Lowe prepared to fight for a fairer F1 future
Williams technical officer wants a more competitive field, he tells Giles Richards
That both Formula One titles have already been decided should not detract from what is usually the glorious spectacle of racing at Interlagos, but behind the scenes F1 is in the opening stages of some very tough trading. Its new owner is considering some of the most difficult decisions it has yet to make and with the future of the sport being forged, it does not look like being a smooth process.
Proposals for new engine regulations for 2021 have created controversy but they are not the problem F1 must face. Paddy Lowe, now back at Williams as the chief technical officer, has been in F1 since 1987 and after initial success at the team he returned to this year he went on to win further championships at McLaren and Mercedes. He is unequivocal about the real issue. “Look at the gap between the teams,” he says. “It is like the Premier League and the Championship. There are two completely different races going on.
“We hope to make significant inroads into the two-second gap between the leaders and the rest, based on being extremely efficient with out resources. But it is not about engines, those leading cars all have three different engines. It is about the huge disparity in the funding made available to some teams against others. Everybody knows that, not least the owners of Formula One.”
Williams exemplify this gap, using the same Mercedes engines as the champions but standing a distant fifth in the constructors’ standings.
It is unsurprising that the engine changes – as drawn up by Ross Brawn, the sporting director, on behalf of the owners, the Formula One Group, in consultation with the FIA and manufacturers – have created dissension. The intent was to make the engines cheaper, louder and more attractive for new manufacturers, based around the principle of keeping the 1.6-litre engine but ditching the complex and expensive motor generator heat unit attached to the turbo in favour of increasing the power of the kinetic energy recovery system.
The reaction from Mercedes and Renault was not favourable, with both concerned it would require them to design new power units at considerable expense, promoting a new spending race.
Then the Ferrari president, Sergio Marchionne, weighed in, saying such was their distaste for the concept of standardised parts it might be enough to make his team quit F1. “If we change the sandbox to the point where it becomes an unrecognisable sandbox, I don’t want to play any more,” he said.
Ferrari are the only team to have been in F1 since the first world championship in 1950 and are its most successful constructor, giving them strength in negotiations. A threat to leave is nothing new. The grandstanding is no surprise but it has a serious air this time. With Marchionne emphasising that financial commitments in F1 were of huge importance to the car-maker, he has said he would have no qualms about being the man who took Ferrari out of F1 and that such a move would be “totally beneficial to the profit and loss”.
For all the sound and fury, the engine debate will likely be concluded successfully but that Marchionne has raised financial issues is telling, especially in light of Lowe’s viewpoint, one that is common in the paddock.
The Formula One Group has made it clear that more competitive racing among a greater number of teams is the aim. Bringing together the leaders – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – with the midfield is a goal shared by fans. F1’s strategy group met on Tuesday to discuss budget caps – a meeting that has been seen as broadly positive. But neither engines nor budget caps are likely to prove the real sticking point. The test will be how to distribute the revenues from F1 more fairly – and ultimately that is likely to be of more concern, particularly to Ferrari.
Ferrari receive a long-standing team bonus estimated to be worth $68m (£51.5m). They also collected a constructors’ championship bonus of more than $30m, as do Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren. Williams receive a $10m heritage payment but the gap in revenue for 2017 between Lowe’s team and Ferrari is still around $100m.
That F1’s chief executive, Chase Carey, is aware of this issue is clear. “You need competition, you need the unknown, you need great finishes, great dramas. We’ve got to create that,” he said. “That attracts more funds and that benefits all the teams.”
He is selling a big-picture concept that he would like many of the vested interests to adopt. Whether he is able to do so is possibly the most important task he will face and one that will decide whether F1 can enter a new era.
‘Look at the gap between the teams. It is like the Premier League and the Championship’