The F1 engine supply mess

THe current complicated negotiations involving Mclaren, Honda, and Scuderia Toro Rosso are said to be reaching a conclusion over the Monza Grand Prix weekend.
The situation is complicated partly because none of the other F1 power unit suppliers are keen to supply Mclaren. Earlier in the season, Mclaren was said to have an outline deal in place to return to being a Mercedes customer from 2018. However, that proposal seems to have disappeared off the table. Mclaren cannot sensibly obtain Ferrari power units because the two companies compete in the luxury car market. That left only Renault, but the French company is publicly reluctant to expand to supplying a fourth team.
Numerically, the three other power unit suppliers currently supply three teams each. Under the terms of the current power unit regulations, if Honda withdraws from Formula 1, one of those suppliers will end up supplying Mclaren in 2018. Here is a summary explanation from Fabrice Lom, the FIA Head of Powertrain:

For the obligation to supply: the idea was to have no team that is not able to have access to a power unit. This was a big part of the discussion because we also don’t want people to be able to play with that and to change from one power unit to another from one year to another in order to have the best one. So there is a quite complex system in place, but the basic [premise] is that if you are a team with no offer, so nobody is offering you a power unit, you can ask the FIA to have one and there is a system of ballots. So we will take the power unit that has the smallest number of customers. If there is only one, this will be the one that will be required to give the power unit. If there is more than one there will be a ballot between the two to decide which one will supply, and there is a low price of €12m from 2018 for this supply.

This rule is one that none of the power unit suppliers wants to see invoked. If Honda does withdraw, one of the current suppliers will, by ballot, be told to supply Mclaren with power units for 2018 for the bargain price of €12m, a price which may not even cover their costs.
So…Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault would much prefer that Honda stays, in order to avoid that scenario. They want to negotiate their own power unit supply contracts, not have a supply contract mandated for them.
So, there is a deep imperative by the FIA and LibertyF1 to ensure that Honda stays in F1. The ideal current solution is essentially a power unit supply swap where Toro Rosso has Honda power units in 2018, and Mclaren has Renault power units. However, that requires Mclaren to negotiate an end to its current contract with Honda. Since that contract was 10 years in duration with lots of money attached, that is proving difficult. Honda is also said to be demanding that any Toro Rosso contract contains the option for Honda to supply Red Bull racing from 2019 onwards, since the Toro Rosso driver line up does not contain a world champion.
So, all of this, as Jean Todt admitted, complicated…


Not much money and a lot of accountability – the life of an NFL kicker

The recent release of Roberto Aguayo by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has shone the spotlight firmly on the lives and challenges of NFL kickers.
Aguayo’s release was long expected. He had been drafted in the second round by the Buccaneers in 2016. That was unusual, since teams seldom use high draft picks on kickers or punters. The last time a team used a first round pick on a kicker was the Oakland Raiders’ selection of Sebastian Janikowski. That pick definitely worked well – Janikowski is still playing 15 years later and still booting the ball a great distance.
Needless to say, when Aguayo began performing poorly, the excoriation was loud, with all manner of comments about how the Buccaneers could have used the pick on a much better player.
Aguayo had kicked poorly all of last year, missing numerous kick attempts during the season, which had put him on thin ice. The Buccaneers brought Nick Folk in to compete with him this offseason. Both men have not exactly set the world alight, but Aguayo’s continued misses in pre-season led to the Buccaneers terminating his contract last week. (the Chicago Bears claimed him on waivers. It will be interesting to see how he performs in a different place).
However, kickers are more likely to have a shorter shelf life in the NFL. The role is as much a mental one as a physical one. The “yips” can affect kickers just like golfers. Suddenly a kicker will begin to mis-hit kicks and send them in other directions than the correct one. The NFL being what it is, this is usually obvious in a game situation, where the team asks the kicker to hit a field goal to tie the game or win it. If the kicker then misses, and the team loses, the kicker is Goat of the day. A couple of those kinds of misses, and the kicker is either fired, or on thin ice.
There are plenty of kickers in reserve.So teams with a kicking problem can fire the kicker. However, that does not guarantee that their kicking situation will improve. The Buccaneers are discovering this. Having fired Aguayo, they only have Nick Folk on the roster, and he is not kicking well either. The Buccaneers week 1 kicker might still be a player who is not currently on the roster.
Churning the kicker and punter positions usually never works well. A few seasons ago, when Tom Coughlin was still their coach, the Jacksonville Jaguars went through about 4 kickers in a season. They had a revolving door at the position, picking up kickers, and then firing them rapidly after they missed in games. The approach led to appalling kicking and punting play, and Coughlin was fired at the end of the season.
Kickers who are “money”, who consistently boot the ball between the uprights in any kind of game situation, are thin on the ground. Adam Vinatieri is still kicking well at age 42, but for every Adam Vinatieri there a couple of dozen kickers who hang around for a couple of seasons before washing out, or hitting consistency issues.
Kickers fall into the same category as quarterbacks in that there is only one player at that position on the field, so if the extra point attempt sails wide right, it is usually the kicker who gets the entire blame. It is like the quarterback who throws the ball to The Other Guys when his receiver is in the right place on the field. In other areas of the game, accountability is more diffuse. Blown assignments in a defensive scheme might result in the opponents scoring a touchdown, but you don’t often hear fans or coaches intimating that an individual player is on thin ice.
Yet kickers are usually paid minimum salary or close to it. They seldom make more than $2m in a season, which is low compared to many other position or skill players who work as part of a unit. They are also treated as expendable in a way that other players are not. The attitude appears to be “Easy come, easy go”. If the kicker misses in a big game, he is often booted himself and replaced by yet another enthusiastic replacement, who may turn out to be no better over the medium term.
I suspect that the fungibility and lack of longevity of kickers is partly due to that attitude.


Kellen Moore and the Cowboys’ QB situation

Once again, after a stuttering performance in a pre-season game, people are asking “why is Kellen Moore the #2 quarterback in Dallas?”
It is a good question, which speaks to some tendencies in the NFL, but also shows up the appallingly persistent tendency for the Cowboys to rely on the #1 quarterback being healthy all of the time. One would have thought they had learned the hard way in the Tony Romo era about the downside of that approach, but it seems not.
First off, the persistence in using Kellen Moore is not surprising. The NFL is a fundamentally conservative league, with many coaching and personnel decisions made from a viewpoint of Better Be Safe Than Sorry.
Kellen Moore, as most people can see, does not have a strong arm. His arm strength may not even be at the same level as Chad Pennington. However, lack of arm strength did not stop Pennington from being a multi-year starter in the NFL. That was because Pennington, despite his physical limitations, was smart, accurate, almost never turned the ball over, and was a great on-field leader.
You have to contrast that with the sheer numbers of quarterbacks who entered the NFL able to chuck the ball a mile or more, but who quickly proved that while they might be able to throw the ball out of the opponent’s end zone, they had a lot missing in the smarts department. Jeff George and Ryan Mallett could throw the ball a mile, but nobody would ever be able to accuse them of being flush with football IQ. Ditto JaMarcus Russell. Big-armed busts abound in the NFL quarterback department. They tend to think that all they have to do is tell the wide receivers to get open, and they are bound to be able to throw TD passes. The arm will bail them out.
Since Moore did not have a strong arm in college, he learned to be smart with his play, and where he threw the ball. He did well at Boise State by becoming a smart player, knowing when and where to throw the ball and when to play safe. Coaches like that. They don’t have much patience for quarterbacks who consistently throw the ball to The Other Guys.
This is the “system adherence” scenario. Many averagely-talented players stay with NFL teams because they are “system guys”. They know the coaches’ system, which makes them valuable in terms of execution consistency and reliability. What most coaches dislike more than anything else is players freelancing and getting teams into “wild card” positions. That is one reason why Tim Tebow is no longer in the NFL.
The Cowboys therefore like Moore because he does not take unnecessary risks with the ball, and he knows the offensive system well, having been with the team for multiple seasons.
However, it is probably fair to say that Moore has reached his ceiling. What you see is what you are going to get going forward.
Moore’s presence as the #2 also creates playbook issues, because of his lack of a strong arm. Teams playing the Cowboys with Moore under center know that he is not going to be throwing the ball deep, so they can bring up the secondary, pack the box and try to shut down the running game and the short slants that Moore most often likes to throw. Dak Prescott is able to throw the ball deep, so they cannot do that with him in the game.
The problem for the Cowboys is that right now, the NFL has a quarterback problem everywhere. Many teams do not even have a viable #1 quarterback, let alone a quality backup. (ahem! Jacksonville!).
The big question is unanswered: if the Cowboys send Moore packing, who do they sign instead? Bear in mind that every short-term quarterback who the Cowboys signed for backup purposes in the last 5 years has been at best mediocre and at worst awful in game situations. Whether that is the quarterback or the system and the coaches is an interesting question. When a team is unable to bring a backup quarterback up to speed so that he is at least competent in a game situation, I tend to look at the coaches and the system as much as the quarterback. Matt Cassel was not exactly a useless quarterback, but he looked terrible playing for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys may huff and puff about Kellen Moore, but they have no experienced alternative, and the pickings are slim in the free agent quarterback market. There is, of course, a quarterback who remains unsigned, with the initials CK, but whether Jerry Jones can bring himself to sign off on that idea is a good question…


The edges of legality in F1 – the FIA approach evolves and not for the best

An interesting article in Auto Motor Und Sport (WARNING: It is in German) explains how the FIA, in its attempts to crack down on cheating by the top teams in F1, has been relying on complaints or observations submitted by other teams, and as a result, have been tightening regulations and modifying comppliance testing processes.
The article gives some examples from this season:

1. The suspicion that one or more teams (the suspect team was ID’d rapidly as Ferrari) were using engine oil partly as a fuel, diverting some oil into the combustion process. The FIA has reacted in two ways (a) they have reduced the allowable consumption limit per 100km, and (b) they will be fixing the precise specification of oil at the end of the season
2. The use of special airflow devices on the front axle of the Ferrari cars in Baku to increase straight-line speed
3. The excessive deflection observed on the t-wings of some cars early in the season, believed to be an attempt to increase straight-line speed
4. A ban on pre-heating hydraulic suspension actuators in the garage prior to running the car. The practice was designed to ensure that the cars enjoyed a constant ground clearance from the moment that they entered the track.
5. Further evidence of flexing of car floors and underbodies has been countered with a new series of expanded deflection tests.
6. More stringent deflection tests for front wing components, after Red Bull (surprise surprise) was caught with a wing part that was clearly deflecting at speed to reduce drag.

While superficially, the changes seem to be perfectly sensible and smart, there is a point made in the article (my tidy-up of the translation of the article):

The policy of the long leash has been well received by the big teams. They can experiment at the edge of the rules without being disqualified. The smaller teams are annoyed by the new approach of the World Federation. Because they do not have the means to bring risky technology tricks to the car, with the fear that they end up in the dustbin.

In my opinion, the FIA is being way too lenient with the top teams. If teams are violating the regulations, then they should be penalized. The “fix this by the next race or there will be trouble” approach may be non-confrontational and ensures that there are no public rows, but it is the equivalent of a “tsk tsk ” slap on the wrist. This is not going to stop teams from attempting to circumvent the regulations. The objections of the smaller teams are correct. If they cannot afford to try numerous different evasion tactics to circumvent the regulations, they will perpetually be watching the large teams to see what innovations they bring to the race track and what circumventions are allowed or ignored by the FIA. This is not a correct way to enforce technical regulations.


If I Ruled The World, F1 Style…

Revenue Distribution
1. All current distorting “legacy” payments that do not form part of the constructors performance prize money system to be scrapped
2. System shall reward teams for positions in constructors championship in a transparent and consistent manner, with no teams enjoying special prize money increases due to “legacy” or other status
3. A special bonus of $5m shall be given to the team that wins the Drivers championship

Technical and Sporting Regulations
1. All significant technical regulation changes to be stable for 10 years, after an adjustment period at the end of year 1. No constructor is allowed any preferential input or veto on any aspect of the F1 technical regulations.
2. Allow underbody ground-effect downforce once more
3. Severely limit size and shape of front wings
4. Limit the size and downforce generation from rear wings
5. All components not considered to be the source of competitive advantage such as wheel hubs, uprights, differentials will be standardised and provided from a common supplier to all constructors.
6. Introduce an engine formula based on limited development avenues, but with no token system and less onerous engine life requirements
7. Minimum weight of the car to be reduced.
8. Weight limits on car/driver combinations to be measured in a way that does not penalize taller and heavier drivers, while still allowing for movement of ballast to strictly defined areas of the car
9. DRS to be converted to a limited-use push to pass tool
10. Penalties for engine usage or regulation infractions and car regulation conformance infractions to be levied as constructor points and fines, instead of car starting grid penalties, unless significant performance advantage can be proven, in which case disqualification, up to the entire team for a race event, is an option
11. Driver penalty point system to be abolished. Initial driver infractions to be dealt with by putting a driver on probation for a set number of races. Further infractions will result in the driver being immediately suspended for one or more race weekends.
12. Appeal management – if an appeal by a driver or a team is deemed to be frivolous, the FIA shall, at its discretion, have the ability to (a) immediately impose the penalty, (b) increase the penalty or suspension by up to a further 50% as a penalty for the waste of governing body resources.

Broadcasting and Media relations
1. Teams to be required to make most telemetry data available to broadcasters in real-time, with some more sensitive data (such as fuel usage and engine modes) available on time delay.
2. Teams to be required to perform a minimum number of media functions every race weekend with both drivers present


So what will the NFL teams do now?

So, after a currently unanimous decision by all 32 NFL teams to not employ Colin Kaepernick because he sat or kneeled for the National Anthem, despite the fact that numerous other players also sat or kneeled that season, what do we have here?
Three more prominent players all declining to stand for the National Anthem.
I don’t think I will be holding my breath until the teams of the players suspend or sit them for this action. That is probably not allowed under the CBA, especially since SCOTUS has ruled that nobody can be forced to stand for the National Anthem.
However, their employing teams could terminate their contracts to put them into the same place as Colin Kaepernick.
They won’t do that. Marshawn Lynch is the Oakland Raiders’ local talisman, the local boy made good, returning to this hometown, where the Raiders are playing out two seasons before relocating to Las Vegas. The other players are articulate team leaders. Their teams are going to do somewhere between diddly and squat.
Which leaves us with the scenario where the originator of the protests is kicking his heels waiting for a job offer, despite having taken one team to the Superbowl.
The NFL teams, collectively, do not seem to know the First Law Of Holes.


Disciplinary processes in professional sports

Ensuring that professional sportsmen play within the defined and accepted rules of the sport is always a challenge.
Top-flight sports athletes, no matter what their sport, are at the top of their sport for reasons that have a lot to do with talent, but also to do with a burning desire to not only compete, but also to win.
As a result, competitive athletes often end up believing that the means do justify the ends, if the end is an individual or team victory. They would certainly regard any argument that their actions were against “the spirit of the sport” or “the spirit of the rules” as naive talk coming from uncompetitive wimps.
The teams for which the athletes compete usually have the same level of competitive desire, so they are unlikely to ever tell the athlete to “tone it down” or do anything that they think would put the athlete or the team at a competitive disadvantage. So it is no use anybody looking in that direction as a way of ensuring that competitors always obey the rules. (The team may choose to intervene in situations where the athlete has become a pain in the ass to deal with for any number of reasons, but plenty of assholes stayed in teams and competed. Winning gets you a lot of indulgence for bad behavior).
As a result, managing compliance with the rules has to be down to the governing bodies of a sport. They are the only interested party that can and should take on that role.
Unfortunately, many sports governing bodies consistently and persistently fail to discharge that role. They do so for a number of reasons:

1 Pressure from teams and broadcast partners to not penalize bad behavior with suspensions, in order to allow offenders (who are often the high-priced stars) to continue to play
2 A conviction that any publicity is good publicity. If an athlete does or says something outrageous, that generates column inches and web hits a.k.a. controversy
3 Fear that penalizing over-aggressive behavior will cause conservative fans and traditionalists to moan about the sport being “dumbed down” or “pussified”

The result of all of those conflicting pressures is that many sporting bodies, instead of suspending performers for bad behavior, instead subject them to fines, penalty points, probationary periods and other penalties that stop short of outright suspension.
For driven competitors, none of those punishments really matter. As long they can still compete, they won’t care about being fined or told off by email. For a top star earning millions of dollars in a year, even a fine of $500,000 is merely a cost of doing business.
For some lesser-paid players, fines do hurt their pocket-book. However, many players, particularly in team sports, are not going to change their approach, since they risk being written off as insufficiently competitive.

The conclusion that I reached years ago is that in some sports, the disciplinary process is merely window-dressing, a fig-leaf to enable the sport’s owners to say things like “we care about player conduct”, while doing next to nothing to effectively regulate it.
Sometimes that laissez-faire approach backfires badly on a sport, especially contact and collision sports. Professional hockey and rugby have both found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of bad publicity after player in both sports engaged in unprovoked assaults during games. What many practitioners of contact sports often fail to notice is that the laws governing assault are still in force during a sports event. Sports often use tools that are potentially lethal if misused. A hockey stick is every bit as dangerous a weapon when wielded by an NH player in a red mist as a baseball bat is when wielded by a street thug. Ditto a racing car when being used as a weapon in a race.
So, when somebody says “well, Graham, how would YOU regulate competitor behavior?”, here is my short summary.

1. Make the rules of the sport governing competitor behavior on and off the field of play during the time of an event simple, clear, and not subject to on-the-spot interpretation by officials.
Complex and subjective rules end up placing the burden of ruling into the event officials, which creates all sorts of potential for inconsistency

2. Fines should be levied as a percentage of the competitor’s earnings for an event or for a series of events, not a fixed monetary amount.
The stars and the middle-tier competitors should all feel the pain equally for financial punishment

3. Suspensions should be used for any competitor that engages in reckless, dangerous play or who commmits assault.
Forget fines, letters of contrition, probation etc. They are competitors. The right way to punish them is to deny them the opportunity to compete.

4. The appeal process should follow these principles:
– Appeals should be timely, heard by a small number of independent arbiters, and competitors should not be permitted to bring lawyers and other professional advocates.
Competitors need to be directly accountable for their behavior in front of the disciplinary body. Having professional advocates gives them the ability to hide behind those advocates.
– If the appeal fails, any punishment is applied immediately, and cannot be deferred
– If the appeal is deemed to be frivolous or evasive, the governing body reserves the right to increase the punishment, up to three times the original punishment, and to refuse to allow any further appeal on the matter at any level
Every sports body has competitors to try to game the system, by appealing every punishment, sometimes not even to get the punishment modified, but simply to avoid serving the punishment until after some important event. The only effective way to deter frivolous appeals is to punish competitors for attempting them.

If all governing bodies implemented those principles, a lot of sports would start to have a lot less of a problem with competitor misbehavior.


Vettel vs. Hamilton incident at Baku – what it tells us about rule enforcement in Formula 1 and sports

A lot of light heat and sound is being created over the incident during a Safety Car period in the European Grand Prix at Baku where Sebastian Vettel, angry at what he thought was an incident of Lewis Hamilton brake-testing him at the exit to a corner, drove alongside Hamilton and then deliberately bumped him.
Vettel was penalized for the incident by being given a stop-go penalty. Predictably, opinion is split between people who believe that Vettel was not punished severely enough, and should have been disqualified, run out of town on a rail etc. etc. and people who believe that the incident was a storm in a teacup between two competitors, and that the media is against Vettel (in the case of the UK media, it must be because Vettel is German and “Don’t Forget Ze Var!”).
Lost in a lot of the discussion is that Vettel has a track record of behaving petulantly on-track. There was the infamous “Multi 21” incident in a race in 2013, where Vettel essentially refused to obey team orders to let Mark Webber pass him on-track, and then lawyered up to weasel out of punishment from the team. More recently, last season Vettel unleashed a string of expletives at Charlie Whiting in a race after another incident. So his behavior in Baku was not exactly new, nor was it totally unpredictable.
There is a simple reality at work here. Competitors in any sport will do what they think they can get away with. They will read the rules, watch how other successful past and current competitors and their role models in the sport behave, and then go out and push the rules to their limits. Talk about “the spirit of the rules” would be regarded by hard-core sports competitors as so much naive fluff. In the case of Sebastian Vettel, he has made no secret of the fact that Michael Schumacher was his hero growing up, and Lewis Hamilton has made no secret of his reverence for the late Ayrton Senna. Both men, as drivers, were bristlingly and uncompromisingly competitive, and both pushed the rules and norms of the sport up to (and in some cases, beyond) previously accepted limits.
It is up to the rule enforcement bodies in a sport to determine what the competitive limits are, and what to do about incidents where competitors go over those limits.
Unfortunately, most competitive sports governing bodies merely fine competitors or put them on probation. Partly this is because many sports leagues are essentially run by team owners, and team owners, as a general rule, do not like to see their highly-paid star performers sitting disconsolately off to one side while the game or event takes place without them. The same applies to Formula 1, where teams like Ferrari would be publicly indignant if one of their drivers was suspended. However, as Joe Saward explains in this commentary, the FIA may be about to come down hard on Vettel for several reasons, and Ferrari, who have been behaving like a bunch of horse’s asses towards the media for months, are likely to find that there is no reservoir of sympathy for them.
However, trying to regulate competitor behavior with fines and probationary warnings never works. Most fines are chump change to athletes earning millions (and some cases, tens of millions) or dollars annually. They will regard a fine as merely part of the cost of doing business.
Competitors will only change their behavior if their actions cause them to be denied the opportunity to compete. Competing is what they live for.
So…any discussion around consequences for Sebastian Vettel’s actions in Baku involving monetary fines, penalty points or minor losses of grid position is total fluff. If he is guilty of dangerous driving, the FIA should have suspended him for 1 race, or disqualified him from the race in Baku and then made him start the next race from the pit lane with a 10 second penalty on the rest of the field.
It is my belief that if the FIA had suspended Ayrton Senna for 5 races and docked him 25 championship points for running into Alain Prost back in 1990 at Suzuka, we wouldn’t have to had to watch this incident, or the Schumacher-Hill and Schumacher-Villeneuve incidents in 1994 and 1997. The message would have been sent along time ago to formula 1 competitors “if you collide with another driver deliberately, it WILL cost you a championship”. The current behavior patterns by drivers are the direct consequence of 20+ years of pussyfooting and inaction by the FIA.
UPDATE – Whenever I read articles talking about “making an example” of a competitor to “send a message”, I know I am dealing with a scenario where a sport has failed to correctly regulate competitor behavior in the past. If Sebastian Vettel, for example, knew in advance that running into Lewis Hamilton would have resulted in an immediate black flag, preferably supported by past incidents where drivers were black-flagged, he would most probably not have run into Hamilton.

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