Formula One Grid Penalties Make Mockery Of Title Fight

For those following the Formula One season, (few people are, according to the latest TV and attendance figures) there is only question waiting to be answered — can Lewis Hamilton win his third world driving championship in a row?

Mercedes Formula One team

Ever since the teams agreed to a new engine formula for the start of the 2014 season, the cars fielded by Mercedes Benz have been faster than any other cars on the track. That means that  Mercedes has finished first and second at most races since the new rules went into effect. The only question has been whether Lewis Hamilton would finish ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg.

Hamilton won the world driving championship in 2014 and 2015, but has suffered some mechanical issues that allowed Rosberg to lead this year’s championship right up until the beginning of the sport’s annual summer break. Hamilton won the last race before the break — the German grand prix at Hochenheim. That victory left him 19 points ahead of Rosberg.

This weekend, the series begins the second half of the 2016 season. Since second place team Red Bull Racing trails the Mercedes squad by 160 points, there is very little for fans to get excited about other than whether Hamilton can hang on to his championshp lead.

That’s going to be tough. The rules require the various powertrain components to last a certain number of races. For instance, the teams are limited to only 5 engines for the entire 21 race season. That is utter insanity, of course. No other racing series has such restrictive rules. In drag racing, in which the engines typically turn fewer than 800 revolutions during an entire race, the engines are totally rebuilt after each run.

The rules are supposed to fool the public into believing there is some tenuous connection between the components in a Formula One car and the longevity a buyer can expect from a road car. No one in his right mind would think that, but that tells you all you need to know about Formula One rules makers. They are all out in la la land somewhere, led by the ravings of 86 year old Bernie Ecclestone.

At the beginning of the race weekend in Spa, Belgium today, Lewis Hamilton was handed a 55 spot grid penalty for various engine and gearbox changes. There may have been some penalties added in for changing his socks or altering the color of his underwear. The result is clearly beyond absurd. There are only 22 cars in the race. A 55 grid spot penalty is moronic. But moronic is perhaps the most fitting adjective to describe modern day Formula One competition.

Bernie Ecclestone has decreed that the racing tires used in competition last as short a time as possible. The brain addled octogenarian thinks it will “spice up the show” if the drivers have to come into the pits to change tires frequently. But the law of unintended consequences has come into play. Not surprisingly, the tires built to conform to Ecclestone’s wishes are prone to self destruct on track.

This weekend, Pirelli has instructed the teams they must run the tires with 23 psi of pressure instead of the normal 18 psi. In the world of automobile racing, where a difference of a quarter to a half pound of pressure can alter the handling characteristics of a car, that is just stupid. Only idiots would accept such ridiculous instructions. But Bernie holds the purse strings. Since there are hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money involved, all the teams kowtow to Ecclestone and compete to be first in line to kiss his ring.

The situation has gotten so out of hand, the drivers this weekend are reporting that the softest compound tires can’t even complete one lap before tearing themselves apart. How embarrassing for Pirelli. If you are listening at Pirelli headquarters, hear this. I would not consider using your crap can tires on my personal car if you gave them to me for free. Your involvement with Formula One is supposed to help you sell more tires. It is having exactly the opposite effect. Most race fans see your tires as overpriced junk.

Oddly enough, next weekend, my wife and I will be trackside in Monza, Italy for the Italian grand prix. We are not going because we expect to see great racing. The truth is, fans see much more of the action watching from home. We are going because that consummate jackass, Bernie Ecclestone, is determined to eliminate most of the historic European tracks so he can rake in boatloads more money from potentates and despots who want to use the series to raise their profile on the world stage.

Formula One has become the advertising medium of choice for repressive regimes around the world, such as Azerbaijan, but the racing has suffered as a result. By the time Bernie is through mucking things up, Formula One may be just another entertainment product like wrestling and roller derby. It is already on life support. Ecclestone may yet figure out how to drive a stake made of money through its heart.

Photo credit: craigmdennis via / CC BY


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.