Commentary

When laptops strangle the life out of competition

They were playing The Beatles over the loudspeakers as we left the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez after the Mexican Grand Prix.

A better choice might have been Sandie Shaw's Eurovision favourite, Puppet On A String.

Lewis Hamilton wanted to take a risk but the computers said no. The world's greatest racing driver's instinct told him to roll the dice and put his life on the line at 355kmh for the sake of glory, but the supercomputers and laptops ganged up to tell him he was wrong.

The 100,000 extraordinary fans, who turned the Mexican Grand Prix into a four-day fiesta , came to be thrilled by gladiators and got robots.

They were denied the chance to see why Hamilton is a three-time world champion.

No one is suggesting that every laptop is dropped into the Atlantic as the F1 freight moves on to its next destination, but the huge investment in computer power has not only distorted the nature of motor racing, it has driven up costs hugely and unnecessarily.

You fell into one of two camps late on Sunday night after the race when the analysis and arguments started. Either you thought that Hamilton was denied by his own team a chance to sneak a victory from Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate, or you followed the logical process that Formula One is a team game and the team decide how races are run, not the drivers.

Bernie Ecclestone does not get much right these days when he opens his mouth, but the F1 supremo was spot-on when he said that engineers and scientists now run the sport, not the allegedly superstar drivers.

The logic from Mercedes was this: Their strategists - yes, there are strategists, too - had planned for a single pit-stop but their two drivers, running almost in tandem, were so far ahead of the field that an extra stop was called.

Rosberg went first, handing the lead to Hamilton. The scent of victory suddenly reached the Briton's nostrils and he knew that, if he ploughed on, he would have a 20-second or so advantage over his team-mate. Rosberg would have fresh tyres and would catch him at a rate of knots, but if he could just hang on…

It was an immense gamble but Hamilton has won 43 grands prix and knows the risks. He is being paid £100 million (S$216 million) by Mercedes to put his neck on the line.

He felt good, his car felt good, his tyres felt good.

The world champion was ready to go for it and, for just a few minutes, there was the whiff of rebellion in the air until Pete Bonnington, his race engineer, relayed the message from the bosses that there was to be no argument.

"Instruction," Bonnington barked.

Perhaps the number-crunchers were right and Hamilton was wrong, but the over-arching argument remains: Hamilton was neutered by the engineers who call the shots in this modern era of Formula One.

Apart from the computer geeks who sit at banks of computers in the garage, there are even more in a bunker at the Mercedes headquarters factory analysing every muscle and sinew of their precious cars, putting every conceivable possibility through the micro-chips and then relaying the information direct to the pit wall.

There was a move to stop the chatter between pit wall and driver but the constant coaxing, chiding and guidance goes on.

The airwaves buzzed on Sunday as Hamilton and Rosberg made their way through the 71 laps of the Mexican Grand Prix.

F1 has stopped being motor racing and become an industrial process. It is admirable in so many ways, and let us not forget it is dominated by the some of the greatest British engineering brains.

But would Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart or even Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion and now Mercedes chairman, be able to compare this computerised sport with their eras when they were given a car and a tank of petrol and waved off into combat?

I suspect not.

No one is suggesting that every laptop is dropped into the Atlantic as the F1 freight moves on to its next destination, but the huge investment in computer power has not only distorted the nature of motor racing, it has driven up costs hugely and unnecessarily.

Just ask the team principals behind the closed doors of their motor-homes, and they throw up their hands and say, "What can we do?"

Maybe this is all a molehill in F1's mountain of problems, but who could doubt the frustration of a gifted world champion, whose experience, knowledge, skill and sheer devilment was screaming at him to take a risk on Sunday?

That's what the fans paid to see. After all, they could all see a laptop in the comfort of their own homes any day of the week.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'When laptops strangle the life out of competition'. Print Edition | Subscribe