Atlas F1   Improving Formula One

  by Erik Olson, Norway

Formula One is experiencing more manufacturer involvement than ever before, yet many fans are still not happy with the direction the sport is taking. Marketing Professor and racing enthusiast Erik Olson researched sponsorship and knows what companies are looking for when making decisions on how to spend their sponsorship budgets. He therefore came up with and innovative revolution to F1, that should see sponsorship interest increased, manufacturer involvement maintained the fans made happy

Marketing Problems

The international nature of Formula One racing can make attracting sponsors with deep pockets a difficult task. Outside of a few internationally well-known brands such as Coca-Cola, Marlboro, and several automobile brands there are few potential sponsors who have the international market coverage that corresponds with the Formula One racing schedule. When you look at the current cars, how many of the sponsor names do you recognize? If you don't recognize some of the names it is probably because they are not marketed in your part of the world.

Most brands are regional, which makes regional events more interesting to sponsors. For example, the F1 audience in the United States is relatively small, in part because only a few races per season are in time zones that correspond to the viewing habits of the US television audience. After all, how many people want to get up at 6:00am on a Sunday morning in order to watch a European based race, or watch a tape delayed race after already seeing the results on the Internet?

Now take the role of a marketing manager for a large US based firm who does not market their products internationally, or use different brand names in foreign markets. Why would this manager be interested in sponsoring an F1 team when the TV audience is small for F1 racing in the market his firm is most interested in?

This is probably a major reason that many well-known US brands, such as Budweiser (beer) and Tide (laundry soap), do not sponsor an F1 team or race. In contrast, NASCAR and to a lesser extent CART, with their racing primarily limited to the United States, have done very well attracting a wide range of US based consumer-goods brands as sponsors.

The other major sponsorship problem facing Formula One (and several other sports), are the increasing restrictions being placed on tobacco advertising. Europe, as well as some countries such as Canada, have made life very difficult for a marketing manager trying to spend his marketing budget on getting his cigarette brand in front of the targeted audience. Since tobacco companies are the deepest pocketed sponsors of Formula One, the potential loss of this revenue is a serious blow to the sport, which has resulted in threats to reduce the number of races in areas with severe tobacco restrictions. It is unlikely, however, that abandoning areas with great historic ties to the sport and a large fan base is in the best interests of Formula One.

Technology Problems

Today many major automobile manufacturers are getting into Formula One as engine suppliers and even chassis suppliers. There is a worry, however, that several will pull out of the sport if they do not win. Peugeot have already announced that this is likely to be their last season after a largely unsuccessful attempt to build a winning engine.

There is also a worry that some manufacturers might lose interest and pull out if they become too successful, as Honda and Renault have done in the past. These predictions seem reasonable, as there can only be one world champion per year and one winner per race, and the costs to maintain a first-class development program are too high not to get some payback in the form of favourable race publicity.

In addition, many prominent engine suppliers or potential engine suppliers do not need the international coverage Formula One provides for them. For example, none of the current high volume brands of Italy or France are sold in North America. Neither are SEAT, Skoda, Rover, Opel, or MG. Why should a firm spend money to advertise its brand to people who cannot buy the product?

Even the losing automobile manufacturers might still be interested in supplying and sponsoring a team if they could get some other benefit. The most valuable "other" benefit would be the use of Formula One racing to develop and test automotive innovations with real world application. Many of the current rules make racing developments less relevant to production car manufacturing. Traction control, 4-wheel drive, turbocharging, diesel engines, hybrid-power plants, front-engine chassis, and movable aerodynamic surfaces are all currently available and/or dominant on street cars around the world, yet are not allowed or not viable under the current rules.

On the other hand, the current rules do allow noisy, environmentally-unfriendly engines, carbon-fibre brakes, compressed air-actuated engine valves, suspension systems with virtually no travel and extreme stiffness, rain-only tires, and turning circles that require several dozen back and forth efforts to get a car into the pit-garage. All of which will never have any application in street cars.

Solutions to the Marketing Problems

Since most potential sponsors are regional, the best solution for Formula One is to change the whole nature of the championship by regionalising it. To accomplish this I propose the development of three regional series of approximately 10-12 races each. At the end of this "regular" season, the top point scorers from each region would compete in a three race championship series, with one race held in each region. My suggestion follows the very successful playoff formula adopted by professional football, baseball, and basketball.

Each regional series would field eleven two-car teams, much as the current series does. While teams such as Williams or Ferrari might wish to field two-car teams in all three regions, they might have different sponsors in each region. Team sponsors would be free to limit their sponsorship agreement to the cars running in a region that best corresponds with their marketing requirements.

The first series would comprise races primarily run in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. This would allow consideration of some new races being added to the schedule to cover such emerging markets as Russia, Poland, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt, and Nigeria, plus the return of some old race venues such as the Dutch GP and South African GP.

The second series would comprise races primarily run in North, Central, and South America. Since open-wheel racing is in disarray in North America due to the split of the Indy Racing League and CART, a real opportunity exists to enliven the sport there. Because there is a tradition of oval racing in North America, this series might include several oval venues including Indianapolis (the Indy 500 used to be a world championship points scoring event), Michigan, and Fontana. This would mean setting technical requirements that allow the cars to handle the stress of banked corners and longer race distances. This series would also allow the return to such venues as Watkins Glen and the Mexican GP, and the addition of races to new areas in Central and South America.

The third series would comprise the Pacific Rim. This might include races in North American west-coast locations, as well as the current scheduled races in Japan, Malaysia, and Australia. Opportunities would exist to add races in such markets as South Korea, China, Thailand, New Zealand, and India.

At the end of the regular season, the seven leading point scorers from each series would meet for a three race series which would crown the world champion. The venue for this three-race championship would include one race from a course representing each of the three series' geographic coverage. Given the time of year, the European/African venue would likely be in Italy, Spain, the Middle East, or Africa to avoid bad weather. For the same reason, the American Series might be run in a warm weather spot such as Daytona (the road course) or South America. Given the greater warmth generally seen throughout the Pacific Rim locations, more flexibility would be possible in the venue choice for its championship race.

Each regional series would of course also have their own champion, potentially allowing several "winners" to be crowned each year (i.e. Pacific Rim Formula One Champion). The other advantage of this system is that race junkies would have more races to watch during the year. Careful scheduling might allow a race to be broadcast every weekend from late February to early December, with many weekends having two races from different parts of the world. In addition, nearly everyone in the world would always have a race to watch every couple of weeks that fit their normal sleep patterns. In total, the television audience should be larger and more profitable with this regional setup.

Several other possibilities exist, such as scheduling special races throughout the year. Perhaps the top drivers from each series could all meet three times during the regular season for bonus all-star races. For example, the Indianapolis, Le Mans (the 24 hour course), and Suzuka circuits might be the all-star circuits and the points earned at these events could be used to replace the worst score of the driver and team during the regular season (such as a DNF). To increase regional audience interest and driver development, regulations might also be enacted that require each team to have one driver representing a country from the region they are competing in.

The advantages of this scheme are many. First, each regional series would have far fewer time zones to deal with. This should be a major help to the drivers, teams, television audience, and sponsors. Second, restricted sponsors such as tobacco companies might still participate in the Pacific Rim series, where they are legally allowed to sponsor at most venues, and still reach a world-wide audience.

Third, regional firms would find Formula One much more attractive to sponsors as the biggest audience for each series would likely be more in line with their own geographic market coverage. Fourth, automobile manufacturers would have more incentive to participate, as there would be more "winners" crowned each season. Fifth, teams competing in multiple regions might more easily experiment with different engines and chassis designs in each series without the same down-side risk that currently exists.

Technology Solutions

The solution to the technology problem is in making changes to the rules that address three main issues. First, Formula One should allow leading edge technology to be developed and/or tested that has applications for real-world automobiles. Second, Formula One should allow for competitive and entertaining racing action, and third, it should not be held hostage by fickle suppliers of technology.

The first point requires the specification of the issues which real world auto-makers, governments, and drivers are most concerned about. The big three are: 1) fuel efficiency, 2) environmental friendliness, and 3) safety. Fuel efficiency might be addressed by allowing each team only a certain amount of fuel in which to finish the race. This has been done before with mixed success, in part because the technology was not available for teams and/or drivers to monitor fuel usage with enough accuracy to ensure they finished the race before running empty. This is much less likely today, although the threat of not being able to finish would reward intelligence in engineering, team strategy and driving.

Environmental friendliness might be addressed by allowing hybrid power plants and/or requiring catalysts and exhaust silencers. This could have very interesting competitive ramifications. Hybrids are currently being sold to consumers by Honda and Toyota, but imagine how they might be developed for racing purposes. How about a system that added electric motors to the drive-train which were powered by batteries able to hold only enough charge for a brief burst of power. These batteries could be slowly recharged during the race by use of regenerative braking systems.

Drivers would need to decide when to use their bursts for a quick pass or to break away from a car drafting behind. With only a limited number of bursts available per race, the strategic implications of their use would make for some very interesting races with much swapping of positions on the race-course. Catalysts and exhaust silencers would do much to mute environmental critics and neighbours in close proximity to a race venue. The development of effective lightweight catalysts and silencers that do not steal too much power from F1 cars would also be very applicable to "real world" cars.

Competitive and entertaining racing action can be achieved in a variety of ways. Increasing sponsorship possibilities is a good start as more teams should have sufficient budgets to build competitive cars and teams. Technically, the key outcome should be to design cars which are competitive with each other, yet still have the possibility to pass each other on the track rather than in the pits. Perhaps the best way to achieve this is to copy the successful formula used by the touring car and super-bike racing series around the world.

Those series have decided to allow a wide variety of technical layouts to be competitive by making somewhat frequent, but usually small adjustments to the rules to keep the racing close. For example in European touring car racing, rear drive BMWs and four wheel drive Audis must carry additional weight to compensate for the superior handling their configuration has over front-wheel drive competitors. NASCAR gives "artificial" aerodynamic advantages to Chevrolets if they have a "natural" disadvantage to the Fords. Two-cylinder Ducatis are allowed larger engines than their 4 cylinder competitors in super-bike racing.

Why not allow teams to decide if they want to make a front-engine or mid-engine chassis layout? After all, even Ferrari has abandoned the mid-engine layout for their top-line sports models. Why not also allow teams to decide if they want to use rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive? Wouldn't it be fun to watch a front-engine, four-wheel drive Audi battling a mid-engine, rear-drive Williams-BMW? Teams would just need to realise that if they develop a major advantage, alternative layouts will likely get some breaks in order to make the competition tighter. While small adjustments might be made quite frequently to the rules, major changes in car design regulations should only be done at infrequent intervals in order to prevent smaller teams from being bankrupted by frequent major redesign work.

Other issues that should be considered to make racing more entertaining include banning carbon-fibre brakes and rain tyres. Carbon-fibre brakes, which suffer virtually no fade for the entire race distance, have no street applications because of the incredibly high heat they require to work properly. Brakes which fade with overly heavy use should increase opportunities for passing as drivers who have saved their brakes will be able to hold off slowing for corners much longer than their less strategic competitors. This is one reason that smooth drivers such as Jackie Stewart were so effective in the old days. Moreover, any technology developed by a team that makes metal-based brakes more fade-resistant is much more likely to have street-car applications.

Requiring all teams to use all-season tyres would also lead to the development of better street-car tyres for performance cars. It would also increase driver safety during those difficult times which the track in only partially wet and some competitors are tempted to not change to rain tyres. In addition, smooth drivers will again be rewarded as they are better able to save their all-season tyres for later in the race and/or make fewer pit stops.

As for traction control and anti-lock brakes, why shouldn't they be allowed? They are available on virtually all street cars, and they may offer some safety advantages for drivers, particularly when tyre width will likely be reduced to allow all-season tyres to work reasonably well in the rain. Because of the less effective tyres, traction control systems will need to be designed to allow moderate wheel spin so that drivers can steer with the throttle, as very severe electronic control would likely result in much slower lap times.

In addition, the aerodynamic question needs to be carefully examined. Super stiff suspensions are the norm in large part because of the desire to maintain a constant and low ride height to maintain downforce. It is tiring to hear teams and drivers constantly complain about bumpy tracks when in most cases the bumps would never be noticed by a street car, and pale in comparison to the pot-holes most of the world's drivers must cope with.

Why not require a minimum ground clearance of 10 centimeters in full suspension compression mode? Why not require a total suspension travel of 10cm (or more) with at least half being allotted to the compression cycle of the suspension movement? No chassis skirts should be allowed, but there would be no reason to ban active suspension systems or require flat chassis floors if ground clearance is set to realistic street driving levels. After all, active suspensions systems and aerodynamically styled chassis floors are things that have real-world applications.

Regulation of wings and spoilers also need to be examined. These downforce aids are currently not very efficient because they are not allowed to be position-changed by driver or computer command while the car is moving, something even the lowly VW Beetle has on its current turbo version. Allowing the wings to change position while the car is at speed would likely mean they could be smaller, increasing driver visibility and car fuel economy while also improving the appearance of the cars.

From a sponsorship point of view, some interesting changes might be taken, such as adding a message which only appears when the wing is extended, simulating the changing billboards you find at other sporting events. Of course a fail-safe, full-downforce mode would required to deal with any hardware or software failures that might occur during the race.

While trying to make Formula One cars more relevant to the street, a maximum turning radius of 13 meters might also be required, seeing as current F1 cars need a large parking lot to turn around. If the chassis designers wish to use 4 wheel steering to accomplish this result, then it should be allowed.

The last area to be considered is the hostage issue. What happens if many of the major engine suppliers decide to quit the sport? To avoid this problem we might once again look at history and other race series. The championship winning Repco V-8 of the 1960s was based on a production General Motors street engine. The championship winning BMW turbo-4 of the 1980s was also based on a "stock" block. Indy racing has also allowed and promoted the use of stock block engines over the years.

The possibilities for using stock based engines today are the best in history as high technology has become a standard feature on most of today's street cars. For example, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Chrysler, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Ford, Jaguar, Lexus, and Nissan (Infiniti) all have multi-cam, multi-valve, fuel-injected, alloy constructed V-8 engines of 4 to 5 liters displacement in volume production. Ferrari, Porsche, Honda, Lamborghini, Maserati, Buick, Mitsubishi, and Chevrolet also have production engines that might be downsized or bored out to fit the 4 to 5 liter size range. In addition, there is virtually no manufacturer in the world today that does not offer at least one multi-cam, multi-valve, fuel-injected engine in the 1.5 to 2.0 liter range.

And while it might be sinful to make such a suggestion, the new generation turbo-charged direct-injection diesels might also present some interesting opportunities as potential race engines. With some juggling of the rules on what constitutes "stock", and the allowance of turbo-charging for stock based engines below 2 liters in size, a whole range of production street engines are available which could put out very entertaining power figures, while remaining largely true to the original stock specifications.

The stock based engines are also likely to be more relevant to the race fan who can take satisfaction in knowing that the same engine used in his street car is also powering his hero's car. This does not go to suggest a ban on purpose built race engines; it just means that the rules be juggled in order to allow stock based engines to be competitive with pure race engines on the track. This would probably require pure-race design F1 engines be reduced in size from their current 3 liters.

This mixture of engine types might also increase the entertainment during the race as the stock based engines with a lot of low-rpm grunt compete with the super high-rpm pure race designs. Certainly the variety of sounds offered by a wide variety of engines would in itself be very exciting. An interesting dimension might be added by requiring an engine supplier that wants to offer engines in all three regional series, to enter both a stock based and pure race design in one or more of the series. Should a major engine supplier decide to leave the sport, the affected teams would then still have the option of further developing the stock based engines.

Final Thoughts

Making the sport more appealing to marketing managers and fans should ensure that more sponsorship money would go to a wider variety of teams. The appealing result of this should be more competitive racing as more than the current two or three top teams would have a chance to win races and championships. Obviously engineers would have to be consulted in order to finalise the rules related to matters such as engine size and wing size, but hopefully these suggestions are an interesting starting point for a discussion on how the sport can be improved and made more secure.

Erik Olson© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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