Sunday, May 17, 2009

Formula Found -- and Lost Again

Why did I take up racing? I was too lazy to work and too chicken to steal. ~ Kyle Petty
Y'know all those nice things I wrote about F1 racing?

Never mind.

I should know better, but I keep underestimating just how stupid sports owners can be. Remember how I said F1 racing had gotten exciting again? That was before the Spanish Grand Prix, or, "El Pace Lap Grande". Once again, an F1 track was a no-passing zone, with most of the position changes happening in the pits. Case in point: Sebastian Vettel was demonstrably faster than Felipe Massa but somehow could not pass him. Thanks to yet another stupid piece of Ferrari strategy (they have been leading the circuit in dumb this year), Massa ended up woefully low on fuel and had to slow so much that he had to let Vettel around him. Had he not had a fuel issue, it's unlikely Vettel could ever have gotten round the Ferrari.

Then there's the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). KERS is cursed so far, since all it seems to do is enhance the ability to block, but not to pass. That's when it works at all, which isn't a sure thing by any means.

It appears that all the excitement of the first few races was generated by the wet conditions. Rain is a great equalizer, providing a demonstration of who really can drive. But, in the end, Brawn, the former Honda race team that was on the rocks a couple of months ago, has shown that they've got more car than anyone else. Red Bull is trying to hold up their end, but so far, they're a distinct second best.

So, it's the usual two-team deal. The funny, and interesting, bit is that Ferrari and McLaren have been completely unable to figure out how to win under the new rules. Their strategy to recovery is, as usual, to throw obscene amounts of money into their program (and we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here), just so they can get things back to where they're the only competitive teams again.

This is, of course, how F1 got down to only 10 teams.

The FIA, attempting to stem this, has proposed a budget cap of a measley $60,000,000 per team, excluding driver salaries and engine development. However, and here's where it gets stupid, it's not a mandatory cap. If you want to, you can still spend a half a billion bucks, but you won't have as much "technical freedom" as a team that stays in budget. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I suspect it means that teams under the cap can essentially cheat, while those above it can't. This is being uphemistically called a "two-tier championship." In practice, it's being called a "smoldering heap of dung."

In response to this attempt to curtail runaway F1 spending, the big money factory teams have threatened to pull out of F1. That's Ferrari, Red Bull, Toyota, and Renault. Only McLaren has remained mum so far, probably figuring that, with only 10 other cars to beat (and all of those living under the cap), they'd be a shoo-in to win the championship.

Oh, and the drivers are supporting the boycotters wholeheartedly. Of course, they are because the next thing the FIA might cap would be their own egregious salaries.

The FIA isn't done being stupid. They have proposed returning to the olden days of no fuel stops. There would still be pit stops for tires, but no fuelling would be permitted. Ironically, fuel strategy has long been a very integral part of F1 racing, and this year, for the first time, teams had to announce their race starting fuel loads (they qualify with this load). Fans could now see the stratgies to be employed and make their own judgement about whether a car was really fast in qualifying or just running on a smidgen of gas.

No, says the FIA, we'll save money this way. Or it'll be safer. Or something. I don't know how they figure eliminating fueling is such a savings while they still insist that teams run two different tire grades in a race.

Things are so screwed up with the FIA rules-making process, that Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 majordomo, managed to sneak his idiotic "wins only" scoring system (complete with gold medals), which would award the championship solely based on wins. No one, and I mean no one but Bernie likes this rule because it would kill any attempt at racing for position beyond the first two or three spots. It would also promote wrecking a guy just to prevent his winning a race.

Anyway, when the FIA put out their proposed rules for 2010, they were embarrassed to find someone had slipped Bernie's medals into the mix. It isn't clear who or how, but it's been quietly dropped.

I don't know how the budget cap thing will work out, although my suspicion is that the FIA will knuckle under one way or the other. But it's pretty clear that, like NASCAR, Formula 1 and the FIA can't stand prosperity.

Someone needs to point out something to the FIA gurus about what happens when racing becomes really boring. The time trials for the Indianapolis 500 began last weekend. You would be excused for not knowing that because it wasn't on ABC or ESPN. It was on Versus, which is beamed into hundreds of homes nationwide. Versus used to be the Outdoor Channel or something like that. Their biggest claim to fame was landing the NHL contract, mostly because no one else wanted it.

I can see it now, tuning in to watch a grand prix race sandwiched between a fishing show and bull riding.

Or else, F1 could suffer the fate of Champ Car racing (formerly known as CART). They got bought out by the Indy Racing League (IRL) when they went broke. Just think: Danica Patrick as F1's best known driver.

Michael Schumacher would just die.

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