|The 1998 Regulations Debate|
|Nick Raman, Australia|
If you were to say to me at the conclusion of qualifying in Melbourne this year that a very closely matched season was in store, I would think you would be joking around. Jacques Villeneuve had taken his Williams Renault to pole position in a display that made the rest of the field look like Formula 3000's. The Williams in qualifying was nothing short of awesome and some people were saying on that Saturday night that '97 was going to be boring and that all we would see at the front of the grid and the pack would be the Renault powered Williams cars. In fact, Villeneuve was probably sitting in a hotel in Melbourne on Saturday night rubbing his hands together relishing the fact that the FW19 chassis was the clear favourite for not only Sunday's race, but the for the season as well. At this stage, it was easy to see why the FIA had wanted to change the regulations for 1998, (which were issued in late 1996) not only to slow the cars down in pursuit of safety, but also to tighten the competition and to have some of the lesser teams spring some welcome surprises in qualifying.
How things can change. As the season progressed, the huge qualifying gaps were long gone and on some occasions we were seeing only hundredths of seconds gaps separate the top ten. Look for example at Jerez two weeks ago, the top three had exactly the same qualifying time!! Ask yourself this, do you want 20cm narrower chassis with grooved tyres and 7 second slower lap times, or the 1997 specification machinery which has already been proved to be extremely competitive. Either way, there is no choice to be made, it is all up the governing body, the FIA and the clever board of technicians who couldn't care less who disagrees with the new rules whether it be the outspoken Jacques Villeneuve or the man on the street. However, the winter testing will be absolutely fascinating, observing how the designs will change in the lead up to '98 will be very exciting.
Some drivers have said it is "fun" and even "scary" in Johnny Herbert's case with the grooved tyres and 20cm narrower track. The most experienced 98 tester, Jean Christophe Boullion who has been pounding a 96 World Championship winning Williams nick-named "Skinny Lizzy" around many circuits since May, has definitely handed the Williams team the advantage for the 1998 season. Slowly yet surely he has brought lap times down since he first wheeled the modified FW18 out five months ago. In major tests, he has been five to seven seconds down from the pace setters, but in my opinion, I think by the time of the Australian Grand Prix, times will be three seconds slower than 1997 and by the end of next year, I predict times to be down to 1.8 to 2.1 seconds slower. Either way, I am confident that there will be plenty of sliding around next year with less traction; the scene is set for practice and qualifying sessions packed full of spins and offs. The driver will push himself that much closer to the performance envelope with less grip and will result in big slides and even more precise car set ups by the men in the garages. What more does Bernie Ecclestone want for media coverage?
The question is, what else can the FIA do to "improve" an already thrilling championship? Well, I suppose you could go way out and commission Audi to produce "Quattro" systems for F1 cars, or perhaps, as many protagonists have said throughout the past year, to ban all use of electronic aids such as 3D Engine Mapping entirely instead of letting the teams interpret the use of acceleration controls which has caused so much controversy between Ferrari and Mclaren in 1997.
Mclaren Mercedes driver David Coulthard made a very interesting point at Japan in regards to how close Formula One racing is now and no change is needed "Look at the times... last year I was three seconds from pole and eighth, and this year I'm one second off and 11th. You could argue that the rules don't need to be changed at all, F1 is so close now." What else needs to be said apart from the obvious fact that Formula One is full of excitement at the moment, why change a winning formula?