TWO DRIVERS speed off to catch a plane before the Grand Prix even finishes, glitches in the pits… PETER COSTER wonders just where Formula One might finish up:
NO LONGER the “halo”, the encircling frame around the driver’s cockpit in Formula One cars has become known as the “thong.” McLaren boss Zac Brown, never one to miss a sponsorship opportunity, has signed up with British flip-flop manufacturer Gandys.
And Force India has followed with a deal with Brazilian thong manufacturer Havaianas.
Flip-flops also describes the contortions the FIA has gone through in how to protect drivers in a crash.
The titanium frames are built to withstand a London bus falling on them.
More likely is becoming caught up in the thong while trying to escape from a fire.
The FIA was forced to concede it will take longer to leap from a car when the driver also has to throw out the steering wheel and undo the six-point safety harness.
It took Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas just on 10 seconds to get out in a test instead of the seven-second minimum mandated by the FIA.
No problem for the FIA, which merely increased the minimum time by two seconds in the apparent belief a fire will slow down in the face of its ruling.
The FIA regards itself as an unquestionable authority, seemingly above the laws of physics.
The drivers were almost unanimously opposed to the thongs, but slipped them on as it were when the season started in Melbourne two weeks ago.
Fortunately, no car crashed and caught fire around Albert park, a race that ended in confusion because of another FIA ruling.
Drivers must not pass each other when the Virtual Safety Car, or the actual Safety Car (the one with a driver) is out on the track.
The blinking VSC signs mean cars must not exceed a set minimum time, but that didn’t stop Sebastian Vettel going into the pits for new tyres in Melbourne and exiting ahead of race leader Lewis Hamilton.
Formula One became Formula Farce as a gobsmacked Hamilton saw Vettel appear in front of him, a position he maintained to win the race.
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff added to the confusion when he said Mercedes thought they had a longer lead time over Vettel, but one of the computer geeks had loaded the wrong algorithm into the system.
The point is that Vettel should have been forced to give up the lead and fall in behind Hamilton.
Fast forward now to the second race of the season at Bahrain.
Much the same thing happened. The Virtual Safety Car was turned on because Haas driver Romain Grosjean pulled to the side of the track after a wheel nut was cross-threaded at a pit stop.
Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen was in third place behind Vettel and Mercedes driver Bottas when he was called in to the pits.
There used to be a man holding a “lollipop” sick in front of the car during a pit stop and he would lift the stick when the wheels were on and the driver would race away.
As with most things in Formula One, the human element has been replaced by increasingly complex technology, in this instance a remotely operated green light.
The Kimster hit the accelerator (F1 cars still have them) but a crewman trying to change the left rear wheel was in the way.
A frenzied shout over the radio stopped “The Iceman” within a couple of car lengths but the damage, mostly to the crewman’s leg, was done.
He will recover, but Raikkonen and other drivers might be just as concerned at the time it took for the Finnish driver to extricate himself from the thong.
Harder to shake off than a perished flip-flop, Raikkonen had to grip the frame to pull himself out of the seat and then swing his leg over.
It was awkward and the first time we had seen the thong in an emergency situation.
The Haas team was fined 10,000 euros for the unsafe release of Grosjean’s car in Melbourne and teammate Kevin Magnussen in an earlier wheel incident. In Bahrain, Ferrari was fined 50,000 euros. At least a broken leg rate rated more.
It’s time to get back the lollipop men. All of this relates to the massive issue of technology overkill in F1.
Before the Bahrain race in the early hours of Monday morning in Melbourne, former team owner and now Liberty Media technical consultant Ross Braun was interviewed by Martin Brundle.
Big financial and technological changes are coming in Formula One next year and yet more in 2020.
Braun wouldn’t put a figure on what is likely to be a cap on what teams may spend over a season.
Brundle believes teams may be able to spend only $150 million a year, excluding what they pay the drivers.
Some teams, he says, are already spending $400 million a year. These are US dollar figures.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are spending what other teams can only dream of.
The 1.6-litre hybrid turbos are the most complex ever devised, although they sound more like the Japanese buzz-boxes in the Uber that might take you to the track.
In Bahrain, the race was a disaster for Red Bull, although not only because of failed technology.
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were seen leaving the track during the race to catch the first private jet home.
Hamilton was to finish third behind Bottas and Vettel after a second-lap incident that saw Verstappen pit with a puncture and later retire because of related damage.
Ricciardo, who started on the second row of the grid, was closing on Raikkonen on the same lap when it seemed a ghostly hand had turned off the power.
“I lost all power, I had nothing,” said Ricciardo, which brings up the question of just what can the drivers do when presented with issues entirely related to technology.
Nothing, their body language says as they walk away.
Martin Brundle, himself a former F1 driver, must have surprised many of his viewers when he revealed that drivers hear an electronic beep in their helmets when it’s time to hit the paddle to change gears.
The computers pick the time when optimum revs dictate what drivers once decided through the seat of their pants.
There will come a time when driverless cars compete on tracks watched by virtual crowds. No one else will be there.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.