MEDLAND: Everything to race for, and forever to race it in

Image by Hone/LAT

MEDLAND: Everything to race for, and forever to race it in

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Everything to race for, and forever to race it in

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There’s a very funny Mitchell and Webb sketch that aired in the United Kingdom a decade ago that spoofs a soccer advert, sparking such gems as:

“Manchester United return to Aston Villa for a game of football to determine the victors for this year at least. And indeed at most.”

“It will never stop. The football is officially going on forever. It will never be finally decided who has won the football. There is still everything to play for, and forever to play it in.”

(It’s on YouTube under Watch the Football! — That Mitchell and Webb Look — BBC Two, check it out when you reach the end of the piece…)

It’s an outlook that can be applied to the majority of sports. You’re always attempting to win that week’s game or race and then move on to the next one. When that championship is done, the focus turns to the following year and doing it all again.

Mercedes celebrated championships in 2018 — but starts anew in 2019. (Image by Dunbar/LAT)

In many ways, Formula 1 is no different. Mercedes recently published a video showing the team taking all of the 2018 wins off the entrance sign outside the factory, because everything starts from zero in 2019. But there are a number of aspects that will have a big bearing on more than just this season over the next 12 months.

On track

After a winter that has seen 60% of the driver line-ups change, the most fascinating pairing has to be at Ferrari, where Charles Leclerc will partner Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel came under a lot of pressure last season given the number of errors he made as his championship hopes slipped away. Ferrari took a wrong turn with car development, and perhaps Lewis Hamilton was always likely to win the championship from that point on, but Vettel sped up the process.

In Leclerc, Ferrari has one of the most exciting young talents on the grid, and has put its faith in him after just one season in F1. It’s a new prospect for Vettel to deal with; having been comfortable alongside Kimi Raikkonen over the past four seasons — getting the better of the Finn every year — he now faces the challenge of a Ferrari Driver Academy member.

The rapid success of Daniel Ricciardo, who scored three wins in 2014, influenced Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari. (Image by Etherington/LAT)

When Daniel Ricciardo was promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, the Australian outperformed his more decorated teammate and the writing was on the wall for Vettel. If the same happens at Ferrari, it might be clear where the Scuderia’s future lies, but where would Vettel go from there?

Throughout the grid there will be drivers hoping to get the better of their teammates in order to boost their own reputations — and therefore future prospects — but a different on-track situation could have implications for a double world champion: Fernando Alonso.

As he chases the Triple Crown, Alonso won’t race in F1 in 2019. But all the recent signs suggest he is open to a return, and McLaren’s performance this year is likely to be central to that. If the team’s technical restructuring and lessons from 2018 add up to a much more competitive package, the 37-year-old could well be knocking on the door to try and jump back in the following season.

Should that scenario play out, both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris will enjoy the stronger car, but with the bittersweet knowledge that it is likely to bring increased scrutiny over their futures.

Is Lando Norris just keeping the seat warm for Fernando Alonso at McLaren? (Image by Tee/LAT)

Aside from McLaren’s own situation, the cars collectively will tell us a lot about Formula 1’s future.

Technical regulation changes will see wider and more simple front wings — with standardized endplates — simplified brake ducts, repositioned and lower bargeboards and a taller and wider rear wing with a more powerful DRS.

While the changes are relatively subtle to the average naked eye watching an F1 car at speed, they are designed to change the type of airflow coming off the rear of the car, while also making a following car less sensitive to that dirty air. Combined, the two changes are intended to make it easier to follow another car more closely, which should encourage better racing.

But so far, it’s all theory and simulations. The science behind it might be good, but the proof will be when cars are fighting it out on track. It’s almost certain the changes will improve the situation compared to if no changes had been made, but it might be to such a small degree that it’s barely noticeable…

Of bigger importance, however, is introducing these changes now in order to aid understanding ahead of the 2021 season. A much more dramatic raft of technical regulation changes are planned for in two years’ time, and the result of these changes will help shape the next set of regulations. If cars can follow more easily, F1’s on the right track. If not, then it knows to explore a different direction.

Off track

Of course, those changes won’t matter if there are no teams signed up to race…

Liberty Media has been praised for much of the off-track changes it has made since taking over ownership of F1 at the start of 2017, but that relates to the fan experience and marketing of the sport. Its biggest test is turning its admirable vision for the way F1 will be structured into reality.

Teams such as Williams would benefit from a change in distribution of revenues. (Image by Mauger/LAT)

From the outset of its tenure, Liberty has stated its desire to introduce a cost cap and change the distribution of revenues in order to create a more level playing field for the teams. That’s music to the ears of the teams struggling right now — Claire Williams said she was ready to pop the champagne after a meeting on those topics back in 2017 — but is being met with stern opposition by those with more to lose.

The agreements between the teams, F1 and the FIA that cover revenues and tie the teams to the sport run out at the end of 2020, so as it stands, there is no certainty any new regulations will even see the light of day.

Such a scenario is extremely unlikely given the teams’ previous willingness to race following the expiration of past agreements, but reaching a consensus over such major changes to the sport’s fundamental business structure is far from easy.

How the future pans out can — in simple terms — be broken down into three outcomes:

  1. Liberty gets the teams to agree on the cost cap and distribution changes, creating potential for a very different F1 post-2020.
  2. The teams dig in, Liberty has to concede in order to get agreements signed and pacify shareholders, and very little changes in two years’ time.
  3. Liberty stands firm — and faces the prospect of some of the biggest teams pulling out after 2020.

As unlikely as the third option seems, it highlights the prospect that there could ultimately be no winners out of it. The next set of agreements — the first negotiated under Liberty — are likely to be the biggest challenge this ownership ever faces.

Oh, and aside from all that, there will be 21 occasions of trying to win a race, and ultimately finding out who becomes the 2019 drivers’ and constructors’ champions.

Trying to get to the finish first might be a pursuit that will always continue, but the way F1 goes about it in future — and who is doing so with which teams — could be heavily influenced by events in the coming year.

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