Originally written for motorlat on 06/06/'18 by bruznic.
According to the fans there is a lot wrong with F1. A lack of noise, too big a difference between the top three and the rest of the field, Charlie Whiting and his trend of banning innovations, the money involved, grid girls (too may/ too little depending on whom you asks), Williams F1 team going down the drain, and last but certainly not least, a lack of overtaking.
It is that last one that will get the attention in this article. Or better yet, the magic solution I see people give all of the time. Coincidentally, it is also the worst argument there is if you want more overtaking opportunities.
Bring back refueling!
First of all, people seem to think refueling is an essential part of F1, for which ever reason. But it isn't... Essential parts of F1 are four wheels, one steering wheel, going fast, (arguably) the best drivers in the world and, an open cockpit (although I'd argue that fighter jet style cockpits are better solutions than halo's, so for me open cockpits are up to debate).
The first time a planned pitstop with refueling occurred was during the 1957 German Grand Prix. Juan Manuel Fangio stopped for new tyres and fuel around the halfway point of the race. But in those days that stop lasted so long that Fangio even had time to drink a coffee, while the mechanics were working on his car. He would go on to win that race (his last ever victory), but none of his competitors thought this had anything to do with the refueling part of his pitstop. Highlighted by the fact that it would not happen again for another 25 years!
However, 25 years later (in 1982) it was done for the only advantage refueling has; weight saving. Which in turn equals to faster lap times. Brabham's designer Gordon Murray calculated that if his cars were to start with just half a tank worth of petrol they would have a weight advantage, but it also meant his drivers could opt for a softer tyre compound. Even though the final race result does not reveal it, the Austrian race of that year (where the first fuel stop happened) was Brabham's by a country mile. Mr E, who ran Brabham back then, saw how Patrese had such a big lead that he could pit and not even lose p1. Unfortunately both Patrese and his teammate Piquet would not finish due to an engine and an electrical failure respectively. But that race marked the beginning of an era.
So can one argue in favour of refueling by just using the increased speed argument? No, not really. Since the difference in speed today would not be as big as it was back then. In 1982 the fuel limit was set at 250l (187kg) today it's 140l (105kg), this means that there is less weight to shed by using only a half tank. Not only that but there's also the fact that the turbo's of the 80s drank more than a soldier on his first day of military leave. Today's hybrid engines are the most fuel economic engines F1 ever saw. I might add here that lift and coast and other fuel saving measures are nothing new in F1. People complain about it today, but believe me, in the 80s it was worse. These days you don't see a driver stopping on track because his tank is bone dry.
Sidebar; if you don't believe me take a look at the German GP of '86. (By the way, by '84 refueling had been banned by the governing body. Just two years after Murray's idea...) It has perhaps the strangest finish of all time. With Senna frantically weaving his car in the final stretch towards the finish line, in order to get the last drop of fuel to do its job. Rosberg had ran out of fuel half a lap earlier, and his McLaren teammate (Prost) tried to do the same as Senna... But the finish line proved to be a few meters too far. Prost trying to bring the car home by rocking forwards and backwards in his seat was a strange sight. Eventually he even climbed out of the car to try and push it over the line.
Back to the main story. I won't say that the cars won't be faster if they take less fuel with them, because I would be lying. But I will say that the performance gained is so small that we, the fans, won't be able to see it. General rule in F1 is that every 10kg you drop equals to a 0.3sec faster lap-time.
This means that a car which starts with 52.5kg of fuel (half of the amount that is allowed), would be 1.575sec faster per lap than a fully fueled car. Of course this is all theory. There are more factors, but as a general calculation it'll do. The problem with this is that, quite naturally, no one would be that much faster than anyone else. Seeing that no team would ever decide to put a fully loaded car on the grid. Because A) there is a mandatory pitstop, for fitting another compound than the one you start on and B) because there would be an option to refuel during said stop.
This all means that the strategies of all the teams would be separated by fuel loads worth about a 3 to 5 laps difference between cars. Unless one team decides on a one stopper when others decided on a two stopper. Which would happen rarely... So we are talking about speed differences of just a couple of tenths. Eliminating the different strategies/different speeds argument completely.
The immediate effect of refueling would be a shift from the mix of over- and undercut tactics we have today (largely due to Pirelli, I might add), to a race where everyone tries an overcut, simply by gambling on having 3 laps worth of fuel more than their direct opponent. This would allow them to drive those 3 extra laps with with an actual weight advantage, since the opponent that just refueled will be a lot heavier. Let's say half of the field has this advantage of 1.5sec, for three laps, on their direct opponent... and then passes them in the pitlane. How many of you would find that thrilling? This all makes me wonder why so many of you see refueling as the problem solving solution for the overtaking problem F1 currently has.
The only kind of overtaking refueling strategies create are pitstop overtakes, which are the most boring overtakes ever. Even a "sitting duck DRS" overtake is more exciting. Plus I remember the outburst the Hamfosi's had when Vettel gained a position during the Virtual Safety Car period, by pitting, at this years Melbourne Grand Prix. Granted the situation is a bit different, but the end result is the same; There is an artificial speed difference, and we don't get to see any real action on track.
Somehow I find people reminiscing about the 90s and 00s to have serious rose-tinted glasses. The next graph (provided by cliptheapex) show that the overtaking numbers hit an all-time low in the years that refueling was a big part of the strategies used by the teams. Ask yourself if you really want to go back to a period with less overtaking than today!
The only time pitstops (and races) became more thrilling by refueling was when something went wrong. Jos Verstappen in Germany '94 (this is the third time I've used Germany as an example in this article, but it's nothing more than a weird coincidence, haha), his fellow Dutchman Christijan Albers in France '07 (and probably the only footage you remember of him and the failed Spyker team), Felipe Massa in Singapore '08, Kimi Räikkönen in Spain '08, Kimi Räikkönen and Heikki Kovalainen in Brazil '09 (come to think of it, Kimi has had his fair share of pit incidents...)
Except for the two times Ross Brawn decided to put Michael Schumacher on an alternative strategy, at the Hungaroring in '98 and at Magny Cours in '04. In Hungary he pitted once more than his rivals, and in France he even pitted two times more. But these strategic calls needed two things to be executed to perfection: Ross Brawn's genius to produce the plan and Michael Schumacher's ability to deliver qualifying laps during a race...
So it would be quite an understatement to say that the number of races affected by a pitstop, to create something legendary, is extremely low and therefore I'll make my case again; There are easier solutions to F1's problems. And those guarantee proper on track battles:
Pirelli should only have two compounds
- One hypersoft compound for the qualification sessions. No matter what track or temperature there is that day. This would make Saturday exciting as the cars and drivers would get maximum performance out of the car.
- One superhard compound for the race. Everyone on the same tyre for the race, and that tyre is so hard it could last all season (that's an exaggeration, haha). Why? Because this tyre would have virtually no grip, compared the the hypers, and this would mean that Sundays would be the days that car performance is less important than driver performances. Driver errors are THE key to this problem. We all know that F1 will never be the best drivers competing each other in the same car, but most of us hope it would be. Well, this solution would be the next best thing. Unlike refueling it would give us proper track action.
Although I strongly suspect Liberty Media (or Ross Brawn for them) are going all-in on the other magical solution fans want to see. Ground effect.
Why else would they plan a return to a (spec) active suspension system. It's the only thing that can make ground effect properly work, without the drawbacks of the 80s. And perhaps it might be time to go back... With active suspension the ride height of the car can be controlled at all times and therefore the use of skirts becomes obsolete. Plus these days they create skirts from the Y250 vortexes anyway.
The main concern would still be how a car behaves when it crashes, and therefore loses its ground effect. But with such high safety standards these days, and miles of run off area, the governing body might think the risk is very small compared to the advantages? One thing is certain, nothing would fix racing less than refueling. And nothing would fix it more than ground effect (in combination with active suspension and a serious downsizing of surface aero) .