Changing The Formula

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It was always there in the rules. Article 61 of Formula One's sporting regulations states: "The driver must drive the car alone and unaided." One driver per car may be obvious enough. But what about all the gizmos devised to make the cars easier to drive? Launch control to guarantee a quick start, traction control to stop wheels spinning, fully automatic gearboxes, telemetry between car and pit that allows the garage guys to spot and fix problems as they happen on track.

They are so much part of modern Formula One cars that the term unaided sounds laughable; the sport has become as much a competition of technologies as of driving skill. "If we were not careful," says team boss Eddie Jordan, "we would be having microchips in helmets driving the cars."

So here's a radical idea: How about making the drivers actually drive the cars? That's what Max Mosley, president of the sport's ruling body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), did on Jan. 15 when he imposed dramatic restrictions on "driver aids." After all, something had to be done to get the sport out of the slow lane. Last year the public grew bored, as the best driver, Michael Schumacher, in the best car, the Ferrari, ticked off win after win 11 of the season's 17 races with metronomic predictability.

While Formula One remains the third most-watched spectator sport in the world, audiences have been turning away in droves TV viewership fell off by around 16% once Schumacher had wrapped up the championship at the French Grand Prix in July. Formula One knew it needed to do something fast.

The teams may resent the new restrictions, but they can hardly be surprised. The rivals, who find it hard to agree with each other about anything, got together in Paris in December to cobble together ideas to add spice to the racing, but the proposals they came up with such as reducing ballast by 2005 and cosmetic changes to bodywork to allow more advertising space didn't commit them to any serious reductions in technology and would not, according to one team principal, "have saved enough to pay for the sandwiches."

And saving is important. Many teams still receive the bulk of their sponsorship from tobacco companies, who will be forced to withdraw it under European Union laws by 2005. In some countries tobacco sponsorship is already banned; this is why Belgium will not be hosting a Grand Prix this year. Even though the cost savings should have been attractive to all the teams, not all of them welcomed the changes. The problem, according to the sport's impresario, and owner of 25% of its television rights, Bernie Ecclestone, was that "like in life, you have the haves and the have-nots. So the haves still want to keep eating caviar and the have-nots want caviar taken off the market."

The bosses of two of the "haves" Frank Williams, head of the team that bears his name, and Ron Dennis, principal of McLaren have said that they will legally challenge the way the new rules are being imposed. Dennis accused Mosley of behaving "like a dictator" and "dumbing down" the sport. Mosley dismissed the objections in a blistering reply, saying, "If you think that the public wants to see computer-controlled cars guided from the pits by anonymous engineers, please think again."

When the cars line up on the grid for the season opener in Melbourne this weekend they'll still look the same, but under the gleaming bodywork and multiplicity of logos the technology is set to disappear. Banned immediately is the pit-to-car telemetry, so engineers will no longer be able to prevent breakdowns from the garage while the car is on the circuit. Teams will no longer be able to build special "qualifying" cars just to grab a high place on the grid or use spare cars, unless the driver totals his race car. The FIA will impound all the cars after they qualify until shortly before the race, allowing only a couple of hours for the engineers to make final tweaks. Beginning with the British Grand Prix in July, launch control, traction control and fully automatic gearboxes will go too. (The delay is to allow the FIA to develop its own brand of high technology, to check that no one is cheating.) Next year car-to-pit telemetry goes too, and teams will have to make a single engine last the whole race weekend. And in 2005 cars will have to make a single engine last two races, and use standardized rear wings and braking systems. By 2006 one engine will have to stagger through six races.

Other FIA-imposed changes have made the teams cheer. The championship points system now will give points for teams who finish as far down as eighth place instead of only sixth, so the car in ninth place will still have something to fight for. And the difference between first and second place is reduced from four to two points, to try to slow Schumacher's inevitable progress toward a sixth championship.

Qualifying for races could now show some surprises too. A single hour-long session the day before the race used to see places on the starting grid determined by the best of their "flying" laps, set during three outings on track. Now it will be settled over two days. On Friday the cars will go out one at a time with just one flying lap to set the order of running for a second session on Saturday, when they will again have just one lap to decide starting places for the race. And cars will have to start the race with fuel left over from the qualifying session, which should rev up the drama of the first few laps. Teams will have to make tactical decisions about whether to carry a little fuel, go for a quick qualifying time and make a quick stop to fill up, or carry a lot, risk a lower place on the grid and keep going longer before having to make a stop. Williams agrees that "generally the changes will enhance the racing. There will be unusual qualifying situations, which will cause variations in the way that we line up on the grid and there will be more overtaking, which is what we need."

But is it enough? While the audience figures were slamming into the tire walls, the teams were simultaneously watching recession-pinched sponsors pull out. Formula One is not for fainthearted accountants. The total cost of putting on the show this year will be about $2 billion. In spite of the financial doldrums of parent company Fiat, Ferrari will spend around $443 million this year on Schumacher's little red number, and hope to sell more road cars on the back of its success, while Williams will be parting with over $350 million, and tiny Minardi will aim to struggle through on a paltry $39 million.

The championship has already been reduced to only 10 teams, since the team owned by former champion Alain Prost went bust just over a year ago. Arrows, which ran out of cash to pay for its engines halfway through last year, has now gone into receivership too. The same fate could easily have befallen Minardi and Jordan, who were struggling to meet the costs of keeping up with the ever-evolving technology. Last April Jordan was forced to dump 15% of its staff, and that was before it lost major sponsors Deutsche Post and Mastercard. Ecclestone has now proposed that the bigger teams subsidize the two strugglers from their TV earnings. Williams agrees: "The senior teams are in a mood to somehow financially help Jordan and Minardi survive for another year."

The real beneficiaries of the upheavals in the sport may actually end up being the fans. The TV coverage this year will be even better. Once Ecclestone realized the extent of the TV viewers' desertion, he agreed to allow free-to-air broadcasters access to some of the digital services previously available only to pay-per-view subscribers. They might get to know the drivers better too, as Mosley has proposed allowing television cameras into the drivers' Sunday morning briefing now that the cars won't be out on track for free practice. And fans in Bahrain and China can start looking forward to their own races next year, while St. Petersburg and Turkey are scheduled to join the circus in 2005.

Ultimately, the leading teams seem willing to make financial sacrifices because they recognize that even money-losing teams like Minardi beloved by passionate fans precisely because they have never won a race and Jordan are needed to keep the sport interesting. As Eddie Jordan puts it, "We take it seriously but we like to have a bit of fun and a bit of rock 'n' roll and a bit of razzmatazz." And the new rules may do just that. Start those engines.