Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sometimes a Little Autocracy is a Good Thing

The big news in motorsports from last weekend was the debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Fourteen cars refused to race on Sunday, because their tires--provided by Michelin--were unreliable on the high speed section of the course. Of the six Bridgestone-shod cars that did race, only two--the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello--were serious, 1st-rate contenders.

There were a number of possible solutions to the tire problem brought up before and after the race:

(1) The FIA (F1 governing body) could have allowed Michelin to break the rules and fly in new and presumably more reliable tires for its teams. But the FIA didn't want to do this.

(2) After the FIA refused to allow the new tires, the Michelin teams asked the FIA to install a chicane on the track which would reduce speeds and, thus, reduce the likelihood of dangerous tire failures. The FIA balked at making a decision and turned it over to the teams. All of the teams agreed to the chicane except for Ferrari, who saw their momentary tire advantage as their best hope of winning this season. So no chicane.

(3) And though I didn't hear about this too much as the controversy (and race) was going on, another "solution" has been floating around: the Michelin teams should have raced, but just kept their speeds down. Personally, I think this is an unsatisfactory suggestion. Would it really have been that much better to have 14 cars on the track if they weren't able to run competitively? And if they all were still in danger of having a dangerous tire failure? I suppose it would have looked a little better and it wouldn't have been such a PR nightmare, but part of the fun of Formula 1 is watching the greatest cars in the world go really, really fast. It just doesn't seem to be as much fun if you know that the drivers aren't pushing their cars to the limit.

I've noticed that most of the press and internet commentary is focused on assigning blame. Tony George, who runs the Indianapolis Speedway, issued a press release minutes after the race ended which basically said, blame FIA and Michelin, not Indy. Some people have attacked Ferrari for not compromising about the chicane and a lot of people have suggested that Michelin is to blame because they brought bad equipment to begin with.

I have a hard time seeing how any of this is Ferrari's fault. True, they didn't compromise, but why should they? It makes sense to me that they would take advantage of any opportunity they can to get an edge on the competition. After all, they have yet to win a race this year, and they need all the help they can get.

I suppose you could make a case that Ferrari should have thought more about the long term health of Formula 1 racing and less about its own short term success, but I just don't think its Ferrari's job to worry about Formula 1 as a whole. That of course begs the question: "Whose job is it to worry about Formula 1 as a whole?" But before I answer that, let me deal with the Michelin bashers.

Michelin did drop the ball. The Michelin teams did not show up prepared to race competitively. However, once you make that point, there's nowhere left to go. The same thing could still happen again because Michelin (or Bridgestone) could be caught off guard again.

I think the real focus should be less on who's to blame in this particular instance and more on the underlying factors that let the debacle happen.

For me, it all has to do with the FIA and its relatively weak position within the sport it is supposed to govern.

Let's compare the FIA to NASCAR:

The NASCAR governing body has complete control over the sport. The various teams and manufacturers have some politically power, but, at the end of the day, NASCAR is going to do what it wants to do. For example, I'm not sure that big teams like Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports were all that excited about the change to a play-off-like, Chase for the Championship format, but NASCAR wanted the change, so it happened.

NASCAR's complete control over the sport has led to some boneheaded (and borderline unfair) decisions, but, all in all, it means that it has tight control over its product and can more easily ensure quality racing. Sometimes, NASCAR has changed the rules the morning before a race. This drives the teams crazy and probably means that some teams get shafted, but NASCAR doesn't care if it feels its decisions are in the sport's overall best interest. And because the buck stops with NASCAR, there's really can't no situation where NASCAR would blame the individual teams for the embarrassing outcome of any given race.

Now, it should be the FIA's job to make sure that it has a quality product. However, in Formula 1, the FIA has to play power politics whenever they want to get something done. And, in Formula 1, there are more power players: the teams, the manufacturers, even the tire suppliers are all able to push the FIA around.

It is embarrassing and pathetic that the FIA left the chicane question up to the teams. If this were NASCAR, the governing body would have made an executive decision that would have ensured the race went on with as full a field as possible. And if big, important teams like Hendrick Motorsports complained, NASCAR would basically tell them, "Tough titty."

Another (somewhat related) question raised by the tire debacle: "Is it really a good idea to have competing tire manufacturers?" NASCAR decided on having only one tire supplier for all its teams, because it didn't want tire manufacturers to push the envelop and end with tires that were dangerous to race on. Let's say that Michelin had been the only tire supplier and they had brought lousy tires to a race. In that case, bringing in different tires or adding a chicane or two wouldn't be controversial, because all teams would be equally affected. I realise that this undermines some of the competitive engineering aspects of Formula 1, but putting on competitive races is a lot more important when you're trying to expand your fanbase.

This whole thing reminded me of when CART was unable to put on a race at the Texas Motor Speedway (back in 2001), because the speeds the cars were running turned out to be way too fast for safety. That foul-up was one of the major factors that changed me from a CART fan into an ex-CART fan. CART should have put more time and money into testing whether or not its cars would have any problems running on a track they had never run on before.

It's one thing when a half-assed organization like CART drops the ball like that and another when the FIA makes a similar mistake. Formula 1 is supposed to be the premiere racing series in the world. These are supposed to be the best drivers in the best cars. Unfortunately, the FIA seems unable or unwilling to put on the best races.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy all the NASCAR, CART, and FIA stuff, but when are you going to finish posting your 25 favorite comics?

I only recently started reading your blog, and I've been going back through the archives to find your comics-related posts.

Jon Hastings said...

I'll be posting a new "favorite comics" entry sometime next week.

Thanks for reading.