Should refuelling return to Formula 1?

With Formula 1 set to undergo one of its periodic shake-ups at the end of the year, many ideas are presently being investigated as a means to ensure that the sport excites its audience from 2017 onward and boosts viewership figures that have been declining in recent years, both at the circuit and in front of the television.

One option that remains firmly on the table at this point in time is that of re-introducing mid-race refuelling into the sport. The possible return of refuelling, which was removed at the end of the 2009 season, has attracted a mixture of praise and criticism from various corners of the F1 community, including drivers, paddock experts and fans.

In light of this, a discussion on how refuelling would affect Formula 1 in 2017 and beyond is justified, as the sport’s powers-that-be have only one chance to “get it right” and a wrong decision may steer the sport in the wrong direction.

Pros of a return to refuelling:

One of the chief reasons for a return to refuelling involves an effort to make the cars faster. This effort comes as a result of lap times that are considerably slower than a decade ago and a growing perception that Formula 1 is about tip-toeing around the circuit rather than driving at the limit.

Should refuelling make a return to the sport, lap times would certainly fall, as the cars would always be running at relatively low fuel loads. At present, a Formula 1 car gains several seconds of lap time over the course of a race, most of which can be attributed to the fact that it is burning off fuel.

Refuelling would effectively break a grand prix up into several high-speed sprints, each interrupted by a pit stop for more fuel. The result would be faster lap times throughout the race, which is one of the FIA’s intended outcomes.

At present, Formula 1 races come across as very clinical, calculated events. Teams calculate how many pit stops they should make, how long each stint should be and how hard the driver should push in order to make sure that the tyres make it to the next planned pit stop in decent shape. Barring any outside interference, such as accidents or rain, each driver’s race effectively becomes a theoretical mathematical calculation that is executed in practice on a circuit in front of an audience.

Refuelling would create an added strategic element to the racing, as teams would have to balance the need for using the tyres optimally with the need to make an optimum number of fuel stops. The added complexity of achieving the best possible race time could result in more mistakes from the pit wall, which may in turn lead to unexpected and unpredictable results.

If F1 returns to its pre-2010 way of handling refuelling, the top ten finishers in qualifying on Saturday would have to start the race with the amount of fuel left in their cars after the end of the third segment of qualifying. This would allow teams to sacrifice a longer first stint for the possibility of qualifying higher up on the grid, which may play to the advantage of certain teams.

For example, in 2015, Williams generally found themselves running behind one or both of the Ferrari’s. However, on the occasions that a Williams found itself in front of a Ferrari, the Ferrari driver would often find himself unable to overtake the driver in the slower Williams, simply because of the fact that the 2015 Williams possessed the ability to accelerate out of a given corner faster than most of the cars on the grid.

The ability to qualify ahead of cars that possess superior speed and then hold them at bay over the course of the race may play into the hands of smaller teams in particular. While the ability of the following car to use DRS may make this a difficult strategy to pull off in practice, it is better (for smaller teams) than simply watching the faster cars pull away from them and disappear into the distance.

Cons of a return to refuelling:

While refuelling brings some advantages, it may also detract from the quality of racing on show. Before refuelling was banned at the end of 2009, relatively few overtaking manoeuvres occurred out on track. Teams preferred to allow their cars to follow the slower cars in front until they pitted for fuel, at which point the driver behind would push hard for one lap and then pit, emerging from the pits ahead of the other car and then pulling away. This strategy allowed drivers to overtake slower opposition without going wheel-to-wheel and risking an accident.

Frankly, however, while such a tactic may be cunning, it is not entertaining to viewers who prefer to see drivers overtaking the opposition the old-fashioned way: by driving past them.

Furthermore, refuelling takes away the need for drivers to be skilled in coping with vastly differing fuel loads. At present, drivers need to constantly adapt to falling fuel loads out on circuit, braking a few inches later every lap as the car gradually becomes lighter, eventually braking several meters later as the car becomes ever faster. Refuelling keeps the amount of fuel in the car within a relatively small window, which makes it easier for the driver to obtain the best possible lap time. The idea also spills over when it comes to pit stops.

Currently, the teams are always under pressure to change the car’s tyres in under 2.5 seconds, which has led to well-oiled teams gaining an advantage over those that tend to make operational errors. With refuelling, however, the rate of fuel being pumped into the car is constant, allowing the mechanics to change the tyres in a far more leisurely 6 or 7 seconds, removing the urgency and the opportunity to gain an advantage or make a race-ending mistake. While it may seem unfair that a mistake by the mechanics should hamper a driver, Formula 1 is a team sport, and teams can only be successful if each member, from driver to mechanic, perform at their best.

Finally, while, as discussed above, refuelling would allow for greater complexity in strategies, it also effectively “locks in” a particular strategy once selected. Unlike with tyres, fuel cannot be stretched or be made to last significantly longer than planned, so if a car is fuelled for a given number of laps, it will remain out on circuit for that number of laps, because the team cannot risk the car running out fuel, and pitting before the planned time is not optimal.

Since it would be inefficient to pit for fuel without equipping new tyres, races where smaller teams defy the odds and make the tyres last five or ten laps longer than planned (think Sergio Perez) would probably be a thing of the past. This brings us back to the “mathematical calculation” point made above: teams would calculate the optimal fuel loads and number of stops, and run the quickest race possible in a clinical, predictable manner.

Conclusions:

While there are many pros and cons to consider with regards to the possible return of refuelling, the short answer is that the negatives probably outweigh the positives.

If the cars really do need to be made faster (which is, in itself, debatable) this could be achieved by providing tyres with more grip or allowing the regulations to provide for more downforce. Refuelling, in this regard, is like papering hastily over a crack that may or may not actually exist.

Furthermore, Formula 1 should remember why refuelling was introduced in 1994: because the Williams cars were dominating proceedings in 1992 and 1993 and would routinely lock out the front row before cruising off into the distance. That sounds familiar, but the lack of overtaking and the prevalence of “locked in” strategies that resulted from that move should be carefully considered before trying to use the same solution that was introduced 22 years ago before being abandoned again.

In short, Formula 1 is exciting when it has close wheel-to-wheel racing and drama, not because lap times are a few seconds faster than they were before. On the whole, therefore, the powers-that-be should exercise extreme caution before re-introducing refuelling, or run the risk of taking a knee-jerk decision to the detriment of the sport.

Adriaan Slabbert

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