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Will the Return of Formula 1 Refuelling Make for Better Racing?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2015

F1 refuelling rig.
F1 refuelling rig.Clive Mason/Getty Images

In-race refuelling in Formula One was banned for the 2010 season in an effort to save costs. Clearly that goal has not been accomplished, as spending continues to spiral out of control and lower-budget teams scramble to pay their bills.

In a press release following last week's Strategy Group meeting, the FIA announced that refuelling will return for the 2017 season, among other changes designed to make F1 more exciting.

While the change will certainly make pit stops more interesting (one more thing to go wrong!), will it actually improve the races?

Spoiler: Yes, it will.

The current maximum fuel allowance of 100 kilograms per car will remain in force, according to the official F1 website, but being able to start the race with perhaps one-third of that fuel will allow the cars to run closer to their maximum pace for more of the grand prix.

At the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago, for example, the cars were running approximately two seconds per lap quicker at the end of the race than at the beginning, as their fuel burned off.

And while any rule change that makes for faster cars should generally be applauded, there are other considerations.

NBC's Will Buxton reminded readers of his personal blog of the "boring races that were the norm under the past era of refuelling, where races were decided on strategy in the pits far more than they are today."

But anyone who has watched a few races this year has seen cars following each other, not even attempting to pass, waiting for the pit stops to try to get fresh tyres on first and undercut the cars in front.

Hamilton could not pass Vettel in Spain.
Hamilton could not pass Vettel in Spain.Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

In Spain, despite having a faster car, Lewis Hamilton could not follow Sebastian Vettel closely enough to overtake him on the circuit. Instead, he waited for the pit stops and eventually got past him there.

With in-race refuelling, the lap before a pit stop on low fuel is always the most important; currently, it is the out-lap on fresh tyres that takes precedence. So that argument against refuelling is really six of one, half a dozen of the other—pit stop strategy is always an important factor in F1 races.

What the return of refuelling will do is make for more interesting and varied strategies. No one outside the teams will know exactly how much fuel is in each car, leaving it up to their rivals, the television commentators and the fans to try to figure it out as the race goes on.

A greater variety of strategy options also makes it easier for teams near the back of the grid to try something dramatic or aggressive and maybe produce a shocking result.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 12:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP makes a pit stop during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 12, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

There will also be more opportunities for mistakes, both in terms of strategies and on the circuits. As the BBC's Andrew Benson pointed out, "less load on the tyres means the drivers might be able to push the tyres harder—a criticism of the current situation with Pirelli, when drivers are often well within themselves for the majority of the race distance because pushing hard overheats the tyres and reduces their life."

The harder drivers are able to push, the more likely they are to push just a bit too hard. No one wants to see the cars following each other for 70 laps as though they are on train tracks—they want to see drivers on the limit, cars on the edge.

Refuelling might not provide that by itself, but by allowing the drivers to push harder, it is a step in the right direction.

As former driver David Coulthard wrote recently in his BBC column, "We marvel at someone walking across a tightrope between two skyscrapers because it is almost certain death if he falls. You don't want him to fall, but the fact that he might makes it interesting viewing. If he was just walking along a white line painted on the pavement you wouldn't watch."

To anyone who would argue that the last era of in-race refuelling—punctuated by Michael Schumacher's dominant half-decade at Ferrari—was boring, with winning margins too large, look at Daniel Johnson's analysis for the Telegraph.

The average margin of victory was virtually unchanged from the 1990s to the 2000s through the present day.

In the end, the FIA announcement is not even a guarantee that refuelling will return. Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff told BBC (h/t Reuters' Alan Baldwin), "We have agreed to explore this avenue and the cost involved because it could be spectacular. If it's too expensive, we won't do it."

If those in control of F1 are serious about improving the racing and making it more interesting for fans, they will find a way to do it.

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