Easy road to pinnacle?

Formula One
Last Updated 20 September 2014, 16:57 IST

Many experts feel changes in the sport have made the journey smoother for the young brigade.

Few, if any, Formula One drivers would contest that the Singapore Grand Prix, which runs through the streets of the Southeast Asian city-state on Sunday, is not only one of the season’s longest, but is also among the most physically draining and exhausting races.The tight, narrow and bumpy temporary track, which has been part of the series since 2008, when it became the first night race, is part of the challenge. The spotlights, extreme heat, humidity and occasional rain also make it unique.

“This is a race where good fitness preparation really pays off,” said Jenson Button, a driver at the McLaren team. “The race is usually close to the two-hour limit, so it’s the longest physical challenge on the calendar.”

So in Singapore, one of the season’s biggest subjects of debate will be given a particular focus: Has Formula One, the pinnacle of auto racing, become too easy?

For much of Grand Prix racing’s early period, it was common to see large, muscular, oversized and daring drivers in their 30s and 40s, grappling with the nearly vertical banking on race tracks, as well as several kilometers of straights and blind corners. The cars had huge, powerful engines that in the later years of the 20th century developed more than a thousand horsepower and there was aerodynamic downforce that created heavy G-forces, which meant drivers needed to have particularly muscular necks and shoulders.

It often took years for the drivers to build-up experience, racing in lower categories to make it to the top level, where danger was not just the name of the game, but, for some, the object: taming the beast, defying death. Fast-forward to the 2014 season and the introduction of downsized turbo engines with electric energy-recuperating generators, the car’s typical roar muffled almost to silence and aerodynamic downforce significantly reduced. The cars, some drivers complained, had become less physically demanding to drive. And there were murmurs that the series had lost some of its machismo.

Then the announcement last month that a 16-year-old in his first season of racing would join the series with the Toro Rosso team next year, making him, at 17 when he takes the wheel, the youngest driver ever, further fanned the flames: Formula One, the critics said, had become too easy.

The teenage driver, Max Verstappen of the Netherlands, the son of a former Formula One driver, Jos Verstappen, did not help calm the controversy with his public comments. “The cars are really safe: I think it’s more dangerous to bike through a big city than race in an F1 car,” he told the BBC shortly after the announcement.

The fact is that a number of measures have indeed made elite racing safer than ever. No driver has died in a Formula One race since Ayrton Senna was killed in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. While that is mostly considered an improvement, it may also imply that the series is a more natural playground for boys than for men. “You must never forget the risk aspect of it, which we completely eliminated after Ayrton’s accident — although we must be careful because sometimes there is a large element of luck,” said Alain Prost, a four-time world champion and Senna’s great rival. “But the perception that people can have is that we are no longer about 'the hero of modern times,' that the driver can die at any moment. We have the impression that we eliminated this part — that what they do is incredible, the driver going into the corner and we don’t know if he will come out alive.”

Verstappen’s future teammate at the Toro Rosso team, Daniel Kvyat, a Russian, is the youngest driver to have scored a point in the series: He finished in ninth position this year at the Australian Grand Prix in March, his first race in the series, when he was 19. Kvyat offered a response to critics of a 17-year-old driving in the series after only one season in car racing, to those who would like to see only the oldest, strongest and most experienced drivers.

“I think any driver can come to Formula One, can adapt, can get up to speed,” the Russian said. “I think everybody is coming to Formula One for some reason — because he has talent, because he has been successful somewhere. There is always a reason why someone comes to Formula One but then there are many different things that make the difference, so it’s as simple as that.”

It is primarily the differences between the cars of 2014 and those of the past that make today’s Grand Prix racing so unlike its earlier versions.

“I tested an F1 car at 17,” said Nico Rosberg, 29, who drives for the Mercedes team and is fighting for the title this year against his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, who is also 29. “Driving-wise I would have been ready, I feel, but the limitation at the time was physical. That was a big limitation because at the time it was still V10, big downforce — I’m not sure if there was more downforce than now, but the tire grip was higher. That was the big limitation at the time for me as a 17-year-old. But nowadays it is a little bit easier physically, definitely, so that will help.”

James Allison, a technical director at the Ferrari team, was positive about today’s cars.  “I think it’s important that Formula One cars are fast, it’s important that they look dramatic on the track, that the best drivers in the world find them exciting and challenging to drive,” he said. “I think all those things are true. It’s easy to design a set of regulations that would allow them to be massively faster, but I think what we have at the moment is fast. I think it looks dramatic, I think it requires skill from the drivers and I think it’s producing fairly good races. So I don’t really see any big problems in that regard.”

Adrian Newey, the designer at the Red Bull team, Toro Rosso’s sister team, defended the arrival of young drivers like Verstappen. “I don’t think age per se is particularly important,” he said. “Over the years we’ve seen a huge spread in driver ages: Fernando (Alonso) is still one of the very top drivers but has been in it for many seasons. I think Nigel Mansell was 40 years old when he won. So Formula One is a sport where drivers, providing their motivation remains, can have a very long career. So you could argue that when they enter is not that important.”

But Jacques Villeneuve, who won the world driving title in 1997 at the age of 26, is among the most critical about ever-younger drivers. “There is something that is flawed there,” Villeneuve said. “It is the wrong way round. Caesar and Napoleon were good from the beginning, but it takes time before you become an emperor. You build it. It does not mean that you are more talented, it doesn’t mean that you are faster, but you build, it’s something you learn, and you become a man also.”

And yet, there are facts and figures that belie the various complaints. An example is overtaking: This season, the new cars and regulations have led to hundreds of overtaking maneuvers, whereas in all of the 1996 season, for instance, there were only about 100 such moves. The skill, stamina and judgment needed to overtake means that a younger driver, with a more nimble physique and mind, perhaps less wary of the danger, is often at an advantage.

Of course, some might say that these statistics indicate exactly the opposite: that overtaking has become too easy. The high frequency of failed overtaking moves, however, would tend to discount that view.

There are other indications — including from current and former drivers — that, far from being easier to drive, the new cars are more difficult to tame than those of the recent past, given the extra torque from the turbo engine and the reduced downforce. It is, some say, a different kind of difficult.

So the series is perhaps undergoing a different kind of revolution: Future Formula One racing may still require racing skill, but eventually perhaps only the younger and most fit drivers will be hired. The highly dangerous MotoGP series may offer an example, with the 20-year-old Marc Márquez of Spain winning the world title recently.

Prost suggested that there were potential changes ahead long before the 2014 Formula One season began. “Each generation of driver is asked for something different, and this one will be about managing energy,” Prost said. “I think the driver who is intelligent, curious and interested will make a difference.” 

And that driver, he might have added, may be younger. 

(Published 20 September 2014, 16:57 IST)

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