What is F1 — and what should it be?
For all the politics engulfing Formula One, one of its more curious sideshows bubbled quietly to the surface late last week.
Formula One, now directed by the company better known as Liberty Media, filed three new logos with the European Union Intellectual Property Office for registration. They are, needless to say, divisive.
Rumours suggest F1 could seek to begin implementing one of the three logos at this weekend’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ahead of a full-scale 2018 rebrand. It’s a bold strategy given the current logo, almost 20 years old, has dated well — perhaps too well given people are still surprised to find the inversed number ‘1’ hidden between the F and the opposite red element — and doubly so given all three alternatives look more outdated than futuristic.
But there is, unsurprisingly, a bigger battle brewing beyond F1’s logo dilemma.
The Liberty-owned Formula One Management and governing body the FIA are shaping their visions for F1’s future beyond 2020, when most of the agreements binding the sport together expire.
This is a key moment in the sport’s history. The commercial rights holder, approaching one year in the job, is keen to make its mark, and the FIA want to work with it to make changes it was unable to implement when Bernie Ecclestone ran the show with his adversarial management style.
In summary the aim is closer, cheaper racing that dramatically shrinks the performance spread and entices new brands into the sport. It’s agreeable enough, but how these goals are achieved will define the sport for a generation, begging the question: what is Formula One?
F1 AS A MANUFACTURER SPORT
The principal arguments are making themselves known. When the FIA and FOM outlined their broad-brush ideas for new power unit regulations, Ferrari immediately threatened to withdraw from the sport, emphasising the gravity of the moment.
The Scuderia has allies, even if they’re less partial to the nuclear option. Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda ventured that he is “worried” about F1’s tack.
“What they think about the future is worrying me,” he told Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “Developing cars is one of the important foundations.”
But of course Lauda would say that — Mercedes, like Renault, Ferrari and Honda, is in Formula One to market its road car brand, and the connection between winning on Sunday and selling on Monday relies on the team flexing its engineering muscle to beat the competition.
The simplification of the power unit, therefore, and in particular the removal of the MGU-H, the one genuinely cutting-edge component of an F1 car, takes the sport a step away from its technological proving ground roots.
“It portrays it in a way of this is how we’re going forward and none of the current OEMs (manufacturer teams) was particularly impressed,” Wolff told the BBC.
F1 AS A PRIVATEER CATEGORY
But is a manufacturer-focus necessarily good for the sport? Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner thinks not.
“With Ferrari and Mercedes sometimes it’s hard to recognise which one is which,” he told Autosport. “They are particularly aligned.
“I just hope that the Liberty guys have got the courage of their conviction to go through with what their research has told them, and I believe they will.”
Red Bull Racing has its own interest in seeing power units minimised given it doesn’t build its own. Creating a competitive Formula One car would then boil down to chassis design, reminiscent of the so-called garagiste era of innovative independent teams — or even of the early 2010s, when Red Bull Racing dominated as a Renault customer.
But to call Red Bull Racing a privateer is somewhat disingenuous given it has manufacturer-level resources at its disposal. A change in RBR’s favour, therefore, would look little different from today, certainly as far as cost is concerned.
F1 AS A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Bringing the smaller independents into victory contention through cost and regulatory control and not knowing which driver from which team will win any given weekend would be the dream scenario from a spectacle perspective.
Cost control is already in the pipeline, and F1 CEO Chase Carey believes he has broad agreement up to this point, but is a future of simpler cars, of a team like Sauber or Force India or some new entrant turning up and dictating the pace, viable for Formula One?
“A world championship won against Sauber is one thing,” Bernie Ecclestone told La Repubblica. “A win against Ferrari is another.”
To illustrate his point, F1’s former ringmaster then fancifully accused Mercedes of helping Ferrari improve its 2017 engine to give it some worthwhile competition.
Ferrari, the logic goes, remains the bar because it is historically successful. To create a sport in which winning became easier cheapens that history and therefore cheapens Formula One.
“I don’t want to play NASCAR globally,” Ferrari boss Marchionne said, triggering a conciliatory tone from Carey.
“We don’t plan to be NASCAR either,” he said. “[But] you need competition, you need the unknown, you need great finishes, you need great dramas — we’ve got to create that.”
Somewhere between all these competing interests is the answer to the question of providing those “great dramas”, but navigating there will clearly be an arduous and protracted task.
If only it were as easy as designing a new logo.