You just can’t keep a bad idea down in Formula One.
Just last year a planned reintroduction of refuelling by the Strategy Group was killed off. Yet last week we learned it is back on the agenda again.
Refuelling was expunged from the F1 rules at the end of 2009 because it was deemed too expensive. Refuelling rigs are large, heavy pieces of apparatus. To guard against the risk of failure, each team has a back-up rig, doubling the transportation costs.
Moving 22 such rigs to 21 destinations around the world is good business for hauliers but the teams feel it adds too little to the spectacle to justify the expense. Formula One is a costly business and, as FIA president Jean Todt noted over the weekend, if refuelling can add enough to the spectacle then it should be considered.
But it doesn’t. The words of Martin Whitmarsh explaining the reasons for the refuelling ban at the end of 2009 would still hold true: “Overtaking was often being planned and implemented to occur as a consequence of strategy, and therefore happening in the pit lane and not the circuit.”
The majority of F1 Fanatic readers appear to endorse that view. In a poll last year those who opposed bringing refuelling back outnumbered those who supported it by more than two to one.
“I guess we are going to have to drag out all the analysis we did last year to show refuelling is shit again and will not improve the show,” was one of the pithier responses to last week’s news. If those pushing for a return to refuelling paused to consider why it added so little to the spectacle they would better appreciate the changes Formula One should make to enliven the competition.
When refuelling was last brought back into F1 back in 1994, besides being a novelty in its own right, it did produce some surprises. Benetton’s Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn used their World Sportscar tactical expertise to run rings around Williams in 1994 and 1995.
But after one too many nasty surprises of seeing Brawn conjure a way to get Schumacher to the front of the field, Williams wised up. And so did the rest of the teams. Moreover, they got richer and hired more staff, many of which were dedicated to mastering the science of race strategy.
Within a few years refuelling was no longer a novel and tricky new variable, it was a routine part of a race which served only to detract from the action on-track. In many ways the past five seasons of ‘designed-to-degrade’ tyres has been the same: the novelty has worn off and the drivers know they can cruise around between pit stops, pushing only when they need to.
The point is the teams are too rich, too well-staffed and too professional to be challenged by rules like these. Mistakes, such as Mercedes’ in Monaco last year, are incredibly rare.
What F1 needs to find is ways of constraining the teams’ ability to spend their way to success. Progress has been made in this area by extending the parc ferme period and enforcing a curfew on teams’ activities during race weekends and capping the number of staff they can bring to races.
But while these rules are sensible steps in the right direction, it won’t stop teams from being able to have as many staff as they like back at base working out the best strategy and informing the pit wall.
In other championships refuelling adds a more worthwhile strategic dimension. In IndyCar every driver has his own pit box so they can pit whenever they want, and more frequent caution periods encourages teams to gamble on alternatives. F1’s one-pit-per-team set-up and low number of Safety Car periods discourages teams from being so daring.
There is little room for optimism that reviving refuelling would have a positive effect on racing in F1. But it may well happen anyway. Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone and Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne are pressing for it, and it was just such a FOM-Ferrari alliance that last imposed refuelling on F1 over rival teams’ objections 22 years ago.
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