You hear it almost everywhere in the Formula 1 community, from fans, from commentators, from bloggers, from former drivers: the rules are "ruining" Formula 1. You hear complaints about the lack of noise, how quiet today's V6 hybrids are in comparison to the V8s, V10s and V12s of yesteryear. You hear that the racing isn't the best, that fuel saving and tire degradation are the antithesis of the flat-out, wheel-to-wheel bravado that should be expected of the "pinnacle of racing."
You hear a lot of things.
I understand. I sympathize. But I categorically disagree with all of them.
Formula 1 grew out of the leisure pursuits of wealthy adventurer sorts, making it an elitist pursuit from its inception, but as it has been democratized, formalized and regulated, a certain compromise has been negotiated. All motorsport is incredibly dangerous, and as society has grown it has come to tolerate—and that is an important observation—all this risk in return for the innovations they yield that are applicable to road cars. Motor oil composition, including synthetics. Dual-clutch gearboxes and "flappy" paddles. Sequential manual transmissions. Carbon-ceramic brakes. Active suspension. Composite materials. Diffusers. Controlled locking differentials.
As these technologies find their ways from the racetrack to the cul-de-sac, a curious, subtle change has been taking place in our cars over the past decade or so, the implications of which now increasingly shape racing series: more and more, automotive efficiency and performance improvements are driven by electronic methods, not mechanical; by control systems that optimize fuel usage and delivery or the number of cylinders in active usage or precise valve timings; by augmenting ICE-driven propulsion with electric motors to provide low-end torque or fill across gear changes. The cutting edge of automotive engineering is computer control and aerodynamics, fuel management and efficiency.
Most complaints about Formula 1 as a spectacle revolve around easily observable traits such as straight line speed or engine roar being deprecated in favor of more complex, nuance, data-intensive measures. Perhaps it's my nerditude as a software engineer, but I have absolutely no problem with this direction in the evolution of motorsport. Plus? Noise is waste, and pollution. The escaping gases and surplus kinetic energies that produce that noise can be harnessed and fed back into the system for greater, more efficient performance. Hello, MGU-H.
Of late, the trend has been to point to the World Endurance Championship and argue that it provides better racing and greater engineering innovation, given the relative free reign that teams are afforded in designing their vehicles. The problem is that we're talking about machines targeted at entirely different sets of problems, yielding complementary rather than competing potential benefits to road cars. If you enjoy today's WEC more, that's absolutely fine, but eventually, whether in 5 years, 10 or 20, the same efficiency constraints that challenge F1 will factor into WEC.
The other set of complaints about Formula 1 are more cogent, revolving around questions about F1 as a business and competitive racing series, and as a commercial property. Video delivery and streaming, cost management, the complete absence of parity, the limited number of engine suppliers—these are real issues, but issues that can be addressed with innovative leadership (which it is probably fair to say F1 currently lacks).
"Perception is reality," so the volume of the complaints about F1 is a real problem, but one that probably needs to be solved through better fan education—not only on race weekends and during the broadcast, but on a consistent basis, showing the relationship between the needs of the larger automotive market and the goals set for the series.
My buddy Gerald absolutely loves the howling sound of the V8s in use when he first started attending races. He loves to tell the story of walking across the bridge approaching the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve without hearing protection and asking himself, "What have I gotten myself into?!" When he feels the reverbation of a V8 redlining at 16,000 rpm, this huge grin spreads across his face and his eyes twinkle. He is content.
When I tell him that the future of the sport is closer to Formula E, he is nearly apoplectic. But it is true. The social justification for motorsport, for its enormous land use and the municipal support it receives, is the engineering benefit it yields. The future of the automobile is electric, though not necessarily battery-driven (sorry, Tesla); the Formula 1 cars of the future will be the crucibles stress testing realistic fuel cell or compact nuclear fusion drives, or whatever means of on-board electricity generation wins out. The audio signature will change radically. But the challenge of a human driver marshalling varied propulsion and energy management technologies, with active suspension and aerodynamic adjustments for each corner and section of track, in competition against peers in pursuit of the fastest lap, will remain forever.
Long live F1.