Formula 1’s rose-coloured gremlins

“These days, Formula 1 is a boring shamble of a sport, full of PR-drilled robots who don’t have to put much effort at all into driving the cars. I miss when there was a different winner every race and drivers were chain-smoking, free spirits who drove the most dangerous cars on the planet.”

This is surely what new fans think of the sport if the regular social media commentary is anything to go by.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and as the sport rapidly approaches one of its biggest ever technical shake-ups in 2021, it could prove to be exactly the wrong thing it needs.

No doubt the richness of Formula 1’s heritage is the envy of many other sports. Since the 1950s, Grand Prix racing has become one of, if not the, world’s biggest racing categories.

It has produced some of the biggest personalities in sporting history, while tragically taking the lives of many others.

Given millions of fans have watched the sport for decades, some of them are naturally still stuck in the past. It’s almost compulsory for many fans to look back on the rivalries of Hunt and Lauda, Prost and Senna, even Schumacher and Hakkinen and consider it the ‘golden era’ of the sport.

Look at any social media post with classic race clips and you’ll likely find complaints about engine noise, complaints about the cars, even complaints about the drivers. All usually followed by ‘it was better 30 years ago’, or ‘bring back the V10s’.

This is not limited to fans either. Gatekeeping tends to be an almost endemic issue in the F1 paddock, particularly among the older drivers, some of whom spend their retirement claiming current drivers have it easy.

Take Sebastian Vettel for instance. Talking to the media after his infamous Canadian GP penalty earlier this season, he referred to older drivers, saying “I just wish I was maybe as good, doing what I do, but being in their time rather than today”.

“Ultimately it’s not the sport that I fell in love with when I was watching.”

Was Formula 1 truly better back in the day?

Well, to say yes might be a little naïve.

Mercedes’ near-complete domination of the sport since 2014 is nothing new. Red Bull had a similar period of success a few years ago with Vettel. Ferrari spent the early 2000s winning just about everything and before that, McLaren held the reins of the sport for years.

Nearly every generation of this sport has been marked by dominance by a team or driver.

It’s easy to make a 3-minute highlight reel of an older race seem exciting, but you have to consider the rest of the race. Drivers like Prost or Senna were often out front for much of the time. Reliability was much less assured than it is now. Cars retired left, right and centre due to engine issues or other technical failures.

And speaking of the technological side of the sport, this is perhaps the greatest area in which Formula 1 is struggling to move away from the past.

For example, FIA President Jean Todt has decided now is the perfect time to again raise the prospect of refuelling, which was banned 10 years ago. This is in spite of it having already been brought up and dismissed in the last year.

F1 cars currently carry their entire fuel load on board, and have no issues reaching the end of the race. The entire point of switching to V6 engines was for better fuel efficiency, increased road relevancy and other environmental concerns.

How many times over the years have there been major fires due to refuelling? It’s inherently dangerous pumping litres and litres of fuel into a race car at such high pressure, and it’s usually the pit crew that pay the price.

While it can certainly be made as safe as possible with today’s technology, it only takes one thing to go wrong for someone to be seriously injured.

Furthermore, if the general consensus is correct and F1 already relies too much on pit stops for strategy and overtaking, refuelling would only exacerbate the issue.

All that thanks to a practice that never necessarily made racing better in the past.

Deliberately reducing safety in a sport – which years ago saw multiple drivers dying each season – in the name of bringing F1 back to its ‘glory days’, seems absurd.

Back in 2015, Felipe Massa even said Formula 1 should just “be better and more intelligent”, rather than rely on old gimmicks to decrease safety.

Major aerodynamic modifications and further standardising parts are expected changes to racing in 2021. The alterations are part of a concerted effort to improve overtaking and bring the sport back to a more basic style of racing.

Whether these – or even the proposed cost caps – can even the field up remains to be seen.

All-in-all, it’s important to remember the old races aren’t going anywhere. Subscribe to F1TV or rummage around the internet if you must watch them.

But for a sport that prides itself on innovation, Formula 1 must learn to move forward, gradually detach from the past and power towards a technologically innovative future.

Image by Ben Neale