Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fuel Mileage...Is It the New Attrition?

Fuel mileage has been a hot topic almost all season in both IndyCar and NASCAR, and for some reason it has taken a more front-and-center stage over the last couple of weeks. In IndyCar circles, it was much-discussed on the TV broadcast from Japan, especially when several teams admitted going into conservation mode almost from the time the green flag dropped. In Cup, Tony Stewart winning on fumes two straight weeks while others ran out and sending the Chase standings into disarray has made a lot of people angry.

I was reading an article by Ed Hinton recently (read it here) and he said something interesting:

"Actually, I kind of like fuel-mileage finishes. They are suspenseful. When front-runners are close on gas, there's always the chance that what would otherwise be a runaway could be snuffed.

And my recollections of yore in NASCAR, say the 1970s and '80s, are that virtually every finish was suspenseful. Even if one driver was way out front, you never knew he had the race locked up until he crossed the finish line.

That was because engine reliability was poorer, and fuel calculations were far less precise. So there was always a chance a dominant car would blow an engine or run out of gas.

Now, as then, the most boring element in any race is predictability."

Ed has a point. With attrition now at a total minimum and the gap between the haves and have nots a lot closer, races coming down to who has the most fuel left in their tanks is about the only unpredictable element we have any more.

He's right on one point: For those of us who have been following racing for a couple of decades, attrition was so random and so completely out of the driver's control that nothing was certain until the checkered flag dropped. So many races were decided by a guy dropping out because of the infamous "five dollar part" (heck, the total cost of the mechanical gremlins that befell the Andrettis at Indy probably didn't add up to more than $100), or a driver would run out of fuel because the calculations themselves were so imprecise.

A case in point is that in a 40-year span between 1960-99, close to a dozen drivers led the 500 with less than 50 miles to go only to drop out of the race with a mechanical issue. Since mechanical issues no longer happen, fuel mileage admittedly does add to the race. After all, what would the 500 have been the last two years without several drivers who were on the point late peeling off late for a splash of fuel only to hand the lead to another? In the end it is almost the same thing, but since we see fuel mileage in such a bad light we see that as a negative instead.

In the end, unless several fundamental aspects of the sport change, races won on fuel are here to stay. Here are a few reasons why.

*Technology. When a car is at speed, it almost becomes a real person in terms of its ability to provide information and feedback. The telemetry in the car tells the crew how much fuel is left, and while compared to the rest of the techology involved in the sport it is still primative, calculations are a lot closer than the days of figuring out how much fuel was left in the fuel tank or cans in the pits and how much that meant was left in the car.

I remember a race in the early 1990s when Eddie Cheever was driving for A.J. Foyt at Nazareth and ran out of gas with a half-lap to go. A.J. went out to the car and poked a stick into the fuel tank to see what was left. He doesn't need to do that any more, the computer in his pit box tells him instead.

*Reliability. Simpy put, the cars don't break. Honda has built a bulletproof engine that while it meets the need of cost containment, doesn't always make for stellar racing. Long gone are the days where the engines were cranking up 15,000 RPMs and even in the hands of the best drivers there was no guarantee of getting to the finish. Now that the engines are tuned for reliability as well as performance in hopes that each car uses just one per weekend, the motors aren't wound nearly as tight as the engines of yesteryear.

*Competition. Right now the series, from top to bottom, is as deep as it has ever been. Teams are going to always take the conservative route because points are way too precious and mistakes are very magnified. Look at Scott Dixon for example, he has two wins, two poles and 11 top-5s, but with two races to go has all but been eliminated from championship contention because of three finishes of 12th or worse. A driver is allowed one "mulligan" but unless you are the class of the field, a la Will Power, you can't recover from more than a couple of bad finishes. Fuel is a variable that can be managed, so they aren't going to risk a mully on something like that. There isn't a team in the field that feels comfortable enough to say "to hell with it, we are going to roll the dice". The cost, both in points and financially, is too great in an era when so many cars still end up on the lead lap. More than ever, track position is critical, and taking a risk just doesn't fit the strategy.

*CYA. Covering your hind-parts is just a way of the world any more. Anywhere in the sports world, players, coaches, teams, etc. choose to take the conservative route because anything else gets them raked over the coals in every sort of media imaginable. Just watch the NFL for crying out loud, as taking chances is akin to committing hari kari, and for many coaches if that risk doesn't pay off it's either that or they lose their jobs. In the racing world, bad choices and bad results leads to the potential of the money drying up, and while 20 years ago it didn't matter as the loss of a sponsor meant another was knocking on the door, poor finishes, even when taking a risk, is bad business. Going for it is no longer considered heroic, it's stupid.

As more and more technology has creeped into the sport, the amount of the race the driver can actually control with their driving lessens. It's very virtual, in that the computers, the engineers and the race strategists have more of a say in how the driver covers the race distance. It's only after the final stop and when the car has enough fuel to finish is the race completely turned over to the driver.

Drivers years ago just drove the car in relative peace and pitted for tires and fuel. Now they have people in their ears telling them what to do and how to do it, based on what the data is telling them. That doesn't take away the importance of a good driver, because what separates a good driver from a great one now is one that is smart enough to decipher the data and communicate with the crew to decide what is best, but in the end, how many drivers make the final decision? Very few. Racing has always been a team sport, but the "team" concept and the involvement beyond the driver is just a lot greater now than it was once before.

No one runs away with races any more, in fact, a 5-second win is considered a "boring" finish. With the tight competition, it's like a pitching matchup between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. Nine times out of 10, the game isn't going to be won against one of those guys, both teams are going to try and keep the score tied or make it a one-run game until one team exploits the other's bullpen in the final two innings. Same concept, the shorter you can make a race, the better you can win by taking advantage of your strengths or others' mistakes.

But back to the "fuel as attrition" part". I'll be honest, when I put aside my negative feelings towards it, there is a sense of excitement. Watching the Cup race on Sunday there was a sense of tension as to whether Clint Bowyer was going to make it to the end of the race or run out of gas. The latter eventually happened and Stewart went on to win. Racing used to be a lot more like that in years past, as the unpredictable nature led to some excitement. It truly wasn't over until it was over.

And really, what is the difference between Bowyer running out of gas and having a mechanical issue? When I think objectively, I don't see one. So why does this whole thing bother us so much?

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