OPINION: F1 might be on the brink of the reset it needs

Etherington/Motorsport Images

OPINION: F1 might be on the brink of the reset it needs

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: F1 might be on the brink of the reset it needs

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Performance is everything in Formula 1. Every win and championship title has to be earned through pure performance, so the idea of success being in any way ‘hereditary’ is anathema to everything grand prix racing stands for. Yet in recent times, F1 supremacy has increasingly become about dynasties.

Today, we’re living through The Mercedes Dynasty. In keeping with this growing trend, it’s been going seven years and counting, with an unprecedented run of world championship doubles stretching back to 2014. Prior to that, Red Bull did the same thing from 2010-2013. Just two teams have dominated F1 for the past 11 seasons.

This is neither normal nor desirable. While Mercedes deserves huge credit for what it has achieved, variety in results is good for any sporting product and such dominance says something about how F1 has evolved. The variety has reduced markedly over the years.

To measure this, it’s most effective to look at the team winning the drivers’ world championship. This has the advantage of allowing us to include the eight seasons before the constructors’ championship was introduced, as well as still offering an accurate picture of performance given there have only been 10 occasions when that team has not also won the teams’ title.

In the first 35 world championship seasons, from 1950-1984, the same team won the title in consecutive seasons on just five occasions. These only ever stretched to back-to-back seasons, although Ferrari did take a constructors’ championship hat-trick in 1975-1977 but was denied three consecutive drivers’ crowns thanks to Niki Lauda’s near-fatal Nurburgring shunt.

In the last 36 seasons, that number rises to 23. During that period, there have been four dynastic stretches, defined as three or more seasons, with McLaren on top from 1988-1991 and Ferrari from 2000-2005. Williams perhaps should have joined this in the 1990s, but for being interrupted by Benetton’s success in 1994-5 with Michael Schumacher – although it did managed a hat-trick of constructors’ crowns from 1992-94.

So what has caused this increasing lack of variety? In broad terms, there has been a shift connected to technological advances. While resources have always been critical to success in all forms of motorsport, in the earlier years of the world championship the pace of technological development allowed rapid progress to create performance swings. While regulations changes also played a part, particularly when it came to engine rules, big-ticket innovation was arguably the most significant.

New materials, systems, ideas and even the fundamental configuration of the cars evolved rapidly. In the first couple of decades of the world championship, we saw a wide variety of engine configurations, the engine moving from in front of the driver to behind courtesy of Cooper’s success, and the introduction of aerofoils in 1968. The template for the modern F1 car was effectively established by the long-lived and successful Lotus 72 and while there remained a huge amount of diversity of shape, all the successful cars that followed were variations on a theme.

The Lotus 72 – ably demonstrated here by Ronnie Peterson at Montjuich Park in 1973 – was the template for the ‘modern’ F1 car, but nearly five decades of riffing on that theme has contributed to the current stagnation of the competitive order. Motorsport Images

Gradually, aerodynamics became the most powerful performance differentiator, with the detail level required ever more precise and subtle. The tools – high-level windtunnels and, as has become more important in the past couple of decades, ever more potent CFD – have required vast resources. This is amplified by ever-more constrictive regulations designed to keep costs and car speeds under control.

While F1 was once technology-limited, over time the complexity of the technical regulations has become ever more powerful in containing what the teams do. This has also been necessary to keep costs under control, with all manner of technology and materials gradually outlawed. This represents a fundamental shift in what might be called the ‘selective pressure’ in F1. Whereas once it was what was possible, it gradually became what was allowed and affordable. What’s more, with the depth of knowledge and understanding far deeper than it once was, it’s more difficult for teams – particularly the ones at the front – to drop the ball in a spectacular way by heading down a technological blind alley.

But the technology is only one part of the story. Another significant factor is the ever-increasing money in motorsport. Cash has always been important, but the increasing commercialization of F1 has led to ever-bigger budgets and increasingly large teams. As ever-more subtle tweaks have been necessary to find gains amid increasingly complex aerodynamics, so have the biggest teams required greater resource to search for these improvements with enormous design teams.

But those with the most resources, which increasingly meant the manufacturer teams as F1 moved from the 20th to the 21st century, also carried the most political clout. It’s no coincidence that of the two teams that have dominated the past decade, one is Mercedes and the other, while not a manufacturer, is part of an enormous organization that owns one-fifth of the grid. When it comes to negotiating commercial terms, such clout is incredibly powerful.

But it was eventually the over-use of this clout that left F1 hanging over the edge of the precipice. For all the cost control initiatives – such as the resource restriction agreement adopted in 2008 that ultimately failed – teams and budgets have continued to grow. That drove the big teams’ technological advantage, which is founded upon ever-more detailed work, while their political advantage allowed the negotiation of commercial terms in 2013 that gave the biggest teams too large a share of the revenue.

Gradually, this entrenched the difference between the current three big teams, which includes Ferrari in terms of size and potential despite its 2019 slump. Mercedes should not be blamed for this because it fought hard on and off track to earn its position of superiority, and the team does an astonishing job. Resource raises your potential, but extracting it is the real challenge and Mercedes has done this brilliantly.

But it was clear something had to give. What’s encouraging is that the 2022 technical regulations and, crucially, the financial regulations that kick in this year, should create the framework to allow F1 to gradually move back from the edge. As Ross Brawn said when F1 first announced the new rules, originally set to kick in this year, it was necessary to save the teams from themselves.

One of the few positives of the COVID-19 pandemic is that this also allowed the newly-introduced cost cap, which covers most but far from all F1 team expenses, to be cut from its initial $175million to $145m. That will drop by a further $5m in each of the next two seasons. While this does create some short-term pain, most alarmingly in terms of jobs, it’s a move that could potentially make F1 more sustainable for the long term. And with the money received by teams modified to be more equitable, the expectation is that it will lead to a more evenly-matched group of teams.

Mercedes deserves immense credit for its success, although the circumstances that made such dominance possible are not good for the sport’s long-term health. Etherington/Motorsport Images

Tantalizingly, while the new technical regulations are the most restrictive yet seen in F1 to keep costs under control, should the various financial changes have a clear impact over the coming years (and it will take a significant amount of time for everything to adjust) there’s the possibility that the rules could once again be opened up. This would allow greater room for differentiation, but within the spending constraints. The dream scenario is that this will allow innovation to dominate over resources. Chances are, it won’t be quite that simple, but it’s a drastic change that will at least correct some of F1’s drift into its current state.

Will this bring the dynasties to an end? Certainly not immediately. Mercedes has many strengths, not to mention the benefits of its long-term investment, and chances are it will win this year’s title and then be in the ideal position to continue to thrive under the new rules. But gradually, more and more teams should be able to get onto a solid, profit-making footing – and this includes the big teams that generally break even at best – and over time, things will even up.

There will always be good teams and bad teams in F1, and nobody wants to turn it into a lottery system or for success to be shared out evenly. But what is clear is that this is the first time that a framework has been put in place to tackle one of the two major factors that sent F1 in this direction. And if the financial side works, potentially there can be more technical freedom. And even though we won’t get back to the old days when new automotive ideas were stumbled across endlessly, it should create more scope for greater technical variety.

There will also be periods where such dynasties do rise. But right now, F1 has become rigidly predictable. Red Bull and Ferrari have had the resources in recent years but underachieved, but were there five, six or seven teams also with the potential to win, there’s every chance one or two of them would not have done so.

Whether this dramatic shift in the ethos of F1 will really work, only time will tell. There will come a time when the cost cap regulations are challenged, but with a wide range of sporting penalties available, there is at least the framework to punish them. Different teams will have different levels of facilities and there will always be varying ceilings on the ultimate potential, but at least there can be greater hope that the competitive picture today won’t be the same tomorrow. And encouragingly, this framework is working towards a new future rather than harking back to a lost past.

Mercedes has dominated F1 and seen off all challengers for just over 2500 days now, stretching all the way back to 2014. It’s had to dig deep to stay there, but it would be wrong to deny the advantages it has enjoyed over some of the have-nots thanks to its manufacturer status.

Don’t blame the player, blame the game, as the saying goes. The game is changing in the coming years. And F1 could be all the better for it.

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