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F1 needs more show, less hype

| November 16, 2010 8:00 PM

PARIS - Give the drivers push-button rockets, give them tire-slashing blades like the ones on James Bond's Aston Martin. Give them something, anything, to make Formula One more interesting next season. Please.

What a crushing anticlimax. The much-hyped but ultimately tedious season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix delivered more proof, as if it was needed, that the sport's fatal flaw is a continued shortage of exciting overtaking.

With four drivers in contention for the world title at this supposedly grand finale in the exotic surrounds of the Middle East, with long-shot Lewis Hamilton blustering that he was ready to drive his wheels off to win because he had nothing to lose, we expected thrills and perhaps spills.

Instead, we got the paradox of furiously fast, mightily expensive and technically wondrous cars providing a spectacle as dull as a snail race. Again.

Sebastian Vettel sped off from the front and that, more or less, was it. Game over almost from lap one. Hamilton was unable to even tickle the back end of F1's deserving new world champion, let alone overtake him.

The other championship contenders, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, went fruitlessly round and around like hamsters. Webber stuck behind Alonso. Alonso stuck behind Vitaly Petrov. It was uncool that the Spaniard shook an angry hand at the Renault driver after they crossed the line. But it was easy to share Alonso's frustration that Petrov's car proved to be as insurmountable as a bus on a mountain road.

Overtaking shouldn't be too easy. But it shouldn't be impossible, either. Otherwise, where's the fun?

For 2011, those nifty KERS power-boost systems that teams used to give their cars extra zip at key moments on the track should be making a return next season, having been dropped this season.

Hooray. When they were first used in 2009, it was fun to watch the accompanying made-for-TV graphic showing how the devices store up energy created when drivers brake and then, presto, with the touch of a button, provide a spurt of acceleration for a few seconds each lap. Drivers who use the system wisely might find it easier next season to pass rivals who have squandered their store of energy too early in the lap.

"That's going to determine which are the smart drivers and which are the less smart ones," says veteran F1 engineer Peter Wright, who also presides over the safety commission of motorsport's governing body, the FIA.

There will also be a new supplier of tires, with all the interesting uncertainty about how well its rubber will stand up to the pounding of F1.

Perhaps best of all from the viewer's perspective could be the introduction of movable rear wings on the cars that drivers will be able to adjust to give them extra speed when they are tight on a rival's tail. It will be the aerodynamic equivalent of a small booster rocket. Only the chasing car will be able to adjust its wing so that it cuts faster through the air. On quick and long straights, that might enable it to pass the car in front. It should make for more entertaining races if it works. The FIA approved the innovation at a meeting in June and expects it to survive another meeting at the end of this year.

Although some drivers have complained that overtaking shouldn't become a question of simply hitting the right buttons at the right time, like a video game, they're not the ones who must sit through dull races on TV. Wright says the FIA will be able to fine-tune the rear-wing system as next season unfolds. For example, if it proves to be giving chasing cars too much of an advantage over those immediately in front.

"It's not too difficult," he says. "It gives the FIA a couple of knobs to twiddle to get it right."

Sounds promising. Because as good as this season was at times, with its ever-evolving chase for the world title, it could have been better.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org

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