The sad fact of the current world is this: if you are a sport which ISN’T some form of football, money is harder to come by these days. Sports the world over are attempting to appeal to the broadest amount of people in exchange for their precious dollars, and perhaps this is why more and more emphasis has been placed on the idea of equalizing a field of racecars.
Because watching one driver be the best is just so boring right?
We’re seeing ‘Balance of Performance’ come up as a term mostly in sportscar racing, both in the FIA World Endurance Championship and here in the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship. But the idea of balance of performance is nothing new. NASCAR, V8 Supercars, Indycars, touring cars, even F1 all use common technological regulations that all teams must adhere to in order to create cars that only differentiate in the fine details.
But it makes for closer racing, right? Not always.
Certainly at the Rolex 24 at Daytona we had a dichotomy between the Daytona Prototypes and the ALMS P2 cars in terms of speed. Most frustratingly for the P2 teams was that the DPs ended up being faster – having previously been slower than the P2s back in Grand-Am.
And worse, it can be used as a political tool. In the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours, the GTE-Pro and Am categories were rammed with great factory entries. But in the race, only Porsche and Aston Martin – from the European WEC – were competitive. ALMS teams like Corvette Racing, hugely successful at Le Mans in previous years, were suddenly up to 3 seconds off the pace. Was it coincidence that these teams were suddenly left floundering after ‘balance of performance’ was implemented? I think not.
You’ve heard of teams ‘sandbagging’ right? With BoP that is common, and IMSA were threatening in-race penalties to teams they judged to be doing this at the Rolex 24. So in many ways this just creates additional hurdles for organizers to jump over, and theoretically more costs in checking and re-checking data from cars to make sure they aren’t pulling a fast (or slow) one.
In an interview after the 2014 Rolex 24, Chip Ganassi Racing’s head of sportscar racing Tim Keene was very vocal about how BoP should be applied – if at all. “I don’t disagree with them setting limits on how low or high we can go on down-force but I very much disagree with them trying to limit us to a certain amount…I think all series are making the same mistake–Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar as well. I think they’re trying so hard to make it equal that they’re actually making it worse.”
So what’s the solution?
Open up the technical regulations. Make them less restrictive, not more.
Keene continued: “(Yates Racing) say it would be a lot easier for them to run with the other big teams if NASCAR would open up the rules rather than trying to make all the cars be the same. Yates believes they could more competitive at more tracks if NASCAR would allow them to play around a bit and I’m sure they’re right from what I’ve seen here.”
The logic goes that the more you restrict what teams can do, using spec parts and so on, the more you eliminate any differences from cars from different teams. But all this does in practice is mean that the cars who can fit these restrictive regulations the best – i.e. built by the teams with the most money – win. By opening up the technical regulations, you give teams with less R&D budget a chance to interpret the rules differently, and come out with creative new setups. We’ve seen this before many times in motorsport, particularly F1.
In 2009 the tiny Brawn GP team created an ingenious rear diffuser design which out of nowhere propelled them to victories in six of the first seven races, and eventually to victory in both the drivers and constructors’ championships. Other teams protested, but it was perfectly legal. Their sweep remains possibly the greatest upset in modern F1 history – and most of it was down to a brilliant piece of thinking from Ross Brawn and co. His tiny team was operating on a shoestring budget with minimal sponsors. Yet a stroke of genius turned the tables on their wealthier opponents. The point is that if we allow room for imagination, ingenuity can be a natural equalizer. Instead of dragging the fastest cars down, why not give the slower cars more of a chance to catch up?
Why not let the DP and P2 teams develop their cars organically? Imagine the kind of wacky evolutions we could see to the DP, a car many criticize as being prehistoric in construction and design? Suddenly cars like the funky DeltaWing may become more common – cars that inspire and take a different approach in the pursuit of glory.
As Keene and others in the USCR paddock noted, it actually makes the teams’ jobs easier if the regulations are more open. It means less red tape and restrictions to possibly trip over, more freedom for the designers and engineers, and ultimately a better car more suited to their chosen drivers as a result.
Also by allowing more open regulations, we may see the return of the ‘homologation special’ road car. Currently there is only a tangential link between the cars in the parking lot and the ones on the track. But in years past we had some truly spectacular road and race cars emerge as a result of manufacturers experimenting with their own designs. The Ford GT40 had to be sold as a road car, let’s not forget. Dodge and Plymouth revolutionized NASCAR when they stuck aerodynamic noses and rear wings on their Charger and Road Runner cars in the late 1960s, creating the iconic ‘winged warriors’. It’s great to see the new Corvette C7 being designed with the express purpose of aiding its transformation into the C7.R racecar – more open technical regs could mean that other manufacturers follow their lead.
And do people really mind one driver/car dominating? Yes, people boo Sebastian Vettel on the podium, but it could be argued that this reaction was more out of frustration at the poor quality of racing. But generally, if a driver/team fairly and squarely puts themselves streets ahead of the competition, fans respect that. And fans would rather watch a driver and car storming to victory whilst looking cool and representing a leap forward in technology or design, as opposed to someone cruising to victory due to their superior bank balance.
All the most iconic racecars in history pushed the boundaries and did something different. Is it time to start letting the 21st century motorsport world do the same?