Mark Walton on the future of F1 safety, CAR+ April 2016

Published: 13 March 2016

► Mark Walton on safety within F1
► Is motorsport becoming irrelevent?
► 'I’ll probably watch the first lap then mow the lawn'

Fed up with F1? The answer is staring us all in the face: on the one hand we have Formula 1 tying itself in knots, trying to come up with new rules to improve the show while upholding its reputation for high tech.

When you’re as old as Bernie Ecclestone you’ve seen it all before, but even so, talk of ground effects and fuel stops must seem like serious déjà vu for him. Didn’t we decide that stuff ruined the racing last time? All the fans want to see is less downforce, bigger tyres, more noise; the billion-dollar corporate teams have a different agenda, apparently.

Then you’ve got the new Formula E support series starting in September, the so-called ‘Roborace’ that’ll pit 20 driverless robot cars against each other in 60-minute endurance races. Actually, come to think of it, even Bernie hasn’t seen this before, though why anyone would want to watch autonomous Scalextric cars whining around a track for an hour beats me. The very first corner of the first race will be interesting – will there be a catastrophic pile-up, followed by 59 minutes of embarrassing silence? Or perhaps the cars will all come to a dead halt in the middle of the road to avoid a collision, and then wait there, humming in HAL 9000-style anxiety? ‘Dave. I’ve stopped, Dave’. 

I’ll probably watch the first lap then mow the lawn.

Motorsport, you see, is at a crossroads, but the answer is obvious: it’s time to split the Formula 1 drivers’ title from the constructors’ championship, and let each go their separate way. 

It’s not as though the two titles have always gone hand-in-hand – the F1 driver’s crown was introduced in 1950, but the manufacturers didn’t get their own championship until 1958. Sixty years later, the combination just doesn’t work anymore. 

Because technology ruins F1. Ever since 1993, stuff like ABS and traction control has been banned, thank goodness, but it means the cars are less advanced than your average Mazda. When the hybrid engines were introduced a couple of years ago, did we all marvel at their fuel efficiency? Nope. And now that racing cars can drive themselves, F1 will become even more irrelevant. Steering wheel? Old school! 

Time to cleave the two, I say, and allow each championship to find its own audience. We know what would happen to the constructor’s title, if it was allowed to follow its own logic: it would become a series for four-wheeled robots with silent battery motors, sticky tyres and sci-fi aerodynamics. They’ll look like low-flying insects, reaching 400mph on the straights, and there’ll be no crashes, no overtaking and absolutely no personality. No-one will watch it, but the world’s biggest car manufacturers – Google, Samsung and Huawei – will pump billions into it for PR reasons. In my mind, I can hear Andy Murray doing the commentary. There won’t even be any need for qualifying – the grid order could be calculated by computational analysis. 

Meanwhile, the driver’s title – if it too could be true to its core appeal – would return to something like the Cosworth era of grand prix racing. The fans want to see Hamilton and Vettel going wheel-to-wheel in terrifyingly unstable cars with fat tyres, spongy suspension, small wings and manual gearboxes. All the cars would be powered by identical V8s, producing 900bhp and NASCAR levels of noise. Millions would watch their heroes oversteering round Spa in the wet. 

Safety would be a factor of course, but any kind of canopy over the cockpit would be completely banned. I don’t mean to be cruel, but the drivers know the risks, and human suffering has always been a part of the sport’s appeal. Tazio Nuvolari broke practically every bone in his body back in the 1930s. The 1968 F1 champion Denny Hulme once burnt his hands so badly, at the end of the next race they had to peel his bloody gloves off the steering wheel.

Remember Nigel Mansell’s first race for Lotus back in 1980, when the fuel tank leaked into his seat and he suffered terrible burns, sitting in a bath of jet fuel? I don’t want anyone to die, but a little bit of casual Sunday afternoon agony wouldn’t go amiss. Meanwhile, there’ll be no suffering in a Roborace, apart from the torture of utter boredom.  

So there’s your answer, Formula 1. Maybe you could organise another sub-committee taskforce meeting to discuss it? And to suck a bit more of the life-force from us all. 

Read more from the April 2016 issue of CAR magazine

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast