The other day, I was explaining how a race series’ Balance of Performance works to a non-motorsport enthusiast. I know how to woo a girl.
Anyhoo, BoP is a method race series organisers employ to try to keep racing close. In the British Touring Car Championship, say, an association of teams keeps a weather eye on each car’s straight-line speed, and every once in a while amends what turbo boost pressures teams are allowed to run, as part of an ‘engine equivalency’ formula that aims to keep engine power across the grid more or less even. In BTCC, they have a ‘success ballast’ too – you win a race, you get a 75kg penalty to take forward to the next one. You finish second, it’s 66kg, and so it goes on...
The BTCC also has a generous amount of transparency – once a car is homologated for use, a lot of the data teams hold is published for others to see. Throw in, too, that there is a common front subframe, and a common rear subframe, common brakes, and a few other ancillaries, which all teams must use, and you can see why touring car racing becomes so close: because it’s designed to be a wheel-bashing, neck-and-neck sprint from start to finish.
This, though, can be frustrating for engineers, I said, because their hard graft might be undone by regulators. However, in the BTCC’s case, it makes the spectacle better for punters.
And to devastating effect: 40,000 people will walk through the gates on a good race day, there’s live television coverage and, at 32 cars, the grid is full. If only all race series could have it so good. If somebody was running away with every race, there’s a stronger chance that manufacturers or independents, who’d never have a chance of a good result on account of having a smaller budget, would walk away and find a cheaper series to get involved in.
My motorsport novice was unimpressed. Because, she said, it means you’re not watching the real thing, right? I mean, what kind of sport deliberately hampers the abilities and qualities of the best in the field, just to give the duffers a chance? You don’t take the world’s best sprinter and stick a half-inch insole in one of their shoes just so that it makes the Olympic 100m final a bit more exciting. Don’t people want to watch their heroes winning?
Which is an entirely fair point. It’s hard enough to be a winner in any competitive sport, without somebody tying an arm behind your back.
But the thing about motor racing is that the generous application of cash has so much more influence and, if some are more able to deploy that than others, and make themselves outrageously fast, where, you could counter-argue, is the fairness in that?
Excess spending – on engineers, technology and, yes, even the finest drivers – can lead to a dominance that some branches of motorsport, in their continued naivety, believe is entirely fair. But always havinga Ferrari at the front of a race or a bloke called Sébastien winning every rally does not make for compelling viewing – and if there is no compelling viewing, there are no customers, no return on investment and, ultimately, then, no money.
So, yes, people want to see their heroes winning, but only if more than one of them is in with a chance.