Peter Windsor on tweaking F1
TO GET FIT, F1 NEEDS TO PUT IN THE EFFORT
Time for some box-checking based on some of the suggestions you’ve read in this column on how to improve Formula 1 – suggestions, to be sure, that don’t cost a fortune but would be massively beneficial, particularly if activated as a whole.
Let’s start with the good news:
F1 drivers now show respect for the local national anthem on the starting grid. Ink it. Drivers’ briefings are now being considered for regular TV consumption following a video test at Monaco. Pencil in a tick, pending the go-ahead. Some F1 cars now have the ability to self-start (thanks to the recovery systems used on today’s engines). It’s not yet mandatory, so use that pencil again. Lewis Hamilton raised a gloved hand to thank Lance Stroll for moving over when he lapped him in Canada. Tick – but let’s see all the other drivers behaving the same. There is now easier access for the fans to the GP3 and F2 paddocks. Ink it.
The good news, of course, reflects not only the excellent reading habits of the new Liberty Media powerbrokers but also a desire to move things along at a relatively brisk pace. That said, the list of outstanding matters is still long:
There is no plan in place yet for the top three drivers in the championship to visit the less successful venue countries over the winter in order to light fires and build enthusiasm for the next races in those countries. There’s no sign of the F1 drivers giving circuit rides to fans over any given race weekend. I haven’t yet seen any GoPro footage of team debriefs or drivers commuting to the circuit. Teams guard their technology, making it impossible to touch and feel, but still suggest tech is the sport’s lifeblood. Open the doors! The teams still spend fortunes building 60 per cent models for windtunnels when Windshear and a couple of full-scale tunnels like it in Europe would have been much more accurate and much more cost-effective in the medium term – never mind the long term. I’m yet to hear of any of F1’s great drivers from the past being asked to take honorary roles at key races. Why no Mario? Where are Emerson and Nelson? Dan Gurney and Tony Brooks?
The next level of suggestion is more complicated, embracing as it does the huge problem of how to make F1 less expensive. It’s unlikely to happen, but here goes. The key thing, I believe, is to adopt the philosophy Alan Gow has used in the British Touring Car Championship, of first establishing where you want your series to be. F1 has always taken the opposite approach, picking up an existing car, circuit or event and toying with it according to the fashionable or political whims of the moment.
Ultimately, as Liberty Media will confirm, the healthy future of F1 is about two things only: a massive, ever-expanding global audience, and the sport’s image. ‘Image’ is an all-embracing concept, of course, because it includes the mystique of such words as ‘Ferrari’ and ‘Formula’ but, in my view, it is not restricted to such limitations as ‘technology’ and ‘prototypes’.
Take a step back for a moment and consider this great god ‘technology’. F1 people swear by it, but is it actually good for business? What we’re really talking about is the little clause in the rule book that obliges any team racing in F1 to design and build their own car. That jewel goes back to the early 1980s, when the F1 team owners of the time – bloodied by battles with the FIA – erected ring-fences to protect their burgeoning empire – or their interest in the burgeoning empire, to be precise.
Ferrari, McLaren, Brabham, Lotus and Tyrrell were always going to build their own cars and be a part of F1, but the rest needed protection and Bernie was happy to give it because he needed a united F1 that could be sold to race promoters as a guaranteed commodity. So they came up with the rule that made it virtually impossible for anyone new to come along. In 1977, remember, Frank Williams rebooted his career by buying an
THE ONLY THING THAT WILL BRING DOWN THE COSTS OF F1 IS A MUCH HEALTHIER MIDFIELD THAT CAN WIN RACES FROM TIME TO TIME
off-the-shelf March and running it as a single-car entry in selected races. Four years on, that was impossible: you had to be a constructor, you had to enter every race, and you had to do so with two cars. Exit the next Frank Williams.
This rule, then, is not about technology. It’s about protectionism. You could argue that it has worked (in the sense that F1 has, over the past 35 years, had a slower rate of new-team turnover than most other sports out there, and that many F1 team owners have become rich at the expense of their peers in other motorsport categories), but now, in 2017, this rule has run its course. Forget the usual annual concessions – the mods to what we’ve already got. The only thing that will bring down the costs of F1 is a much healthier midfield: a midfield that can win races from time to time. That will spread the monies more evenly – and, by definition, will reduce costs as a whole. To put it simply, a midfield team that can run near or at the front on a budget of, say, $150m is, by the natural order of things, going to cramp the style of a $500m team who are struggling to finish races.
The image of F1 will always be ‘technology’, just as it was in the 1970s, when Ferrari, Lotus and McLaren were sweating to beat the likes of Hesketh and March. Ferrari and teams such as Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren and Williams will always be around, doing unique things at whatever cost and level they choose. Further down the grid, the public doesn’t care if Marcus Ericsson is driving a Sauber or a Dallara painted blue and gold – and nor, evidently, do the potential sponsors. If ‘technology’ is the holy grail, why is it that the smaller F1 teams are finding it so hard to raise budgets? The public is going to care a lot more about Marcus Ericsson if he is right up there in a Dallara-Ferrari managed and entered by Sauber, and the eyeballs watching that race will engender more commercial partners.
If Dallara became official suppliers of F1 chassis to teams that wanted to buy them – with Ferrari the proprietary engine – performance in the midfield would rise as quickly as costs would fall. Haas have shown what one such team can do in 18 short months. Let’s learn and move forwards: five Dallara teams would produce only a faster base car – and the opportunities for new teams to come into F1 and to apply pressure on the incumbents would rise exponentially.
I can think of a few people who won’t like it. For F1, though, this is the way forward. Image and audience.
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Liberty Media have moved things on considerably since their takeover, but there’s more to be done
Marcus Ericsson in a Sauber leads Max Verstappen in a Red Bull – but the mid-gridders very rarely get a chance to show what they’re made of