While F1 might have been getting more of the headlines, it isn’t the only form of motorsport to embark on a fresh start in 2017 by reviving aspects of their past. Just like F1, the World Rally Championship has had a massive re-haul of their technical regulations in order to make the cars faster and more spectacular, to move towards the glory days of the Group B era. Both series have had time to settle into the new season and now seems as good a time as ever to evaluate if moving back in time really has been a step forward.
First to F1. The wider cars and tyres, along with the proliferation of T-wings and shark fins, were all meant to bring back faster and harder to drive cars. The idea was that the last generation of cars were too easy and a skinny seventeen year old shouldn’t be able to jump in and be on the pace. People wouldn’t be in awe of drivers if they didn’t fall out of the cars, dripping with sweat and too exhausted to move, as in times gone by. To be an elite athlete simply wasn’t enough. In a era where driverless cars are a real possibility, drivers have to prove they are pushing to the limit with blood, sweat and tears. The speed increase comes from a similar train of thought. Reversing the movement away from slower, safer cars would help them win back their disillusioned audiences. A change in regulations could also help to fix another issue causing them to haemorrhage viewers: the domination of Mercedes.
So how has 2017 panned out for F1 so far? Well an inter-team championship battle seems to be on the cards for the first time in years, with Mercedes and Ferrari on more or less an even footing. The fastest lap in China was over four seconds quicker than the one set in 2016, so the promised speed is there.
Beyond the technical changes, with their takeover of F1 Liberty Media is bandying around promises of a motorsport utopia. Quite how they are going to find this perfect blend of old and new, and what compromises will have to be made, is as yet a mystery, but optimism is in the air. Fernando Alonso’s participation in the Indy 500 caused tremors in the motorsport world and divided opinion, but the very fact that it is possible in 2017 shows that things are not all as they were. Like times of old drivers could go beyond their own sporting world and conquer the whole motorsport universe. Interest in F1 has been reignited and with new cars and owners anything seems possible.
Again, the WRC introduced more extreme and powerful cars to excite fans and drivers alike. In order to emulate the success they enjoyed in the 80’s the minimum weight of the cars has been significantly lowered and the power increased, making the speed something to behold. In this new age Toyota has been able to, despite its doubters, come back after 18 years and win almost immediately. The field is competitive, the number of winners has been increasing over the last few seasons and with four different winners in the first four rallies it looks like 2017 is not going to be a letdown.
However the changes have brought problems. In Sweden a stage was cancelled because of the high speeds that the cars were achieving. Whilst the safety of all those involved is of upmost importance, surely that was the point of changing the regulations? A return to the Group B era, the excitement, the danger, the glamour all coming together to repeat its heady heyday. If the FIA wasn’t prepared to live with the risks there are other ways in which they could have reinvented the WRC.
If either series were in need of inspiration, they needed to look no further than the fate of MotoGP. The regulation overhaul they implemented for 2016 levelled the playing field to the extent that nine different riders stood on the top step of the podium. However, unlike F1 and the WRC, the focus of the changes were very much to neutralise the advantage of certain teams, rather than to increase power and speed. Two different strategies, but the wide consensus that 2016 was the best season ever of MotoGP suggests that moving forwards, instead of looking back, can be a very profitable idea.
A step backwards towards their golden eras seems to have reaped rewards for F1 and the WRC so far. 2017 has provided close, exciting racing and seems to be setting up an exhilarating championship showdown. In recent years it would be very possible to say that motorsport has become a victim of its own technological success, with fans becoming disillusioned with the increased focus on technology rather than the human appeal of the drivers. It was becoming perceived as less real, or exciting or dangerous, despite the sad incidents of recent years. However instead of embracing some of the innovative ideas, F1 and WRC rejected moving forward with the times. When it came to deciding how to make these series better, it was easier to return to what had worked before, take the safe option, fuelled by nostalgia. And who are we to argue?