I started watching Formula 1 in 2003, which is as fine a season to start with as you can get. Since then and the end of the 2012 season, legends have come and gone, and the sport has undergone massive changes – some for good, some not.
So how exactly has the sport evolved over time, and how does it compare to the widely-regarded classic season of 2003?
The 2012 season saw an astounding 1,135 overtakes across the entire year, compared to a measly 303 in 2003. This can be partially attributed to the refuelling ban 3 years ago, which eliminated many “overtaking in the pit lane” scenarios. In 2010, overtaking figures doubled from the previous year, when huge aerodynamic changes failed to make passing any easier.
However, the rest is down to the controversial DRS system. It has divided fans since its introduction, but the one thing about it that cannot be debated about it is its effectiveness, doubling once again the number of overtakes from 2010.
But how much does this impact on F1’s “purity”? Diehard fans will argue that DRS removes any challenge for the chasing car, and any opportunity to defend for the car in front. This is true in situations where the DRS zone is oversized (see Canada), but I still feel that DRS overall has improved the racing in recent seasons. Despite a notable amount of easy overtakes, it has removed the risk of being stuck behind a slower opponent for an entire race.
Horrendously boring races, particularly in Hungary a few years back, are a thing of the past. The loss of fuel-dependent qualifying means that the racing on Sundays isn’t correlated to how much fuel you ran with on Saturday. Compared to my first season, I can safely say that better overtaking is a huge positive today.
Better steward transparency
The best example of poor stewarding in the past was Spa 2008, where Lewis Hamilton saw a brilliant victory snatched away because of a questionably illegal overtake. Juan Pablo Montoya famously fell foul of the stewards in his years at Williams, coincidentally when Ferrari had a rather firm influence in the FIA department.
This hasn’t been totally fixed, but is much better than it used to be. The addition of a retired driver to each stewards’ panel has added more appropriate punishments to driver infringements than before. Consistency is also more visible, with standard drive-through penalties being dealt out as a “one size fits most” policy. The re-introduction (or re-use) of the stop/go penalty has been used as extra punishment for more serious offences.
Race Control isn’t perfect, but I’m much happier with stewards’ decisions now than I was 10 years ago.
More top-notch drivers
Back in my day, we had one great driver – Michael Schumacher. The mere mortals within McLaren and Williams would try their futile best to beat him, but victory for the scarlet red was an inevitability for a few seasons.
Put simply, we have none of that these days, which is only a good thing for the sport. Total domination like what we saw in 2004 was threatening to drive F1 into the ground, and the turnaround from this danger has been more than impressive.
Up to 2012, we had no less than 6 world champions battling it out on track at any given time, a first in F1 history. Now that the formerly mighty Schumacher has retired, we are left with 5 champions, as well as 5 other race winners, and another 4 or 5 drivers raring to take the top spot of the podium.
Of our current roster of drivers, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton can all be considered to be top-class drivers. Even in different cars, their brilliance continually shines through, and has led to some wonderful championship battles in recent years.
Last year, we had an astounding 8 different race winners, compared to only 5 in 2004. Unpredictability has boosted Formula 1 hugely over the past decade.
The spate of rule changes over the past few years have come at a price. Poster-grade F1 cars are in short supply these days, with out-of-proportion front and rear wings, and unsightly nose steps.
2003 is a great reference for this point, because the Ferrari F2003-GA is a perfect example of how an F1 car should look – a flawless balance of aerodynamic and mechanical artistry.
Today’s cars aren’t all a horrific bunch, but they’re a far cry from works of art. Liveries are less clean than the past, with a vast array of sponsor’s logos used to keep the team financially afloat.
I’m struggling to see how it would be possible to clean up F1 cars’ image with impending rule changes for 2014, so perhaps we’ll be kept waiting for another truly beautiful F1 car a while longer.
Cookie-cutter race tracks
Without trying to get lost in the nostalgia-fueled argument 0f “old racetracks are better than the new ones”, there’s a lot to be said for poor-quality racetracks that were built in the past few years.
Take Bahrain as a classic example. Derided by fans, drivers and journalists alike for being generic, uncreative and overall boring, it fails year after year to produce edge-of-the-seat racing, and the fact that the race was used as a propaganda tool for the Bahraini government (UniF1ed campaign) is just icing on the cake.
Abu Dhabi is no better, and Valencia is just a generally poor racetrack. Other new circuits in China and Korea have failed to gather much praise either, leading to claims that new F1 tracks are generic and lack originality.
There is some truth to these claims, and the FIA would be smart to avoid over-reliance on a certain Mr. Tilke’s input on future racetracks.
I’m not going to sit on the fence for this one – I much prefer F1 today than to what it was 10 years ago. I can sit down next Sunday without having a single clue who’s going to win, and that’s the single best thing I can imagine for the sport. Cookie-cutter circuits I can get over, and an F1 car’s beauty is irrelevant at 350km/h.
I’m confident that F1 is in a great period right now – not quite a golden age, but not too far off. We can only hope that the 2013 season can in any way match up to 2012…