More power, less downforce, a massive weight reduction and an open tire war – all at vastly reduced costs. It’s the classic wish list for those who dream of seeing Formula 1 moving back towards its roots, even as the sport’s current guardians appear set to double down on the turbo-hybrid V6 formula from 2021 onwards.
Former Ferrari and McLaren driver (and now manager to Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist, among others) Stefan Johansson has been outspoken with his concerns about the direction motorsport is heading in the past, but the Swede has now formalized his thoughts into a white paper laying out changes that he believes are not just desirable, but vital if F1 is to survive long-term.
“Through all these various rule changes that have occurred in recent years, I have a feeling that Formula 1 has somehow lost its identity and I am not sure anyone, whether it’s the FIA or Liberty (FOM), really know what Formula 1 stands for anymore,” he writes.
“I believe we are now at a point where another two or maybe three decisions in the wrong direction could spell the end of F1 as we know it. People are already tuning out because they have either lost interest or it’s too predictable or not exciting enough or whatever the reason may be. The younger generation doesn’t seem to care, F1 and motorsport in general is struggling to catch their attention. I challenge anyone to define in three words what F1 stands for today.”
Those popular throwback elements form the core of the plan, but the path that Johansson proposes for getting there is a radical one, at least by current standards: A dramatic increase in the use of common components, including a standardized front wing, spec brakes, and a universal chassis. Spec electronics. A standard gearbox. A ban on communication between the factory during race weekends. Johansson believes that at the front of the grid, this would translate into potential savings of $80m-$100m per season, and that the changes would be largely imperceptible to fans watching on TV.
Johansson also proposes changes to revenue distribution, starting with a fixed base payout for each team that is then topped up by prize money, with all payouts to be transparent. He provides a simple example using a base payout of $50m per team, to be reinforced by $200,000 per point. Using that formula, Mercedes would have earned $181 million last year, and at the other end of the grid, Williams would have ended the season with $51.4 million.
“With the proposed technical rule changes, there will be sufficient income for every team to operate and be fiscally sound,” he writes. “If they then wish to improve their competitiveness it is up to each team how hard they are willing to work to find more sponsors, hire better drivers and personnel – and there will still be a level of skill placed on spending money efficiently on the right things to bring the success each team aims for, whether it be winning the championship or having the nicest hospitality unit.”
On the competition side, Johansson suggests reducing downforce to the tune of around 70%, bringing the cars just to the point of adhesion in both low and high-speed corners, with the expectation that the resultant emphasis on mechanical grip will allow better drivers to shine, and inject new life into tracks that have been neutralized by the current cars. He also argues for a fixed level of maximum downforce, and an increase in power with a formula based on thermal efficiency and energy consumption.
“This will allow and hopefully encourage manufacturers to develop new technologies that is not restricted to the hybrid/internal combustion engine concept only, which is now the only option allowed,” he writes.
“Everyone with even a basic interest in engineering knows that there are a number of far more interesting alternatives on engine technology than the electric/hybrid version that is currently the only option. This would truly open the door for F1 to genuinely be at the cutting edge of technology instead of constantly fine-tuning a politically correct concept at a cost that is astronomical to everyone involved. Set a target of around 300-400HP increase in power as long as it can meet the energy consumption criteria, which will offset about 30% of the loss in lap time from the reduction of downforce.
“By using this formula, it will eventually become apparent what energy source is actually the most environmentally friendly and efficient from a performance point of view. The immediate response I get when I mention this idea to anyone is that the manufacturers will never accept it and will leave instantly. If this is the case, F1 is doomed anyway.”
Johansson’s back-of-the-napkin calculation is that these changes, coupled with larger and better tires, will result in lap times similar to those of today: the time lost to the downforce reduction will be clawed back through the rubber, power and weight.
His road map doesn’t end with the cars themselves, though – Johansson suggests changes to virtually every element of the sport, including track design, pit stops, race governance, driver accessibility, and broadcast graphics.
“It’s become quite evident that in order to get things back on the right track it will not be enough to continue with small band-aid fixes here and there,” he argues.
“In fact, it will only make it worse, as history has shown over and over. What I am proposing is based on what I believe is a realistic and objective analysis rather than following a narrative based on a number external factors and political motives – motives that will never add anything to help maintain the popularity or grow the sport into the future. In order for the sport to survive, it is imperative that we all understand that it’s unsustainable in the long run to deviate from the core elements of what made Formula 1 such a huge sport to begin with.
There are a number of initiatives being proposed – adding to the show, bringing the costs down, make the racing less predictable, branding, digital media etc. None of this will make any difference unless we get to the core of the problem, which is the cars and how they are designed. If I may use the analogy of a restaurant, you can do all the slick and fancy stuff, new signs on the front, social media campaigns, celebrities, new menu’s, etc. but if the food sucks no one will come back or show up in the first place.”
Is Johansson’s plan viable? The fact that the manufacturers, Liberty and the FIA appear aligned on their current vision for the immediate future of the sport would suggest that the answer is, not at the moment. But if the opportunity for a change in trajectory opens up in the future, then this might be a starting point for the debate about how that should look. You can decide for yourself by downloading the full version here.