How to Fix Formula 1, According to a Former F1 Racer
Many race fans think Formula 1 is broken. 1980s legend Stefan Johansson thinks he knows exactly how to fix it.
AUG 2, 2019
For many, Formula 1 racing has long been broken. Stefan Johansson, the 1980s F1 legend and always-outspoken Swede, has ideas to fix it. He published a lengthy, detailed article recently—what he calls a manifesto—explaining exactly what he would do to make F1 exciting, enticing and competitive again. Our Marshall Pruett spoke with Johansson about what, exactly, F1 can do to save itself. This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Road & Track.
Stefan Johansson: Without a doubt, the number one thing that we need to fix is the cars. There are four elements, basically: reduce downforce drastically; increase horsepower drastically; give the teams options on what kind of engine technology they want to run, and by doing so, allow car weight to be a deciding factor; and change the tires.
I think this obsession with aerodynamic downforce has run its course. Since it was invented, it’s the only thing that has mattered, as it is by far the easiest way to get performance from the car. It pushes the cost through the roof, because it’s an endless development war. They have wind tunnels running 24/7. Everything is based around aerodynamics. Yet it’s the one factor that totally ruins the racing. We just need to erase aerodynamic downforce from our brains.
Until they lower the downforce dramatically or eliminate the importance of downforce, it’s never going to change. My suggestion is to simply set a limit to the level of downforce you can run. Automatically, the focus will shift to other areas where you can have some level of creativity and invention.
Marshall Pruett: What would that maximum downforce value be?
SJ: That’s something that would have to be researched. But it would be massively less than it is now. I broke it down in the manifesto on my blog. If you take away 80 percent of the downforce, my rough calculation is, you’re going to lose about 12 seconds per lap on a track that takes 1:30 to get around.
So how do you get that back? You increase the horsepower significantly, 300, maybe 400 hp more than now. Beasts, basically, 1300- or 1400-hp cars. Which then would mean the cornering speed would be significantly less, but the straight-line speed and acceleration would be a lot higher, with longer braking zones, which would help overtaking, as they are literally in the corner when they brake, at the moment.
MP: We’d basically have NHRA dragsters on the straights. Which would be phenomenal!
SJ: Well, I mean, that’s how the cars used to be, and it was never a problem on tracks that were massively more dangerous than they are now, in terms of runoff areas. The accidents we had even back then were only freak accidents that could happen just as easily today, when something would break on the car or whatever.
Then you have the engine formula, which is another problematic area. You have an engine that’s very unappealing for race fans. The technology’s amazing, but how many people really care about the technology, except for the boffins who make it?
If you free up the engine formula and it’s not stuck with hybrid as the only option, you would immediately lose 150 kilos of battery weight. Then you can start getting inventive. Run it on a formula based on thermal efficiency and a fixed amount of energy to use during the course of the grand prix. Whatever that energy source may be, if it’s gasoline, electric, hydrogen, hybrid, nuclear, two-stroke, whatever, that’s up to whoever designs the engine. After a while, you would get all sorts of cool stuff that we’ve never even heard of before, and we would eventually find out what the most efficient source of energy is, not only for Formula 1 but for the automotive industry as a whole. F1 could and should be leader in this area and not be forced to copy a technology that’s been used on road cars for years.
Johansson at the Grand Prix of Belgium, August 1988.
PAUL-HENRI CAHIERGETTY IMAGES
This is just broad numbers obviously, but take the 12 seconds you lose on downforce. With the added horsepower, you’re going to gain back four seconds, let’s say, on an average lap. If you run a car that’s, say, 150 kilos lighter than it is now, every 30 kilos is about a second a lap, so it’s a big, big jump.
And the fourth component is tire technology. Because at the moment, the way the rules are, we have this incredible car that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, and then they do everything they can to slow it down. They’ve mandated a crap tire, basically. If they were to allow open competition with the tires, I could see four tire manufacturers coming in immediately, and because they would compete against each other, the lap times would come down drastically. Tires are by far and away the easiest and cheapest way to gain lap time, so why not let those manufacturers be part of the competition?
Let’s say four seconds for engine, four for weight, four for tires. You’re back to the same lap time, but it’s achieved in a totally different way. Hopefully that will be much more spectacular to watch, because you can see the drivers fighting the cars, balancing the car on throttle and steering, which is what people love to see.
MP: What about costs?
SJ: The problem with Formula 1 today is that every team has to build everything themselves, in theory. But the rules are so restrictive that everybody just ends up building the same thing. Instead of buying the brake system from one source, for example, they all have to do their own thing. And it costs a fortune. I mean, a brake budget for one of the top teams that I know of is equivalent to a winning IndyCar budget.
MP: Eight million a year!
SJ: Just for brakes! I mean, it’s insane. But almost every single aspect of the car is the same problem. Why waste all that money and effort and manpower when you end up doing exactly the same thing as everybody else? Because the rules are so restrictive, there is no room to invent anything different, so it would be better to simply limit all of that. Make it the same for everybody, and then let them get creative in other areas. Or free up the rules. If someone wants to run a fricking triple-disc brake system or whatever, fine. Anything that at least allows some freedom of creativity. Of course, the argument I keep hearing is that it would be no different than IndyCar, with spec cars, but that’s kind of where we are anyway, with the only difference being that each team has to build its own spec car at an astronomical cost.
I’m not saying, “Oh, back in the Eighties, everything was great.” It’s the exact opposite of that. I’m only suggesting that they should just try to narrow down all the waste and all the stuff that really makes no difference in the end. If you limit all that, and you put a limit on aerodynamic development, and instead free up the rules in other areas, like materials technology, for example, there would very soon be some very interesting ideas presented. I would love to see the engineers and designers be allowed to really get creative and not restricted in this incredibly narrow box. Right now, everyone is forced to endlessly polish the same concept, over and over.
MP: Did you get any feedback on your manifesto from the racing community?
SJ: Almost immediately after it was published, I had three current technical directors contact me and say, "It’s brilliant, best thing I ever read about Formula 1." That was quite encouraging, obviously. It’s just common sense, at the end of the day. It’s nothing more than that.
If you fix the cars so they’re not doing 60 mph quicker around a medium-speed corner than they used to do, then all the old classic tracks are going to become really interesting again. Eau Rouge would all of a sudden become a monster corner again, whereas now, anyone is flat around there on the third lap. It’s not even a corner anymore.
I often use the analogy of a restaurant: you can put new signs in front, fancy interior, tasty menus, celebrity guests, social media, cool advertising, whatever, but if the food sucks, no one will come back.
Bottom line, it’s the cars. If you fix the cars, most of this other stuff will fall into place.