NASCAR’s Open Inspections Wouldn’t Do Formula One Much Good

Ross Brawn’s NASCAR-derived idea sounds nice, but it has problems of its own.

byJames Gilboy| PUBLISHED May 11, 2017 6:42 PM
NASCAR’s Open Inspections Wouldn’t Do Formula One Much Good

Ross Brawn, the managing director of Formula 1, is taking some leaves from the books of other motorsports—and he has been looking at NASCAR's open inspection system as of late, according to Autosport. “At a certain stage of the season you can go and look at someone else’s car and strip it apart and see what’s in it," stated Brawn. The idea is that any cars that have a competitive advantage will not keep that advantage a secret for long, and that any other team can then copy said advantage. 

But while this may keep the NASCAR pack close, this advantages of this system do not carry over to Formula 1 well.

First and foremost, NASCAR's technology is not comparable to that of Formula 1. At its simplest, NASCAR cars are a naturally aspirated V8 up front, a driven rear axle, some simple aero, a roll cage, and four tires. The cars are so similar that they make for a borderline spec series. Compare that to Formula 1, where every team shows up with cars so distinct that an astute fan could identify them without their liveries. Suspension, cooling systems, airboxes, barge boards, front wings, and too many other parts to count differ from F1 team to F1 team.

Furthermore, ideas that are be simple for NASCAR teams to copy between races could—and likely would—take months for Formula 1 teams. It was considered almost a miracle when it took Renault six weeks to replicate the double deck diffuser designs of the competing Brawn GP, Williams, and Toyota teams in 2009, because the estimated completion time was 12 weeks. Considering how complex modern aerodynamic designs have gotten for Formula 1, it takes teams multiple race weekends to learn enough about their own cars' performances to even know where they need improvement. After that, parts need to be designed, manufactured, and tested. 

For an example of the current development rate, one only needs to look at the race this weekend: the Spanish Grand Prix. This year's first Grand Prix took place on the 26th of March, and even with an in-season open test session at Bahrain, teams are only now delivering their first real upgrades of the season, more than six weeks after it began.

If the goal is to bring the backmarkers closer to the frontrunners, such a thing cannot be feasibly achieved during the opening quarter of the season. Due to the amount of time it takes to copy better teams, as established above, only so many open inspection sessions per year could offer tangible benefit to each team. Any open inspections beyond the season's halfway point would be of no use for the current year, and could only serve as a guide for how to design the A-spec version of next season's car. 

How much value an open inspection offers is also limited. Much of the external changes to cars already do not go unnoticed, as Formula 1 technical analyst Craig Scarborough has a field day any time new parts are introduced to any car on the grid. No wing, barge board, floor panel, or sidepod change goes unnoticed by Scarborough, who publishes updates on his Twitter account for all to see. He serves as a free resource for all the teams to use already—why waste time sending your engineers to watch the Ferrari or Red Bull get undressed by the FIA scrutineers?

Speaking of the scrutineers, they have failed to notice multiple instances of technologies appearing on cars that occupy holes in the sport's technical regulations. It was only through Scuderia Ferrari's signature politicking that the team managed to level the playing field in the 2017 preseason, by getting hydraulic suspension components that Red Bull and Mercedes were suspected to have been using banned. Likewise, an inquiry by Red Bull over a suspicion that Mercedes may be maintaining their engine power advantage by burning oil seems to have brought the Ferrari and Mercedes engines on par with each other. (In spite of Mercedes denying using this loophole, Dutch Formula 1 commentator Olav Mol claimed certainty that they were, in fact, guilty as charged.)

If all these technologies can make it past the FIA without a second look, what hope do rival engineers spectating at an inspection have of picking up on the advantages of their competitors? 

It could be argued that active Formula 1 engineers would be better suited to figuring out where their opponents have a leg up on them than the scrutineers do, and the political games played by Ferrari and Red Bull described above support this. But the FIA has hand-picked their scrutineers, so these technologies getting past inspection is probably not due to incompetence.

All together, the benefits of open inspections in Formula 1 may be too limited for the sessions to be worthwhile. They may yet be of some use to lagging teams like Sauber...but we cannot truly know unless Brawn decides they are worth trying.