MEDLAND: F1's American-inspired giant leap

MEDLAND: F1's American-inspired giant leap

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: F1's American-inspired giant leap

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Given the wider global situation and the ongoing uncertainty about when ‘normal’ life will resume, you’d be forgiven for not placing too much emphasis on something happening via e-vote in Formula 1.

But the FIA World Motor Sport Council’s approval of a number of future regulations could prove to be a hugely significant moment in the future of the sport.

Admittedly, I’ve written columns before about F1’s ‘brave new world’ when Liberty Media took over, or about the opportunities that the sport had in order to make significant changes that would improve the overall product. Forgive me for quoting myself here, but ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix last year, and the final time the teams would convene before new technical regulations were finalized, I wrote:

“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.”

While I don’t want F1 to be a spec series, I sit firmly in the camp that says there is nothing wrong with the cars being more similar in this day and age in order to deliver an exciting product. We need sporting entertainment – or at least, sufficient potential for it – to keep large numbers of fans interested, and that in turn provides a platform that the biggest brands want to be a part of.

Well, prescriptive rules were introduced, originally for 2021. At the time, teams would have had unlimited spending ability this year – favoring the bigger outfits – but since then the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed those back a year and delayed the ability to develop the new cars until next year, when a budget cap will be in place.

That was already significant progress, but F1 has now gone a step further, and it has taken a very welcome leaf out of the book of American sports.

The draft system is close to impossible to replicate outside of traditional team sports, and while F1 is a team sport, you’re talking about a team of two drivers. But what drafting does is highlight a system that gives the struggling teams the best opportunity to improve. It doesn’t guarantee success, but you’ve got more chance than anyone else of improving upon your current position.

Add in rules such as salary caps, and you’ve got a much more level playing field in many U.S. sports than F1 has ever dreamed of. But now, things are changing.

Even if they get the maximum out of their allocated development time, the midfield teams still expect a two-three year climb toward frontrunning contention under the new rules. Image by Tee/Motorsport Images

The budget cap is clearly a step in the right direction, but what excites me so much more are the aerodynamic development restrictions that will require the defending champions to work with just 70% of the benchmark amount of wind tunnel and computing data, and each position below receiving an extra 5% until the team that finished last gets 115% of the allowance.

It’s essentially like a draft pick for car development: The worst-performing car gets the best opportunity to improve.

When you speak to team sources from both the top three and the midfield and they all agree that it is likely to have a major impact on the sport, you know this really is a significant direction to take.

The midfielders think it will take until 2023 until the teams are on even terms, given the fact the increments between finishing positions will be 2.5% for 2022 due to the new technical regulations (because that’s already a chance of a field reset). But the top three feel that achieving dominance of the current Mercedes level is going to be nigh-on impossible.

One team suggested it is likely to make it extremely difficult to win more than two championships in a row, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. While the difference in development time between the back and the front of the grid will be significant, the slowest car will not become the fastest overnight. The real threat to the constructors’ champions will come from its nearest rivals in second and third, and those teams will get a much smaller advantage in terms of what they can do with their next cars – while they’re still all limited by the budget cap.

The best team should still win, and the best team will still be able to keep winning even if it is getting less R&D time than anyone else. It’s just more likely that those wins will have to be hard-fought, rather than cruising to victory by 45 seconds.

And these significant changes aren’t just ideas proposed by one stakeholder only to be blocked by another, or the promise of a brighter future based on hope rather than something more concrete. They are written into regulation, and will come into force starting with the budget cap next year.

Some even take effect immediately, with the freezing of certain components and limitations in aerodynamic testing that are likely to lock in the 2020 pecking order – whatever that is – for the following year, too. But if that ends up proving painful, it’s short-term pain.

The current global situation has really brought into focus the need to strengthen F1 and what it offers, to such an extent that 70 of the McLaren Group’s 1,200 redundancies announced this week are attributed to the F1 team in view of the budget cap.

As teams go back to work this week and next after nine weeks of mandatory shutdown, they do so with a very strange and uncertain 2020 to prepare for, but a much more encouraging future for most.

And you can’t help but think American owners and the understanding of American sports models have played at least a small part in that.

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