F1 as a Metaphor for the Technocratic Society

 

Over the years, Formula One racing has become ensnared by its own rules. What was once a free-for-all, unlimited budget only has to last two hours flavor of innovation and competitiveness has become a sport better suited for lawyers. Every significant pass or off is litigated – was it fair? – within the rules? It is hard not to hear a note of mockery in the commentary.

The evolution did not come without good reason.  It was a horribly dangerous sport; several would die every year.  It was not hyperbole to say you were never sure you would survive a race.  Drivers began to reject overtly dangerous conditions such as heavy rain.  Especially with the advent of ground effects where the cornering force improves with speed as the aerodynamics glue the car to the track.  Untrained drivers find it hard to force their brains to allow them approach corners with speeds adequate to fulfil the car’s promise.  Deaths have plummeted under the new safety rules.

Add to that the fantastic cost to run a team.  Innovation for mature, thoroughly engineered cars does not come cheap.  Championships could really be bought and it was becoming a struggle to field enough teams to make the races engaging.  Innovation fairness has worked its way into the rules.

A good example of the disfunction of the rules is the Drag Reduction System (DRS).  At its core, it’s a simple idea.  Have an actuator change the spoiler angle on command so that the car achieves maximum downforce in corners and lower drag on the straights.  But, of course, this can’t happen without a healthy dose of rulemaking.  So here’s how it works.  DRS can only be applied if you are within one second of the car you want to pass, but only on certain portions of the track and not for the first lap or two after the race restart.

For two cars the trailing car has a definite advantage -lots of passing adds some spice to the race.  But what if three or more cars are all within DRS.  The second driver has DRS which makes him faster, but must defend against the third driver.  It is not uncommon to see a train of cars not able to pass a clearly slower car.

But how is DRS policed? How can we be sure that teams aren’t using DRS outside of the rules.  Since it’s software-controlled, each team must submit their code for review, not just part of the code, as it is easy to sneak in an adjustment elsewhere in the code.

Last week Mercedes was involved in quite a controversy.  It seems that the rear spoiler was a whole 0.85 mm (0.035″) out of spec.  Yup, that’s enough to become a scofflaw.  Except, perhaps it’s more complicated than that.  You see Mercedes appears to set up the rear spoiler to deflect at speed – it deforms to create a de-facto DRS.  Innovation isn’t dead – it just works in the service of evading rules rather than making a better car.  Long gone are the days of six-wheeled F1 experiments.

On-track adjudication isn’t much better.  A few races ago Bottas was fourth in the standings.  One of his adversaries was his teammate, the other two were on the track ahead of him.  He was slow off the start but decided to absolve himself by braking far too late in the corner (an error unworthy of a professional driver).  In doing so, he runs into the #2 and #3 drivers, damaging one car so badly that it needed its engine replaced.  This is F1 so you can’t expect to replace an engine without a penalty.   In this case, the offending car starts the next race five places back from where it should.  Of course, Bottas is not off the hook for his infraction, you guessed it, he starts the next race five places back from where he should.

I have only scratched the surface of how cloying the rules have become.  This is a sport that once highlighted ruthless competition.  Drivers fought it out on a track using cars improved in novel and unexpected ways.  Now it is pit strategy and how to push the rules without getting caught.

The purpose here is not to argue the merits of any team or driver (Although even an unbiased observer such as myself can objectively state that Verstappen is clearly being screwed by F1 rulings).  The passions that once fought over the better way to make and race a car have mutated into arguments of how best to make the race fair.

There is plenty of bitterness.  Unfortunately, this is not the spur to achieve a better result.  This is the bitterness that comes from feelings of betrayal.  F1 has allowed itself to become distracted from peak human achievement to focus on how each player has been wronged.

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  1. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Interesting stuff, and a good metaphor for the sort of bureaucratic sclerosis that’s affecting much of our society. Not being familiar with this world I’m having a little trouble following the details.

    Menns: A good example of disfunction of the rules is the Drag Reduction System (DRS).  At it’s core it’s a simple idea.  Have an actuator change the spoiler angle on command so that the car achieves maximum down force in corners and lower drag on the straights.  But, of course, this can’t happen without a healthy dose of rulemaking.  So here’s how it works.  DRS can only be applied if you are within 1 second of the car you want to pass, but only on certain portions of the track and not for the first lap or two after the race restart.  

    Why can you only use DRS when you’re passing? Why is there a restriction on using it on certain parts of the track? Isn’t the whole point of the device that you want the angle changed some time but not all the time? And why wait a lap or two?

    • #1
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Menns: Since it’s software controlled each team must submit their code for review, not just part of the code, as it is easy to sneak in an adjustment elsewhere in the code. 

    But our entire democracy would be threatened if we demanded the same accountability from Dominion voting machines!

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Menns: Since it’s software controlled each team must submit their code for review, not just part of the code, as it is easy to sneak in an adjustment elsewhere in the code.

    But our entire democracy would be threatened if we demanded the same accountability from Dominion voting machines!

    And even if they produce the code, how do we know that code was actually in the machines?

    • #3
  4. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Look at BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the Forest Service and the Wetlands Management Department.  Regulation run amuck.  And see Dr. Bastiat’s recent article on one agency suing another agency for ten years over a regulatory dispute.

    • #4
  5. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Look at BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the Forest Service and the Wetlands Management Department. Regulation run amuck. And see Dr. Bastiat’s recent article on one agency suing another agency for ten years over a regulatory dispute.

    Let’s make it easy for them.

    https://ricochet.com/1096778/government-spending-on-infrastructure-is-not-quite-what-you-think/

    • #5
  6. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Good article, Menns.

    Menns: It was a horribly dangerous sport; several would die every year.  It was not hyperbole to say you were never sure you would survive a race.  Drivers began to reject overtly dangerous conditions such as heavy rain.

    I’ve seen documentaries where surviving drivers talk about how very many of the racers they knew were killed on the track in the 60’s and 70’s.  The rule book may very well be too large these days, but a lot of the changes that came in the 1980’s and 90’s have been necessary.

    • #6
  7. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    The cautionary metaphor of auto racing as a demonstration of how well-meaning technocratic rule-making can defeat the reason for the rule-making is possibly even more relevant in some other categories of auto racing. Auto racing categories like spec-Miata or some of the lower classes of NASCAR have rules that limit modifications as a way to control costs for amateur racers. But just as with F1, sometimes competitions end up spending more time arguing over the rules (is that engine part really factory specification, are those wheels the correct size, etc.) than actually racing. The rules intended to keep costs down themselves become the subject of expensive rules arguments. Whenever a competitor pushes the boundaries of a rule, the rule-makers tend to respond with more particularity in the rule. That’s how we get racing rulebooks that run to hundreds of pages, and a government Code of Federal Regulations that runs to tens of thousands of pages. 

    No matter how well intentioned nor how noble the objective, it is impossible for a technocratic elite to craft a set of rules that will not be subject to boundary pushing and endless arguments over the details. 

    • #7
  8. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    No matter how well intentioned nor how noble the objective, it is impossible for a technocratic elite to craft a set of rules that will not be subject to boundary pushing and endless arguments over the details. 

    Very good point.

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Rules should be simple. Then let the system evolve. 

     

    • #9
  10. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    The cautionary metaphor of auto racing as a demonstration of how well-meaning technocratic rule-making can defeat the reason for the rule-making is possibly even more relevant in some other categories of auto racing. Auto racing categories like spec-Miata or some of the lower classes of NASCAR have rules that limit modifications as a way to control costs for amateur racers. But just as with F1, sometimes competitions end up spending more time arguing over the rules (is that engine part really factory specification, are those wheels the correct size, etc.) than actually racing. The rules intended to keep costs down themselves become the subject of expensive rules arguments. Whenever a competitor pushes the boundaries of a rule, the rule-makers tend to respond with more particularity in the rule. That’s how we get racing rulebooks that run to hundreds of pages, and a government Code of Federal Regulations that runs to tens of thousands of pages.

    No matter how well intentioned nor how noble the objective, it is impossible for a technocratic elite to craft a set of rules that will not be subject to boundary pushing and endless arguments over the details.

    And so, the flat tax.  :)

    • #10
  11. Menns Member
    Menns
    @Menns

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

     

    Why can you only use DRS when you’re passing? Why is there a restriction on using it on certain parts of the track? Isn’t the whole point of the device that you want the angle changed some time but not all the time? And why wait a lap or two?

    In fact the FIA seems to have taken over the technology specifically to encourage passing.  It is hard to pass on some tracks so this adds some interest for the viewers.  As for the delay after restart I can only speculate that it allows the cars too spread out on the track to avoid chaos.

    • #11
  12. Menns Member
    Menns
    @Menns

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Good article, Menns.

    Menns: It was a horribly dangerous sport; several would die every year. It was not hyperbole to say you were never sure you would survive a race. Drivers began to reject overtly dangerous conditions such as heavy rain.

    I’ve seen documentaries where surviving drivers talk about how very many of the racers they knew were killed on the track in the 60’s and 70’s. The rule book may very well be too large these days, but a lot of the changes that came in the 1980’s and 90’s have been necessary.

    That’s what makes these issues so difficult.  The problem is essentially that there is no sharp line that tells us when the rules have become ridiculous.  It is all too easy to fall into the trap of fixing and adjudicating everything.  The world is far more complicated than that.  

    • #12
  13. Menns Member
    Menns
    @Menns

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    No matter how well intentioned nor how noble the objective, it is impossible for a technocratic elite to craft a set of rules that will not be subject to boundary pushing and endless arguments over the details.

    There always have to be soft edges, room for judgement. 

    And tolerance.  Less effort parsing the rules leads to more effort improving the car.  

    As Leonard Cohen once wrote “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”

    • #13
  14. garyinabq Member
    garyinabq
    @garyinabq

    Nascar is better.  The cars can bump and grind and the heavier cars have aerodynamic effects on each other so a car can get sideways from the aero even if nobody touched him.  It’s a more organic, more touching system.  And the drivers reflect that style, with lots of personality and emotion.  If you want a sport with man and machine, don’t watch the chardonnay F1 guys.  Grab a beer and watch the stock cars.

    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    garyinabq (View Comment):

    Nascar is better. The cars can bump and grind and the heavier cars have aerodynamic effects on each other so a car can get sideways from the aero even if nobody touched him. It’s a more organic, more touching system. And the drivers reflect that style, with lots of personality and emotion. If you want a sport with man and machine, don’t watch the chardonnay F1 guys. Grab a beer and watch the stock cars.

    It too, used to be even better.

    • #15
  16. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Great post.  I know very little about the technical rules of F1, but what bothers me is that the stewards change from race-to-race so that it is hard to get consistent interpretation of rules.  On a side note, if Hamilton does win the championship, he owes a lot to Bottas for taking out Verstappen in Hungary. 

    • #16