Sunday, 5 December 2010

Final thoughts on 2010: F1 mostly looking rosy

Hopefully the 2010 F1 season will be viewed in years to come as a watershed rather than a blip. It was a season wherein F1 was strangely at ease with itself, and delivered a level of on track action not seen in years, and a championship battle of a competitiveness probably not seen ever.

Given F1's capacity for false dawns and for shooting itself in the foot, I feel slightly reluctant be so positive about F1's state, but at the topline level 2010 was a great season for F1.

On the track it was the year of the Bull, with the Red Bulls continuing their almost uninterrupted upward trajectory over their six year stint in the sport, by claiming the drivers' (for Vettel) and constructors' championship titles. Indeed, their competitive advantage, particularly in aerodynamics, was compared by some to some of the Ferraris in the Schumacher/Todt/Brawn era, and to the Williams FW14s. The car's pace advantage, particularly through the quick corners, appeared to indicate a fundamentally different approach from their rivals.

That they didn't finally claim their championship crowns until the very end of the season was down to a number of well-documented factors, including unreliability (for Vettel), driver errors and having two competitive drivers taking points off each other. But it also reflected the resurgent Ferrari and McLaren teams' ability to pounce on any slight opportunity that Red Bull presented them with.

After being caught on the hop by 2009's regulation changes and the infamous 'double diffuser', the two establishment teams managed to stride back to competitiveness this year. For the first time since 2003 three teams were genuinely competitive and in the hunt for wins. We were therefore treated to a five-way championship battle, and an unprecedented four drivers still in with a shout of the title at the last race.

The title eventually went to Sebastian Vettel. He became the youngest F1 world champion ever, adding to his seemingly exclusive collection of 'youngest F1 driver to do X' records. Vettel was the season's most consistently competitive front runner, and claimed ten pole positions. It was also a season in which Vettel came of age, making the transition from the happy go lucky kid of the past couple of years to the guy who is expected to deliver wins. It wasn't always easy, and in mid season it seemed to be open season on questioning his judgement and state of mind, having been involved in a number of high-profile incidents. But Seb responded to this superbly, and put in a great late season run which put him into the lead of the table at precisely the right moment.

And there are reasons to think that next season will be even better for us watching on.

In terms of on track action, the refuelling ban delivered to an extent. After the panic of the dull opening round in Bahrain (were people under the impression that there were no dull races when refuelling was allowed?) the average overtakes per race in 2010 was much higher than in previous years, and indeed was at its highest since 1991 (see Clip The Apex's excellent statistics on the matter). Still, as the last race at Abu Dhabi showed among others, there is still some way to go to allow cars to follow each other closely and to pass. Of course, solving such as problem won't be easy, downforce cannot be uninvented and F1 has to be at the pinnacle of the sport pace-wise. But hopefully the ban on the double diffuser for next season, as well as FIA President Jean Todt's welcome promise to look at the impact of circuit design and the return of ground effect to the agenda, will help things.

Which brings us neatly onto politics. This is where this season was a particular revelation as for the most part it was resolutely apolitical, and the new-found calm in the paddock was noticeable. Many were concerned that Todt, being enthusiastically promoted by Max Mosley as his successor, would represent more of the same, but Todt was always going to be resolutely his own man. Gone was the divisiveness and self-promotion which often characterised Mosley's reign, and the F1 fraternity definitely appreciated Todt's arms-length management style. Todt's innovation of having a drivers' representative among the stewards at each race was an unqualified success, and (perhaps not unrelated) the stewards generally lost their previous will to over police any on track battles. The fact that the biggest controversy was the storm-in-a-teacup reaction to Ferrari's driver switch at Hockenheim tells you something.

One positive aspect of Mosley's legacy was that this season F1 successfully moved into a post-manufacturing era. In the past 12 months or so Honda, Toyota and BMW have left the sport, and Renault rolled back their constructor involvement, all to varying degrees related to wider economic difficulties. Yet, conversely, this year the number of cars on the grid was up to a healthy 24, and resource restriction and the like has ensured that teams without manufacturer backing can be competitive (indeed, the last two drivers' and constructors' titles have been won by independents).

There were some doubts as to whether the new teams were the most suitable to let into the sport, and USF1's inability to make it to the grid at all wasn't entirely unexpected. Further the three new teams (Lotus, Virgin and HRT) formed a definite second division in the sport, and never got close to the other runners on lap times. Further they occasionally showed an ill-preparedness that probably made Bernie cringe. In their defence, they entered the sport on the understanding of a strict budget cap, which was long gone by the start of the season (though you could say it was naive of them to expect it to hold), and reaching the end of the season can be considered an achievement. Lotus were definitely the most impressive of the newbies, and their recent Renault engine and Red Bull technology deals bode well for their future. The collapse of HRT's Toyota link up doesn't bode well for them.

Another positive aspect of Mosley's legacy is the commitment for F1 to justify its existence by performing an active role in developing green technologies, and there is every sign that will continue. KERS returns to the grid next year (and Pat Symonds said on Motor Sport's latest podcast that he believes that the KERS development in F1 has really brought it back onto the road car industry's agenda, having previously been all but rejected) and it appears that there is to be more of a step in this direction in 2013.

On Bernie's side of the business, BCE continued to follow the money (or rather CVC did) and the circus continued its move eastwards, away from Europe. This year Korea appeared on the calendar for the first time and, unusually, the public there seemed to show a high level of enthusiasm for the sport. Let's hope this continues. The round did look under threat for while though, with the building of the facility behind schedule, and Bernie showing unusual tolerance to timetables slipping. The event went off well in the end, and the facility should be impressive once all of the plans are completed.

The move away from Europe will continue unabated in future years, with India appearing on the schedule next year, and Russia and Austin, Texas to follow. While moving into new markets is fine, you wonder at what point moving F1 away from its European core market has to cease. Some of the new events, such as Singapore, have been a success, but it seems at most others many of the locals come to the races disguised as seats (I'm thinking China, Bahrain, Malaysia, and increasingly Abu Dhabi).

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