Came back from Shanghai via New York and Portugal, just one of many unconventional ways the Formula 1 paddock returned home courtesy of the ash cloud. Spent a couple of days in NYC, Central Park dotted with people doing Tai Chi, slow-motion exercises in solitude. The practice ironically seems to be more commonplace in Manhattan than in China, its place of origin. It's to do with focusing the energy and slowly releasing it, the aim being to achieve the fusion of yin and yang in order to reach the ultimate (taijitu) state of being.
So many opposing pulls needing a unifying force, much the same situation in which F1 finds itself as it ponders its future. The focus is being set on 2013, with an energy-conscious formula to anticipate the increasing pressure to be politically on-message the sport will be subject to. A small-capacity turbocharged engine, with KERS and turbo compounding (recovering energy from exhaust-gas heat) is the agenda that's being pushed particularly hard at the moment.
But there are some dissenters. In China, just as everyone was spinning positive on KERS, Colin Kolles volunteered the perspective from a small, independent team.
"I agree that we have to be a greener F1; that's fine, but if you look into the details, then KERS is not really green. I think we should look into reality and be realistic and not dreamers... There are certain interests here, obviously from car manufacturers. I have no problem with this, but we, as a small team, are not going to be able to afford to invest such amounts of money into technology. I fully agree that F1 has to become greener to attract sponsorship, to make it more viable, but I don't think that KERS in the common sense is the best solution."
As perspective, recall that F1 is supposedly endeavouring to get costs down to 'the level of the early '90s' by 2012. That indeed was supposedly part of the 'peace in our time' deal struck last year between the teams and Max Mosley. What sums are we talking about? Williams dominated the '92 season on a budget of around £35 million. A front-running team budget had reached circa £200 million by 2007. We're maybe at £150 million now. Next year the teams - including those new ones initially encouraged in on the £40 million cost-cap - will have to adapt to new rules (single diffusers, the reintroduction of KERS and probably new tyres). This spec of car will be current for just two seasons before the all-new 'green' car of 2013. These things don't come cheap.
How can the two targets - green and cost - be met simultaneously? Before F1 goes headlong into 'green' technology it needs to consider this. If super-KERS, turbos and turbo compounding are the future, who pays? The manufacturers - Renault, Mercedes, FIAT - could presumably disguise it as part of their ongoing R&D into green engine technologies for road cars, but do they then offer a subsidised deal for the whole package to the little teams? Where does that leave Cosworth? If this is the direction, then a way has to be found to have the technology even as the costs are drastically squeezed.
F1 shouldn't stake its justification on meeting the green aims of the motor industry. If it can contribute to the process, fine. But making it the sport's reason for existing is a very dangerous path to follow. Long term, the only way F1 will be able to justify its existence is purely as a sport, an abstract competition unconnected with the trends of the motor industry in much the same way that horse racing flourished despite the horse being supplanted by the car as a form of transport.
The environmental challenge, costs - oh, and racing. We haven't even mentioned that yet. There's yet another conflicting strand pulling at the sport. The rain has rescued F1 from any repeats of Bahrain in the three races that followed, but Barcelona's next. If it stays dry there, things could get monotonous. F1 needs to find its very own Tai Chi.