I‘ve been called a luddite and accused of being a dullard when it comes to the world’s most advanced form of racing. Some say my inability to understand the basic premise that Formula 1 is and has always been about the technology should not escape me as I have watched the series for decades. To all of you who have been critical, I appreciate your thoughts but I humbly suggest that you may be wrong.

Technology has always been a part of F1, for sure. The drive to go faster has brought in innovations with a singular goal, to go faster around the track. Carbon fiber to reduce chassis weight and allow for more weight balancing. Aerodynamics in which to glue the car to the track in corners while reducing drag for the long straights. Brakes in order to retard the speed from 180mph to just 30mph in a matter of a few feet/meters. Steering wheel controls to adjust systems and brake bias on the car during the race and for individual sections of a track. Traction control to prevent wheel spin on acceleration. Ride height to adjust the gap to the track in order to increase downforce and cornering capabilities. Semi-automatic gearboxes to reduce gear shifts to fractions of a second. Computer systems to relieve the driver of throttle lift between gear shifts. Metals and materials to reduce weight and increase the speed of service and reliability.

The list goes on and on but in all these things, the reason for developing the technology was to further increase the speed around the track. In 2014, F1 changed that entire model and ushered in a technology that had no design in going even faster around the track than in 2013. In fact, it went in a completely opposite direction and bankrupted several teams in the process.

I wrote an editorial piece about the WEC and the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend that speaks to that series and the issues it now faces for seeking a similar path. You can see it here.

While many slate my opinion as being that of an old guy pining for the halcyon days, I hear your criticism about the advancement of technology and march to electric yadda yadda yadda. I would suggest that, as an old guy, you may have missed the fact that nothing goes into a F1 car that doesn’t make it faster. THAT has always been the application justification for technology including the Fan Car. The Power Unit went the completely opposite way and regardless of how fast they may be now, they’ve spent millions and millions to get back to where they were in 2013 and before after suffering a 5-6s deficit in lap times. No team used to add technology that would result in 6s per lap reduction in the past. 

The slow, steady application of technology for years in F1 has been to make the cars faster and overcome regulations that seek to slow them down through grooved tires, diffuser and drag reduction F-Ducts banning and so forth. Flexible floors and flexing front wings and j-dampers and FRIC systems and dual diffusers and traction control and automatic ride height and two-way data and control communication systems and much more have all been applied to the cars as they made them quicker than the season prior or at least clawed back the loss of performance that a new set of regulations impacted.

Now it seems that Sauber’s Monisha Kaltenborn agrees with me.

“We have in some ways far too technical that even people within the sport do not understand it fully,” said Kaltenborn.

“Do we really need that? No.

“We are not here in a technical world.

“Technical excellence is part of F1 but it needs to be balanced out with other interests as well.”

Ultimately I am not suggesting that the series devolve into 1960’s technology but that, like Monisha, the series de-colonize its head and find a much better balance to the application of technology instead of becoming a R&D lab for manufacturers or a shill for green/sustainability ideologies. This is racing, not a public policy think tank. Let the car makers consider green technologies in their road cars and if there is a compelling component such as KERS that will make the cars faster and is reliable or ready for prime time, then by all means, consider it in F1. But only if it improves the racing element, makes the car faster and increases the entertainment value.

The mobocracy that is screaming for equal distribution of prize money in F1 would do well to scream for the equal application of low-cost regulations that allow for small teams to be competitive under a set of regulations that offer a clearer, more pronounced law of diminished returns on investment. With lower incremental per-unit returns, manufacturer teams will have a much more difficult time explaining to their board members why they need the budgets they have and how they spend their money versus the results they are getting on track. Don’t make it punitive but just tight enough to favor the resourceful among them.

F1 is not Silicon Valley but perhaps this is a series that could use some disruptive technology models. This all very easy for me to say and opine about but It is a seriously difficult task and I do not envy the chaps that are working on this. What I do know is that the hybrid power unit is not the direction the sport needs to continue on. They would be much more competitive and entertaining if they used an LMP2 engine from Gibson and a super cool KERS unit to bring them up to 900bhp with reduced aero and more mechanical grip.

Let me say this about hybrid F1 power units. They are amazing, no doubt. They are immensely impressive but like the LMP1 class in WEC, I think they are a black hole of manufacturer innovation dollars that shouldn’t be the singular goal of F1. Maybe the WEC is the perfect place for this as road car translation is more directly linked but at this point, I am even struggling with that as the LMP1 class is in serious decline. They went from awesome diesel power technology and competitive racing to only two teams with one LMP1 on the overall podium this weekend and this is within a couple of years. It was the LMP2 and GT classes that produced the best, most entertaining racing and those are not hybrid powered.

It may be great for road car innovation—I would argue that point as well as sales of hybrids are still single digit percentages—but I am not convinced that removing the entertainment from racing in favor of slower cars to make a grand point about sustainability or become an R&D lab for car makers is really what racing is completely about. Is it part of it? Sure, but as Monisha says, it shouldn’t be its singular goal.

Hat Tip: Autosport

An F1 fan since 1972, NC has spent over 25 years in the technology industry focusing on technology integration, AV systems integration, digital media strategies, technology planning, consulting, speaking, presenting, sales, content strategy, marketing and brand building.
  • Achim

    I agree that the current power unit is a huge problem. Cool technology, but that makes most of F1 a competition of (very few) car companies, where the other F1 teams do not innovate themselves. Would it not be better to have much simpler engines, so small engine companies can build them and compete (like we had Hart, Mugen, Judd, Cosworth …) and F1 teams can spend most of the money on their own car instead of paying big money to Merc, Renault and Ferrari.

    • Salvu Borg

      We changed cars for horses but some people still wants to watch jockeys racing and controlling those amazing animals.
      So we may see F1 going back to its roots with gigantic IC engines and powerful sound. however, this means that some Manufacturers may bail out. Guess F1 will be consisted of independent manufacturers like Cosworth. Just hope it won’t become a specification series like it was in the DFV glorious days.

  • Salvu Borg

    NC, I will call you nothing, neither accuse you of anything, nor question your ability to understand, and I (myself) expect that I may be wrong in my opinion. This is a discussion forum and everybody is entitled to his opinion, as such your opinion should be appreciated. In my opinion when some of those involved in the competition starts saying “F1 IS TOO TECHNICAL/TOO COMPLICATED” to me it points to them starting to run out of breath.
    I too have watched/followed for decades and my opinion is F1 is the pinnacle of motorsports, not necessarily the pinnacle of technology. historically, F1 was about inventing whatever you could to make the cars go faster around a track, in the last 20 years or so, we seem to have reached the limit of how fast we are willing to go. F1 is now mostly about overcoming artificial limitations. the future of F1 does seem questionable at the time. By implementing advanced technology no other motorsports ever was technologically more developed.

  • Daniel Johnson

    This reminds me, if you take any advanced tech, and expose it to a primitive people, doesn’t it seem like magic? In so many cases F1 is doing that. All we see is cars going impossibly fast, but outside of what happens behind closed doors does anyone actually know the finer points of these systems?

    I’ve been working on setups in iracing for Nascar for a while now and I can tell you what 20 adjustments do and most ardent fans have at least a rudimentary understanding of some of the things that happen behind the scenes. Other than vague stories about Merc working 24/7 between Monaco and Canada and some speculation about aero on we really have nothing other than “magic”.

    There are millions of fans who look at F1 and would love to know the secrets in how the engines work and what makes the Merc better than the Renault and the conceptual difference in approach. Sadly the majority of information I’ve learned about F1 cars is actually things I’ve learned about other cars (LMP1, DW-12 and NASCAR) and applying that information to F1.

    TL/DR F1 isn’t too technical, the wall of secrecy is too high.

  • Richard Bunce

    As ya’ll have discussed on numerous occasions, some technology on the car is a waste, few fans even know it is there and it does not show up as a difference maker on the track, just a waste of money.

    My biggest beef though is in the other direction. Not enough use of technology. Several decades of large front wings have given us bad racing. Get rid of the large wings to the greatest extent possible and to the extent down force is needed get it from under the body. Cars being able to run close together makes for better racing… and that is a difference maker on the track.

  • Ryan Ware

    F1 is *not* too technical. However, I say that for different reasons than Kaltenborn. F1 is at its best when technology born of true innovation is dominant. The current Power Units are *amazing* pieces of technology. However, they do absolutely nothing for the sport. This is because the “innovation” of the hybrid era isn’t truly innovation. It’s simply a rules dictate.

    What about something like the F-duct? This was an amazingly creative solution to work through loopholes in the rules. However, it again doesn’t advance the sport. It’s just hacking the rules to find something permissible that others haven’t thought of.

    What F1 really needs is a way to loosen the rules to allow true innovation to happen again. Innovations such as the introduction of the aerodynamic wing, ground effects or active suspension. You can’t dictate innovation with rules otherwise it’s sterile and ineffective. The sport needs to be able to allow true innovation to happen spontaneously. The innovations that make the cars faster will be the ones that truly survive; you know, unless they change the rules to abolish the new innovation like they’ve done far too often.

    I actually think it would be very interesting if like in the late ’80’s with A.J. Foyt and Oldsmobile, someone in F1 built a car ignoring the rule book to see how fast a F1 style car could *really* go.

  • Zachary Noepe

    So Kaltenborn sees it your way. And now she’s gone. And the new F1 you say is killing teams is welcoming a new F1 team.

  • TheMan

    Blah, blah, blah.
    F1 has always been about technology, at least until the luddites that control the sport decided to maintain things from the stone age.
    Why in the hell doesn’t an automotive body that, supposedly, promotes the most advanced level of motor racing….define a geometric box that would contain the cockpit, bodywork, tires, wings, spoilers, wheels, and so on, and anything within that envelope is fair game.
    Remember the Can-Am series from the U.S., that was bad-ass.

    • Rich Saylor

      I agree, I saw many of them (especially at Laguna Seca); too bad they disallowed the Chaparral “sucker cars” with the extra snowmobile engine providing vacuum under the car. God almighty, were those cars fast!!! Reverse hovercraft, they were!

  • jakobusvdl

    Really Todd? Formula 1 too technical? You seem to have a real issue with Hybrid Power Units, or so it seems – you’re unhappy with the cost, the sound, the unreliability, the fact one manufacturer remains ahead of the others, the list just goes on.
    None of those things are new to F1, and neither are complex, unreliable, expensive power units, think back to the first turbo era, or the late high reving grenades of 90’s to early 00’s.
    I think its time you change your focus and the site name, Formula 2 Blog, powerful naturally aspirated V8’s, relatively simple aero, lower costs, close racing, its got everything you want.

  • jakobusvdl

    “the reason for developing the technology was to further increase the speed around the track.” So F1 has never adopted technology thats slowed the cars……hummmmm, lets think about that;-
    Tyres – ‘Formula One cars ran with slicks until the 1998 when ‘grooved’ tyres were introduced to curb cornering speeds.’
    Engine capacity – 1954, maximum capacity was cut from 4.5l to 2.5l, 1961 capacity was cut (amidst some controversy) to 1.5l. Engines got bigger, and turboed from 1966 to 1989, when 3.5l n.a was the limit, then in 95, and 05, the capacity came down to 3.0l and 2.4l respectively – each time power was initially reduced.
    Car and tyre width – 1993 – Rear tyre width reduced from 18 inches to 15 inches to reduce the grip and so the speed of the cars, overall car width reduced to 200 cm from 220 cm.
    1998 – Narrow track era begins in Formula One, width of car reduced from 2 metres to 1.8 metres with teams now running rubber with grooves.
    ‘Most of the changes that the FIA have implemented to the regulations in the nine seasons since the year 2000 have been aimed at trimming speed off the cars.’ –
    You could almost conclude that the regulations have often been used to find ways to decrease the speed around the track.

  • Rich Saylor

    I tend to agree that there’s too much questionable tech in F1, but the question is- which tech should stay, what should go?

    To me the most obvious detriment to good racing- from the viewer’s point of view, anyway- is the silly multi-grid place penalties imposed for replacing main powertrain components- engine, gearbox, whatever. I think those should be eliminated, and for those companies that provide powerplants to other teams, ensure that the other teams have equal access to replacements. that would seem to be fair.

    Next, a better system of having F1 revenue support all teams, not just the more successful ones. Perhaps a split of the money- maybe 80 % or so divided equally among the 10 or so teams, the rest, to the top 10 finishers, on the same basis as points in each race. That would provide incentive during the race, while still providing a reasonable amount of support for less competitive teams.

    Next, allow each team to have a spare car, to make it more likely that a full grid would occur at each race, which doesn’t always happen nowadays.

    Next, allow drivers to switch cars once with their teammates, keeping the same race position as the car before the switch, to allow points to accrue to the #1 team driver for the championship. Other racing formats have allowed this in the past, might make for some interesting team strategy!

    Next, allow free choice of tires; all the same, mix & match, whatever. Allow at least two tire manufacturers, not a monopoly of one supplier, but the team must use the same manufacturer’s tires in each race, but could change between races if the other supplier agrees to supply tires as needed. Perhaps impose some sort of limit on tires, to keep costs and logistics to a minimum, if possible.

    And lastly, get rid of the DRS system; as artificial a method of messing about with race results as I can think of. If someone wants to pass, do it the old-fashioned way, slipstream to add speed, not because he’s close behind at the right position on track, allowing him/her(?) to reduce drag mechanically, giving him/her a real straightaway speed advantage, nearly ensuring a successful pass in many cases. Would make the cars simpler and less expensive, too. Or else let everyone reduce drag mechanically on straightaways, so no passing advantage just for being close.

    What used to be an exciting driver’s and constructor’s championship series has become- in many ways- a fabulously expensive technological innovation series, instead. Is that what everyone wants from F1???