Stop Making Racing So Damn Complicated

Illustration for article titled Stop Making Racing So Damn Complicated
Photo: Brian Cleary (Getty Images)

Modern motorsport has a problem: It’s too damn complicated, and it’s only been getting worse.


There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but one of the most recent is the recently released refueling regulations released by the FIA ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If you’re wondering how something as simple as putting gas into a car can get twisted into something painfully complex, look no further:

Basically, those formulae above determine the proper refueling process, and making an error somewhere along the way can result in a penalty. And for the laypeople at home, it’s not going to be a simple thing to wrap your head around.

And this isn’t an issue confined specifically to endurance racing. If you’ve ever watched a Formula One race and wondered how a driver acquired a penalty for crossing a track limit that you didn’t know existed, you’ve experienced it. If you’ve ever watched Formula E and wondered how one driver will be penalized for crossing the finish line with no battery while another driver isn’t, you’ve experienced it.

There are reasons why racing is complicated nowadays. Technology rapidly advances every year, and engineers are trained to find and exploit every loophole. Think about the drama with Racing Point’s brake ducts in F1, after all: it’s an argument largely composed of semantics and personal interpretation. It all happens off track. It’s not something a fan would pick up on if they weren’t looking for it. And yet it’s been a saga that dragged on for months.

Or think of Ferrari’s illegal F1 engines—which the FIA decided were illegal while still keeping the details of it under wraps. Even Ferrari’s competition has no idea what made those engines illegal. The sanctioning body is being intentionally opaque regarding its other competitors. How are you supposed to explain it?


The problem is, journalist Tony DiZinno contends, you can’t:


He’s not wrong. I’m a lifelong racing fan, and there are a lot of rules that I can’t explain. I have absolutely no idea how to interpret the FIA’s Le Mans refueling formula. I struggle to explain F1's rules to new fans. And don’t even get me started on NASCAR’s playoffs.

For some people, sports are a numbers game, a technical pastime to fill the day. For others, sports are a form of entertainment, a place where people can turn off their brains and enjoy things for a little while. It’s fine to have a little blend of both.


But racing seems to prize the former. There was always an element of technicalities, with fans tracking the lap times of their favorite drivers to make sense of the race unfolding before them. But it’s just grown even more complex as the years go on, and instead of feeling purposeful, it just feels more and more arbitrary.

One of my grad school classmates tuned into a race the other day. She’s been reading through my short stories about motorsport, so she wanted to check it out for the first time. And I found myself fielding questions that I couldn’t answer. It was frustrating. I wanted to share my passion with her, but it was hard to explain all the context and rule changes she needed to understand why X Driver got a penalty or why Y Driver was forced to endure a slow pit stop.


Racing is a niche sport, and it grows even more niche the more sanctioning bodies implement increasingly complex rules. It's time to start thinking about how to cut down on the rules and just let the action unfold.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.



Yeah, it looks all funny with the equations and such, but it’s not really that complicated if you actually read it. While I don’t dispute your general premise, I don’t see anything in this example that is egregious - for safety’s sake no one wants a racing series that says “F*** it, just load that 20 gallons of fuel with the fastest way you can possibly think of...” So you need to have a limit and then things necessarily get complicated to express that limit in a way that is fair. You’ve got cars with relatively significant differences in fuel tank allowances, so you can’t just do it with a standardized fuel can and flow restrictor the way Nascar does.

Here are the rules translated:  

Section 1

One of the variables we use to balance very different cars is to set a max allowable fuel volume, since that the fuel tank is sized.

For GTE Pro cars, we are going to watch in real time how much fuel you burn. Since the volume of fuel varies with temperature, but the energy content and fuel usage is reported by fuel mass, we will convert mass to volume using (this formula).

For GTE Am cars, we are just going to check at the end of the race.

Section 2

We require flow restrictors on the fuel hose to achieve a minimum refueling time for the car (for fire safety and we as a series agreed to this to reduce pit stop injuries, a normal team can comfortably change the tires before the car is refuled).

We will check your refueling time at each pitstop. We can’t easily measure the fuel going in, so we are going to just time you. But that creates complexity because you might not be empty when refueling.

Since you might refuel without the tank being empty, we will use (this formula) to give you credit for the fuel already in the vehicle based on the number of laps you did.

Section 3

... and if you’ve been driving under a full course caution, your fuel efficiency is going to be better, so we’ll give you even more credit for the fuel that is remaining and allow a shorter refueling time.

Section 4

if we catch you cheating, by having a refueling that is too quick, we’ll make you do a penalty = 4 x (the amount of time you were too quick on the refueling)

Section 5

If we think you cheated on purpose, we’re going to penalize you another 10 seconds on top of that.

Section 6

We’re going to monitor the refueling time using the time from when you hook up the gas hose to the time you disconnect the gas hose. Be careful about power cycling the car during refueling, because that will mess up our timer and we might call a foul.