It’s rare that all of the faults of any sporting series or even business are exposed all in one shot. It’s even rarer when it’s done on an international scale to the point where nobody can deny it. Somehow, some way, Formula 1, the FIA, and of course Bernie Ecclestone have come together to show off all of the failings of F1 in a single new event, the Russian GP in Sochi. The issue here isn’t point out the faults, rather it’s the difficulty of knowing where to start. To do that, I guess I have to go all the way back to the initial decision.
The choice to have a GP in Russia at all is all about money, and not about the sport in any meaningful way. Just like racing in China, private car ownership and auto racing is not particularly natural to the Russia people. You only have to watch some of the dashcam videos of Russian drivers on the street to realize that driving is pretty new to them. F1 racing is probably 20 years too early here. The “sell out” crowd for this event was apparently about 50,000, proving that organizers didn’t even expect large attendance. For reference, Montreal gets more people than that for Friday practice.
The only reason F1 is in Russia is because they put a pot full of money in front of Bernie, and Mr Putin was fully committed to use this even to polish up his international image. It was obvious enough that the camera cut away from the racing event on multiple occassions to note the arrival of Putin, his sitting with Bernie (in a notably empty section of grand stand) and then again in the same grandstand with people packed around for a better “image”, I guess. While F1 claims to stay out of politics, you can see how this one played out. Moreover, in a time when much of the western world is placing sanctions against Russia for all that has happened in Ukraine and such, F1 is there helping to polish the image. Yup, F1 shouldn’t have been there – but money changes everything, I guess!
Now, to be fair, the politics of the event could have been lost if the facility and the racing had been spectacular. Instead, we were “treated” to another one of Hermann Tilke’s infamous technically challenging and insanely boring racing circuits. 18 corners, with the majority of them being 90 degree “end of the block” type turns, with only one reasonably interesting corner in the whole circuit (turn 3), squandered in a sea of paved run off areas, painted lines, and all the risk factor of driving slowing in a big parking lot. The poor design of turn 2, with a run off area that was faster to use than the main track, and the even poorer design of the pit lane entrance makes you wonder if this guy really cares. The track limits were not defined by gravel or grass, just some nice paint and more pavement. The result for the F1 race was only a single spin in the entire event, as drivers couldn’t even find a way to get too far out of control that wasn’t correctable on the very forgiving run off areas.
The pit lane thing was incredible. They had to slow the pit lane speed down to 60 KM and hour, because the entrance was too tight. Compared to staying on track, the average loss time for a pit stop was 30 seconds. That is just way too long in relation, making changing tires a huge penalty. So while the soft tires were potentially 1 to 2 seconds a lap faster, there was absolutely no benefit to short stinting the harder tires to get the speed benefits of new tires. To make the pit lane work, the entrance needs to be improved to allow full 80kph access, and at the same time the final corner needs to be changed to make the on track lap slightly longer and slower. If the pit lane loss net is lowered to about 15-20 seconds, then there might be potential for other strategies.
Finally, the overall track itself was just dull. Tilke creates technical challenges (loading this side, that side, reverse camber, and so on), but those challenges do not result in on track action the fans crave. The race turns out to be about as exciting as watching someone trade penny stock options, not something most of us will ever tune into.
That the track produced a predictable result for 2014 (top 5 cars were all using Mercedes engines), and that there was little in the way of drama or engagement shows the real issues of F1. They shouldn’t have been there to start with, and if they were, they should have been on a much better track. Tilke removes almost all of the risk of driving an F1 car, which means it’s not about getting the maximum out of the driver, but rather in the driver just getting the most out of the machine he has. The results of the race were all about the machines and little about the drivers, and that is truly sad.
Want to fix it for next year? My suggestions are this:
Fix the pit entrance, make it much easier and faster, at the same time make the main track last turn perhaps into a chicane or a three turn complex that adds a couple of seconds of the lap time and lower the speed on the main straight, making the net pit lane time better. It could perhaps also be achieved by making turn 1 into something other than a flat out part of the track – and move the start finish line down the straight a bit.
Ditch some of the 90 turns, like the areas around turns 12-15. Perhaps just a nice left right flick and on towards the last two turns would be better than that silly 90 right, 90 left, 90 left, 90 right thing – perhaps keep that for the main straight. Aim for a slightly shorter lap time, and remove fuel consumption as an issue.
Fix the run off areas. Turn 2 run off should be gravel, plain and simple. There needs to be punishment for exceeding the track limits. Maybe keep the first piece paved, but make all of the area towards the kink into gravel. Make it impossible to stay on the gas. Same thing for almost every other turn, fill the insides of the corners with grass and make at least the first 5 feet off the track into either grass, sand, or gravel. Lose the painted lines that everyone ignores! Define the track by it’s racing surface, and not painted lines.
The worst part? 3 weeks from now F1 is in Austin, another Tilke painted parking lot, and we are in for another truly boring event. F1 keeps wondering why people tune out as the season goes on… it’s all about not providing the product people want!
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