Ayrton Senna of Brazil drives the #1 Honda Marlboro McLaren MP4-5 Honda 3.5 V10 during the Brazilian Grand Prix on 26th March 1989. © Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Formula One: the limit of human skill

How to put the excitement back into Formula One
July 15, 2015

Ayrton Senna of Brazil drives the #1 Honda Marlboro McLaren MP4-5 Honda 3.5 V10 during the Brazilian Grand Prix on 26th March 1989. © Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

The greatest sporting spectacle that I have ever witnessed live took place on a day of freezing rain, bitter winds and unimaginable mud in Leicestershire in April 1993. I had come 70 miles across the Pennines with my brother and a friend to camp for the weekend in a wind-ravaged field. But so cold and blasted was England that we abandoned our tent and drove all the way home again—only to set out once more on the Sunday at 4.30am so as to secure the vantage that we feared we might have lost. We need not have worried. The crowds were thinned and desperate—blurry men and women twisting their backs into the whipping squalls. This was the European Grand Prix at Donington Park—a near-mythical meeting among motor racing fans because of these conditions and because that day witnessed the greatest lap ever driven by the man whom many consider to be the sport’s supreme driver: Ayrton Senna.

This was the only time that Formula One had ever been to Donington Park—the result of a late cancellation by another track in Japan—and it was a terrible idea. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong—for everyone, all weekend. (Silverstone is held in July for good reason.) Murray Walker described it as the worst weather that he had “ever seen at any race anywhere in the world.” And Donington never hosted a Formula One event again. Meanwhile, that season, Senna was in an inferior car to his cunning rival and nemesis, Alain Prost, who had just returned after a “sabbatical” and would go on to win the championship with the dominant Williams team. Thus Senna was quietly furious at his lack of opportunities and Prost quietly anxious not to squander his advantage; three races into the season and already the two greats were back to feuding, fighting, psychological warfare.

Those of you who own a road car might have some sense of how much concentration it takes to drive at, say, 90 miles an hour on the broad straight lines of a motorway; the risks, the vigilance required, the anticipation, the dangers. But now try to imagine that you are driving a car with roughly seven times the power to weight ratio: in simplest terms, everything is going to happen seven times faster, the going, the stopping, the crashing. Imagine, further, that the car is built to be driven as fast as possible and that it only really works close to the limit of human skill; and yet that (even then) it will be near-impossible for you to control except with micro-second reactions and immense moment-to-moment fingertip-feeling since it responds instantly to every fractional adjustment as soon as your intentions are conscious—before they are conscious, if you are any good.

Imagine that to drive this car you must be so far buckled into your bucket of a seat that your spine feels brutally compressed. Imagine that the intense power of even a fraction of right foot will make you feel as if your brain cells are pooling at the back of your skull and your internal organs are being puréed. Imagine that unless you accelerate with perfect finesse, the car will immediately spin. Imagine that the car wants to corner with close to the perfect line and the perfect speed for the angle of the bend—or not at all. Imagine that when you brake—stamping on the pedal as if to send it through the bulkhead—your teeth will feel like they’re surging forward in your gums and all your bones will experience the crush of five times the force of gravity. Imagine that the engine either bellows or screams dementedly in your ears at all times—depending on whether you are changing up or down. Imagine that you have enough power casually to kill yourself at any moment. Imagine that some people you know have done just that.

Next imagine that the road you will be driving (as fast as is humanly possible without let or remission) is not straight and broad at all, but extremely narrow and that it curves and drops and swoops and twists in all kinds of treacherous directions. Imagine, too, that all around you are the fiercest competitors in the world and they are all trying to block, overtake, cut you up as aggressively as possible. And finally www.writemyessayservice.co.uk, imagine that you are going to be driving in torrential rain—so that, as soon as the race starts, you will be engulfed in vast plumes of wheel-spray that will douse your visor without you having any means of wiping it other than a useless wet gauntlet which you cannot afford to lift from the wheel for even a second. Imagine, in other words, that you are going to be driving this car… without being able to see. Blind. Now, maybe, you will have some small idea of what Ayrton Senna achieved at Donington that day.

He started from fourth position. Around him were two of the other greatest drivers who have ever lived. Prost was in first position, pole, 12 metres down the road—his qualifying single-lap time (which decides starting order) a massive one and half seconds faster than Senna because of Prost’s car advantage. Beside Senna was Michael Schumacher in third, four metres ahead, but on the inside and with his nose cone angled aggressively towards Senna the better to cut him off. We were standing on the first corner—Redgate—a right hander that leads down into the infamously twisty and treacherous (in the dry, in the dry) plunge of the Craner Curves, which, in turn, snake away down into the tricky right at Old Hairpin (which was flooded that day). The wind was so cold that we had abandoned our sodden gloves and instead were standing and squinting with our hands crammed underneath our armpits inside our leaking cagoules. An incessant curtain of icy rain dripped from eyelashes, hoods, umbrellas. Skies of wet cement in all directions.
"Everyone else was lost in the high-speed terror of the spray"
As always, the first we heard was the noise—the gathering roar of the engines rising to an ear-searing cacophony as the cars howled like 24 maniacal fighter jets straining to be catapulted off the carrier deck simultaneously. Then lights out. Then skidding and skittering away. Walls of blinding spray as they hit the water off the racing line. And then they were upon us—sliding, dancing, already on the edge of adhesion as they fought each other for position into our corner: two dozen madmen slithering for traction in cars way too powerful for the thin ribbon of slippery tarmac on which they were racing.

The conditions were as changeable as they were consistently atrocious. For the drivers, it must have been as though they were racing with garden hoses trapped inside their helmets. Only Prost at the front could really see. Everyone else was lost in the high-speed terror of the spray. But, through the murk, we saw Schumacher push Senna out wide to his left. This caused Senna to drop to fifth because Karl Wendlinger was water-skiing through on their inside. But then the miracles started to happen. As if contemptuously to dismiss Schumacher (later to be seven-time world champion) as an over-cautious milk-float driver, Senna ducked underneath the German’s back wing and re-emerged on his inside, somehow going faster, all in one fluid-yet-impossible movement of his car. Schumacher, the great Regenmeister (rain-master), squirmed and slithered for grip (now on the outside) but—somehow, somehow—Senna was already past him, hard on Wendlinger’s tail, on the inside, his car moving faster and on a tighter line than all the others, despite the adverse camber making a lop-sided ice-rink of the road.

The field began to pour down the sluicing waterfall of the Craner Curves away to our left, nose-cone to fish-tail in clouds of spray, all on the racing line. All except for one, that is: Senna. Somehow, Senna was now on the opposite side of the track from everyone else, seemingly miles off the line, out where there should not—could not—be any traction or, indeed, anything but aquaplaning followed by a long and lonely accident in the still-wintery English fields of slick wet grass. The on-board footage shows his hands fiercely alive and dancing at the wheel as he cuts across the edge of the grass of the first curve one moment and then—braver, faster, more skilful, miraculous—as he accelerates totally blind into the mist beyond Wendlinger on the second in order to drive around the outside of the Austrian. Nobody should be able to do this in a Formula One car in the dry without coming off, never mind in the wet; and nobody will ever again, no matter how long the sport endures.

Senna was now in third. By turn seven he had swept by Damon Hill as if he were not there. By turn 10, he had caught and slithered past Prost in the far superior Williams on the inside under braking for the Melbourne hairpin. Easily. Definitively. And the next time we saw him back at Redgate, at the beginning of lap two, he was in the lead. He was not challenged by another driver for the rest of the race.

Days such as these are the answer to the often-asked question as to why fans follow Formula One through its many processional doldrums. Sometimes whole seasons pass with only one or two exciting events. But this is what we are hoping for. As a very small boy with my father, I was at Brands Hatch in 1976 to watch James Hunt win, later to be disqualified; I was at Zandvoort in Holland to watch another great hero of mine, Gilles Villeneuve, drive his car with two wheels in 1979. And so on through the decades. Sure, like cricket, the sport is also full of minor and ancillary pleasures that are wholly opaque to non-aficionados. But what unites everyone from the sun-soaked yachts in Monaco harbour to the drizzle-drenched camp sites of Spa Francochamps in Belgium is the appreciation of the bravery and talent of the drivers: the sight and sound of human beings using all their faculties in close and high-speed combat on the very edge of what is possible with a terrifying accident a very probable outcome if one of them gets it wrong. The intensity of this is magnified 10 times for trackside spectators; unlike tennis or football, say, where the television slow motion shows the athlete in performance, the exactitude and delicacy of the drivers’ very human skills only really become breathtaking and hands-on-the-wheel visible as they hurtle into view—side by side, engines screaming, simultaneously trying to slow down and yet out-do one another into the entrance of a corner that they both know will not admit two. All of which excitement can be summed up in three words: fans love overtaking.

But we are going through a despondent patch at the moment. And not just we fans. Back in May, the Grand Prix Drivers Association made an unprecedented intervention in the history of Formula One. They launched a survey in 12 languages asking fans “to help shape the future of the sport.” In baldest terms, the two problems they were trying to address were these: first, the governance of the sport as shaped by the “Formula One Strategy Group,” whom they are seeking to influence into taking some kind of action; and second, pursuant, the gradual demise of the sporting spectacle into an even more predictable than usual procession of cars now (paradoxically) going slower than they were five years ago. The initial findings of the survey are due to be released this month—but will they make any difference?

Wait, though. Surely, I hear you cry, Formula One has always been autocratically governed by billionaires and blithely vested interest? The sport not so much of kings but of dictators. Well, yes, but...

Some quick dog-legs by way of background. The Grand Prix Drivers Association is the trade union for Grand Prix drivers. Sounds wrong, I know; but their main business is safety—and the absence of death in the modern sport is testimony to the work they did that followed on from Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994. (By macabre coincidence, Senna was made Chairman the day before he died.)
"For such an august and fiscally successful collection of individuals, the strategy group is remarkably bad at… well, formulating an agreed strategy"
The Formula One Strategy Group, meanwhile, is an odd ensemble that meets at Biggin Hill—Britain’s premier private jet airfield and the headquarters of Formula One Management. This group comprises Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial boss and ringmaster of the Formula One, Jean Todt, the President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, and the six F1 teams entitled to attend: Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Force India. Donald Mackenzie, who heads CVC Capital Partners, the private equity firm with a big stake in F1, also drops in from time to time.

Unfortunately, for such an august and fiscally successful collection of individuals, the strategy group is remarkably bad at… well, formulating an agreed strategy that will ensure the health, appeal and fairness of the sport long term. This is partly because one of the teams is always winning and therefore rejects any changes to the rules. But it’s also because Ecclestone and Todd don’t agree and, in reality, the big decisions often get made in obscure and opaque ways elsewhere. In other words, as Ecclestone himself has openly said, the strategy group is next to useless—hence the malaise continues and hence the Grand Prix Drivers Association now trying to put pressure on them via the public.

Which brings us back to the other problem—the one that the strategy group is supposed to solve. That the sport is in a slump; that, with the notable exception of Silverstone, circuit-side crowd numbers are down at the tracks and viewing figures are wilting. In no small part, this is because the fastest drivers are having to drive slowly and carefully to save petrol and tyres because of stringent fuel limits and rubber that is designed deliberately to degrade; 80 per cent of their race craft is now not about racing so much as about conservation in order for the drivers to push hard for the two or three laps when the computer simulators in the pit-lanes say that a place can be made up—usually via a tactical pit stop which allows driver B to “overtake” driver A by changing tyres faster and getting back up to speed quicker on the exit lap, so that, when A later stops, he will emerge to find B in front on the track.

Fernando Alonso, the best all-round driver of the moment, put it this way: “For the last four or five years we’ve been going in the wrong direction. The engineers did some calculations. The winner of Malaysia this year would have been lapped six times by the winner of Malaysia in 2006. In other words, the cars were so much faster nine years ago that the winner in 2006 would have been able to complete six more laps in the same total race time. Back in 2006, Alonso has argued, everything was more “demanding physically and mentally and everything was pushed to the limit.” His point being that driving the slower cars is becoming tedious even for the drivers.

So what is going on? The problems are many. But, in simplest terms, there are three biggies. One: the ineffectiveness of the strategy group itself. Two: the fact that the sport involves big automotive interest and is—in many important ways—a complex design race between engineers and aerodynamicists as much as it is a race between the drivers; this means that the resulting difference in performance between teams is often too wide for the drivers to compete with one another in any meaningful way on the track. This year Alonso’s car is so poor, for example, that he would have a better chance of scoring points by jogging round; meanwhile, fans are denied an entire season of seeing the best driver battle with his peers. And three: the costs resultant from two, which preclude all but the insanely wealthy from competing, and which therefore thin out the number of competitive entrants still further.

Add to these issues the aforementioned fuel and tyre rules, which reward conservative driving and militate against exhibitions of driver bravery, flare and skill—the sine qua non of the sport for fans. Then throw in the foolish and fooling-nobody attempt to “go green” which is embarrassingly inept and would be far better served by the sport using some of its profits honestly to contribute to some genuinely purposeful green endeavours. Thus the vexed, highly technical and cross-purposed situation of the sport emerges—and these are only the main issues.

But the truth is that many of the bigger structural problems in the sport are as old as they are intractable and seemingly impossible to resolve except by starting again—as Formula-E, the world’s first fully electric and green championship, is now trying to do and with gathering and welcome success. And yet in my view (as both a grizzled veteran of the Belgian rain and someone who was disconsolate in Monaco this year at not having a proper view of the cars from the boat on which I was a guest), there is something simple that can—and should—be done. Something that would greatly improve the spectacle and dramatically increase the number of passes, especially in seasons such as the present where one car is so much better than the rest.

Let me quickly explain some terms before I get to it. The “grid” is the name given to the starting positions of the cars—“pole” (first), second, third, fourth and so on. These positions are determined on the Saturday during “qualifying”—an hour during which the drivers do not race each other but instead race the clock in order to set the fastest lap time they can. At its most simple, the “grid” is decided in rank order: fastest lap time from “qualifying” on “pole,” and so on down the field. The Grand Prix is then run and points are awarded for final positions (see box on p63). There are between 18 and 20 races a year and the world champion is the guy with the most points by the end of the season.

So, then, this is my proposal for the Grand Prix Drivers Association: as well as rewarding final finishing positions, I would add a bonus to reward overtaking. From 2016 onwards, drivers should be awarded 10 “bonus” points for making up 10 positions from their starting place on the grid—these in addition to the points they would ordinarily score for the final placing (see box opposite). This bonus would be added only for finishers in the top 10.

Cars leave the starting grid during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. © AGPC via Getty Images Cars leave the starting grid during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. © AGPC via Getty Images

Cars leave the starting grid during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. © AGPC via Getty Images

How would my overtaking bonus work in practice? Qualifying would be exactly the same—an hour with fastest lap time placed at the front and so on. But—and here is the big difference—the top 10 drivers would now be able to choose if they wanted to drop 10 places on the grid. The fastest driver—“pole”—would make the decision last in order to reward and strategically privilege his being quickest in qualifying. Any driver who thought (at any given circuit) that he might be able to make up 10 places could therefore elect to give himself a 10 place grid “penalty” that allowed him a shot at the 10 point bonus. Drivers who had qualified 11th to 20th would be promoted into the top 10 positions in ranking order, depending on how many of the front 10 elected to drop back behind them.

What this would mean is that where it is difficult to overtake (at tracks such as Monaco) we would get the same starts as we do now—since all the drivers would choose to be as far up the grid as their qualifying time allowed. Thus the balance of rewards over the season would still—rightly—be heavily weighted in favour of positions at the finish. The optimum strategy most of the time would be as it is now: to be fastest in qualifying, followed by a pole position start and a race day win. But it would no longer be quite the whole story. At the more open tracks where overtaking is possible, lots of exciting things would start to happen. There would now be another way for the challenger to close the gap on the leader—or at least lessen his advantage—by shooting for the 10 point bonus. And, now and then, the championship leader, might be obliged to defend his points lead by dropping down the grid himself in order to pick up the overtaking bonus points, too. Most of all, overtaking would now be overtly rewarded as an end in itself—all the way down the field.

Over the course of a season, when one car is pre-eminent (which it so often is because of the engineering differences), the race between the teammates for the championship would now involve a lot more overtaking. This year, for example, Nico Rosberg, the challenger seeking to take the championship from his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, might decide (if he qualified second fastest) that at several tracks his best bet would be to start the race 12th and finish second. Under the new system, he would now score his points for second place—18—plus his 10 extra bonus points (for making up 10 positions) which would be a total of 28. This would mean he would score three more points that the winner—usually Hamilton.

Meanwhile, let’s say Hamilton has qualified fastest. He now has a choice. He might decide either to stay at the head of the grid and just let Rosberg give it a go—since coming through the pack is inherently riskier, especially on those first few chaotic laps. Or he might decide to drop to 11th and “cover off” Rosberg’s potential bonus himself by assuming that he too can overtake 10 cars and still win and score the overtaking bonus, too. Either way, Hamilton can elect to ignore Rosberg’s bid for bonuses only for so long—because if Rosberg is repeatedly successful at overtaking 10 cars, he will start to close the gap in the championship and then pull ahead.

And this is only to deal with the leaders. Of course, all the way down the field, those drivers who believe they can make up 10 places can elect to drop down the grid at the start so as to score their bonus points. At circuits such as Silverstone or Spa Francochamps where overtaking is relatively easy, fans might well get the excellent prospect of the top 10 qualifiers starting in positions 11 to 20 on the grid—since all of them might fancy their chances.

There would be an additional benefit in that the tactical decision of where to start will become interesting on the Saturday. If, say, each driver has to announce his decision in one minute intervals, 10 minutes after qualifying has finished (with, remember, the fastest qualifier getting the strategic privilege of choosing last), then this provides an extra seam of speculation and interest.

Of course, this also promotes the slower teams into having more chances at running (now and then) in the top 10 and seeing what they can do to stave off the forward-charging frontrunners. Some might say that this is gimmicky; but surely no more so than several of the ideas already in play in the sport. And a 10 point bonus is at least earnable for worthy reasons as well as being clear to fans and—above all—a great incentive to promote overtaking. Wet weather races are already exciting. But one of the best dry races of the recent era was the 2005 Japanese. Why? Because the three best drivers that year started down the grid: Schumacher, Alonso and Räikkönen.
"Just over 12 months after we saw him at Donington, Ayrton Senna was dead"
One more great attribute of this idea is that in seasons where the racing is close because the top of the grid is similar in performance, the overtaking bonus system will get used less because it will be harder to pass rivals during the race. But that’s fine. Because in seasons where it’s close… well, it’s already close. So my proposed overtaking bonus will tend automatically to come in to play only when its most needed—when the performance of the cars is uneven and one team is galloping away with the championship.

Just over 12 months after we saw him at Donington, Ayrton Senna was dead. He had managed to replace Prost in the Williams for the 1994 season. But the new Williams was not as good as the 1993 car. And so, in a supreme effort to stay ahead of Schumacher, he was driving as hard as he could when something broke—possibly the steering column—and he went straight on at 190 miles per hour at the Tamburello corner of the San Marino Grand Prix. He hit a concrete barrier and he suffered instant and fatal brain injuries. He died in his wrecked car in front of the watching world. He was my brother’s childhood hero. And so we often talk about Donington. Most British fans already had tickets for Silverstone three months later in July and went to watch the race there. So we feel that we were among the few and the extra-privileged to have seen something so special so close to home—something easily as audacious as Mohammed Ali at his bravest and something every bit as beautiful as Roger Federer at his most elegant. Senna’s talent and skill were not only far beyond our imagining that day, but far beyond that of his fellow drivers, the greatest among them the same.

Two other records from that extraordinary race still stand. The great Alain Prost pit-stopped a staggering seven times for different weather tyres as the circuit dried and then was deluged over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Senna, who had himself stopped four times, set the fastest lap of the race while driving through the pits. When he took the chequered flag at the end of the race, he had lapped every other driver except Damon Hill, who was over a minute behind.

Let’s hope the Grand Prix Drivers Association are really listening. And let’s hope the strategy group can be persuaded—if not of the Docx bonus, then something very similar. The sport needs more days like Donington.