Blog: What has happened to the Strategy Group?
What has someone done with the Strategy Group that we all know and, erm, love? That which is much-maligned? Notorious for not really coming up with much and what it did come up with tending to be risible? I’m beginning to wonder whether in the last few weeks I stepped through a looking-glass at some point without realising.
The group hasn’t often benefited from popularity. Red Bull boss Christian Horner for one indeed in recent times described it as “fairly inept” and suggested it should be side-lined. But now with its latest outputs released just before the British Grand Prix as even Horner himself noted, “it feels like we’re getting some traction”. Finally.
We can’t even accuse the Strategy Group of delay with the matters of moment. Since Austria the chatter has been all about excessive engine penalties some of which were carried over into the Austrian race as the grid drop exceeded the number of grid places… Well the group hasn’t hung around and stated: “Following the Austrian GP, an overhaul of the power unit penalties has been unanimously agreed and will be submitted to the F1 Commission via an express fax vote for an adoption at the World Motorsport Council in Mexico City next week.” Which it has since got.
This is that a drop to the back of the grid will be the maximum penalty, and also since confirmed is that debutant manufacturers will be assisted with an extra unit per car in its first season, which Honda will benefit from this year “for the sake of fairness”. So the deterrent remains in order to keep a lid on the number of units, itself a cost saving measure, but new guys are helped a little and the punishments now seem less punitive. And less potentially silly. All seems sensible. And a grand departure. And it is coming in as soon as the next race, in Hungary.
Another thing coming in soon apparently is that “increased restrictions on driver aids and coaching received unanimous support and will be rapidly implemented, starting from this year’s Belgian Grand Prix – with a particular emphasis on race starts”. This again is what we seem to want, which is more responsibility in the hands of the driver. A lot of it too is simply introducing a clampdown planned but then abandoned for this season’s start. And to take starts specifically, well the Silverstone race just passed demonstrated what the simple tweak of variable starts can do to the entertainment that follows.
But there was more: “Increased freedom of choice for tire (sic) compounds has been confirmed and the modalities are being finalized (sic) with Pirelli for 2016”. Reportedly this will involve teams being allowed to pick ‘wild card’ races, perhaps four of them in a season, wherein they get a free tyre compound choice rather than the usual arbitrarily prescribed two (though there will not be a free choice at tracks where safety is a concern such as Monza). If so then it may add something by offering another variable – the drawback of a simple free choice everywhere would be of course that teams would converge on the most favourable strategy quickly, perhaps meaning tepid one-stoppers everywhere. Though you could argue that’s what we’ve got right now anyway. With wild cards imagine a race in which a midfielder only had happened upon a favourable strategy that no one else can copy? Could be fun. There would of course details that would need to be worked out such as the extra freight required for the tyre supplier, therefore I’d imagine wild card selection would have to be done a way in advance. But if so that could well add to the variation.
The matter of noise and increasing it has been revisited, apparently this time via changes to regulations around the wastegate. Noise isn’t something I’m especially animated about personally (though I can appreciate a V12 as much as anyone) but still it’s something a few are animated about so if it can be helped without fundamental changes to the engines then why not.
The previous wheeze of refuelling’s return has been dropped (not explicitly in the statement but conspicuous by its absence, which the grapevine says is significant) with it occurring even to the F1 crowd that additional danger and expense adding up to less in the way of on-track excitement wasn’t a favourable equation.
Moving on: “Mandate has been given to the FIA and FOM to propose a comprehensive set of measures for power unit development and cost of supply, including full review of the token system, increase in race fuel allowance, limits on the usage of engine dynamometers etc.” Let’s see on this one, though I for one would be disappointed if F1 lost the main raison d’etre of the current power unit regulations which was to, from the words of the World Motorsport Council in 2009, “increase the incentive for engine builders to improve fuel economy”, not just in F1 but also with the technology to filter into the motoring industry more widely. Indeed there’s much evidence that it is doing this, giving F1 a rare good news story with the wider public that you suspect only this game could somehow be majorly conflicted about. There is no mention of fuel flow however, which for a time rather than the overall in race limit was the part most thought would be relaxed, and perhaps that’s the point. That the cost of the units is in the mix is a good sign as this, particularly the amount that manufacturers sold the units to their customers, was a major oversight of the new regulations.
Also promised is: “A new set of regulations aimed at achieving faster and more aggressive looking cars for 2017, to include wider cars and wheels, new wings and floor shape and significantly increased aerodynamic downforce has been outlined and is currently being assessed by the teams.”
There are a few things to unpack here. “Significantly increased aerodynamic downforce” is a little worrying so one hopes they keep the need to frame cars that can follow each closely though corners in mind. Though as I recall Dario Franchitti once noting it’s not necessarily as simple as the less downforce the better, as cars with tiny wings may struggle more in another’s turbulence as it becomes highly dependent on the small amount of aero downforce that it can muster. We can reflect in this ilk that at Monza (and before that at the old Hockenheim) where wing levels are shallow F1 races rarely were overtaking-fests in the modern era. Whatever is the case though the current aerodynamics in F1 again do not appear helpful to cars getting close so the matter is worth revisiting at the very least.
An at this early stage things look encouraging, in that the moves to wider cars and tyres as well as a long overdue look at the underfloors and ground effect go a long way to reversing the changes of the 1990s that restricted the cars’ mechanical and underfloor grip, and which I had long lamented for their apparent severe negative impact on the ability of cars to race. Many of these changes – particularly those made in the 1994-95 period following Ayrton Senna’s and Roland Ratzenberger’s deaths, such as adding the plank to the underfloor in mid-1994 then the stepped underside for 1995 – were made in the name of safety by slowing the cars down. But a few others such as the narrower tyres of 1993 and the narrow track of 1998 were justified, at least in part, by being purported to intensify the racing. All worse than useless given they rather transparently would reduce the car’s mechanical grip as well as their drag making following closely and passing much more difficult. A few mused that it was like those making the decisions had never actually spoken to an engineer.
They say correlation is not necessarily correlation, but Clip the Apex statistics show at least that the numbers coincide with this theory. In 1991 there were close to 29 overtakes on average per dry Grand Prix. By 1998 when most of the changes described above were in in place the average had fallen to fewer than 12. It was during this decade that the lack of overtaking in F1 really became front of mind.
So it all might give us cars that can race each other without resorting to gimmicks or sticking plasters such as DRS. Which again is what we want.
But as a few have noted it’s the following part of the Strategy Group’s proposals that elicited the most debate: “Several exciting and innovative changes to the qualifying and race weekend formats have also been discussed and are being evaluated by FIA and FOM for a 2016 introduction.”
And almost immediately providing some meat on the bone Will Buxton tweeted: “As I understand it, Qualifying would replace FP3 with a 1hr race Sat pm to set grid for Sunday.” Blimey.
The idea itself isn’t new. In 1986 FISA (as was the sporting arm of the FIA) trumpeted that there would be a qualifying race from the following year. Again rather fatuously it was proposed in the name of safety (though given that 1,350bhp qualifying engines existed at the time and that Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash in a qualifying session after somersaulting over a car cruising as not on a hot lap was still fairly fresh in the memory, it becomes more understandable). But it lived and died by the sword as plenty pointed out that the standing start and first corner are just about the most dangerous parts of a Grand Prix weekend. Now though while of course we have to remain wary of complacency the sport has the safety angle much more covered. Perhaps therefore it is an idea whose time has come.
And the idea is growing on me. Qualifying format change didn’t strike as a huge priority but multiple races across the weekend has long been the norm in other series – see GP2, GP3, BTCC and increasingly DTM and Indycars among many others – and if it gives us more to look at in a Grand Prix weekend, particularly for those buying Saturday tickets, then surely it is a good thing. As Buxton pointed out too a qualifying race is part of the Macau Grand Prix going back years and adds considerably to the excitement.
Of course details still would need to be tended to, not least the additional mileage and the knock-on impact on cost, number of engines and the like. There is the overarching risk that a Saturday sprint race will detract from the Grand Prix itself, which always has been an F1 weekend’s centrepiece. Possibly related to these concerns the views of drivers (see Lewis Hamilton liking the idea and Sebastian Vettel not) and fans alike appear split almost down the middle. But it’s a big, bold idea that I’m keen to see how it works in practice at the very least. We can always abandon it if it’s rubbish.
Another whispering in the wind is that the Saturday race could be one for third drivers, with each team given the opportunity to enter a car and the top few qualifying for the race proper. I’m slightly less keen on this one, as while it would give some of these drivers a much needed chance to showcase themselves it also may make it more likely that the big teams would take all of the points in the Grands Prix due to having extra cars. It smells a little of sneaking third cars in by the back door too.
Of course there also is a way to go on all of this. By my count Strategy Group participants Horner, Claire Williams and Eric Boullier each used the term “embryonic” to describe the matters discussed. Many of the things outlined, particularly with the technical changes for 2017, appear strictly at the developmental stage. “It needs to be fully and properly considered. It’s just ideas floating around at the moment” cautioned Horner later.
But why the sudden appetite for change and firm proposals from the much-maligned Strategy Group? Well perhaps minds have been concentrated by the unlikely figure of FIA President Jean Todt. He has been criticised for his apparent inactivity since assuming his role but in Silverstone when being interviewed on BBC’s Five Live he appeared to be tearing entire chapters out of the book of his interventionist predecessor Max Mosley by suggesting he’ll impose changes for 2017 if they cannot be agreed. “If it feels good I will do it” he insisted. Force India boss Vijay Mallya added in Silverstone that Todt contrary to the outward impression “is very involved and very concerned with Formula One”.
The GPDA survey’s first published findings appeared timely, showing mainly that fans did not want gimmicks as the means to improve the racing although Williams said that it arrived too late to have a direct input into the discussion. But the group seemed anyway to have similar thinking. One source said: “Nobody has an appetite for radical, fake changes like reverse grids or success ballast, things like that.”
But is it like the end of 1982 that all simply stared over precipice and reflected on what they stood to lose? Then the cars were lethal and the sport set apparently on a split between FISA and FOCA loyal teams. As has been the case recently progress then often looked impossible. Stretches of mind-numbing despair predominated. But then the dark clouds parted almost in the blink of an eye. The necessary sensible changes (then the simple trick of flat-bottomed cars) were put through and in something that had long appeared unthinkable all graciously accepted them. The years of rancour, boycotts and threats of splits faded to nothing. And as far as anyone could tell the best explanation was simply that everyone saw sense. “Perhaps sanity did prevail after all” said Maurice Hamilton at the season’s end, “perhaps people really did care about the future of the sport and the image it presented”.
But then not everything about the Strategy Group’s latest offering was positive. There was a dog that didn’t bark. A big one. No mention of what doubtlessly is and has been for a while F1’s biggest problem, that of cost. Cost control and cost distribution. As Mosley outlined on TV in the week the group judging by its proposals discussed “all sorts of irrelevant issues compared with what’s really wrong…the fundamental problem is first of all cost”. And for all that we talk as if the sport is in a dank and desolate place the route much of the way to health is actually a basic one, that if the sport even in isolation sorts its financial distribution among the teams properly it’ll go a long way to solving its problems, not least its competitiveness by helping the smaller teams to go quickly. Mosley added in this vein that “provided you’ve got good racing none of the issues that the Strategy Group have discussed matter”.
Mallya took up a similar theme in Silverstone: “I’ve always, of course, held the opinion that there are several more fundamental issues that the Strategy Group should be focusing on…the most important thing that we have been focusing on, as Force India, is to ensure the sustainability of all teams in Formula One. If that is addressed as it should be addressed, even the small independent teams can be very competitive. If Williams beat Ferrari I think racing will be very exciting. If Sauber can beat a Williams it will be even more exciting and if Force India can beat a Mercedes that will be the cherry on the cake. But what I’m trying to say, basically, is that if all teams are strong enough to be sustainable and can focus on producing a competitive car rather than worrying about how to survive that will be the best thing going forward I believe that all the positives of Formula One as a sport will be given more prominence.
“This is a burning issue which teams themselves discuss at every possible opportunity and in every possible meeting, whether inside the Strategy Group or outside…the prize at the end is sustainability and that in itself will lead to more exciting competition.”
Boullier admitted moreover that there has yet to be a holistic assessment of the Strategy Group’s suggested changes, particularly in this perennial cost matter. “We have not thought about the financial consequences of any changes yet but there will be some, definitely”. Quite.
Perhaps not everything about the Strategy Group has changed.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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