A Ban On Refueling Might Be The Best Thing To Happen To F1 In Decades
This week an enormous raft of proposed changes to the Formula One sporting regulations has raised the very real possibility that fuel stops will be outlawed from the 2010 season onwards.
Given that current Formula One cars are much narrower than they were in 1993 (the last season before refueling was brought back) and therefore have smaller fuel tanks, it is highly likely that this will result in Grand Prix distances being shortened.
An immediate issue raised by the loss of refueling is one of safety. F1 cars starting a Grand Prix with 35 litres of fuel onboard are less likely to suffer a serious fire in the event of a crash than a car with 150+ litres of fuel onboard.
This is a serious issue and requires careful attention from the teams.
However, if for the time-being, it is assumed that the teams and the FIA would not enter into a decision to ban refueling without making provision to keep the drivers safe. And if it is also remembered that in the intervening 19 years since the last major fire occurred during a Grand Prix (Imola 1989) the marshaling standards in F1 have improved exponentially, we can examine the sporting and budgetary implications of banning refueling stops.
Financially it is indisputable that banning refueling makes sense. There would be a far lesser need for personnel at the race meeting. Specific protective clothing and high speed refueling apparatus would become redundant. Furthermore, the cost of developing high speed refueling techniques would be eliminated.
But what about the show?
There are those who have said that the strategy of fuel stops give F1 essential elements of gamesmanship and team management.
There are those who would point to, for example, Michael Schumacher's incredible (and victorious) four-stop strategy in France in 2004 as evidence that fuel stops are integral to Formula One's excitement and spectacle.
However, a ban on fuel stops is unequivocally the best thing to have happened to Formula One in decades.
Essentially, the reason for this is simple. Fuel stops disrupt the on-track action and encourage drivers to make up positions in the pits rather than on the circuit.
This is a far better solution to limp on-track action than the "Medals" system currently being pedalled to death by Bernie Ecclestone.
But it's not surprising that Mr Eccelstone favours medals over a ban on fuel stops since it was his Brabham team that in 1982 invented the process of in-race refueling!
Ever since 1994, when Ross Brawn and Schumacher worked out that the Benetton pit-crew was better than the Williams crew and that applied mathematics combined with Schumacher's devastating pace could win them races in the pitlane, teams and drivers have made the fuel stop central to all the activities of a Grand Prix weekend.
This cerebral process is fundamentally an anathaema to racing. And, as the top drivers have proven over the last two seasons (Hamilton in Monza, Alonso in Magny Cours and Raikkonen in Spa immedately spring to mind) you CAN overtake in F1 races if your race strategy is unable to help you leapfrog your opponent.
The strategic element of Grands Prix prior to refueling related to tyre and fuel management. Manufacturers were compelled to discover greater levels of efficiency for the engines and tyre management was an enormous challenge.
These factors allowed the talents of the drivers to flourish as those who were able to be kind to their tyres could gain a huge advantage by not stopping at all during a Grand Prix.
Which brings us to another substatianal postitve that a ban on refueling would bring about.
At present a safety car almost always messes up somebody's race as a result of the closed pitlane rule. How many fascinating on-track contests have been destroyed because someone had to make a stop to avoid running out of fuel and then had to stomach the resulting drive through penalty?
The problem isn't the safety car or even the pit lane regulations. It's the fact that drivers for years now HAVE HAD to refuel and as a consequence more than half of all Grand Prix races are won via strategy rather than on track prowess.
The one time in F1 that this is not usually the case is in the wet where fuel economy is better and good driving can frequently make up time lost in the pits.
Delving back into history, it is likely that certain all time classic races would never have been so gripping if refueling had been allowed.
A good example is the 1987 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Nigel Mansell's inspired charge to victory after an enforced tyre stop just wouldn't have happened the way it did if both he and Nelson Piquet had had to make the regulation two or three fuel stops during the race.
It is no exagerration to say that a lack of refueling could invigorate the on-track action better than any of the other currently suggested alterations to F1.
And if the safety implications can be dealt with, this writer for one will look forward with relish to this kind of "strategy" being consigned to Grand Prix history and drivers having no alternative way of making up track position than to race for it!
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