifications. All of these changes exposed the safety void that existed in Formula One as well as exposed the poor, rushed decision making.

Today similar conditions are brewing. There appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to implement new regulations in addition to the ones coming on-line for 2009 in an effort to deal with cost. There have been a number of proposals that give the impression that drastic action is needed if the sport is to remain competitive and viable. In 1994, the economy was not in great shape and the wide sweeping technical changes were in response to the perception that F1 was 'losing' the competition with CART so a swift response was needed. In 2008, the global economy is in crisis and the sport wants to slash costs but introduce new technology and regulations while competing with evermore diverging fan interests. And we see that F1 is trying to enact a swift response in an effort to remain sustainable.

Even though the times are tough, Formula One needs to be very prudent and not fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. Each time there has been a major overhaul of the sport there has been push back from the teams. This time there seems to be very little push back, so the additional reforms that are proposed might be implemented. I hope with the rush to cut costs that safety is not reduced due to teams not properly sorting their cars because they have budget caps or can not test car properly. Moreover, I hope safety is not reduced because one bad batch of standard parts effects 4 or 5 teams instead of 1 team resulting in accidents. To keep the sport sustainable and exciting will be much appreciated by F1 fans in the long run, but to do it at the expense of killing or maiming 2 or 3 drivers in the process is not the legacy the FIA and F1 need to be remembered by.

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