This time next week we’ll be dissecting Friday’s running in Melbourne, analyzing the long run pace and trying to work out if Ferrari really does hold a significant advantage over Mercedes (and the rest of the field), as Lewis Hamilton insists.
Really, that’s all Formula 1 should be getting excited about. At least, it should be the main focus for the majority. But the topic of Liberty Media’s ownership, and its plans for the future, just won’t go away.
Now that is partly due to the fact that Liberty announced the year-end financial results for Formula 1 just last week, with income up by $44million but an overall loss of $68m being close to double that for 2017.
And it all comes amid a backdrop of future uncertainty, with the majority of teams requiring new commercial agreements from 2021 onwards. That’s before focusing on the fact that the sport is set on introducing significant changes to the regulations.
So, really, it’s no surprise that whatever Formula 1 does at the moment, critics are ready to point out the elephants in the room.
I’ve been pretty supportive of Liberty Media since its takeover, because I saw the new ownership as providing a breath of fresh air. The atmosphere changed inside the paddock, because it was a time of opportunity.
That atmosphere didn’t last long.
Soon, anyone who wasn’t benefitting from those new opportunities or were unhappy with the direction the sport appeared to be going started cranking up the pressure. Did Liberty really know what it was doing?
I’ll admit, simply saying people are scared of change was an easy way to paint anyone who was critical of the latest ownership. It’s something I said when Silverstone led some of the circuits to question the direction of the sport, while struggling to agree terms for a new contract for the British Grand Prix.
And it’s true that on numerous occasions, the critics have been those who feel directly threatened in some way by Liberty’s approach to F1. But that also doesn’t mean every criticism from a biased voice is unfair, in the same way that every bit of support from a similarly biased voice isn’t necessarily unjustified, either.
But what has annoyed me regardless of who the owner of the sport is, is the way that F1 appears hell-bent on criticizing first, analyzing second.
There are so many examples, and two of them cropped up only this week.
The World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) met in Geneva during the week of the Geneva Motor Show, and approved a change to the regulations that is set to see the fastest lap rewarded with a point this season.
It’s still a change that needs approving by the Strategy Group and the F1 Commission – strangely it’s happening almost in reverse as the WMSC used to be the final rubber-stamping – but it looks likely to go through.
Social media is a dangerous place, but the majority of responses I have seen (including reaction pieces that have been written) say it’s a change for the worse. The fear is that it could make a farce of the closing laps if teams can simply bolt on a fresh set of tires for one go at glory.
That has largely been ruled out by only drivers in the top 10 being able to score the extra point, but that then led to the question, ‘What will it change?’
Worst-case scenario? Nothing. The top three teams took all but one of the fastest laps last year, and may well do so again. And they may not feel it’s worth the risk of losing any points by pushing for an extra one. But then, if nothing’s changed, it hasn’t got any worse.
So there will be a maximum of 26 points available from a weekend instead of 25 – hardly a seismic shift. And it’s just as likely to result in a championship battle being kept alive for an extra round than it is ending earlier.
Plus, you can’t argue it’s a change that’s against F1’s DNA, because a point was given for the fastest lap in a grand prix from 1950-59.
The fact that the rule has only gone through the WMSC now doesn’t mean it wasn’t discussed previously as ways of adding extra interest to the races. If the change is approved by the teams, then they are happy to give it a try. They all play by those rules , so it’s the same for everybody. Drivers clearly covet the fastest lap, so offering an actual reward in terms of a point will hopefully let them chase it more often.
If there’s an unforeseen downside, then all of the sport’s stakeholders will have invested in it and can react. Otherwise, how are you going to improve anything if you’re scared of making a change?
The same can be said of the new aerodynamic regulations. Before the cars were seen on track and the fruits of all the research carried out by F1, the FIA and the teams could start to be analyzed, political agendas meant the changes were being written off. Kevin Magnussen summed up the situation perfectly during testing when he said he’d heard his own aerodynamicists saying it would make no difference, but in the car he felt there was a significant one.
Will it lead to better racing? Almost certainly not in Melbourne, at least, as the track doesn’t really allow for it. But will it make things worse? No. The cars still look very similar to last year at 200mph, and the teams have been challenged with new regulations, which may well have brought the field closer together.
If there was an impact, it was financial because logistics like wider wings needing new transport cases do cost money. But the teams significantly redevelop their cars every year and face wind tunnel and CFD restrictions regardless, so cost increases on that front were arguably minimal.
Even the news of the Chemical Brothers collaboration yesterday was met with ridicule. Do I get the point behind a three-second version of one of their songs? Not really. Does it make any difference to 99.99% of people’s enjoyment of F1? No. So why the need to complain?
Quite simply, it’s what anyone associated with F1 – fans included – are used to. Bernie Ecclestone was a master of talking down his own sport when he needed to, and it was indicative of a wider outlook from so many stakeholders. When media take the same view, ask a negative question, get an answer to it and end up with a story with a negative slant, that then filters down to the fans that consume the content too.
I’m certainly guilty of it, like so many in the media are. At times with good reason – the need to get the 2021 agreements right being one. But at others, it’s completely unnecessary.
It’s the start of a new season, so let’s approach it with a positive mindset. One that looks at the good potential that exists as much as the bad. A potentially epic title battle; a new generation of drivers with so much – you’ve guessed it – potential; new regulations that could lead to closer racing; and something to fight for late in a race when previously there might not have been.
As that new Chemical Brothers track says, we’ve got to try, otherwise things won’t ever improve.