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Comment – They’re baaack…

What’s the best part of longer seasons if you’re a Formula 1 fan?  More races to watch, of course.  The second best part of longer seasons?  Shorter off-seasons.  Formula 1 is back for 2011.

posted by Trey Blincoe

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Comment – Driver Changes at Force India

Force India announced its long-rumored 2011 driver line-up on Wednesday, and in doing so, has produced a considerable amount of debate in F1 circles over the last 48 hours.  Adrian Sutil will continue with the team for his 5th year, while reigning DTM champion Paul di Resta moves up from his reserve role last season to step into the seat previously held by Vitantonio Liuzzi.  Williams refugee and rising star Nico Hulkenberg moves into di Resta’s reserve role, and will be involved in the team’s pre-season testing program as well as participate in Friday practice sessions during Grand Prix weekends.  In this game of musical chairs, the music’s stopped and Liuzzi is now out of a drive at Force India despite his contract with the team for 2011.

With so much going on, Force India is surely the belle of the ball for the 2011 silly season as the team’s moves raise a number of issues for all involved.  The primary topic of debate relates to Liuzzi’s future and his existing contract with the team for 2011.  The first question raised is whether Liuzzi deserved to be axed by the team in favor of di Resta?  While some pundits and even Fernando Alonso believe that Liuzzi is a talent worthy of a spot on the F1 grid, his cumulative performance over the course of his career paints a different picture.  Liuzzi had a troubled campaign last year, suffering from the same kinds of problems with the Bridgestone control tire that also plagued Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.  The all-important teammate comparison to Adrian Sutil is particularly revealing; Sutil’s season average BPR score was 80.824, ranking him 11th.  That compares to Liuzzi’s 76.086, ranking him down in 17th.  The resulting comparison between the two teammates results in a TEAM COMP +/- of 2.369, which is significant over a 19 race season and historically high in relation to other teams and past seasons.  As BPR F1’s readers know, the AVG rating is computed without regard to reliability and therefore provides a true impression of how each driver performed when he did get to the finish un-delayed.  It’s important to note that we are making a comparison to Sutil, who has matured over the course of his F1 career but proved during the second half of the 2010 season that he remains a fairly inconsistent driver (more on that later).

The most glaring indicator that Liuzzi hasn’t earned his future at Force India is the fact that he’s failed to outperform his teammate over the course of a season, or in any single event, in a way he’s been outperformed on numerous occasions; including his previous stint at Scuderia Toro Rosso.  To illustrate, go back through the BPR Season Summaries for the 2010, 2009, and 2007 seasons and you’ll see what I’m referring to.  Remember, this isn’t the first time Liuzzi’s been out of a drive in Formula 1, as he was dropped by Toro Rosso following the 2007 season in favor of reigning CART champion Sebastien Bourdais.  The point is that there’s a reason why for the second time in his career, Liuzzi has been given the boot in favor of a driver who has yet to prove his F1 mettle.

The second Liuzzi-related issue pertains to his contract.  As previously mentioned, Liuzzi’s current contract extended to the 2011 season and estimates put the year’s compensation somewhere north of €2 million in total value.  Rumor has it that no contractual agreement was reached between Force India and Liuzzi before the team made its announcement yesterday, and both parties’ continued silence in regard to the situation only serves to confirm those rumors.  There has been talk that Liuzzi could be afforded a drive at HRT paid for by Force India, which is probably the best situation for all involved.  If that’s not the case, then the road ahead is considerably more bumpy dependent on whether Liuzzi’s contract is bought-out or flatly dishonored by Force India.  In either of those cases, Liuzzi will have the option to take the matter to the FIA’s Contract Recognition Board and thereby begin a long and drawn-out process of seeking compensation for Force India’s breach of contract.  The backdrop of this story is the continuing and pervasive nature of contract breaches in Formula 1, and what that means for the sport.  Liuzzi isn’t the first contracted F1 driver to be let go without just compensation, which fits a long-standing trend of teams failing to fully and timely pay support staff, contractors, suppliers, etc.  Of particular note is a recent article featured in the Daily Mail which highlights a study conducted by Dun & Bradstreet on the state of contractual fulfillment by all Formula 1 teams.  Is it any surprise that the study revealed Force India was the F1 team least likely to pay its bills or employees on time?  A quote at the end of the article is particularly illuminating:

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said his company has had to pay its own staff late as a result. ‘If Vijay sold his yacht, it would keep the team going for a couple of years,’ he said.

For a man who wants to position himself as India’s leading business man, Vijay Mallya surely isn’t setting the foundation for his goals through his business dealings in Formula 1.

Beyond Liuzzi is the now-settled lineup at Force India.  At 24, Paul di Resta is certainly deserving of an F1 drive at this stage of his career despite being out of full-time single-seater racing for 5 years.  The young Scotsman has received strong support from Mercedes and motorsport head Norbert Haug, whom he’s raced for in the DTM for the last several years.  Reports suggest that di Resta’s drive is largely funded by Mercedes via an agreement to provide Force India with a KERS package at no cost; which has a total value approaching €10 million.  If true, the deal is particularly sweet for Force India considering the German manufacturer’s KERS technology proved to be the most effective on the grid during the 2009 season.

The Mercedes deal could go a long way towards explaining the untimely and potentially risky dismissal of Liuzzi.  Di Resta’s arrival at Force India further aligns the team with Mercedes following the McLaren/Mercedes technical partnership formed back in 2009.  The strengthening of that alliance comes at a precarious time for Force India following a 2010 season which saw the team hemorrhage  key technical personnel to Sauber and Team Lotus.  The former Jordan team has come a long way under Mallya’s guidance since its days as Midland/Spyker, with TEAM AVG ratings constantly improving each year since 2007: 60.888, 69.207, 76.281, and 78.455 in 2010.  However, it’s clear to see the negative performance effects of Force India’s personnel losses in the 2010 season-ending BPR charts and trend plots.  Force India finds itself at risk of undoing the progress the team has made in recent seasons if steps aren’t taken to rebuild the team’s technical package.  Mallya and company are under no illusions as to what their partnership with McLaren and Mercedes means to Force India’s on-track performance, and the no-cost acquisition of F1’s leading KERS system is but one example of the benefits to be had.  Pragmatically speaking, the Liuzzi situation and whatever consequences it may bring may very well be worth the price Force India is made to pay for bringing di Resta on-board.

Finally, the last topic of note is the arrival of Nico Hulkenberg at Force India as the team’s reserve driver.  Hulkenberg and manager Willi Weber have lofty ambitions for the young German’s F1 future, and many in the F1 paddock believe Hulkenberg’s talent matches those ambitions.  Williams dropping Hulkenberg in favor of Pastor Maldonado certainly didn’t help his planned ascent to the top, but Hulkenberg’s signing as a reserve driver at Force India is an indication of his plans to return to a race seat as soon as possible.  Weber stated publicly that he approached Mercedes and discussed Hulkenberg taking a similar reserve driver position with the German manufacturer, but left those talks feeling as though Force India was the better option in the short term.   Weber’s statement indicates that Mercedes has every intent of retaining its current pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher through the 2012 season.  Schumacher confirmed his intent to remain at Mercedes through 2012 just yesterday.  With the other top teams’ driver lineups projected to remain relatively stagnant through 2012, the implication is that Hulkenberg has positioned himself for a race seat at Force India next year.  A Hulkenberg/di Resta pairing at Force India in 2012 sets up a nice apples-to-apples comparison for what should be Michael Schumacher’s current drive at Mercedes in 2013.

Of course, that would leave Adrian Sutil needing to parlay his current 1-year contract with Force India into a drive further up the field in 2012; hopefully, he we will help us all forget the 2010 Korean Grand Prix by then.

posted by Trey Blincoe

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Comment – Codemaster’s F1 2010

For the Formula 1 geek, the off-season can be a truly depressing time; it’s cold outside, and there’s not an F1 car on-track for months.  One way to pass the time is to jump into an F1 car yourself, but for those without a grand prix car in the garage, or access to one of the team’s impressive simulators, the opportunity to do so has been fairly limited without a true F1 video game on retailers’ shelves in recent years.  While the private ‘modding’ community has done a very respectable job of producing bits and pieces of the F1 world for games like rFactor, a full-on, turn-key F1 experience has been lacking for all video game platforms for some time.

That all changed when Codemasters took the F1 license over from Sony, and after almost 2 years of development, “F1 2010” hit the shelves early this fall for PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3.  F1 2010 was released to wide acclaim, with the game receiving an aggregate rating of 84 (out of 100) on metacritic; and more importantly for Codemasters, F1 2010 reached sales figures previously thought unreachable for an F1-based game.

Unfortunately, video game reviews are generally conducted by dedicated game-reviewers who play a game for a relatively short period of time before writing up their corresponding review.  Furthermore, in the case of F1 2010, the vast majority of reviewers are not well-versed on the world of F1 and unlikely to care about the things that a true follower of the sport would.  In an attempt to reverse that trend, I decided to write a review from the standpoint of a true F1 geek, and wait until I’d thoroughly played F1 2010 before writing my review.

THE GOOD…

Make no mistake based on what’s to come later in this review review: F1 2010 is impressive considering this is Codemaster’s first attempt at simulating the world of grand prix racing.  The game’s environment provides a complete impression of the F1 world that I haven’t felt since playing MicroProse’s “Grand Prix 2” some 15 years ago.  The graphics are absolutely superb, with levels of detail in track and car modeling that are typically only seen in big-league titles like the Call of Duty franchise.  While the tracks aren’t modeled with the assistance of laser-scanning and are therefore less than accurate at times, for the most part, the entirety of each circuit is reproduced in excruciatingly-brilliant detail.  F1 2010’s visual effects are just as impressive, with animated crowds and objects, heat waves and exhaust overrun, and a beautiful, although ultimately flawed dynamic track and weather system (more on that later).  More important than just the visual representation of the F1 world is the fact that more so than any other racing game I’ve played, the scaling of F1 2010’s environment just feels realistic.  In summary, the level of visual immersion in F1 2010 is truly unparalleled in the world of racing games.

F1 2010 also gets my general praise for the game’s physics.  That statement comes with a pragmatic caveat that in order to move product, Codemasters couldn’t create an all-out simulation in light of the general public’s taste for arcade racing.  From the moment I started up F1 2010 for the first time, I’ve used a Logitech Formula Force GP wheel and pedal set  with the game set to the ‘hardest’ settings without the help of any of the available driving aids.  With that in mind, a direct comparison of driving an F1 car in the ultra-realistic world of “iRacing” isn’t all that different than the experience in F1 2010.  In fact, the only appreciable difference between the two platforms is iRacing’s level of physics modeling allowing it to more completely replicate true on-the-limit driving to an extent that F1 2010 can’t.  Up until the limits of tire grip and corresponding wheel slippage, both games feel remarkably the same.  While iRacing’s physics are more complete and will reward the expert driver more than F1 2010, the process of finding the limit in an F1 car is substantially the same process in both games, which is a truly impressive feat for F1 2010.

In addition to the visuals and feeling of driving an F1 car, F1 2010 also gets high marks in the sound department.  It wasn’t until Simbin’s revolutionary sportscar racing game “GTR” that a developer truly attempted to replicate the audio effects of motor racing.  The systematic lack of attention to sound in racing games has always baffled me; when you ask a racing fan what he or she enjoys about going to the track, near the top of everyone’s list is the sound of motor racing.  F1 2010 does an excellent job of representing the sounds of F1, both inside and out of the car.  The player in F1 2010 is treated to very representative engine notes, curb vibration noises, downshifting effects, and much more.  While upcoming editions of Codemaster’s F1 series can stand to include more effects, the game sounds right at this early stage, and that gets a big nod of appreciation from me.

Finally, F1 2010 gets high marks for its “Live the Life” feature of making the game about more than just going from menu screen to track.  F1 2010 attempts to model what its like to be an F1 driver, from career planning and contract negotiation, to dealing with the team and press, to the development of rivalries with other drivers.  Sure, the implementation of these features isn’t always perfect and becomes repetitious at times, I certainly appreciate any attempt to broaden the fairly static approach developers have taken to racing games.

THE BAD…

While F1 2010 does a lot of stuff right, it also gets a lot of stuff wrong.  The flaws in the F1 2010 game labeled as being part of “the bad” aren’t deal-breakers, and are merely areas where Codemasters can improve on for F1 2011 and beyond.

As even the most casual fan of F1 knows, the world of Formula 1 racing is extremely complicated.  A large part of Formula 1’s sophistication is owed to the rules of the sport, which are constantly changing and are nothing if not complex.  Codemasters gets a lot of credit for attempting to implement many of those rules into F1 2010, which features engine limits, tire allocations, flag and penalty rules, etc.  However, it is in the implementation of those rules that there is a lot of room for improvement.  For instance, F1 2010’s tire allocation system governing the usage of tires over a race weekend is error-prone, with tires randomly becoming available or unavailable to the player without regard for the actual rules.  This makes developing a tire management strategy quite difficult to say the least.

On the subject of strategy, F1 2010 also gets a certain amount of kudos for attempting to replicate the team experience of having a race engineer guide the player in areas such as race management, strategy, and even car setup.  However, F1 2010 doesn’t go far enough and often fails at implementation of the limited goals it set out for this feature.  As an example, the race engineer is completely oblivious to differences in fuel loads or track conditions when comparing your times to your teammate’s, and will often suggest copying your teammate’s setup to chase the difference.  Another problem with that suggestion?  Copying your teammate’s setup isn’t an option in 2010.

F1 2010 also keeps the player from fully controlling the car at all times, including most-importantly, driving the car in the pit-lane.  It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that doesn’t allow for player control of the car in the pits, and while lack of full control doesn’t completely detract from the experience, a game of F1 2010’s caliber should obviously include that functionality.

There are a number of other fixes, additions, etc. that Codemasters could include in upcoming F1 titles.  Just a few things I’d like to see addressed: pre-season testing is completely left out of F1 2010, and could provide for a number of interesting game-play additions; not to mention invaluable acclimatization time for a player getting set to tackle a full World Championship season.  The lack of pit-lane action in light of the high level of detail in the game is also noticeable; if the crowd is animated, why isn’t there a single team member on the pit-wall?  And where is the safety car, reconnaissance laps, and other fundamental aspects of F1 racing that make the sport what it is?

THE UGLY…

Head on over to Codemaster’s F1 2010 forum and you’ll be privy to an angry mob of protesting players, the likes of which are usually seen in old black and white horror films. While many of the calls for the heads of those in charge at Codemasters aren’t deserved, there are more than a few issues in F1 2010 which warrant the ire the developers have received in the past several months.

To say F1 2010 was bug-ridden at the time of release is an understatement.  Yes, all games have minor glitches that slip through the beta-testing process; but F1 2010 was released with major, game-breaking bugs that should never be an issue for a game of F1 2010’s caliber.  Saved games would randomly become corrupted under certain circumstances, erasing a player’s considerable time and effort without any hope of recovery.  As just another example of the kinds of bugs F1 2010 was released with: after completing several 100% distance grand prix, I experienced no less than 6 punctures without going off-track even once.  Tire allocations were completely incorrect, driver aids would randomly be turned on by the game despite player selections, and the list goes on…

Codemasters did release a single patch aimed at addressing some of the aforementioned problems, and true to the initial release of F1 2010, the patch created just as many problems as it fixed.  Inexcusably, the patch completely broke the PC version’s dynamic track and weather system.  Goodbye racing lines, wet tracks, marbles off-line, etc.  Codemasters eventually identified a “fix” for the problem, which cut frame rates by more than half; rendering the most capable PC impotent on even modest settings.  It’s hard to imagine how a publisher like Codemasters can let such massive and obvious oversights to continually crop up.  It’s embarrassing.

More important than the aforementioned fiasco is the fact that F1 2010’s artificial intelligence system is an unmitigated disaster.  The AI drivers in F1 2010 perform well enough on-track, although driver behavior is nothing spectacular in terms of what we’ve seen before in racing games.  Computer drivers in F1 2010 do a better job than most of reacting to the player’s movements; from defending the racing line, to moving over when being lapped.  However, the absolute deal-breaker with F1 2010’s AI is such a major oversight on the part of the developer, that its palpably frustrating to even write about it several months after the game’s initial release.  The distinguishing characteristic of the 2010 Formula 1 season is that in-race refueling has been banned, and that cars start the race with several hundred pounds of fuel on board which eventually burns off lap-by-lap over a race distance.  Fuel weight changes in conjunction with tire wear have substantial effects on car behavior and lap times throughout a race, which the player can certainly feel to good effect in F1 2010.  What’s the problem then?  The AI drivers are seemingly unaffected by the fuel or tire simulation experienced by the human player.  Whereas the player will run laps some 4 to 5 seconds slower at the beginning of the race as compared to the end, the AI will set lap times within 1-2 seconds of their qualifying pace throughout the entirety of the race.

In addition to that monstrous oversight, the rest of the AI system is faked by artificially-generated lap times in qualifying, track-position ghosting, and a rubber-band system to control relative performance during a race.  In qualifying, an AI car’s lap-times aren’t represented by the car crossing the timing stripe; no matter how long it actually takes the car to get around the track, the computer will fake the lap time to correspond to pre-determined probable grid positions.  Furthermore, AI track positions aren’t controlled by in-game physics, but rather by computer-generated guidance which can lead to cars ghosting from one point to another when certain circumstances don’t fit the computer’s predictions.  In a race, the rubber-band system will also determine driver performance based on position and not the driver/entry’s true performance.  To illustrate, if Mark Webber gets into a first-lap squabble and drops to 20th place, he will consistently run laps on the level of the surrounding HRT, Lotus, or Virgin drivers.  Never before have I seen such fundamentally flawed design in an AI system.  Not even close.

…THE SUMMARY

In the end, F1 2010 is a potentially amazing game that is held back from greatness by a number of substantial design flaws.  The game looks, sounds, and feels like a modern Formula 1 game should.  Codemasters also gets a lot of credit for trying to replicate the ultra-complicated world of F1 racing while adding gameplay-enhancing features previously unseen in reality-based racing games.  That said, F1 2010 is Codemasters’ first offering in an ongoing F1 franchise and their inexperience shows in numerous aspects of the game.  One has to remember though, that while this is Codemasters’ first F1 game, the company has been around since 1986 and has produced a number of racing titles covering a wide variety of motorsports.  The persistent level of design, implementation, and testing flaws contained in F1 2010 is absolutely inexcusable for a title as big as F1 2010 is; especially for a publisher of Codemaster’s ilk and experience.

In many ways we can be both disappointed and hopeful that there is so much room for improvement for next-year’s F1 2011.  If Codemasters can right the state of affairs established by F1 2010, then this F1 fan won’t be dreading the next off-season quite as much as usual…

posted by Trey Blincoe

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Comment – Alonso’s British Grand Prix Penalty

No, you aren’t experiencing a severe case of deja vu. Another grand prix weekend has come and gone and in its wake we have yet another rules-related controversy involving Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.  Three weeks ago the focus at the European Grand Prix was on Formula 1’s safety car rules following a series of events which involved effectively the entire field; the most notable of which was an incident involving McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, Alonso, and his Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa. At last week’s British Grand Prix, the topic du jour was a pass for position between Alonso and Renault’s Robert Kubica on Lap 18, which you can see below:

Thereafter, Alonso stayed ahead of Kubica and did not cede the position back; Ferrari’s obvious interpretation of the events being that Alonso went off-track to avoid a near-certain collision. Alonso quickly opened up a gap after having passed Kubica, who retired shortly thereafter with a mechanical failure. Some 7 laps later, Alonso was handed a drive-through penalty for gaining position off the track. Compounding Alonso’s woes was the fact that the timing of the penalty’s issuance required Alonso to serve the penalty immediately following a safety car period, which saw the Spaniard drop from 4th to 16th position. From there, Alonso only managed to finish well out of the points in 14th place.

As with any significant racing event that involves one of the Scuderia’s cars, especially when that event includes rules interpretations, the story wasn’t over at the checkered flag. Following the race, Alonso issued his stance on the Kubica pass and the subsequent penalty:

“There will be a lot of opinions from people watching on TV while having a beer, saying we should have let Kubica by in a moment when, first, there was nothing to do – if there’d had been a wall instead of grass I would have crashed against it and they would have penalised Kubica most likely. So it depends on how you look at it. We thought it was fine. A few laps passed and there were no news and then if we had wanted to let him by, Kubica had retired already so there was nothing to change.”

Alonso referenced the obvious decision those on the Ferrari pit wall were left with after their driver passed Kubica: either let Kubica re-take the position, or let Alonso continue-on and hope that Ferrari’s interpretation of the pass coincided with the race stewards’ interpretation. Ferrari chose the latter course of action, and the stewards didn’t agree. Case closed? Of course not.

Two days after the race came the news that FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting quickly advised Ferrari that in his opinion, Alonso should give back the position:

“We told Ferrari three times that in my opinion they should give the position back to Kubica. And we told them that immediately, right after the overtaking manoeuvre. On the radio, I suggested to them that if they exchange position again, there would be no need for the stewards to intervene.”

Days after Whiting’s comments became public, Ferrari issued a chronological detail of Sunday’s events:

13:31:05 The overtaking move takes place at Club and after one second [Massimo] Rivola (Ferrari team manager) calls Whiting, who replies after 11 seconds. Rivola asks: ‘Have you seen the pass? In our opinion there was no room to overtake.’

26 secs after the pass, Whiting asks to be given time to watch the TV footage.

13:33 Ferrari makes a second radio call – 1m55s after the pass. Alonso has completed another lap plus one sector, and is behind Nico Rosberg and Jaime Alguersuari, while Kubica drops further back.

Whiting tells Ferrari that the stewards think Alonso could give the position back. Rivola asks: ‘Is this the decision?’

Whiting replies: ‘No, but that’s how we see it.’

Rivola informs the team while Rosberg overtakes Alguersuari. On the GPS screen that shows the position of the cars, Ferrari sees Kubica dropping further back. Meanwhile, Alonso overtakes Alguersuari at Turn 2.

13:33:22 Ferrari makes a third radio call.

Rivola tells Whiting: ‘Alonso doesn’t have only Kubica behind. He would have to concede two positions now.’

While they discuss the matter Kubica is overtaken by Barrichello so Alonso would have to now give up three positions.

Whiting replies: ‘We have given you the chance to do it or not. Things being this way, the stewards will hear the drivers at the end of the race, but I understand your position.’

13:35:30 Kubica stops so Alonso can no longer give the position back.

13:45:31 The stewards investigate the Alonso/Kubica incident. The monitors then display ‘car number 8 under investigation’, 14m26s after the pass.

13:46:26 Just 55 seconds later the stewards decide that Alonso should have a drive-through penalty.”

Whether Whiting took seconds or more than a minute to respond to Ferrari’s prompt for his opinion is ultimately irrelevant. Whiting isn’t a steward and any opinion issued by him was merely advisory in nature. Given the immediacy of Ferrari’s inquiry to the FIA following Alonso’s pass, Ferrari knew full well thedecision they had to make. It is important to highlight that if any team has first-hand knowledge and experience with the treatment of off-track passing maneuvers, its Ferrari. Back during the hotly-contested 2008 season, a similar controversy erupted after Lewis Hamilton gained an off-track advantage on then-Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of the Belgian Grand Prix.

That there has been debate over the Alonso/Kubica incident following the British Grand Prix comes as no surprise given the parties and stakes involved. However, what is surprising is the confusion of the issues that has occurred during this debate. Many pundits, fans, and even Ferrari have mixed the two distinct issues to come out of the Alonso/Kubica pass:

  1. Alonso exited the racing surface to avoid a near-certain collision with Kubica; and
  2. Alonso gained a position off the racing surface.

Alonso was not penalized for avoiding a collision with Kubica; he was penalized for gaining a position by going off-track.

In regards to the first issue, it is quite clear that Kubica intentionally swung wide to the natural racing line after the first left-hander to squeeze Alonso out of the right-hander that immediately followed. We’ve seen these kinds of aggressive defensive maneuvers before from certain drivers; Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Mark Webber, and even David Coulthard immediately come to mind. Driving defensively in this manner is “dirty” in every sense of the word, and moves such as Kubica’s are one of the many reasons why we don’t see more overtaking during F1 races. There was more than enough room for Kubica to make the left-hander without swinging wide into Alonso; but as Kubica undoubtedly knew, that would have surely let Alonso get by in the next turn. But that’s racing isn’t it? Just as Alonso couldn’t rightfully move prematurely to the inside as he pulled alongside Kubica, the converse is true as well. The FIA should look closely at maneuvers like Kubica’s in the future as they are bad for the show and are becoming ever more prevalent in recent seasons.

All that said, Alonso wasn’t thereby allowed to take Kubica’s position in a manner that is clearly not allowed under the Sporting Regulations. While Kubica’s driving was subjectively reprehensible, passing for position off-track is simply not allowed. Period.

Hindsight or not, by keeping Alonso ahead of Kubica, Ferrari went for the long-shot that the stewards would not correctly apply a simple rules interpretation. By allowing Alonso to race off into the distance, Ferrari foreclosed any chance that the stewards could reprimand Kubica, placing the focus squarely on Alonso just as Charlie Whiting had warned. The obvious question then is why would Ferrari risk so much for a relatively modest gain?

The answer is that after the recent European Grand Prix debacle, on top of what has been a decidedly underwhelming first half of the 2010 season, Ferrari are feeling the pressure to perform, now. Despite Alonso’s claims to the contrary, Ferrari are acutely aware that the 2010 season is slowly slipping from their grasp. It’s not the points-spread from Ferrari’s drivers to their counterparts at McLaren or Red Bull that’s concerning, its the fact that regardless of luck, Ferrari aren’t performing at the same level of the aforementioned contenders. Red Bull have been quick but self-destructive, and McLaren haven’t been the quickest but they’ve nabbed the results. By comparison, Ferrari have done nothing well. Following a decades-long rivalry, Ferrari know that if there’s one thing McLaren are good at, it’s in-season development. It’s therefore quite ominous for the Prancing Horse that on top of trying to catch the ultra-quick Red Bull RB6, McLaren are also leading both championships with a car that by many accounts is the third quickest on the grid.

As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures…

posted by Trey Blincoe

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Comment – The Safety Car

The 2010 editions of the Monaco and European Grand Prix have both featured prominently in the Formula 1 headlines for all the wrong reasons: controversies regarding the safety car and its attendant regulations. In Monaco, the talking points concerned the last-lap pass of Michael Schumacher on Fernando Alonso as the safety car returned to the pits. The scope of the Valencia scandal was far greater, with no less than half the field being directly impacted by the safety car’s deployment; whether by a massive swing in track position, or by being handed a penalty for an infraction. Never in a single Formula 1 season have we seen as many controversies regarding the safety car as we’ve had in only half of the 2010 season. Perhaps the most disturbing fact regarding the aforementioned events is that there is no clear answer to any of the problems each event has posed. Clearly, the 2010 FIA Sporting Regulations contain significant ambiguities when it to comes to the many safety car rules. Recognizing the current state of affairs, an Extraordinary Meeting of the Sporting Working Group has been scheduled for this upcoming Wednesday before the British Grand Prix weekend. All twelve teams will be present, and the FIA will be represented by Race Director Charlie Whiting.

So what exactly are the safety car regulations that are causing the aforementioned problems? What should the FIA do to ensure that future safety car usage is fair, transparent, and, well, safe?

Article 40 of the 2010 FIA Sporting Regulations comprises the regulations applicable to the safety car. While the typical introductory fare is included, the first rule of interest concerns a significant change to the safety car regulations that was first implemented for the 2009 season:

Art. 40.10 (2010): “Whilst the safety car is in operation, competing cars may enter the pit lane, but may only rejoin the track when the green light at the end of the pit lane is on. It will be on at all times except when the safety car and the line of cars following it are about to pass or are passing the pit exit . A car rejoining the track must proceed at an appropriate speed until it reaches the end of the line of cars behind the safety car.”

Article 40.10 is the root of not only Ferrari’s precipitous fall from the top 4 in Valencia, but also Michael Schumacher’s being held by the pit-exit light while the entire field passed him by. Both the Ferrari and Schumacher issues stem primarily from one allowance contained in Art. 40.10: that cars may immediately pit under the safety car. As we saw in Valencia, depending on the timing of the safety car’s deployment, allowing cars to pit under the safety car can be a dream for some and a nightmare for others. The line between positive and negative outcomes under the current rules-set comes down primarily to pure, unadulterated, dumb luck. However, the ability to immediately pit under the safety car hasn’t always been allowed in F1, and is a rare allowance in the world of motorsports.

Article 40.10 essentially reverts the F1 safety car regulations to those of the 2006 season. In 2007, the FIA inserted a rule into Art. 40 which foreclosed the opportunity for cars to immediately pit during a safety car period:

Art. 40.6 (2007): “From the time at which the “SAFETY CAR DEPLOYED” message is displayed no car may enter the pit lane for the purpose of refuelling until all cars on the track have formed up in a line behind the safety car and the message “PIT LANE OPEN” is shown on the timing monitors. A ten second time penalty (see Article 16.3b) will be imposed on any driver who enters the pit lane and whose car is refuelled before the second message is shown on the timing monitors. However, any car which was in the pit entry or pit lane when the safety car was deployed will not incur a penalty.”

The 2007 version of the safety car rules were essentially modeled after those of F1’s North American counterparts. The implementation of the closed and open pit lane rules was two-fold: no driver could be gifted a massive change in track position by virtue of luck as we saw in Valencia this year, and the FIA would not have to worry about cars continuing at a high rate of speed to the pits once the safety car message was posted. However, the 2007 rules proved problematic for two other reasons: F1 strategy at the time rested largely on knife-edge fuel calculations that often required fuel stops when the pits were closed, and unlike North American racing, F1 only has one pit box for each team, as opposed to one pit box for each car in the field. With only one pit box per team, one team driver was likely to benefit from the safety car by pitting first, while the other was handed a substantial drop in track position by pitting second. During the 2007 and 2008 seasons, teams often resorted to double-stacking their cars in the pit lane, with one car waiting while the other was serviced so as to minimize the damage to the second driver’s race as best the team could.

In an effort to alleviate the problems posed by limiting pit lane access during a safety car period, the FIA moved to the current version of Art. 40.10 for the 2009 season. While we never witnessed the true extent of the mayhem this particular rule-set could provide until Valencia this year, the one obvious question to ask is why the rules don’t revert back to the 2007 version now that in-race refueling has been banned? The one major problem posed by the 2007 safety car rules is no longer an issue in 2010, as teams can only pit their drivers to change tires. By immediately closing the pits until the entire field is collected by the safety car, the FIA wouldn’t have to worry about cars running out of fuel or controlling the speed of drivers circulating up to the safety car. Instituting ‘delta times’ as pseudo-speed limits and multiple ‘safety car lines’ to control overtaking is an overly-complicated way of trying to make a bad set of rules work.

The last glaring deficiency in the 2010 safety car regulations relates to Michael Schumacher’s last-lap pass of Fernando Alonso in Monaco:

Art. 40.14 (2010): “If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.”

The confusion and controversy in Monaco was the result of the FIA posting a message that the safety car would return to the pits on the final lap, signaling to Schumacher and Mercedes GP that the race was ‘going green’ for the last 500 yards or so between the final corner and the checkered flag. Schumacher took this opportunity to pass Alonso’s Ferrari in the final corner; a move which ultimately handed Schumacher a penalty for violating Art. 40.14 that dropped him out of the points. Compelling arguments were made that Schumacher had, or hadn’t broken the rules based on the FIA’s issuance of the “SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP” message. Now, the obvious solution to this situation, and any situation like it that may arise in the future, is to have the safety car stay on track through to the race finish. After all, leaving the safety car on track during a race finish under full-course caution is the way everybody else in the world handles such matters. Nobody, not even the FIA, can give any reason to the contrary.

Hopefully F1’s teams and the FIA take the foregoing matters seriously, as there is no bigger concern in sports than the appearance of fairness and legitimacy in application of the rules. Look no further than the 2010 World Cup and its numerous reffing controversies to understand the importance of these matters. When teams spend countless years and hundreds of millions of dollars to reach a result in F1, the least the sport’s governing body can do is to provide fair and transparent rules to govern the races.

posted by Trey Blincoe

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