Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cars and Tracks: Hitting the Rev Limiter, Or A Wipeout 2097 Future?

One thing I always puzzle over is the long term relationship between the speed of the great cars that grace our sport, and the tracks we are blessed to see them race upon (or the bland autodromes that are sometimes foisted upon us). Earlier I was watching grainy footage of the 1973 British Grand Prix (doff my hat to ESPN Classic) and it was so apparent there was a severe lack of runoff area on the track. Yes, it was probably too dangerous for the cars then. But oh my goodness, if it was dangerous with the big chunky cars of yesteryear, could you imagine racing on the same track with the lithe carbon fibre monsters of today?! The flimsy barriers, rough track, open grass would all have made the whole thing hairier than an Eskimo. Except of course, for one teeny fact....Silverstone ISN’T the same track as today. It does a great job of combining the old (airfield layout, Copse, Hangar Straight) and the new (Maggots/Becketts, Abbey, the new ‘stadium’ section) and all in a much safer environment. The helter skelter arrangement of flimsy barriers an agricultural long grass has given way to Armco barriers, gravel and neatly mowed grass, and through intensive research even some of that has given way to abrasive tarmac, tyre walls and SAFER barriers. So, though we have more power, grip, aerodynamics, tyre stickiness (just to match the bigger egos!) than 1973, the tracks have sprouted new safety facilities to ‘match’ the improved performance of the cars, when we spool back 39 years from 2012 to 1973. So on the face of it, very logical, and, as our dreary politicos would have it, ‘a sustainable development model.’ Or in layman’s terms, if the cars get faster, just have safer tracks and bigger run offs. Simple eh? But......

Exponentially where would it all end? If the cars kept getting faster, could new technology be invented, or the run off areas be extended, to maintain the symbiotic relationship between cars and tracks? Well yes......but only by making such a great acreage of run off areas that the spectators would need telescopes to see the cars! And of course, when we think about 1973-2012 in more detail, there have been many movements of the hand on the tiller to restrict speed. Engines, aerodynamics, mechanics, materials, tyres, electronics, have all been limited (but not those drivers’ egos!). If left unregulated, the speed of cars would be simply massive, and just not be able to race on the circuits we love. And indeed they have rarely exceeded certain limits – horsepower rarely hits over 1000 BHP, the cars frequently power down the straights at over 200 MPH, but rarely 250 MPH, and aerodynamic grip is continually ferreted away, before being clawed back by the genius designers. Things oscillate and reverberate, at some tracks we have new lap records being laid down, at others the records of 2004 and earlier stand firm. Truly, in terms of raw speed, if not ingenuity and refinement, Formula One is locked into a cycle of ‘hitting the rev limiter’, inching up to and then bouncing off it with regularity. But what are the likely consequences? 

Well, as we have seen, the constant rule changes are surely here to stay. Going ‘over the rev limiter’ in terms of pure raw speed and grip will endanger the tracks. But what will the long term effects be? Looking at the broad sweep of history, the rate of development of Formula One cars is striking, with a ‘breaking the mould’ innovation every decade up to the early 1990’s. The active suspension, computerised cars of pre-1994 are the last gasp of a more laissez faire style of regulations. After that, the emphasis is more on refinement, budget and ingenuity in limited areas, no better exemplified by the relentless Schumacher/Ferrari machine, remorselessly grinding its way through a succession of championships. Indeed, what is an (yet another) impressive thing about the genius of Adrian Newey is that his genius has won true in such different eras, smashing the competition with the legendary FW14B, loaded to the gumballs with gadgets in the laissez faire era, and cleaning up with the RB7 in a more dirigisme time. But, notwithstanding the obvious change in the environment, have we seen the full effects of this restriction on the regulations? Formula One is still very popular worldwide, with no challenge to its top motorsport status. And indeed, you could say, why should it be? Although not conclusively the fastest car in a straight line worldwide (a Bugatti Veyron tank could lay better claim to that!) nor the most technically innovative (sports cars would have their towels down on that deckchair!) but they are the fastest round a single, road race lap, and with Indycar struggling with a ‘specish’ car, A1 GP gone, sportscars and DTM still slower, and NASCAR still based on 1960’s technology, I do not see any change to this in the foreseeable future. But what would happen of a new series was able to challenge Formula One’s dominance of the hot laps? 

This could be a powerful challenge indeed. Being able to lay claim to Formula One’s pedestal as fastest over a single lap, and have more technical freedom, would be a blow to Formula One’s prestige, and call into question its brand image as a mainstream extreme sport, on which the patrons of Red Bull, Monster and so on find worthy for purveying an edgy, dynamic image to the worldwide viewers. Surely they would have a natural attraction to a genuinely faster series? But of course, to be genuinely faster, such a series would hit the same ‘rev limiter’ as Formula One, with the state of the modern tracks (optimised for Bernie’s circus of course) being a natural constraint. What options would a challenger series have? Go to non- Grand Prix circuits, where on average, run offs and barriers are even less? Race at an airfield with no fans? The alternatives are barren. Hitting the rev-limiter, and the decreasing intersection between the speed of cars and the space available on track, will surely define events in the future of the sport, and make it hard for people to challenge Formula One. But what if someone could truly break the mould?

It is pretty clear that a tyres on track Formula would find it hard to break through the ‘rev-limiter’ of natural constraints. So how could it break out? Well, this is again a matter for innovation and technology – let us hope the best at it will still be British! Could a ‘Wipeout 2097’ style anti-gravity series open up the potential for extra speed and innovation? Going to the air could open up new types of tracks, and allow for continued safety for spectators and day. It is of course a long way off. But anyone first told the concept of the Harrier jump jet usually says the same.....and it has already been in and out of service with the British Navy! Innovation can make the impossible possible.....

If it doesn’t, then Formula One’s dominance of the shrinking triangle of car speed, innovation and track safety will continue, although at the expense of slightly eroding its status as an extreme sport, and the fastest over a single lap. But what would truly blow this status apart is a new, hereto, unseen innovation that could widen this triangle, and would be a serious challenge to the status of Formula One. 

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