Image: Creative Commons
For years now, Formula One has been gearing towards 2021 and the impending regulation changes — probably the most important changes to the sport in its history.
A lot of has been discussed to improve the state of F1, to improve racing and the competitive balance. So many things have been on the table with regards possible changes, but for the longest time refuelling wasn’t one of them.
For the uninitiated, in-race refuelling has been banned since 2010 and strategy in Formula 1 hasn’t been the same since.
Pirelli introduced high-degrading tyres in 2011 and while these added some drama to F1 strategy for a few years, patience with them fell thin and change was desired.
Now, most races these days are 1-stops bore-fests and have largely been so since 2017, with a few exceptions.
In a hand-full of examples, strategy has been a deciding factor for some race wins (it’s certainly played its part in midfield battles, less so for the race win) but for the most part with 1-stop races limiting strategy options, it’s been about pure race-pace which obviously plays to Mercedes’ advantage in the last few years, being the class of the field.
Despite diverse strategies amongst the top teams being fairly non existent for years now (though, Red Bull were sometimes willing to try something different as the third fastest team and Ferrari…well, being Ferrari), the prospect of refuelling never really came up as a means to add to the strategy. Which was always a great shame because it added a strategy dynamic that F1 has missed since it was banned.
But in recent weeks the topic has come up in conversation and, it seems, there’s a possibility that refuelling could make a return in the future.
Refuelling has had its opposition in recent years, and I understand why.
People said F1 had outgrown refuelling. That these 2 second/sub-2 second pitstops are the new pitstop identity of F1. And for years it hasn’t been necessary. But it is now.
Look, those pitstops are great, don’t get me wrong. They are absolutely clockwork and they’re fantastic to watch. But they can’t become a reason why F1 doesn’t go back to refuelling, they can’t be the reason why F1 doesn’t have a greater strategy element, which in turn, creates better races. We’re only seeing a few of these per race anyways because of the crappy Pirelli tyres we have making the majority of races 1-stoppers.
If we’re stuck with Pirelli as F1’s sole tyre supplier for the foreseeable future and these are the type of tyres F1 is stuck with, then refuelling needs to return — there has to be more to strategy than there currently is. When Pirelli ran the high degrading tyres, there wasn’t a need because this new element was creating 2, 3 sometimes even 4 pitstops per driver per race. But that dynamic doesn’t exist anymore.
But what refuelling would also do is jumble up the grid a bit and create a bit more unpredictability.
Every weekend for years now we’ve gone into it knowing it’s more than likely going to be a Mercedes on pole position — and it’s probably going to be Lewis Hamilton. And heading into the race then, you know it’s probably going to be a Mercedes victory, because they’re on pole position and they just run away from everyone else — which, sadly, has been largely the case in 2019.
Of course there are exceptions but that’s generally how it’s gone over the years.
In the past, driver’s would start the race on the fuel load they qualified on. Bringing back refuelling would at least add some spice to Saturday’s again, even if the race itself ends up with Mercedes being on top. Let’s wander down a potentially dangerous rabbit hole…
The classic early 2000’s Ferrari vs. hybrid Mercedes debate is one that’s difficult to quantify (given the different time eras) but when it comes to refuelling, qualifying-to race, there’s a few things you can compare — one era had refuelling, one did not.
So… for reference we’ll go from 2000-2004 for Ferrari and 2014-2018 for Mercedes — both represent 5 year stretches of F1 dominance (a little less so in 2003 for Ferrari and 2018 for Mercedes, both years where both teams won about half of the races instead of, roughly three-quarters).
In 85 races from 2000-2004, Ferrari took 60% of the pole positions and won 67% of the races in that span. In 100 races from 2014-2018, Mercedes have taken 84% of pole positions and have won 74% of the races.
In addition, only 43% of pole positions were converted into wins from 2000-2004, while 53% of poles have been converted into wins from 2014-2018, so read into that what you will (there isn’t as much of a correlation to refuelling vs. no refuelling with that stat).
There’s a ton you can read into and take away from that (you can get into the whole, ‘Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t have so many poles if there was refuelling allowed’ conversation if you want) but I believe there is a correlation between the winning percentage for Ferrari being higher than their pole position percentage from 2000-2004, and I think a certain amount of this has to do with the fact there was refuelling, allowing other teams to have banzai runs to pole position, such as Jenson Button’s 2004 San Marino pole position, Fernando Alonso’s maiden pole position at Malaysia 2003, and Jaguar often got Mark Webber far up the field using a similar ploy.
There were some instances where this actually worked, such as Hungary 2003 where the short-fuelled Alonso was able to getaway in the lead while the chasing pack was stuck behind Mark Webber’s similarly fuelled Jaguar.
Refuelling also gave the high-tiered midfield teams a chance to go for a glory pole position and gave us different and surprising pole sitters/unpredictable grids — which again, helps create some excitement on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. Ralf Schumacher’s 2005 Japanese Grand Prix pole position, Toyota’s front row lockout in Bahrain 2009 — these are just some examples (coincidentally, both from Toyota).
It created more fun, and gave F1 different pole sitters — change is always good.
On the Sundays, the true pace was revealed and it was Ferrari who usually won out, but at least Saturday’s were more entertaining and at least we were left guessing somewhat heading into a race: was the qualifying pace pace or was it just a banzai run? At least it’s not a forgone conclusion that a Mercedes was going to win. At least fans weren’t resigned to their fate before lights out…
And if the top teams have to come through the field somewhat to get to where their pace is reflective of, at least there’s a few more overtakes to be had than there would be otherwise and, who knows, maybe some drama is created by an accident coming through the field?
Alternatively, refuelling adds such a dynamic on the pit-wall, and some great races have been decided in such a manner. The 2004 French Grand Prix comes to mind, where Michael Schumacher used a 4-stop strategy to beat Fernando Alonso to victory at Magny-Cours.
One of my personal favourites was the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix, the one race where Ferrari and Michael Schumacher were on the pace in what was a dismal 2005 for the Scuderia, with McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen using a 3-stop strategy to beat Schumacher to victory on the day.
It also means drivers can push if they know they’re coming in — they don’t have to save massive amounts of fuel and tyres if they’re coming in multiple times. One of the gripes F1 drivers have is the excessive fuel saving and tyre saving — refuelling helps take some of that away.
Again with these current Pirelli tyres, F1 should absolutely consider the return of refuelling. It adds more danger to the pit-crews, yes, and it would mean the sub-2 second pitstops are a thing of the past, but needs must if F1 wants to improve their product. And besides, if anyone is in F1 because it’s a safe place to be, then I’m not sure why they’re there.
While refuelling doesn’t solve all of F1’s problems, it certainly would help some. On its own, refuelling does not solve the competitive balance issue, but in conjunction with the 2021 regulation changes where the ultimate goal is to balance the field, I think it would help diversify the strategies and, thus, create better races and racing which is what Liberty have been wanting to do since the day they took over F1.