Team orders and F1's radical plan to improve racing
Formula 1 will be changed for ever by the new rules announced by Formula 1's governing body at its world council meeting on Friday.
The decision to switch to vastly different, far more efficient engines from 2013 and the introduction of movable rear wings for next season will change both the way the sport is viewed by the wider world and the action on the track.
The new engine regulations - the adoption of 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbo engines with energy recovery and fuel restrictions - mirror the way the car industry is going and are aimed at boosting F1's public image, helping it to survive into the future by opening up new avenues for sponsorship and - most importantly - speeding up the adoption of more sustainable engines in road cars over the next few years, thus dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
More immediately, the controversial adoption of movable rear wings in 2011 will make overtaking easier. At least that's the hope.
The issue of overtaking is a perennial problem in F1. All stakeholders agree it has been too hard to do in recent years. Races can be processional, or turn on pit stops.
The problem for F1's bosses, who want racing rather than tactics to decide outcomes, is aerodynamics.
Cars are created with quite incredible capabilities but significant limitations when it comes to racing. Cornering forces often reach 5G. To see an F1 car in the flesh as it negotiates a fast corner like Silverstone's Becketts complex is both to doubt your eyes and to marvel at the way it uses physics to test the limits of the possible.
But aerodynamics work most effectively when a car is running on its own. Give it some turbulent air - such as that created by another car directly in front of it - and its ability to produce downforce - and therefore grip - is dramatically reduced. So drivers find it difficult to get close enough to a car in front to try to pass it, even if they are in a faster car.
A number of attempts to change this have been made in recent years, most recently major new rules in 2009 with significant changes to the way cars produced their downforce and the reintroduction of slick tyres. None of them have worked.
So F1's brains have come up with the movable rear wing.
The idea is that drivers will, when on a straight and trying to pass another car, press a button in their cockpit which will move a part of the rear wing.
This will reduce its effectiveness, thereby cutting drag and increasing straightline speed, allowing the driver to get a run on his rival into the next corner. The driver in the car in front who is defending his position will not be able to use his wing at the same time.
The plan is controversial because it appears to be adding a degree of artifice into the situation - and critics are worried it will make a joke of overtaking by making it too easy, particularly when used in conjunction with the Kers energy recovery and power-boost systems that are returning to F1 in 2011 after a year on the sidelines.
The sport's bosses are aware of the concerns. One insider who has been instrumental in writing the rule says: "The idea is to make it work, but not work too well."
The way it will work is as follows:
The FIA will define a time gap between the two cars at which point the driver behind will be able to use the system. Initially, it is likely the driver in the trailing car will need to be within a second as he enters the corner before a straight where it is possible to overtake.
The driver will then get an indication - either via a light on his dashboard or audibly - that he can operate his wing. He will then press the button when he is on the straight, giving him more speed than his rival and thus the potential to pass him.
The problem is that no-one is sure whether the system will work or achieve its objectives until it is used in a race - and the first opportunity will be on 13 March, when Bahrain hosts the first grand prix of the 2011 season.
The bottom line is that F1's bosses want to make overtaking easier but not so easy that it requires little skill.
Had the movable rear wings been in place in 2010, I am told Ferrari's Fernando Alonso would have been able to overtake the Renault of Vitaly Petrov in the season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and thus keep alive his chances of winning the title.
Instead, the Spaniard was unable to pass Petrov's slower car, which had a prodigious straight-line speed, and therefore unable to chase down his rivals as he went in search of a third drivers' crown.
That would have freed Alonso up to try to catch the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who was in the fourth place the Ferrari driver needed to prevent Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel snatching the title from under his nose.
Rosberg was quicker than Petrov but probably marginally slower than Alonso. But because the performance differential between the Mercedes and the Ferrari was much less, getting past Rosberg would not have been a given - even under the new rules.
So rather than watching a race in which overtaking was practically impossible, the audience would have known it was possible, but not inevitable, that Alonso would get by - and would have been on tenterhooks as they watched him try.
Such a scenario would have made the title-deciding race much more exciting.
Put like that, as long as F1 finds a way to make it obvious to the audience when a driver is using his movable rear wing, the introduction of such a device has at the very least got to be worth a try.
UPDATE 1530 GMT:
The FIA's decision to remove the rule banning team orders will doubtless offend those who did not like Ferrari's application of them in this year's German Grand Prix and who objected to the Italian team "getting away" with "only" a $100,000 fine for doing so.
But the move - telegraphed when the FIA said it would look into the rule after deciding against giving Ferrari further punishment - is the only practical solution open to F1.
However offensive some find team orders, there is simply no way of effectively policing a rule banning them. There are any number of ways a team could employ them without anyone finding out.
Ferrari might have got caught out because of the unsubtle way in which Felipe Massa was asked to let team-mate Fernando Alonso through in Hockenheim but other leading teams also employed what could be termed team orders in 2010 and no one complained about them - or, in some cases, even noticed.
It is about reality not idealism, logic not emotion.
If you cannot police a rule, what's the point of having it? And surely it's better to have it out in the open than to force teams to go through the ridiculous charades some - not just Ferrari - did last season.
The lifting of the ban does not mean all teams will act in the same way as Ferrari, who now don't need to be quite so secretive about Alonso being their number one driver.
It simply means that when teams choose to use them they don't have to cover it up.
In every other way, nothing will change.