Well, here we are at seventh race of the 1996 season and things seem to be rolling along as usual. But just what is "usual?" Anyone who has been around Formula One for any length of time knows that there is no such thing as "usual," unless, of course, "usual" is unusual. The world of Formula One changes as much as it remains the same. So far this year some things have changed and some things haven't. The unusual is the usual. Or is that vice versa?
In any case, much has been happening, but nothing has happened to such an extent that the world has been turned on its ear. Accordingly, I am using this opportunity to discuss, or at least outline, a variety of things that merit some attention.
One driver is dominating the show. The only thing new about this is that it is not Michael Schumacher (who of course replaced Ayrton Senna as the series dominator). Can anyone break the hold of Damon Hill? If so, who? And, when? Same questions. No answers.
Who will driver for whom next year? The silly season hasn't started yet, but we all know it will so I might as well get things going. Frank Williams has Jacques Villeneuve under a two year contract so JV ain't going anywhere (not that contracts mean all that much in F1). Don Francisco (I might as well give Senor Williams a bit of a Spanish flair) makes no secret of his desire to hire Heinz-Harald Frentzen and everyone knows he's not enamored of Damon Hill. I predict that Frentzen will replace Hill, even if the latter wins the world championship. Indeed, given that Hill is 35 years old--damn near ancient by Formula One standards--he may "retire" gracefully at the end of the season. Or, he may do as Michael Schumacher did and take his championship prestige to a lesser team for megabucks. Might he be the senior pilot for Jackie Stewart? Might David Coulthard's prediction come true and he and Hill become teammates again? McLaren? Hmmm. Mika Hakkinen hasn't been running up to par, has he?
Speaking of teams and things said earlier, Patrick Head made an interesting statement a few weeks back: "When Williams started 20 years ago, we were able to do 10 Grands Prix out of the 16 on the schedule. We were able to use a customer car and we were able to enter just one car." Hey, why doesn't FOCA resurrect a previous strategy that obviously worked? Remember Team Fondmetal? It was the last single car team. To be sure, it had problems and eventually folded, but it put on a good show while it survived. The team was a backmarker, but it's car was rarely the caboose. Maybe, just maybe, teams such as Forti would do better if they only had one car, and maybe teams like Pacific could have survived a bit longer with half the expense.
And, why should every team have to run in every race? Many drivers and teams got their chance of a lifetime to make their run for glory by racing in their home grand prix. Nearly half of the drivers who have ever run in a grand prix did so only within their own countries. Ditto for teams. Allowing lesser teams to run in only a few grands prix would greatly increase national interest on the part of certain teams and all the fans within that country.
Safety. The cars probably can't be made any safer. So what should we do? No, Benny Parsons, we are not going to slow them down. Race cars don't and can't go "too fast." They shouldn't be slowed down. That is tantamount to thinking it is noble to ask an ugly girl to the prom. I agree with Harvey Postlethwaite. FOCA should be looking very carefully at what cars hit. The safety onus should move back onto the circuits. However, all the tracks, all the corners, all the guardrails, and all the gravel traps have to be scrutinized. One cannot simply look at the "worst" track or corner and fix it. As soon, as that happens, the next worse track or corner becomes the worst. Wholesale change is needed. And, here is one idea.
Recently, Max Mosley said: "The problem comes when a car is launched off a curb and then skates across the top of the gravel trap." Gravel traps aren't flat, they are comprised of a series of ridges and furrows. But who ever said all the ridges had to be the same height? Why not make ridges increasingly higher with increased distance from the track? Don't say it would cost too much, farm implements are cheap by Formula One standards. Problem solved.
And, speaking of solving problems, last year I devoted an entire column to heat and suggested that engineers look at greater use of ceramics in engine parts. Surprise, surprise. Did you ever hear of zirconium tungstate? I hadn't until last month when I read about its discovery in my local newspaper. Get this. Zirconium tungstate shrinks rather than expands when heated. It is the only known material that does so over a wide temperature range. Water also shrinks as it is heated, but only from the freezing point to just above the freezing point.
Now, if you flunked chemistry or physics you might not catch the importance of zirconium tungstate to racing engines. According to Thomas Vogt of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York: "If you can mix it with other materials, you could compensate for their temperature-induced changes in size. You could end up with materials that don't show any changes in shape." Hats off to chemist Arthur Sleight and his team at Oregon State University for discovering something that will surely improve engines in Formula One. Get to work, Brian Hart, et al.
Finally, I wish to recognize a few individuals who inspired certain of these various topics. Thanks go to Tony Dodgins, Maurice Hamilton, and my colleague and friend Rory Gordon, perhaps the three best minds in Formula One journalism.