How can F1 start to make sensible changes to rules and regulations? The answer is simple and might be sitting in a gaming console next to your television. F1 needs to set up a winter virtual test season to try out new ideas that come forward through out the season to improve the sport. A virtual test session for every new tweak to anything that impacts on-track action would at least add some structure to a process that currently looks more like “stuff”-thrown-at-a-wall than sound governance.
The new qualifying was ‘implemented’ (if that word applies since no one, repeat: no one was having anything to do with it) in Australia. Then it was summarily rejected on Saturday night with a return to the old process to go into effect immediately at the next race in Bahrain.
Formula One must avoid fiascoes like this. The lack of preparation by everyone involved showed exactly how not to introduce a major rule change. And a thrilling race on Sunday made the obvious heel dragging and lack of enthusiasm, the more galling to fans. It’s okay to not like a change. It’s another thing to see it sabotaged due to unprofessional behavior.
The decision taken on Saturday night, to return to the old qualifying system seemed justified, if a bit premature since it was still possible that the much hated and poorly prepared for new qualifying format might have a dramatic impact on the race itself. Solely blaming the teams and the TV press for not having a clue is unfair. But making TV pundits look fools on air is a good way to ensure you will not be gaining their support. Whoever is in charge of the rule change: FOM, FIA, Bernie, or a shell corporation on a channel island must realize this process cannot be repeated.
What if…F1 tried car shapes of 1966? Raced at Monza without chicanes? Ran a non-championship time trial at the Nordschleife? All of these scenarios could be tested with sim racing.
As it turned out the new qualifying did make a difference in the race. Almost. Except for a red flag, Ferrari’s qualifying strategy reinforced by a great launch setup should have seen a Maranello 1-2 shock. The 2nd row might as well have been the first for the bright red cars as they squirreled past the gludgy grey Germans. Qualifying strategy did matter and the boredom of Saturday was reversed by an exciting race that offered even more.
The fact that the new format was already binned before the race, should come as no surprise. While TV wouldn’t admit it, it was unprepared and didn’t know how to package the new package. In the USA, NBC Sports focused on the wrong driver’s lap, time after time, not anticipating the timing of the new cutoff process. And only grumbling when Ferrari parked their cars with little discussion of the possibilities for the race.
Nor, will anyone who follows the sport be shocked to find that Force India (along with others now) are protesting the hasty decision taken, demanding the continuation of the now traditional (after one attempt) format. Mclaren and Red Bull claim they will only accept a return to the old qualifying format, but that’s beside the point of not getting in this position in the first place.
One thing does makes sense. The drivers have protested. They are the few putting their necks on the line for entertainment value and they are justifiably unsure if anyone has considered their necks. Or perhaps more accurately: their own opinions about the state of safety. Don’t forget some drivers believe the new halo concept is an ugly bad idea. The GPDA would like regulations implemented in an orderly fashion indicating that some (any) thought has been used in the process.
A virtual test season would do just that. It could be established at the end of every season to evaluate ideas for the upcoming season. These virtual tests would add some interesting copy to the off season when F1 falls off the radar, except for what events Lewis Hamilton is attending or snubbing.
The virtual season would only encompass one or two weeks in which all of the teams would connect via the Internet with all required weekend race staff in attendance. This would give a chance to run virtual races and evaluate the effects of new rules like: radio communication regulations, new qualifying rules, changes in tyre regulations, even the effect of the halo on line-of-sight at most circuits.
While computer physics and CFD are imperfect, they can give a strong indication of how changes will impact the racing. Certainly, something as simple as widening the cars by five inches can be studied in a racing simulation to determine how drivers feel it affects overtaking, drafting, etc. If it doesn’t work then why have teams spent millions developing the technology?
Much more aggressive rules changes could be tested in virtual reality. What if F1 tried a formula to make car shapes conform roughly to those of 1966? What if F1 raced at Monza without the front straight chicane? A race or non-championship time trial at the Nordschleife? All of these scenarios could be tested using current sim racing technology. It might even open up new revenue streams with online vehicles heavily sponsored by tech companies…
Admittedly, it’s probably a stupid idea. But, we just saw the results of not testing new innovations. So, it’s much better than the current state of affairs. In racing if an idea proves superior to the current state of the art, it is usually adopted universally. Does that mean it would get unanimous support from all of the teams? Does it need unanimous support? Maybe Bernie or Jean Todt can simply demand that all of the teams participate in virtual winter testing.
One thing certain about this sport is something Mr. Ecclestone realized a long time ago. If you build it, they will pay. That’s why we have a 21 race season. So one final question remains about virtual F1: who will buy the streaming rights and how many millions will they pay?