Hey F1, looky here y’all

When is F1 going to wake up and change itself for its fans? I count myself as a die-hard F1 fan, but fundamental changes need to be made to improve the show, or else millions more will switch off.

The issue is crystal-clear in my head right now, because I’ve just seen the most dramatic race for, well, maybe ever – certainly for as long as I can remember. It was as if the realisation of how engrossing and entertaining motor racing can be was rammed back into my head with a pick-axe, after too many years spent falling asleep during F1 broadcasts.

It was a mighty race, full of action and drama and a terrific fighting finish which made last year’s F1 finale in Brazil seem about as exciting as, well, an F1 race. As I staggered away from Daytona, clutching a tee-shirt and hat to commemorate my being there for possibly the greatest race ever run,I was thinking that ultimately I should thank the governing body  – the same people who run NASCAR – which allowed these Grand Am drivers to compete in equal machines. More on that later.

The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona saw the four lead cars virtually nose-to-tail, battling it out for 24 hours and especially the last three, culminating in a balls-out, cut-and-thrust slipstream scrap in the final hour between Juan Pablo Montoya and David Donohue. Donohue’s Porsche-powered Daytona prototype (below), which qualified on pole by a thousandth of a second, was quicker on the straights, while Montoya’s Lexus (right) handled better on the tight infield.

And Montoya – and this is something even Donohue might concede – was the only truly world-class mega-driver in the field, despite the presence of guys like Dario Franchitti, Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon, and his skill made a big difference. Montoya was majestic – precise, combative, brilliant, aggressive but unerringly fair, technically perfect, wrestling a car that shouldn’t have been anywhere near the lead into a fight to the finish.

I had the feeling I was watching the greatest racing driver on earth on this day – what a loss to F1 the Colombian is. Donohue was damn good, too, fired up to fever pitch by the fact that he’d be scoring his first win at the Daytona 24hrs on the 40th anniversary of his father Mark’s last victory here. Mark Donohue was killed in a testing accident when David was eight.

Seeing Montoya hold off Donohue after the last stops was electrifying. I was on my feet every lap, watching them hurtle toward me at 190mph on Daytona’s banking and yelling at the top of my voice as they went by, side-by-side, lap after lap. Donohue would duck out and go high on the tri-oval, Montoya would stay low and try to shake his rival out of the draft and defend his line, then there’d be a do-or-die braking duel at the end of the straight, cars twitching right on the edge of control, followed by a similar scene on the far side of the track into the bus stop.

Eventually Donohue got by, but it took every ounce of skill he could muster. Then Montoya clung onto him for the best part of an hour, trying to force the American into a mistake that never came. In the end, after 24 hours of racing and 735 laps, the gap between first and second was 0.167sec, with 10.589 seconds covering the first four cars. And my voice was completely knackered.

What underpinned the whole event was the fact that regulations governing the cars allowed these racing drivers to race, in precisely the same way that modern F1 cars don’t. I have a sneaking suspicion that the new rules for F1 in 2009, while a step in the right direction, haven’t gone far enough, and we’ll be watching more processions. If I don’t see proper scraps and changes of position and dices for the lead, I might have to switch F1 off for good.

And that’s a crying shame, because the F1 grid – or at least, the upper quarter of it – is full of world-class mega-drivers the equal of Montoya. And they would put on an even better show if they were given cars that allowed them to fight. But they’re wasted. Let’s have some more sweeping rule changes! Let’s make F1 a racing show and have these guys go at each other! Hear me, Max!

Daytona prototypes of the Grand Am series are fast and dramatic to watch live, but also relatively inexpensive and simple. Smaller teams can fight with the bigger ones. Downforce is low, power is high, braking distances are long with steel brakes and the engines are equalized as closely as the officials can manage it. The premium is on driver skill.

This blog has gone on far too long but I don’t care – something needs to be done about F1 to fix it once and for all and deliver some racing. Let’s keep lobbying the FIA.

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