Get two big-headed fans to throw back a few pints of beer and, inevitably, this question will come up. “Was it harder to race in the past?” one hiccups as he gestures to the bartender. The wiser, older and usually stodgier friend will snort, “Of course it was. Were you born yesterday?” What follows is tiring and oft-repeated, but there is some truth in the curmudgeon’s statement. The younger, drunker race fan might have some counter-arguments that hold water, though, and if the two had some coffee and sobered up, their conversation might touch on some of the following points:
Modern technology is what separates the the drivers of today from those of yesteryear – more than mutton chops, cigarettes and a lack of corporate training. Ask any engineer what influences vehicle behavior more than anything and they’ll answer: aerodynamics. Downforce improves cornering speeds and braking distances. However, when it comes to racing, is it the right way forward?
Sticky tires and lots of downforce mean the braking distances are incredibly short, which the drivers love. However, is that good for racing? Possibly not. With harder tires, drivers would have to nurse the levels of grip and with longer braking zones and less braking performance, there are more chances to make a mistake and a greater amount of skill involved in controlling the car.
Points to the old team. However, harder tires are not as physically demanding. There’s no doubt modern drivers, with their exercise regimens and vegetable-centric diets, are much fitter than their forebears. If the modern cars are less challenging in terms of skill – and that’s not necessarily true – the higher levels of grip and improved reliability make them more physically demanding.
Speaking of reliability, the driver no longer has to nurse the equipment. The gearboxes and engines are near-impossible to destroy through bad driving, which is both good and bad. No doubt these changes have hurt overtaking these days are the engine/throttle control and the gearboxes. These two elements will divide people, surely, but they make a huge difference.
Since engines are now drive-by-wire, the engineers can soften the power delivery and make the power to come in smoother than a saxophone solo. Engineers can select between throttle maps to soften the delivery for rain or damp conditions, boost levels can be adjusted to come in smoothly and softly at low revs and, even if traction control is deemed illegal, some are clever enough to limit torque in certain gears to effectively have it without a formal system interrupting the power delivery. At the end of the day, an engineer wants a 5% increase of throttle to correspond with a 5% increase of torque. Predictable, controllable and good on tires, but is it a challenge?
Contrast that with a traditional Ford-Cosworth DFV engine, which powered everything from Formula One cars to sports prototypes. Eight cylinders displaced 3.5 liters, revving to 11,000 rpm and making as much as 700 horsepower. Some described the old DFVs as having a powerband like a two-stroke engine, and keeping it howling in the right end of the rev range was a specific challenge.
With a traditional throttle cable and a less-than-perfect powerband, it was also hard to put the power down. F1 and Indycar engineer Frank Dierney claimed the “first 5% of throttle travel delivered 95% of the torque!” Therefore, if a driver got a little too greedy putting the power down, or panicked under pressure, they could find themselves in a big slide before they knew it.
The other aspect which has changed racing significantly is the move away from h-pattern gearboxes. Though there are plenty of pros to the modern, paddle-shifted gearbox prevalent in sports cars, Indycars and Formula 1 cars, they are also hugely expensive to run and take a lot of the challenge out of racing.
The challenge of heel-toeing, finding the right gear and not over-revving the motor on the downchange has gone out the window with modern, paddle-shift gearboxes. Even with pump-action sequentials, some of that skill is no longer needed. Often times, a race could be decided by a missed gear or a hasty downshift in the heat of battle. If a driver didn’t synchronize their downshifts well, they could break a gearbox or spin a motor past its redline and ruin it. Nowadays, the software won’t allow it. Plus, with as many as 2,000 gearshifts per race, some manually-shifting drivers would exit their cars at the end of a race with with a bloody hand; the force and friction of shifting had worn through their glove and into their palm!
Equally painful was the lack of power steering. Though the cornering loads weren’t as immense as they are today, the winged cars from the eighties and nineties still generated a lot of grip, and needed a strong driver to turn the big slicks up front, especially at speed. Take a look at the linebacker-like physique of Nigel Mansell and contrast it to a jockey like Alexander Rossi, and you get my point.
However, the reason Rossi is built the way he is comes down to the fact that the physical demands of modern cars are generally much higher. The downforce and grip offered mean more g-force, although the power has dropped somewhat. This is why they’re all on a strict diet and exercise regimen to keep their weight as low as possible, since more fat and muscle is extra insulation and makes the heart work harder.
Modern cars are quite complicated, too. Constantly adjusting fuel mixtures, turbo pressure and engine mapping is no walk in the park. It’s arguably more of a science experiment these days, and at 200 mph, that’s a challenge that can’t be mocked.
The problem a genuine fan must realize is the feuding factions within a sport; they’re all trying to get their own way regardless of what’s the greater good. Engineers want faster cars, organizers want an improved spectacle – even if it is done in a contrived way – and drivers want what’s most enjoyable to drive. Some might care more for the general spectacle, but it’s the fans who whine the most about a lack of passing.
How these warring factions will ever come to a consensus is uncertain. Would moving back to h-pattern gearboxes and harder tires be the way forward? Would racers prefer competing wheel-to-wheel in cars that were less aerodynamically-dependent? Can the tech-heavy aspect of racing be improved without damaging the sporting element? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but at times it seems, depending on the series, that technology outweighs the spectacle. Who’s to decide? There’s no easy solution.