Ho Ho Ho and a Merry Christmas one and all. Being the season of cheer and goodwill, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts around the 12 days of Christmas, and highlight 12 reasons to be positive and optimistic as the year comes to an end and we look toward the start of the 2018 season. Also because it’s been a long year and I think I’ve exhausted all other avenues, this is literally all my brain can come up with.
So here we go!
1. The resurgence of Ferrari as a potent race-winning force was THE good news story of 2017. They didn’t just come out with a good car, they came out with the best car, and only a combination of an all too familiar implosion while Mercedes got all its ducks in a row to overcome its tricky four-wheeled Diva, denied the Scuderia what would have been a well-deserved title. But 2017 was the proof that Mattia Binotto knows what he’s doing and that the team is capable of not just taking the fight to Stuttgart, but of being the team to beat. Looking at the step made between 2016 and 2017 thanks to the wholesale restructuring of the outfit, and then imagining what it could achieve in ’18 with a year of experience under its belt, Ferrari could be the team with a massive target on its back come Melbourne.
2. Unless, of course, that honor falls to Red Bull. By the end of the season it was possible to argue that Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo had at their disposal the best all-around car in Formula 1. Only the still underpowered and decidedly temperamental Renault power unit held back what could have been a season-ending whitewash for the Milton Keynes outfit. Just like Ferrari, Red Bull showed again in 2017 that they have championship-winning potential and can take the fight to Mercedes. All of which tees up 2018 rather nicely, wouldn’t you say?
3. With Lewis Hamilton confirmed now as a four-time Formula 1 world champion, we go into 2018 in a unique position. Never before in the history of the sport have two drivers fought each other for the honor of a fifth world championship, and yet that is what stands before us. We live in hallowed times, make no mistake. It could be decades, nay generations before such a situation occurs again, and if they were to take one apiece over the next two seasons, just imagine them duking it out for the honors of hitting six. While 2017 wasn’t exactly the wheel-to-wheel fight we’d been waiting a decade to see realized on track, we saw glimpses of the bout yet to come. All of which makes next year tantalizing.
4. With Red Bull putting its backing firmly behind Verstappen to lead its championship charge into the future, we have a fascinating prospect opening up into 2018. Ricciardo is one of the highest-regarded drivers in modern-day Formula 1. A great racer, a clean and fair passer, a brilliant guy and an all-around marketing and media dream, Danny Ric would be a neat fit at any team. He fits the Red Bull mold perfectly, his Italian heritage makes him attractive to the tifosi and Lewis Hamilton has publically stated he’d love him as a stablemate at Mercedes. Meaning that Ricciardo’s status as a free agent and the ultimate holder of the key to the driver transfer market is one of the most intriguing aspects of the coming season. Where he ends up will have knock-on effects for the whole sport.
5. Where Ricciardo ends up obviously influences where the next generation land, but one of the most positive aspects of 2018 and beyond is the strength in depth that exists in that new era of F1 superstars. Of course Verstappen has already stamped his mark on the sport and requires only a consistently competitive car before he can truly announce himself into the big time, but alongside him and waiting to take this sport into the future lie the likes of Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz Jr., Lance Stroll, Pierre Gasly and the incomparable Charles Leclerc. These guys have been racing each other since they were in short pants, and it’s only a matter of time before they become the headline-makers at the very top of their sport.
6. And when one looks beyond them, remember the brace of talent that exists in the junior formulas who are either already on F1 teams books as reserve and junior drivers or who impress every weekend and sit quietly on F1’s extended radar. Of course the likes of Lando Norris and George Russell are already known, but looking further down the ladder we have the likes of Pietro Fittipaldi (yes, that Fittipaldi), Enaam Ahmed and Jamie Caroline, not to mention young American talents Santino Ferrucci, Ryan Tveter and Kyle Kirkwood all ready to burst through.
7. We have France and Germany back on the Formula 1 calendar. The European stalwarts’ return and the importance placed by the sport’s new owners in maintaining a European presence and ensuring the future of prestige tracks is a hugely positive sign. Ricard will be an interesting one. It’s a great test track, but junior formula races have been riddled with track limits violations. Also, there’s only one small road in and out of the circuit as it is perched high atop a cliff, so it remains to be seen whether the logistics will work out, but it’s in the Bandol wine region so that’s reason enough to be cheerful. With Liberty looking at shifting the calendar around with a few new races in new territories, it’s great to have confidence that Europe will maintain a strong presence, something which was not assured under the old guard.
8. And on the subject of racetracks, it’s heartening to hear that Ross Brawn and the brain trust at Liberty are aware that circuit design may need something of a rethink in order to improve the racing spectacle. Now I’ve never been one to take aim at Hermann Tilke, as I actually like the majority of his racetracks. I’ve always looked at the likes of F2 and GP3 and determined that if they can have good races on Tilke tracks, then it’s the F1 cars that are at fault rather than the tracks themselves. For if it were the tracks’ fault, then you’d have a boring F2 race. And F2 doesn’t do boring. With a little bit of luck, the FIA will start listening not just to Ross and Liberty, but to the racing drivers that have proposed track changes to help end track limits violations and also changes to the geometry of corners to allow multiple lines and better overtaking prospects. The studies and analyses are on their table. All they’ve got to do is pick them up and read them.
9. Which leads us to point nine, and it’s an important one. Because for the first time in a long time, the FIA and F1 seem to have found grounds for unity. Having a governing body and a commercial rights holder at loggerheads made nobody’s life any better. The petty squabbles created a vacuum into which stepped the teams to absorb more power than they should ever have been granted – power which they didn’t know how to handle. F1’s political structure and processes became overly complicated and complex, leading to the regulatory mess that we have today. With Liberty and the FIA seemingly agreed on the path the sport should take, and Todt’s unopposed re-election as President, we could be set for a period of calm co-operation between the sport’s rulers, something essential for the evolution and furtherance of the sport into the modern age.
10. The new BFFs have already hit their first hurdle, however, and that is over the proposals for new engine regulations. Of course it is easy to see that the manufacturers are simply using this as a tipping point to assert their authority, but what has been heartening has been to see the reaction from both engine manufacturers and racing teams outside the sport. When car companies reacted positively and started speaking about their potential interest in joining the sport post-2020 should the new regulations come into effect, both Liberty and the FIA could mark one giant tick next to the plans. When the likes of Michael Andretti admitted that the new proposals also piqued his interest, again the sport’s rulers can mark up a big tick. Whether these plans bring the new blood to the sport remains to be seen, but they are a step in the right direction.
11. Another point of controversy of late has been broadcast rights. It’s why I sit here writing today without any news to report to you about my plans for 2018, and yet I hold no ill will over how and why the U.S. broadcast rights changed hands. Television is changing. The manner in which we consume broadcast material has never been more direct. You used to go to your big networks to watch the latest drama or comedy series. Not so today. Now, you get it all on demand, as and when you want it, direct. The same will become true for sport. That Liberty has cottoned on to this will, in the short term, led to an earthquake throughout the sport as the notion of what constituted a broadcast rights deal is changed beyond comprehension. But as more and more fans decried the moves under the old guard to put the sport on pay TV, so the opening up of digital channels and the utilization of social media platforms from an official perspective should fill fans with no small level of satisfaction. Two digital options will become available, live and non-live, and both promise unprecedented levels of access. It’s a scary time for the big broadcasters, but it could be an exciting one for fans both old and new.
12. All of which leads us on to our 12th and most important factor. We have new owners of the sport who have a vision and a path. Some may not understand it. Many will disagree with it. But there is a plan. And it is born of a long-term strategy. The days of short-termism and short-sightedness look to be over. From early on it was clear that the old days of special deals and shady collusion would end, too. In order for the sport and the business to run efficiently, the old ways would have to end and be replaced with clarity, parity and certainty. In order for all of that to work, the new bosses needed one thing above all: a backbone. Liberty’s appears to be made of lonsdaleite. Thus far they have played with a straight bat and been steadfast in their position. It is this that has allowed the FIA to partner confidently with them and for both to forge a path together for the furtherance of the sport and all of its players. Ferrari’s quit threat has never before been so quickly and easily dismissed, nor with such seeming abandon. And that, in and of itself, is refreshing in the extreme. This isn’t the old way. And for that, we can and should all be thankful.
So there we go. Twelve pretty good reasons why 2018 looks great. Sure there’s the bloody Halo to have to cope with, but we’ll get used to it. Just as we did grooved tires. Remember them? And that funky qualifying system that I tried to defend. Remember that?
The important thing is that the future has solid foundations. The sport is being run properly and with a solid long-term plan. And the wealth of talent, both within the sport and rising through the ranks to play its role behind the wheel, has perhaps never looked more inspiring.
Merry Christmas folks. And bring on 2018. I, for one, can’t wait.