Dear Bernie, this is how you should have made Formula One interesting again…
Since its inception in 1950, Formula 1 has always been the pinnacle of motorsport. The essence of the sport is to push to the extremes. To excel. Yet sadly, the last few years have marked a shift towards a less enthralling spectacle. TV and live audiences are down, iconic circuits are being threatened, big sponsors are reluctant to get involved, while small teams are struggling to stay solvent. Mercedes’ domination is not to blame. The complex and tortuous regulations that have cemented their position at the front of the grid are. Ferrari’s resurgence has papered over some of the cracks, but all three of their victories this season are due to circuit characteristics or tyre issues. F1 needs to make a few fundamental changes to enhance the show and revitalize the sport.
Since Pirelli’s entry into the sport as the sole tyre supplier in 2011, the Italian company has faced a barrage of criticism. Their brief was to provide fragile tyres and encourage multiple pit stops and different race strategies. But surely its an anathema that in the world’s premier racing competition extreme tyre management is the most dominant factor in strategy. The concept of multiple pit stops in a Grand Prix is definitely appealing and adds to the show, yet tyre management should not be driving it. In the refuelling era 1994-2009, drivers would drive on the limit every lap, and it would be a welcome return.
In all fairness, F1 has taken major steps to address both issues. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association fan survey revealed how a majority of fans wanted a return of the tyre war and refuelling, and both options are on the table for F1’s 2017 rule shake up. Although it is yet to be finalized, it is intended to ensure faster and more aggressive designs and teams expect the cars to be at least 5 seconds faster per lap. In response to fan concern that engine volume was no longer that impressive, exhaust changes have been approved that will make engines considerably louder in 2016. Certain actions in response to fan criticism have already been taken mid-season – the new start procedures place more responsibility in the drivers’ hands and have led to more exciting and unpredictable starts. The changes to the penalty system where a driver would have to start from the back of the grid and drive through penalties during the race also smack of common sense.
Yet despite these changes, it hasn’t stopped Force India and Sauber from making an official complaint to the European Union that F1 is being governed in an anti-competitive manner. Formula 1’s prize money distribution has always been a hotly contested issue, yet the official complaint marks a step into new territory. It is fair that a few ‘big teams’ are given additional prize money and extra influence because of what they bring to F1. Ferrari’s lustrous heritage demands the annual bonus that it is given as recognition for what the team brings to the sport. Likewise, McLaren and Red Bull deserve to be rewarded for their allure and more recent successes.
However, the payment structure gap has become so large that it threatens to spell the end for the smaller independent constructors. F1 would not be the same with just 3 or 4 teams; it would be a strange sight to see a Ferrari or Mercedes finish last, regardless of the size of the grid. Small teams provide invaluable opportunities to young drivers, and been a launch pad for many successful careers. Additionally, although smaller teams do not (usually) fight for the championship, they have always had the chance to topple the giants – its vital to keep them and the best way to do so would be to implement an effective cost cap.
Another example of the anti competitive nature that is stifling F1 is the token system limiting engine development. The hybrid engine technology has many benefits, such as allowing cars to harvest and deploy energy recovered from the braking system. Yet there are limitations that need to be dealt with. The engine freeze, done to cut costs, was predicated on there being parity between the different engines. However, Renault and Honda engines have been incredibly far off the pace, and have not been able to make major improvements during the season. Given that the regulation changes have also put a far greater emphasis on these new hybrid engine systems, fans are alienated knowing that regardless of improvements to the chassis and wings, their teams will struggle to compete the entire season.
Teams need to be allowed to test, develop, and push. Testing was banned for cost cutting purposes, yet the introduction of the most complex rules in F1 history have resulted in spiralling costs and teams flirting with bankruptcy. Of the three teams that entered F1 in 2010, HRT, Marussia and Caterham, only one team is still active in the sport – after surviving administration and a name change. The key to improving this aspect of Formula 1 and making it more appealing to potential investors will be finding the necessary balance in implementing a cost cap and allowing more testing.
F1’s regulations on testing and the new engine spec are just two examples of how the rules have taken the focus away from the racing on track. An idea proposed by Red Bull boss Christian Horner that an independent figure such as Ross Brawn should be involved in writing F1’s rules, as opposed to the current format where powerful teams have the biggest say. This would probably solve the age-old problem when the dominating team (Ferrari in the mid 2000’s, Red Bull in 2010-14, and Mercedes 2014-?) does its best to stop technical regulations from being changed.
Many would argue that the sport’s one saving grace is its current field of drivers. The number of young, talented drivers that have come through the ranks is unprecedented.
However, it does raise questions as to the skill level required to master todays cars. Mark Webber has echoed fans’ concerns that electronics and lower physical demands are hurting the reputation that F1 cars are tough to master. His complaints regarding pay drivers also sheds light on another issue. Pay drivers have always been involved in the sport; even talents such as Schumacher and Alonso relied on sponsorship money early in their career. However, with teams more cash strapped then ever, ludicrous situations are emerging where teams are selling their seats to the highest bidders (e.g. Sauber this season). Allowing for more technical creativity will help F1 cars to recover their lustre, while effective cost-cutting can ensure that talented drivers with less sponsorship can still get a chance to shine.
Ultimately, it is clear that F1 needs to make fundamental changes to the sport. Tyres and regulations need to be rethought, so that F1 cars are being driven like they should be – to the limit. Engine development needs to be unfrozen to bolster competition, while effective cost caps should be implemented to ensure the sustainability of the smaller teams. Independent experts should be put in charge of setting the rules, rather than the teams themselves. These measures may be drastic, but are necessary for F1 to regain its aura and restore the balance between man and machine.