MEDLAND: A paddock with an edge

Image by Dunbar/LAT

MEDLAND: A paddock with an edge

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: A paddock with an edge

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The Mexican Grand Prix has become one of the standout events on the Formula 1 calendar since its return in 2015. The race has regularly won awards for the way it puts on a show.

This year the paddock will include a traditional Mexican street, full of stores and entertainment, to bring that little extra touch to the center point of the race weekend.

For most of the hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance, the paddock is irrelevant. The action is on the track. But this weekend there will definitely be an added edge to the paddock, given a deadline that looms large.

Mexico will be the last time that all the teams and key stakeholders are together in an F1 paddock before the sport’s deadline for the finalization of the 2021 regulations. Halloween is synonymous with spookiness and horror, and there will be some who are dreading October 31 and what it might bring.

Discussions regarding the direction of the sport have been rumbling on for over a year, with F1 setting up specific groups to carry out in-depth research on the aerodynamic impact of changes in order to try and avoid any unpleasant surprises.

The pushback from the teams over the past few months won’t have come as a surprise to Ross Brawn et al, but I imagine it has certainly been unwanted.

Despite comments to the contrary, it was sadly predictable that the delay in publishing the regulations that was agreed earlier this year would then be used to try and prevent major changes being implemented at all. Only a few weeks ago, six of the 10 teams stated they would rather stick with an evolution of the current regulations than adopt the 2021 proposals as they stood at the time.

Further talks have since taken place to try and make progress, with the teams being concerned about the regulations being too prescriptive and hurting the DNA of Formula 1.

‘The DNA of Formula 1’ is a term that needs to be used very carefully. In any walk of life, evolution is key. Stand still and you get left behind. That very DNA does need to change in order for the sport to remain successful and relevant. How much it needs to change is a difficult thing to gauge, and is exactly why these discussions regarding the future are so tricky. But to try and prevent change using that term would be foolish.

Are concerns about ‘preserving F1’s DNA’ potentially holding the sport back from future growth? Image by Hone/LAT

It’s important to look at the overall picture here when judging the rule changes. Those trying to implement them are the owners of the sport. They paid billions of dollars to purchase it, and have shareholders who want to see returns. What they want to do is make the sport as profitable as possible, making money for themselves and their shareholders, but also for the teams. If the sport is making more money, the teams are getting a slice that is worth more.

This is not a case of good versus evil. This is supposed to be about building for a better future, taking what is great about the sport and improving it even further. You’d be forgiven for not thinking that was the case when the threat of Ferrari using its veto is mentioned.

But I’m also starting to get the feeling that too much emphasis is being placed on these regulations. 2021 is a crucial year because of the expiry of the commercial agreements binding the teams to the sport, and therefore there is an opportunity to make widespread changes across technical, sporting and commercial fronts. But such changes are also not permanent.

As with any set of regulations, they are then re-published the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that. In 2021, we’ll still be hearing the teams and F1 discussing what they want to do with the next set of rules, or with the power units or the calendar. It’s an ongoing aspect of the sport that makes it unique, even if it can sometimes be hugely frustrating.

The teams are, of course, going to try and protect themselves, with self-interest often getting in the way of the bigger picture. If you’re a top three team that is essentially guaranteed to be fighting for podiums and wins against only two others, and have the infrastructure and finance in place to maintain that, why would you want to change anything?

Different teams’ opinions about the next generation of rules are at least partly governed by where you tend to find them on the grid. Image by Bloxham/LAT

But compromises have already been made in terms of the cost cap, which has been set at a number that only really impacts those top three teams in the first instance, bringing their spending a little closer to the rest of the field. Given the fact that the cost cap won’t be introduced until 2021, the cars we start the new era with will have been designed and developed without those restrictions, and that’s why F1 needs to stand firm on technical regulations that the teams might deem too prescriptive.

By doing so, you limit the impact of the financial advantage the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have, ensuring the field is closer together. Then, once the cost cap is in place, you can start to open up the regulations again and provide more freedom, because teams can only utilize it within the budgetary restrictions. The teams could have got more freedom by implementing the cost cap earlier, or agreeing to a lower level.

And what’s the worst that can happen with technical regulations that the teams think don’t allow enough freedom? Very similar cars that provide a very close field, and hopefully with that a more unpredictable and exciting championship. The horror.

So much focus appears to be on keeping the engineers and aerodynamicists happy, which loses sight of how the sport works. Yes, manufacturer teams want to be able to showcase relevant technology and promote their brands, but any message they want to get across is only going to be an effective one if there are people watching.

I admit I’m generalizing, but when the lights go out, the majority of fans do not sit in the grandstand and worry about whether the aerodynamicist who designed the front wing is upset that they couldn’t explore a certain direction, or that it’s too similar in design to another on the grid. They worry about whether one driver is about to overtake another, if their favorite is going to have a good race or a bad one, and if they’re going to be thrilled by the action in front of them.

In Mexico, the teams will get one final chance to club together and have too much of a say before the regulations are published. But F1 needs to hold its nerve in trying to make the sport the best it can be, and one that puts smiles on the faces of its fans first and foremost, not on the privileged few inside the paddock.

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