There has been a democratic crisis in Britain lately, a travesty that has threatened to undermine the very fabric of our society. Half the country was up in arms about it, including my wife, and believe me, you don’t want to be getting her dander up.
So, what is it that has caused the ordinarily calm and rational British public to foam at the mouth with scandalised indignation? Is it the fact that we are living under the rule of an unelected prime minister, bent on ruining the country’s economy before he loses the next election?
No. It’s Strictly Come Dancing. Specifically, Mrs. S has been getting her knickers in a twist over John Sergeant (no, she’s not suddenly developed a worrying infatuation) it’s the fact that he was, until this week, still in the contest.
Now don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly developed a fondness for wearing spandex and sequins, but I have caught a few glimpses of the former BBC political editor’s…er… unique performances when Mrs. S has strapped me to the sofa (don’t get excited – it wasn’t for anything enjoyable) to watch Strictly Come Prancing: It Takes Two with Claudia Winklepicker.
I especially liked the bit where he stomped across the dance floor, dragging his beautiful young dancing partner along like a sack of Maris Pipers. It’s just priceless entertainment. And the good old British public have been voting for Mr. Sergeant in their thousands, and not supporting other contestants who do actually have a modicum of talent.
Which is where my view differs from the wife’s. She seems to be under the misguided delusion that this is a dancing competition. It isn’t. It’s a popularity contest.
People love to be entertained, so no matter how badly he danced, or how irate the judges got, or how many appalled headlines the Daily Mail printed, he was voted back in week after week, and by no small margin, either.
This is true democracy in action.
Now, you’re probably wondering what kind of tenuous link I’m going to make to Formula 1 this week. Well, it’s there, but you have to look really hard to see it. Trust me.
A few years ago, Bernie Ecclestone and his friends from the FIA realised that there was a problem developing in F1. And the problem was Michael Schumacher. He couldn’t stop winning.
No matter what anyone else did, he’d always end up being the guy in front when the chequered flag fell. In some respects, this was great news.
As far as the FIA are concerned, there’s nothing more important than a strong Ferrari in Formula 1. Nothing except money, that is.
The plain fact was that ticket sales were down. TV revenues were also dropping, as advertisers would not pay the exorbitant amounts that Bernie demanded to display their products and services during ad breaks.
A large part of the problem was the lack of overtaking. Some races would go by without a single on-track overtaking move.
The FIA had made some half-hearted attempts to spice up the show (ensuring new tracks had at least some overtaking places and were wide enough) but these did little to improve the action.
People were voting with their feet and turning away from F1. There, you see, I told you there was a link.
The FIA eventually had to concede that the problem wasn’t just the tracks, it was also the cars. Something radical had to be done, or the sport would be in serious financial trouble.
It was already well-known that the wake turbulence caused by an F1 car was the problem. A following car could not get close enough to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre without losing downforce and running wide (or crashing).
The FIA had never actually conducted any studies into the science of overtaking. Just how does air move around a car, and what influence does this have on the car following? Nobody really knew.
To find out, the Overtaking Working Group (OWG) was set up late in 2006. With a budget of half a million euros, Paddy Lowe of McLaren, Rory Byrne of Ferrari, and Pat Symonds of Renault set to work to find the optimal car configuration to improve overtaking possibilities.
In the latter part of 2007, they submitted their findings to the FIA, and these results form the basis for next season’s revised technical regulations.
These changes broadly cover three areas: aerodynamics, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) and slick tyres.
The aerodynamics for 2009 are radically different, and the first shots of the new cars have not been met with much enthusiasm from fans. In fact, here are some of the responses, taken from an F1 forum:
“The most hideously out of proportion mistake I've ever seen.”
“Looks more like a poorly designed F3 car from 10 years ago.”
“If this is supposed to be progress, then you can keep it!!!”
“You have to be joking, right, that looks terrible. Bloody clown car.”
“I know some designs grow on you, but I know an awful looking pup when I see one”
“Looks like they got Top Gear to design it!”
“My eyes...my eyes...it burns.”
So you see, the ’09 car isn’t exactly what you would call a looker, but the changes are necessary. And if it radically improves the racing, we may learn to love them, after all.
The rear wing is much narrower than on the ’08 car, and 15cm higher. This configuration significantly reduces the upwash of dirty, turbulent air from the rear wing, but increases the inwash of clean air from the sides. This is a good thing. It increases the downforce for the following car.
The flat floor of the car is largely unchanged, but the diffuser has been moved back a bit to increase the inwash of air.
The front wing is lower and 40cm wider than the ’08 wing, a whopping 1.8 metres in all. Think snowplough and you’ll get the idea.
Having determined that the centre of the wing is most susceptible to wake turbulence, this area is now "downforce neutral," in other words, flat. The front flap is also adjustable by three degrees to give a little more grip when overtaking in a corner, but can only be altered twice per lap.
Overall, the new aerodynamic regulations were designed to reduce downforce by 50 percent, but in practice it will probably be nearer to 30 percent.
KERS was one of the biggest talking points in the F1 paddock last season, and possibly the most overly-hyped piece of technology since the Sinclair C5.
Basically, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System stores energy created under braking so it can be released as extra horsepower for a few seconds.
This will give the driver an extra 80 horsepower to play with, but can only be used for 6.7 seconds. Nicknamed a "push to pass" button, that extra bit of oomph should help a car to get closer to a rival on a straight, if it works.
While testing the new system earlier this year, a BMW mechanic received a powerful electric shock, and there have also been two battery fires.
The system is optional for 2009. Toyota have already said that they won’t be using it until mid-season, and several other teams are having problems with the new technology, most notably Ferrari.
The weight of the devices is also an issue. Typically, a KERS device will weigh around 35kg, which will have a significant effect on the distribution of ballast.
Still, it’ll keep the tree huggers happy.
The only new thing that has received almost universal approval from everyone in F1 is the return of slick tyres. When grooved tyres were introduced in 1998 for safety reasons, they were designed to reduce the amount of rubber in contact with the track, forcing the cars to enter corners more slowly.
The effect on lap times was negligible, though. But it did succeed in making overtaking more difficult.
Since the contact patch is now higher (the bit of rubber in contact with the tarmac), tyre degradation will be lower. Bridgestone have said that they will be using softer compounds next year to improve grip levels even further, but one thing bothers me …
Have Bridgestone lost their marbles? No, this is not a slight against the Japanese people. I’m talking about the small lumps of rubber that F1 tyres shed throughout a race.
If the tracks continue to be as slippery off line as they have been, then no amount of changes to the cars will make overtaking easier. In fact, I was so concerned about this that I contacted Bridgestone about it.
I’m still waiting for an answer, which doesn’t sound very promising.
One final thing to bear in mind: reliability. F1 engines will have to last for three races next year, instead of two.
So let’s put all this together. Imagine the situation at Silverstone next year (black flags hanging from the BRDC clubhouse, marshals moaning that they’ll have to commute to Donington next year, listless banners proclaiming "Save Our Silverstone," etc).
Lewis Hamilton is chasing down Felipe Massa in the closing stages of the race. As they enter the Priory/Brooklands/Luffield complex of corners toward the end of the lap, the reduced wake turbulence from the Ferrari and extra grip from slick tyres allows Hamilton to get much closer than he would have last year.
Hamilton tweaks the front wing angle for that extra bit of front end grip and they enter Woodcote, the final corner, nose to tail and are onto the pit straight.
Massa hits the KERS button to pull away from Hamilton, but the world champion is already in his slipstream, and activates his own KERS five seconds later.
After 6.7 seconds, Massa’s KERS power dies and his speed drops back. Massa jinks left to shake the McLaren, but Hamilton has the momentum and outbrakes the Ferrari into the Copse right-hander, and is through.
But then his aging engine blows up two laps from the chequered flag.
Still, that’s racing.
This is one example (not very likely, I know) but it does illustrate the possibilities for overtaking and for genuine racing. It may not be the perfect solution, and the cars may be as attractive as Ann Widdecombe with a hangover, but perhaps, if we’re very lucky, Formula 1 won’t just proclaim to be the foremost racing series in the world; it really will be.
This could be the FIA’s finest hour.
And as for John Sergeant, he’s thrown the democratic process into turmoil and quit Strictly Come Prancing.
He said that there was a real danger of him winning the contest, and that would be taking the joke too far…
If only Max Mosley would follow his example when the next FIA presidential election comes up.