A Better Formula 1 Calendar (Or A More Efficient One At Least)

It’s summer break time in Formula 1. That means it’s time for the traditional “there are too many races” articles from the journos. I quite like the BBC’s choose your races for a 16 race season thing because it’s something a little different to the usual.

I like “different to the usual”, and this is my contribution to that.

What if we don’t get rid of races, but, instead, find a better order in which to race them to save time, distance and cost.

There is a shiny app dedicated to solving the travelling salesman problem. Simplifying horribly, the travelling salesman problem asks “what is the most efficient route round x number of points?” The app, here, does the hard work for you. It’s really good because it copes with cross-ocean travel, which not all apps for the travelling salesman problem do.

To find the most efficient route to cover all the races of the 2018 F1 season, I tried to put in the locations of the races.

That was when the first problem occurred. Completely understandably, the app only includes cities, and several of the racetracks are not in or near cities. Therefore, I’ve gone with the nearest city to the locations of the races. The races affected by this are:

Race – closest city

Bahrain GP – Manama
French GP – Marseille
Austrian GP – Ljubljana (stop laughing in the back)
British GP – Leicester
German GP – Stuttgart for Hockenheim
Belgian GP – Brussels
Italian GP – Milan
Japanese GP – Nagoya

This was the map that the app produced

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In case you can’t read the labels, the order the program puts the locations in is Melbourne, Singapore, Nagoya, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Manama, Baku, Sochi, Ljubljana, Budapest, Milan, Barcelona, Marseille, Monte Carlo, Stuttgart, Brussel, Leicester, Montreal, Austin, Mexico City, Sao Paolo.

That’s start in Australia, fly over to Asia and race the Asian and Middle Eastern tracks. The route then moves across Europe from East to West, from the UK go across to Canada, down the Americas and finishes in Brazil.

The one downside to the solution is that it has to return to its starting point, because it solves the travelling salesman problem. That makes it more likely that an outlying point, in this case Melbourne, will be the starting point.

But, and this is the important thing, doesn’t the order that it proposes better from a logistical point of view? Doesn’t it make more sense than jumping from Australia to Bahrain, only to jump back to China. Following that, in the real calendar, there’s a slow drift across from Asia to Europe, only for the circuit to leap from Monaco to Montreal, then back to France followed by the rest of the European races bar one. Then, in the real world, we go from Europe to Singapore, back to Europe, then out to Japan, which is two long flights the smaller teams could probably do without. From Japan, it’s over to the US, then down, through Mexico to Brazil, which makes sense. Going from there to Abu Dhabi does not.

The app’s more efficient plan avoids a number of weeks where the teams barely have time to land before they have to take off again. The simplified route only crosses the Atlantic once (as opposed to four times in the actual calendar) and doesn’t cross the Indian Ocean at all (as opposed to twice in the real calendar). It avoids a trip to Singapore and back in the middle of the season. It also avoids a 15+ hour trip from Japan to Texas. Those changes should make logistics easier for the teams and mean that the pit crew (and other, even less heralded team members) might have chance to see their families once in a while.

Of course, the app is only bound by geography and the information entered. In reality, the layout of the season is determined by money and politics. Certainly, the US Grand Prix is at that point in the season just so there’s a chance that the Championship might be decided on US soil so there might finally be major US commercial interest. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Abu Dhabi’s contract is to host the final race of the season, not any old race.

Someone with more mathematical / coding skill than me would probably be able to come up with a way of running a similar algorithm with a fixed final point. That would mean you could find the most efficient route is if it has to finish at Abu Dhabi. Whatever that calendar is, it won’t be the one that F1 is using at the moment. Going all the way over to the Americas only to come back to the Middle East really adds mileage. It will be interesting to see how Liberty deal with this when Abu Dhabi’s contract is up for renewal because I don’t think anyone likes where Abu Dhabi is on the calendar.

It’s not just because I’d rather see titles decided in Brazil. Given the way the last few seasons have gone, they title is more likely to be wrapped up before the last race. My objection to Abu Dhabi having the last race is that I’d rather the last race be somewhere where we might get actual racing action.

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Halos, Shields and Fighter Jet Canopys, Oh My!

The FIA have pre-empted this post by choosing the halo design but I was going to write something about the plans for increasing cockpit safety anyway.

Your fears are formed by what you see.

The two most recent serious F1 accidents have featured something hitting the driver’s head while they’re seated in their vehicle. Understandably, this has led to calls for fully enclosed cockpits to be used in F1. The first F1 accident I remember was Gerhard Berger’s 1989 crash at Imola. Which I swear is where my fear of burning to death comes from. Now, that ended happily, or at least only with minor injuries, but the main reason I don’t like the idea of having fighter jet-style canopies is what happens if they fail to release.

The other problem with a full canopy is how it would be cleaned as it got dirty. If the driver is fully sealed, he can’t just rip off a tear-off strip the way you can with helmets. Sure, the mechanics could do it during a pit stop. But what if it got dirty in-between times, or if the car in front sprayed oil all over the canopy because of a mechanical failure?

I suspect these problems, or something similar, are the reason why the FIA and the teams haven’t even tried anything like a full, sealed canopy.

With a “shield”, there aren’t the same problems. The driver can get out, and I presume tear-offs can be made for them. On the other hand, objects can still bounce off and in, and something could go over and in to the cockpit. I don’t think that you’re ever going to be able to make any motorsport 100% safe, but I think the shield is probably the best option. It mixes increasing safety without introducing different risks or just leaving things as is of the solutions so far put forward.

I don’t get what the halo is supposed to do. I’m sure I’m missing something, and I’m sure someone with more engineering know-how can explain it to me. It seems to offer very little extra protection while reducing the driver’s field of vision. I don’t think the central column visibility issues will be as bad as it looks (see also how quickly you can get used to seeing through mesh in a fencing mask). However, I’ve no idea how it’s supposed to prevent objects entering the cockpit. It seems to only be capable of preventing things if they’re on a trajectory that crosses over the halo pillars and bars.

The FIA have gone with the halo over the shield. I’m sure they have their reasons. I’m sure they are good reasons. It would be nice to know what those reasons are because from the outside, it looks like a ridiculous decision.

Better The Devil You Know (Or Missing Bernie Ecclestone)

I can understand why people are glad Bernie Ecclestone has gone. He was a kleptocrat, who didn’t get media invented after 1980, and who seemed to be more interested in enriching himself than decent racing.

However, I do worry that Formula 1 fans might miss him more than we expect to.

When Bernie Ecclestone was in charge, you knew who was in charge and who was to blame for things. Who is in charge with Liberty Media? With whom does the buck stop? And I think with a sport, you do need *a* person in charge. Otherwise, instead of moving forward, you have lots of good ideas which never get implemented.

Liberty Media is run by a group of shareholders, who all have to be placated. With Bernie, you knew what he wanted, which was money, and more of it, but the process at least was easy.

The other thing, which could be me doing Liberty a disservice, is that Ecclestone was pretty hot on driver safety. Not openly. If he spoke about driver safety Ecclestone gave press quotes to annoy. But that was his thing, and if you believed anything Bernie Ecclestone said to the media, more fool you. On the other hand, US sports, particularly motorsports, have a reputation for not being careful about safety. Both the halo and the aeroscreen have their issues, but something needs to be done. I worry that Liberty won’t give that sort of change the help it needs to be pushed through.

As I said, I could be being unnecessarily pessimistic. Liberty are doing everything right so far, especially putting Ross Brawn in charge of improving the racing, but I do worry that we’ll miss Bernie.

My lunatic plan for the Mercedes Second Seat

Or musical Formula 1 chairs

While I am completely in favour of whoever Mercedes pick, as long as it’s Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg or Pascal Wehrlein, this is my plan on what to do with the second Mercedes seat.

I came up with this when I realised that there were 20 races per season and 20 other non-Hamilton drivers.

You might have guessed where this is going.

The other drivers draw a number from a hat, from 1 to 20.  Each race is numbered 1 to 20.  The driver with that number gets the second Mercedes seat for that race.

While I am aware of all kind of problems with that, not least of all practise time and getting race seats fitted, think of all the fun arguments it would settle.  For instance, Hamilton vs Vettel in the same car.  Think also of the fun arguments it would start.  For instance “no fair, driver X only had the seat at race Y which gave him no chance,” or “just typical, Z was in the Mercedes the time it failed.”  It would mean we could actually compare say Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen, or argue that the two races they were in were too different to compare.

So, what’s in it for the other teams?

Well, as well as driver two’s points counting for Mercedes, they count for their home team too.  Which means that the fight between the teams at the back might get a bit closer, and a bit more interesting (sorry to the Manor fans I know).

The smaller teams might be able to wring more money out of their pay drivers which should help their development for 2018.

What’s in it for Mercedes?

Very little, other than my eternal gratitude.  But they’d also be able to show how good their car was if they won the constructor’s title despite this nonsense.

I know it’s never going to happen, but wouldn’t it be fun.

On Nico Rosberg’s Retirement

Rosberg’s retirement didn’t surprise me as much as it seems to have shocked other people. The timing surprised me, I am not Nostradamus, but not him retiring.

Rosberg has always struck me as a sensible person, in both senses of the word.  I think he knows he’s not a better racing driver than Hamilton and that one World Championship is likely to be as good as it gets.  I think he also knows that there’s no point in carrying on doing something you don’t enjoy when you’ve achieved all you can and have all the money you will ever need.  There was also a certain amount of writing on the wall about his future given how slow Mercedes were being to renew his contract in mid-season.

I have no idea what Rosberg plans to do next, but I hope he has a lot of fun.

I think part of the reason people were so taken aback by his retirement is that most of us would do any number of truly terrible things to become Formula 1 drivers. Yet, there he is, walking away from the best car in the pack, a car that’s still likely to be the best next year, even with the rule changes.

Of course, I suspect that being an F1 driver is one of those things that looks a lot more fun than it actually is.  We get to see the best bits, the actual racing, not the hours of testing, simulating, and work that goes into it.  While it’s about F1 mechanics, there was a really interesting article on the BBC website about the realities of life in Formula 1 which I would recommend.

There is a large part of me that respects Rosberg for leaving as much as anything else he’s done because there must have been great pressure on him to stay.

One thing that does interest me is the number of people who refuse to believe that Rosberg has retired because he wants to spend more time with his family.  Now I know that it’s the traditional fake reason for politicians, but look at Rosberg’s life.  He’s got a wife and a new daughter, that the job kept him away from.  He’s made all the money he’s ever going to need, so he doesn’t need the job, and the job has already killed someone he knew.  If you look at it like that, it makes a lot of sense.
I’m also interested in the way that when a female sportsperson retires to start a family or spend more time with hers, it’s treated as perfectly normal, but if a male sportsperson does it, the sportsman is lying.  People either have a really skewed view of the world, or they don’t think that men love their families as much as women do.  Either way, I feel so sorry for people who feel like that, they seem to be missing out on rather a lot of joy in their lives.

Perfectly Gentlemanly Conduct

I’ve got no problem with what Lewis Hamilton did at the Abu Dhabi grand prix. This is for two reasons :

1 – I am a Ferrari fan and while the team motto isn’t “we lie, we cheat, we steal” it easily could be. I have no room to complain about anyone bending the rules.

2 – Hamilton was fighting for the world title. Nothing he did endangered anyone’s safety, and Mercedes had already won the constructors World title. There was nothing wrong with what Hamilton did and I’m still not sure why the Mercedes team management tried to interfere.

My only problem comes when he tries to pretend he didn’t deliberately slow down to try to help Vettel and Verstappen try to overtake Rosberg. It’s like “Lewis, who do you think you’re kidding?” The superiority of the Mercedes to the other cars has been a theme for the past few seasons. It was half a second faster than the next nearest car in qualifying. You can say all you want about tire and fuel management, but there are limits. If he’d said it while tipping a wink, it wouldn’t be so bad. Instead he bald-facedly said he was driving the car at its maximum, when it was clear to everyone from team management down that he wasn’t.

Nobody would think any the less of him for trying everything he could. All of us would have done something similar for such an important prize.

So why lie? It’s not like Formula 1 isn’t a sport known for its skullduggery. For example Red Bull’s flexible wings, Brawn’s F-ducts and everything Ferrari did in the years 1996-2009.

I can only imagine he’s either trying to live up to his image of Senna or he’s trying to protect the Lewis Hamilton brand. I’m not sure if either of those two are reasonable.

That image of Senna bares no resemblance to the Senna I remember. The real Senna punched Eddie Irvine and rammed Prost off the road. I think everyone loved Senna with all his flaws a lot more than they would have loved the milquetoast saint he’s sometimes made out to be. For similar reasons, I’m not convinced that Brand Hamiliton wouldn’t profit from him showing a more fighting side. Because of the technical dominance of Mercedes, the last two of Hamilton’s title wins have had the air of coronations about them. I think people love a fighting champ a lot more than a serene one. Being willing to show a little steel would have endeared him to people more than ‘I didn’t do it’ does.

Book Review – The Piranha Club: Power and Influence in Formula One by Timothy Collings

The ever wonderful L got me this as a present a couple of years ago and has been very patient waiting for me to read it.

I almost want to write two reviews, one for F1 fans and one for other readers.  Because, despite a few flaws, I would utterly recommend this for anyone with more than a passing interest in F1.  If you’ve not got an interest in F1, you’re really not the target audience.

Both reviews would make one similar complaint – what Collings needs, even more than someone to thoroughly proof-read the book (I’d complain less, were this not supposed to be the revised edition), is someone to help him organise his thoughts.

The book follows a mostly chronological path, beginning with Enzo Ferrari and carrying on to the present day (which was 2003).  Which makes sense, and it was interesting to get an overview of how the sport developed and changed, through the prism of the teams and team bosses.

Only sometimes the book randomly jumps so Ron Dennis and Frank Williams get introduced before Ken Tyrrell, for no obvious reason, especially as Ken Tyrrell was also a garagiste.

And then we suddenly get a section on the skulduggery of the 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2003.  And each individual section is very good (especially the 1997 bit, which, as a Ferrari fan, I remember *differently*), but the whole would have been so much better with an introductory paragraph to the chapter (which is called Tempestuous Times) and and intro to each section.  For the price of five extra paragraphs, the chapter could have gone from ‘really good’ to ‘excellent’.

Following that chapter we jump back to 1997 (admittedly to a really excellent chapter on Jackie Stewart, Stewart Racing and how to organise an F1 team).

The jumping also affects the flow of his introductions to team managers, so we get Paul Stoddart doing his thing in the 2003 section of ‘Tempestuous Times’, before he, Minardi, and why he bought Minardi are introduced a chapter and a half later in ‘2001 – A Political Odyssey’.

I think the lack of organising principle is why, particularly in the early chapters, you quite often get an anecdote on one page, only to have it be repeated over the page.

All those complaints are utterly unimportant if you’re an F1 fan though, because the book has so much interesting stuff, especially about how things work (or don’t work) on the business front, and some of the personality background on the team leaders.

And Bernie.  Oh the Bernie stuff was interesting.  Particularly Stirling Moss saying that Bernie was a half decent driver.  There is a man whose opinion I respect in these matters.

I keep forgetting how old Bernie really is.  Because I always assume that he’s Ron Dennis’s age, and he’s not, he’s 16 years older, which I think is because one reaches one’s business years about 20 years after one reaches one’s racing years.

Collings also tries to predict the future, and while there’s a reason that’s a mug’s game, he does get some of it right.  The imbalance in the prize money has lead to other teams going bust, and is still causing ructions between the remaining teams.  He’s right that it will probably be the EU Commission that eventually gets it sorted (courtesy of complaints from Sauber, where Peter Sauber has left F1, rejoined, and then sold his team).

He’s also right in predicting the rise of manufacturer teams such as Renault, and teams that are part of larger organisations, where they’re basically extended marketing departments (looking at you so much Red Bull), at the expense of truly privateer teams.

Where he’s wrong is the effect that that’s had on who the team bosses are.  Contrary to what Collings predicts, they are still mostly ex-racers and mad petrolheads, for example Christian Horner (and if anyone wants to horrify us all by digging out *that* centrefold of Horner, now would be the right time) and Toto Wolff.  The bosses of big companies don’t have the time to devote to just one part of their brand that it would need for them to truly run a Formula 1 team, so they’re going to try to hire the best they can and those people are going to come from the same motorsports-enthusiastic places they’ve always done, they’re just not doing it under their own names now.  And I don’t think you could.  Gene Haas apart, and time will tell if he stays, you need a pre-existing business empire to enter F1 nowadays.

And Bernie still prevails.  As I suspect he always shall until he’s bored of it.  The book was written before the present Concord agreement was signed and therefore ends on a note of ‘how will the teams ever agree to a new one, and how will Bernie cling on to power?’  Sound familiar?  The book also has a fantastic anecdote that explains why Bernie remains,

“At various times, he has left a room, during a meeting, after suggesting that the team principals present decide among themselves who the new leader should be, only to return and find they had spent so long arguing about the air-conditioning levels, or something similar, that no-one had even proposed a replacement leader.” (pg 137)

Now, yes, it’s one of those anecdotes that’s probably far too good to be true, but it sounds infinitely plausible and I suspect the same thing would happen now.  He is what keeps F1 moving, and I actually do worry about what happens post-Bernie, and I think the ‘Bernie out’ people should consider that before they get too vociferous.

But yes, in short, definitely read it if you’re an F1 fan. Not so much if you’re not.