Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, April 10, 1998

'Not So Fast' Is Not All That Easy

Formula One Teams Find Ways to Make Up for New Rules

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - For most spectators, Formula One is about cars going fast. For the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, the object is to make cars go slower.

But as the season heads for its third race the Argentine Grand Prix in Buenos Aires this weekend it's clear that the new regulations aren't working.

''The object of the rules changes was to slow the cars down,'' said Max Mosley, the federation president. ''And they certainly have not slowed them down as much as everybody thought they would.''

The federation, known as FIA, hoped to slow the cars by from three to five seconds a lap, but so far cars have lost only one to two seconds a lap, and they are getting faster every race.

The new technical regulations were approved in 1996, but they went into force only this season. The criticism began early last year when the teams started testing the new setups.

The federation came under fire particularly for outlawing slick, or treadless, tires in favor of ones with grooves. Slicks have been used on racing cars since 1972, and some critics said the sport was regressing. Car width was narrowed by 20 centimeters to reduce aerodynamic downforce the effect that pushes cars to the track in corners. The changes make Formula One cars look similar to those in slower formulas.

The most prominent critic was Jacques Villeneuve, the world champion. After testing the new tires for the first time last April, he said, ''It was like driving a Formula Ford car, with a bit more power and downforce.''

''Instead of still being the ultimate sport that it is, it's going to become more of a show and a circus,'' he said.

Mosley summoned Villeneuve to Paris last June to explain himself. Among Villeneuve's other criticisms were that the cars would be uncontrollable going into corners and that braking distances would be no greater.

A Formula One car slows from more than 200 miles an hour to 30 to 40 miles an hour in about 265 feet, thanks to high-performance carbon brakes. An increase in braking distances would allow for more overtaking, as more skilled or courageous drivers would have more opportunity to brake later than their competitors and therefore pass them.

Villeneuve has been proved right on control. Last year, seven cars went off the track in the three practice sessions before the opening race in Australia. This year, 14 cars went off.

In Brazil two weeks ago, the practice sessions were stopped by the red flag several times as cars repeatedly spun out and blocked the track or left dangerous debris. Villeneuve himself destroyed his car in Brazil

Mosley said last week that the purpose of the rules was not to prevent cars' going off the track, or to allow more overtaking, but ''to avoid damaging the driver.''

He noted that three of the seven cars that went off last year in Australia were damaged, while none were damaged this year. No drivers were hurt either year.

After the death of Ayrton Senna at the Saint-Marino Grand Prix in 1994, the drivers created an organization to look after their safety interests. Called the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, it meets periodically to study tracks and voice complaints to the federation.

Last year, David Coulthard, a McLaren driver and member of the drivers' association, agreed with Villeneuve's criticisms. ''We mustn't confuse the safety issue with speed,'' he said. ''Speed does not necessarily mean danger.''

But a continuing FIA study of the relationship between safety measures and driver injuries shows that over the last 35 years, as new safety measures have been introduced, the number of driver deaths relative to the number of accidents has gone down. From 1963 to 1967, in 50 races there were 47 accidents, with three serious injuries and two fatalities. In the five seasons to 1997, there were 82 races, 382 accidents and 2 fatalities, one of them Senna.

''The conventional wisdom used to be that if you're going to crash at 180 mph or 190 mph, what difference does it make?'' Mosley said. ''We now know that a relatively small change in performance can make a big change in safety.''

He said that after Senna's death the federation learned that if it slowed the cars by only three seconds a lap, they cut the number of life-threatening corners defined in part by a car's speed over a full season from 16 to 8.

At the beginning of last winter's testing, cars were the desired five seconds slower. But Formula One's engineers are quickly finding ways to make the cars go faster, and they have already regained three seconds a lap.

Francesco Longanesi, the FIA spokesman, said: ''It's always been a little bit the game between the poacher and the gamekeeper. The gamekeeper finds something to keep the poacher out, and the poacher finds his way through to neutralize what the gamekeeper has done.''

Formula One teams build their own cars and invest millions of dollars in research and development. In the world's second-most-advanced form of single-seat, open-wheel racing, the North American series called Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, a team usually builds a car from an assembly-line chassis and other stock parts.

Formula One teams also receive more money from sponsors than CART teams, which allows them to spend more on development, Mosley said.

Rule changes, however, have deterred some sponsors. In 1996, Elf Antar, the French petroleum company, pulled out after 29 years in Formula One. And Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. will leave this autumn after 34 years.

Both said the new regulations meant they could no longer develop cutting-edge products. But computer companies are swarming into the sport as teams try to compensate for the slower, grooved tires by using increasingly sophisticated electronic systems in their cars.

The question of more overtaking, meanwhile, has become irrelevant as the McLaren cars have lapped most other cars in the first two races. No one can stay close enough to attempt to overtake.

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