How vested interests risk derailing F1’s renaissance

Christian Horner and Ross Brawn on the grid at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix.

It’s difficult to believe after an action-packed Bahrain Grand Prix that just two weekends ago Formula One was in the grips of an overtaking crisis, but such is the rapid rate of change in the world’s fastest sport.

The Australian Grand Prix and its paltry five on-track passing moves seem a lifetime ago after the closely fought contest in Sakhir produced its thrilling climax, delivering a hard-earnt victory to Sebastian Vettel and a series of similarly deserved results for the rest of the field.

The terrific spectacle also did what Bahrain has latterly developed a knack for doing: showing up Formula One’s doubters and embarrassing those unreasonably agitating for unfounded change.

Not unlike in 2014, when now ex-Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo expressed concern the then new hybrid power units would turn grands prix into lifeless ‘taxi-cab’ racing’ — only to catch an early taxi to the airport when the race became a blockbuster — in 2018 the race on the tiny Arabian island allayed fears the season could turn into a snore-fest.

Of course not everyone bought into the crisis talk of Melbourne track layout changes and engine usage restrictions. Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, for example, who is carving out a space for himself as one of the sport’s foremast straight talkers, said in the lead up to the Bahrain Grand Prix that Formula One would do well to be contemplative rather than reactive.

“I think a typical thing that everyone tends to do [is] overreact when you have one bad race [and] make a big change,” he said.

“Liberty [Media, F1’s commercial ownership group] should just do their own research and not listen to the drivers, because the drivers will just say what’s in their best interests.

“None of us drivers care about making the show better; we want the best for ourselves.”

It’s sage advice, and not just for his fellow drivers — team principals and other stakeholders would likewise do well to heed his words, because while Formula One is clearly not nearly as broken as the Australian Grand Prix might have suggested, there’s still plenty of improvement to be made if only the sport would be collectively more willing to be pensive about its direction.

Part of the spectacle of the Bahrain Grand Prix came down to Pirelli’s tyres hitting the sweet spot in terms of performance and degradation on a warm and abrasive race track.

The majority strategy was a two-stop race, but the field mixed and matched between the supersoft, soft, and medium compounds in a variety of different pit windows, and four drivers chose to stop just once for added variety. It meant there was a greater variation in performance between any two cars, aiding close racing and overtaking.

This won’t be the case everywhere, and the likelihood of close racing will once again come down pure aerodynamic performance on tracks where the tyres and circuit aren’t in such harmony.

Fixing this problem is one of the key objectives of the sport’s 2021 proposed commercial and regulatory package as presented to teams on Friday.

To that end F1 motorsport director Ross Brawn is heading an aerodynamics research programme to create regulations that will allow cars to race more closely without sacrificing performance. The front wings will be a particular focus, with their increasing complexity a key reason a trailing car is so severely affected by the disturbed air from the car ahead.

While 2021 is the slated date for change, some of the fruits of his work are ready for implementation as soon as next year, and given the deadline for a majority vote to change the rules is 30 April, the modifications were presented to teams at the weekend in Bahrain.

However, Brawn was unable to generate sufficient support to make the changes, with some teams reportedly feeling the rules rewrite would come too late in the piece for 2019 implementation.

It was another chapter written by the vested interests of teams, much in the same way negotiations over a new power unit are dominated by maintaining the current hegemony at the expense of new entrants and changes to commercial agreements to benefit the sport are stifled by those currently on disproportionately good deals.

Indeed the lack of detail in F1’s press release regarding its proposed changes — though teams are likely to have been given more information, apparently in exchange for non-disclosure agreements — is evidence of this, with the commercial rights holder keen to avoid invoking invective from some of the more powerful stakeholders, so much so that scrapping Ferrari’s controversial multimillion-dollar longstanding team bonus in its entirety is apparently off the table.

It’s a shame that the same old vested interests continue to stand themselves in the way of growth just at the moment Formula One has the opportunity to change, but then it was ever thus in Formula One.

We wait with bated breath for the outcome.