Formula 1’s Super License regulations have become a political football amid the controversy about Colton Herta’s ineligibility. As a result, voices on both sides of the debate have lost sight of what these rules exist to achieve and found many ways to abuse them.
These rules exist for just one reason – to evaluate whether a driver has achieved the necessary level of competence and results to qualify for a license to race in F1. They exist in equal parts for safety reasons and to prevent those who combine being heavy on cash and light on talent clogging up the grid. But this has been lost sight of amid the interacting fogs of self-interest, politics and good old-fashioned paranoia.
The thwarted F1 ambitions of Herta, whom Red Bull wanted to place at AlphaTauri next year, has exposed a weakness in the system. There are those who would argue otherwise, but it is surely self-evident that Herta should qualify for a Super License? He’s raced seriously quick single-seaters at a high level and won seven IndyCar races, so even though he doesn’t have the weight of championship positions required to qualify, of course he’s good enough to be suitable for F1.
Therefore, the problem is with the Super License system rather than Herta himself. That doesn’t mean it needs to be burned to the ground – there are some simple tweaks easy enough to implement that will allow cases like Herta to qualify. Either upping the number of points to those finishing in top positions other than first place in the IndyCar standings, or perhaps some kind of wins-based system, would seem a pragmatic approach.
Changing a few numbers in a spreadsheet is hardly the moving mountains some make it out to be, and only through intransigence should a regulation like this not be adjusted when an unusual case arises and exposes a flaw. That’s certainly preferable to what was being attempted by citing the rule allowing ‘force majeure’ or circumstances outside the driver’s control, for that was not a valid argument.
As it’s not a sporting regulation as such, merely about paperwork, it’s hardly bending the rules in a meaningful way. And because Herta is an unusual case, it isn’t opening the floodgates to just anyone getting into F1. What Herta is, is a reminder that not everyone fits into the exact boxes created by any framework and therefore that it isn’t wise to double down on a system that is flawed, but not as badly flawed as some claim.
But the furor about Herta has become so highly-charged and politicized that Super License points have come to represent far more than they were ever meant to. And that, in turn, has highlighted the ways in which certain entities – the FIA itself and various championship organizers included – have played their part in poisoning the Super License well. Red Bull likely hasn’t helped its case by attempting to force the FIA into ceding to its demands.
So what is the Super License points system not? Firstly, it is unhelpful to argue that it’s part of a vendetta against American drivers. While it’s understandable that it might feel that way, Graham Rahal’s argument that it’s part of a conspiracy designed to exclude American drivers goes too far even though his fundamental point that Herta merits a Super License is clearly correct.
“They don’t want us,” he tweeted. “Remember that. They want U.S. companies’ money, they want wealthy U.S. individuals’ money. But they don’t care about the rest. Always has been that way, always will be.”
F1 certainly does want cash from the U.S. but a successful American driver is actually well up the list of what it does desire. Herta, a young, charismatic and very talented driver, getting into AlphaTauri with a potential pathway into a frontunning Red Bull drive would suit F1 very nicely. And that’s largely because of what Rahal says: the desire to draw in American money! Were it the decision of F1 itself (i.e. the commercial rights holder Liberty Media) rather than the FIA, Herta would be in straight away.
But the effect remains there that the door is, while not closed, not as enthusiastically open as it should be. F1 as a whole has been wary of IndyCar in the past, particularly when CART was growing to its peak years, but you could argue taking star drivers away from American racing and casting it as a feeder series would actually serve to further any desire to undermine it!
The reality today is actually that F1 is indifferent to IndyCar. That’s one factor that has led to the FIA undervaluing it in its Super License points system. But there are others. It’s self-evident that the FIA wants to protect its own ladder. It’s not that outrageous to do so, for just as success on the Road to Indy ladder should make a shot at IndyCar more likely than success in Formula 2 and Formula 3, so F2 and F3 success should count heavily towards reaching F1.
That justifies the healthy Super License points allocations for F2 and F3, certainly, but not that allocated to IndyCar. And the argument made in some European circles that doing this would make drivers go to America to earn Super License points overlooks the fact that finding a drive with the likes of Ganassi or Penske is hardly straightforward. IndyCar won’t threaten F2 as a feeder series if the points are changed. IndyCar should clearly award more points than it does, certainly for the places below first, which awards the 40 required to qualify for an F1 license.
But there are politics at play with the way some points are awarded. The FIA will want to privilege its own championships, inevitably. But like all bodies that oversee sporting competition the FIA is intensely political, so there will be plenty of behind-the-scenes machinations deciding what other champions get awarded what points. And the championships themselves will use this as a selling point to make their businesses work well. There’s even money to be made in running championships that are arranged to allow those in the mainstream to top up their points. This dimension has complicated the Super License system.
Perhaps the argument that most fall into is the one that sees the Super License points as a measure of anything other than a driver’s qualification to race in F1. But it’s not a way to compare drivers, meaning someone with 80 Super License points shouldn’t be considered more ‘worthy’, nor is it a way to compare the championships themselves. The argument about where F2 and IndyCar stand in the motorsport landscape is a simple one — clearly IndyCar is the higher-profile and more illustrious championship. But that doesn’t actually mean it needs to award more Super License points than F2, as F2 has a specific connection to F1. Super License points are not a sporting competition or a championship table, not a weapon for tribalism, not something to aspire to for their own sake but simply a measure of qualification. To use them as anything else is counter-productive
It’s also essential to realize that a Super License is not bestowing a guarantee of greatness in F1. Some have argued there’s no evidence Herta will be a superstar in F1, but that’s not the point. If the bar was set to ‘future world champion’ it would be a thin grid. It entitles a driver to race in F1, to be a world champion or an also-ran – and everything in between. Again, by that measure of course Herta should qualify. And from there, he has the chance to succeed or fail in F1 on his own merit.
When you boil away all the arguing, politics, conspiracy theories and other nonsense the situation is painfully simple and therefore straightforward enough to fix. The Super License regulations are a tool, nothing more, nothing less, and if they are not quite fit for purpose, sharpen them up. The Super License points are not divine scripture, after all.
Sadly, those who would make a war of it — the extremists on all sides of the argument — muddy the waters and make it more difficult for a small and simple reform to be made. For so many the objective is the fight, not finding a sensible outcome.
The result is that F1 suffers by missing out on an American driver with real potential, IndyCar loses the chance to show its strength in depth by sending a driver ‘across the pond’ and good sense gets set aside to satiate the need to make everything a battle.
Super License points shouldn’t be about points-scoring or politics, but exclusively about measuring a driver’s candidacy to qualify for F1 based on competence, achievement and experience. Herta qualifies on all counts.