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FEBRUARY 17, 2005

Lap times in Formula 1

In July last year the Formula 1 technical directors got together on the orders of FIA President Max Mosley to cut three seconds a lap from the Formula 1 lap times in 2005. The teams were keen to avoid having Mosley's own ideas imposed on them and, as a result, there was an unusual degree of agreement. The FIA accepted the proposals as being just was what needed but seven months later and the lap times being recorded in Spain make it clear that the rule changes are not even close to the target that was set. Lap times are not three seconds a lap slower. In Barcelona Giancarlo Fisichella's time yesterday of 1m14.408s is only six-tenths off Takuma Sato's 2004 record of 1m13.797s.

And the 2005 cars are going to get quicker yet.

One can argue that this may not be the case on tracks where F1 cars do not test regularly and for that we will have to wait but it is clear that cutting lap times is not quite as easy as it seems - and inevitably that must lead to question marks about whether or not the forthcoming change of engine regulations will reduce the lap times as much as they are supposed to do. We have always doubted that. Last year Mosley said that a switch to 2.4-litre V8s would drop horsepower to 650 bhp. Our talks with engine designers suggest that the figure at which they will start development on V8s is going to be around 800bhp and the ultimate potential of the engines is higher than the V10s for the simple reason that a shorter crankshaft will reduce the problems associated with longer cranks and so it will be easier for the engine men to find more power.

All of this leads to the conclusion that if all these changes are being made on the grounds of safety, they are failing, despite great expense to some of the teams involved. Surely, the rule-making process should be more effective than this. The conclusion that one reaches is that if the technical directors cannot do it, the FIA must step in. But the federation thought that the cuts would be enough and so it obviously needs to have better research and development capability in order to gauge more effectively what needs to be done. The federation will probably argue that it cannot afford such things but that leads to questions about why this should be so given that the FIA has more than $300m locked away in a charity which some in FIA circles argue should be used for the sport.

The other issue raised by the lap times is that with cars this quick the FIA is once again going to be under threat if it does not act immediately, particularly when one considers the possible implications of a major accident. If ever there was a case for a switch to control tyres, this is now the moment. With control tyres the FIA can effectively dictate the lap times and thus the change can be justified on the grounds of safety. Everyone apart from Ferrari wants a control tyre.

There is a certain irony in the fact that quicker lap times will probably be the best way to convince Ferrari to back down on the tyre issue. If Ferrari is soundly beaten because of a tyre disadvantage (hard to imagine but possible given that Michelin has completed 91,500 km of testing this year compared to Bridgestone's 16,500km) the best way to get rid of such a disadvantage would be to agree to a control tyre, and would give Ferrari the chance to appear to be doing something for the good of the sport, a step in the right direction given that the other manufacturers are clearly serious about their plans for the future.

Who would have thought that a few quick laps could have such important implications for the
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