Remember the old days when the TV director suddenly cut to the leading car with smoke trailing from its engine? Or a frontrunner stuck in the gravel, desperately spinning the rear wheels in a vain attempt to re-join the action? Harking back to the old days is always a questionable approach, but the rate of attrition in the past was one of the aspects of Formula 1 races. It created tension, surprise and occasionally a crazy and popular result – who doesn’t remember the unexpected results from each season? It’s part of the magic of Formula 1 and before the race, a few of us in the press room concluded that in recent years, it's been missing. But in Monaco, a little bit of that came back. Even so, 14 of the 22 runners made it to the finish – it wasn’t 1996-style chaos.
The problem is that in the modern era, Formula 1 teams are quite frankly brilliant. The changes between 2013 and 2014 were so enormous, and testing at times so disrupted, that there were even questions of no cars reaching the chequered flag in Australia. And yet 15 cars made it to the finish Down Under, with that figure rising to 20 a month later in China. Just think about that for a moment. This was one of the biggest technical changes in Formula 1 history – including a 35% increase in fuel efficiency – yet reliability was phenomenal. In a season where talk has focused on ugly noses and questionably noses, the lack of praise to the Formula 1 teams for such an achievement is lamentable.
But equally, there was a little bit of disappointment at the aforementioned achievement. Because the longed for high rate of attrition didn’t return.
Between 1961 and 2005, there wasn’t a single race where every starter made it to the end. It’s since occurred a couple of times, with a race now notable if more than a few drivers retire. Why is this? Greater development in technology has led to better equipment and a greater understanding of issues – as well as the ability to manage them. The understandable drive towards safety has led to circuits with less risk for drivers and more second chances.
This is in part why Marussia and Caterham have regularly failed to trouble the points. They have inferior resources and are finishing in the right place – but so are those ahead. But in Monaco, that high rate of attrition assisted Jules Bianchi’s ninth place finish and Marussia’s maiden points in the sport.
It’d be rather disingenuous to suggest that Bianchi and Marussia only scored points because of the high retirement rate. Bianchi drove superbly and incisively – including that pass on Kamui Kobayashi – while the team executed their strategy well, on top of progress made with the MR-03 on an extremely limited budget. Even eighth place was there for the taking, although that was lost due to a five second penalty which sporting director Graeme Lowdon wants clarification on before the next event. Even so, for much of the race, Bianchi’s pace was not too far off of the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. Furthermore, Bianchi kept his head cool while others lost theirs. He could have made a mistake and shunted it into the wall. But he didn’t – and he collected ninth place and the potential for a financial windfall for Marussia - perhaps $50m if they retain ninth place in the Constructors' championship.
The element of surprise undoubtedly added to the spectacle in Monte Carlo - predictability in any sport is a sure fire way to lose spectator interest. Sure, drivers don’t want to retire from races and for teams and sponsors it presents a bad image when their car goes up in smoke or gets put in the barriers by the driver.
But who, aside from those in green, didn’t raise a smile when Bianchi came across the line to register his and Marussia’s maiden points? For a team in their situations, the celebrations in the pit garage were heart-warming. It was a race that harked back to the past – an underdog story that will go down in the history books – and both driver and team seized their opportunity when others – such as Sauber – did not. Formula 1 can’t and shouldn’t artificially engineer such situations, because it would go against the principles of the sport. But the Monaco Grand Prix was a reminder that a little bit of unreliability can lead to some magic.