06-02-13 - Sport

I've been watching F1 for the past few years. There are some good things about; for me it satisfies a certain niche of mild entertainment that I call "drone". It's a kind of meditation, when you are too tired to work or exercise, but you don't really want to watch anything either, you just put it on in the background and it sort of lets you zone out, your mind goes into the buzz of the motors and the repetitive monotony of the cars going around over and over in the same order. I particularly like the onboards, you can get your head into imagining that it's you behind the wheel and then sort of go into a trance watching the left-right-left-right sweeping turns.

One thing that clicked for me watching F1 is just how active it is in the cockpit. When we drive on the street we're mostly just sitting there doing nothing, then there's a turn, you are active for a second or two, then it's back to doing nothing. Even with my limited experience on track, I'm so far below the capability of my car that I'm still getting breaks between the corners. A proper race driver lengthens every corner - that's what the "racing line" is all about - you use the whole track to make the corners less sharp, and you extend them so that one runs in the next; the result is that except on the rare long straight, you are actively working the car every second. Also, F1 cars are actually slipping around all the time; you don't really notice it from the outside because the drivers are so good; from the outside the cars seem to just drive around the corner, but they are actually constantly catching slides. The faster you drive a car, the less grip it has; you keep going faster and faster until the lack of grip limits you; every car driven on the absolute limit is slippy (and thus fun). I've been annoyed by how damn grippy my car is, but that's just because I'm not driving it fast enough.

F1 has been super broken for many years now. I suppose the fundamental thing that ruined it was aerodynamics. Aero is great for speed, but horrible for racing. In a very simplified summary, the primary problem is that aero makes it a huge advantage to be the front-runner, and it makes it a huge disadvantage to be behind another car, which makes it almost impossible to make "natural" passes. (more on natural passing shortly). 10 years or so ago before KERS and DRS and such, F1 was completely unwatchable; a car would qualify on pole and then would easily lead the whole race. Any time a faster car behind got up behind a car it wanted to pass, aero would make it slower and unable to make the pass. It was fucked. So they added KERS and DRS, which sort of work to allowing passing despite fundamentally broken racing, and that's how it's been the last few years, but it's weird and unnatural and not actually fun to watch a DRS pass, there's no cleverness or bravery or beauty about it. The horribly designed new tracks have not helped either (bizarre how one firm can become the leading track designer in the world and do almost all the new tracks, and yet be so totally incompetent about how to make a track that promotes natural passing; it's a great example of the way that the quality of your work is almost irrelevant to whether you'll get hired again or not).

(the thing that's saved F1 for a while is the combined brilliance of Raikkonen, Alonso, Vettel, and Hamilton. They continue to find surprising places to pass; long high speed passes in sweeping corners where passing shouldn't be possible, or diving through tiny holes. It's a shame they don't have a better series to race in, those guys are amazing. Vettel is often foolishly critized as only being able to lead, but actually some of the best races have been when he gets a penalty or a mechanical fault so that he has to start way back in the pack, he charges up more ferociously than anyone else, just man-handling his way up the order despite the RB not being a great car for racing from behind)

Anyway this year I just can't watch any more. The new tires are just so fucked, it takes a series that already felt weird and artificial and just made it even more so. The whole series is a squabble about regulations and politicial wrangling about the tires and blah blah I'm done with it.

Searching for something else, I stumbled on MotoGP. I'd seen the Mark Neale documentaries a few years ago ("Faster" etc) and thought they were pretty great, but never actually watched a season. Holy crap MotoGP has been amazing this year. There are three guys who all have legitimate shots at the title (Marquez, Pedrosa, Lorenzo). Rossi is always exciting to watch. Marquez is an incredible new star; I can't help thinking it will end badly for him, he seems too fearless, but until then he is a threat to win any race.

The best thing about MotoGP is there's no aero. No fucking stupid aero. So of course you don't need artificial crap like DRS. The result is that passing is entirely "natural", and it is a beautiful thing to watch; it's a sort of dance, it's smooth and swooping. The bikes are just motors and tires and drivers, the way racing should be. (actually without aero, it's a slight advantage to be behind because you get slipstream; giving an advantage to the follower is good, that's how you would design it as a videogame if real world physics were not a constraint; giving an advantage to the driver in front is totally retarded game design).

Natural passing is almost always done by braking late and taking an inside line to a corner. The inside line lets you reach the apex sooner, so you are ahead of the person you want to pass, but you are then badly set up for the corner exit, so that the person you passed will often have a chance to get you back on the exit; you therefore have to take a blocking line through corner exit while you are at a speed disadvantage due to your inside line. It's how racing passing should be; it's an absolutely beautiful thing to behold; it requires courage to brake late and skill to take the right line on exit and intelligence to set it up well.

Watching the guys ride around on the MotoGP bikes, I wish I could have that feeling. Puttering around on a cruiser bike (sitting upright, in traffic, ugh) never really grabbed my fancy, but to take this beast of a bike and have to grab it and manhandle it and pull it over to the side to get it to turn, it's like riding a bull, it really is like being a jockey (you're never sitting on your butt, you're posted up on your legs and balancing and adjusting your weight all the time), it's a physical athletic act, and yeah fuck yeah I'd like to do that.

I believe the correct way to fix F1 is to go back to the 70's or 80's. Ban aero. Make a standard body shell; let the teams do the engine, suspension, chassis, whatever internals, but then they have to put on a standard-shaped exterior skin (which should also be some material other than carbon so that it can take a tiny bit of contact without shattering). Design the shape of the standard skin such that behing behind another car is an advantage (due to slipstream) not a disadvantage. Then no more DRS, maybe leave KERS. Get rid of all the stupid intentionally bad tires and just let the tire maker provide the best tires they can make. Of course none of that will happen.

I've also been watching a bit of Super Rugby. You have to be selective about what teams you watch, but if you are then the matches can be superb, as good or better than internationals. There have been a couple of great experimental rule changes for Super Rugby this year and I hope they get more widely adopted.

1. Time limit on balls not in hand (mainly at the back of a ruck). The ref will call "use it" and then you have 5 seconds to get the ball in play. No more scrumhalves standing around at the ruck doing nothing with the ball at your feet.

2. Limitting scrum resets, and just generally trying to limit time spent on scrums. The refs are instructed not to endlessly reset bad scrums; either let them collapse and play on if the ball is coming out, or call a penalty on the side that's losing ground.

The result is the play is much more ball-in-hand running, which is the good stuff kids go for.

If you want to watch a game, these are the teams I recommend watching, because they are skilled and also favor an attacking ball-in-hand style : Chiefs, Waratahs, Rebels, Blues (Rene Ranger is amazing), Brumbies (too much strategic field position play, but very skilled), Cheetahs, Crusaders. The Reds and Hurricanes are good for occasional flashes of brilliance. The Bulls are an incredibly skilled forward-based team, but not huge fun to watch unless they're playing against one of the above.

The Chiefs play an incredible team attack that I've never seen the like of in international rugby. The thing about the international teams is that while they are the cream of the talent, they don't practice together very much, so they are often not very coordinated. (international matches also tend to be conservative and defensive field-position battles, yawn). The Chiefs crash into every breakdown and recycle ball so efficiently, with everybody working and knowing their part; they go through the phases really fast and are always running vertical, it's fantastic.

Quade Cooper is actually amazing on the Reds. I'd only seen him before in some Wallaby matches where he single-handedly threw away the game for his side, so I always thought of him as a huge talent that unfortunately thought his talent was even bigger than it really is. He plays too sloppy, makes too many mistakes, tries to force moves that aren't there. But on the Reds, it occasionally all works; perhaps because he has more practice time with the teammates so they know where to be when he makes a wild pass out of contact. I saw a couple of quick-hands knock passes by him that just blew me away.

I'm continually amazed by how great rugby refereeing is. It occurred to me that the fundamental difference is that rugby is played with the intention of not having any penalties. That is, both the players and the refs are generally trying to play without penalties. That is completely unlike any other sport. Basketball is perhaps the worst, in that penalties are essentially just part of the play, they are one of the moves in your arsenal and you use them quite intentionally. Football is similar in that you are semi-intentionally doing illegal stuff all the time (holding, pass interference, etc.) and the cost of the foul is often less than the cost of not doing it, like if a receiver gets away and would score, of course you just grab him and pull him down. That doesn't happen in rugby - if it did they would award a penalty try and you would get a card. If someone is committing the same foul again, particularly one that is impeding the opponent from scoring, the ref will take them aside and say "if you do that again it's a card". It's a totally different attitude to illegal play. In most sports, it's up to the player to make a decision about whether the illegal play is beneficial to them or not. I think it reflects the general American attitude to rules and capitalism - there's no "I play fair because that's right" , it's "I'll cheat if I won't get caught" or "I'll weigh the pros and cons and decide based on the impact on me".


Nate said...

If you like MotoGP, check out V8 Supercars. They're good fun!

cbloom said...

Hmm, yeah I was always biased against series like V8SC and BTCC and DTM because they're not "the top league", but I see now that that's retarded. I should watch the series with the best rules for promoting good racing, which is definitely not F1.

I remembered another thing I miss from the F1->MotoGP change is the TV coverage is definitely worse. The commentators seem even more retarded, which I didn't think was possible. But the worst thing is that they don't have enough cameras around the circuit or don't cut the feed together very well, so often something major will happen (like a pass or a crash) and you hardly get any footage of it at all. Tons of cameras is a big plus for F1.

Unknown said...

It's really quite nice to hear an American be so interested in Rugby. Awesome sport which I wish more could appreciate. You summed up the penalty system quite well - I really can't stand watching American sports where the penalties are really built into the game as some sort of "strategy", and the whole game is slowed up because of it. Let the game flow and live of it's own accord, and punish the unfavourable behaviour.

The Reds train just up the road from me, and watching a game here in Brisbane at Suncorp stadium is a real treat. :)

Ken Baird said...

Hey Charles, ltns! I've recently become enamoured with F1 and MotoGP, and even moreso the Isle of Man TT. Check out the latter if you haven't seen it.

The TT isn't traditional racing as it is timed, but it is a bit more precise as a mistake is often deadly.

cbloom said...

Lions v. Waratahs was a great game. Superb quality of play. Would have been nice to see with all the 'tahs top players.

I think Skelton is hugely overrated. Sure he's big but he doesn't seem to run at the line with any power. He also seems to go down in every ankle-tackle; he needs to work on getting more nifty feet to step out of those.

old rants