This week we heard Liberty Media’s Motorsport Managing Director, Ross Brawn, hint that Formula 1’s Friday practice sessions could be scrapped.
As expected, the new owners are trying to revolutionise the Sport, however is their American heritage trying to turn Formula 1 into an open wheeled NASCAR? After last weekend’s race at Austin with Michael Buffer’s driver introductions and the weigh-in type stand off between Vettel and Hamilton over the trophy; I am inclined to think so.
1. Improving the Show
One of the ways Liberty are thinking of ‘improving the show’ is to have more track action in the form of races. This sounds like a great plan for the fans, however despite Formula 1’s governance contract to host up to 25 races in a season; Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull need to give their consent. This was agreed during the negotiations of their contracts in 2012, back when they were the top three teams. Therefore, if a season has more than 20 races in total, or more than 17 races in total with 60% held outside of Europe, the U.S. or Canada, then they need approval from these three teams.
From a money point of view, obviously the revenue generated from each event is a huge incentive for teams to approve more races. However, teams already spend around £12 million in logistical costs and travel roughly 130,000km which is almost equivalent to four times round the world. Some teams are already looking to employ two sets of mechanics to cope with the demands of next seasons 21 strong calendar – so more races would amplify this pressure on trackside and factory personnel.
To minimise this cost and pressure of extra logistics, Brawn has suggested that these extra races could happen on a Friday replacing the current format of FP1 and FP2. Naturally, this has sparked all manner of debates and concerns, but first let’s look into why teams need these practise sessions in the first place.
2. What happens in FP1?
From a tyre point of view, not much. The tracks are usually very green at the beginning of the session, and it takes a while for rubber to be laid down, so quite often you end up with negative tyre degradation which would be nice, but is invalid. Furthermore, as FP1 is the earliest session and usually around 4 hours before the equivalent race start time, both track and ambient temperatures are at their lowest and therefore the conditions are most unrepresentative with respect to the race.
Every practice session starts with an install run, this is where the driver goes out and comes straight back into the pits. As well as completing radio checks, conducting flow visualisation experiments or bedding in new brake pads, this run allows both the drivers and engineers to spot any major problems and rectify them before starting the experimental runs. If all is well, the driver leaves the pits on a new set of tyres to begin the baseline run. With different tracks, set-ups and conditions it is vital that the baseline run is successfully completed before any changes are made, as this gives the engineers and drivers an accurate reference. Throughout the rest of the session, the engineers modify the set-up based on driver feedback and data. Also on the inlaps, the driver’s usually do several CSL’s which are constant speed aero tests at specified sections around the track.
3. What happens in FP2?
FP2 starts at the same time of day as the race, and therefore presents the perfect opportunity to get accurate tyre degradation and wear figures from long runs to help define the strategy. The run plan differs for each team, but usually towards the end of the session, all drivers complete high fuel long runs; emulating race conditions. By this stage the Strategist will have an idea of which two compounds will most likely be used in the race and so will split these between the drivers to obtain degradation figures for both.
The driver gives feedback on the level of wear, graining or blistering while the engineers analyse the carcass and surface temperatures of the tyres to try and establish the optimum working range for each compound. After the session, these tyres are scraped and wear checked by the Pirelli engineers and this data is fed into the teams models which can then estimate the wear life and the performance life for the Strategist to use in their race predictions.
These long runs also allow the engineers to monitor brake and engine temperatures as well as analysing how the set-up migrates as the tyres degrade. All of which helps to optimise the set-up for the Race.
4. How would scrapping Friday Practice affect the Race?
From an engineering point of view, it would be a nightmare. All testing would have to be completed during Saturday’s FP3 session which is usually dedicated to low fuel qualifying runs. So the engineers and the drivers would be going into the race with much less data and less reliable conclusions.
From a fan point of view this would be great as it could increase the variability during the race as tyre degradation would be an unknown, as well as the optimum set-up. However, Brawn highlights that any additional races need to be of ‘high quality’, yet Sunday’s race needs to ‘remain the most important’. Therefore, surely teams will just use any Friday races as extended test sessions?
Another issue is the restrictions in testing and track running leaves minimal opportunity for teams to develop. By taking away the two sessions they are allowed to experiment in and it is likely there will be minimal in-season development. This could prove a good thing for the smaller teams whose lower budget prevents them from developing at the same rate as the bigger teams. However, development allows the performance gaps to close throughout the season, as we have seen with Ferrari and Red Bull this year. Although there is the argument that Formula 1 teams will simply improve their performance through investing in other areas.
5. What are your thoughts?
I asked the question on our social media channels to try and gauge the general consensus. To my surprise the majority who replied favoured the current format of Friday’s FP1 and FP2. Now I know there may be an element of fans who are not keen for change, but overall the opinion was that by allowing the teams to experiment in Friday’s practice sessions, they can go into the race with the best set-up, achieving the highest performance. So we go back to the original ethos behind Formula 1 as the ‘pinnacle of technology.’
There were many suggestions, such as having a Sunday warm-up; increase track action by having more support races; make the races cheaper to attend/watch and only allow the lower half of the grid to test. For me, if Liberty want to ‘improve the show’ as they are so clearly trying to do, let’s start off with improving the excitement and thrill of the races we already have, before adding anymore. As the old saying goes, ‘it’s better to do one thing well than ten things poorly.’
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