Will F1 Die Off Without a Whimper?
As you can tell, I am a pretty big F1 fan. I have been most of my life. I have seen the series evolve and change over the years, and seen it all go big time. I never thought in my lifetime I would see if crash and fail, but it looks like we are right on the edge of that today.
My attachment to F1 goes back nearly 40 years. I can remember standing in the pits at the newly opened Ile Notre Dame Circuit to watch the first visit of F1 in 1978. That also included some people I knew racing in GT series events and having a real blast. My real take home from all of that was standing in the pits as they were revving away an F1 car of the day, something no fan gets anymore. Literally, we could walk right up. That’s all gone.
F1 has changed so much. With Bernie Ecclestone at the wheel, the series has certainly grown in a leaps and bounds, with tons of money coming in, sponsorships, and more. The technology has changed as well, sometimes more dramatically than others. The recent years have proven to be one of the technically most challenging times for F1, and one that appears to be dead ending in the potential all out failure of the series.
Some might say it’s overly dramatic to say that. However, much like Indy Car racing or even the World Sports Car Championship types, F1 is teetering on the edge of losing what had made it special, with no assurance of finding something else to make it special on the other side. Fans of Indy Car racing will tell you that the CART / IRL / Tony George split era was essentially a death sentence to the series, and in the end, CART died a horrible death. The sports car world has suffered equally for a very long time, 2015 being about the first year that more than 1 or 2 top teams have presented in almost 2 decades. It’s only recently that the two split sports car series in the US have merged back together, after realizing they were pretty much splitting way too small of a pie for either of them to make a go of it long term.
F1’s problem is pretty simple: Money and technology. There is (a) way too much money in the game, (b) it’s poorly distributed, and (c) the costs of the technology make being in F1 almost impossible without being on the good end of the poorly distributed payments. Very restrictive rules about engines, development, testing, and so on means that F1 has only 4 engine manufacturers at this point, and only 2 of them (Mercedes and Ferrari) make an engine even capable of running at the front. Renault is behind by quite a bit and having issues, and newly arrived Honda is so far off the pace as to have the McLaren cars going around tracks at rates that might not even given them a good qualifying spot in a lower division like GP2. With 20 cars on the grid, only a handful have a chance at a podium, and it’s been this way for 2 years now.
The real issue is development and testing. F1 adopted rules that severely limit engine development and testing (there is effectively no in season testing), so the engine builders are more or less stuck with what they have. They can make some changes, but they cannot easily fix fundamental errors or change designs to improve their pace. Renault apparently is getting tired of this game, their slow pace so often lamented during the races and such that the company sees F1 as a liability, not as a jewel. It’s involvement in the sport is not bringing it a higher profile, it’s just making them look bad. It’s such a problem that they have repeatedly suggested they are heading for the door. After the Montreal race where Renault power cars (and the Honda powers McLarens) were so bad as to be laughable, it’s easy to see why both of them would be thinking about taking the exit.
Equally problematic is the solution process: none. F1’s system for making rule changes is so badly structured, that there is effectively no way to do anything to fox the problem in the short or even medium term. Without unanimous consent, things can’t change, and it’s unlikely that a team like Mercedes who are about to win their second championship in a row are likely to want to change ANYTHING that would take the third championship out of their hands. Moreover, teams like Ferrari, who get an incredibly unfair percentage of F1 funding, are unlikely to want to really address the issues of costs and operations at levels that would keep the smaller teams in the game. Instead, they are talking about customer cars, basically creating a fake championship with 4 ferraris on the grid, 2 that matter and 2 that don’t – and a similar mix of Mercedes and so on… all of these customer cars just far enough of of date not to be able to actually win anything. It wouldn’t be sporting to have competition, now would it?
F1 needs to stop and move to a simpler formula, a cheaper one, and severely limit spending not on development of the cars and engines, but on the insane technology that isn’t really adding to the show. F1 has turned into a money grubbing computer game, nothing more and nothing less, with drivers told exactly how to drive, what pace, what speed, when to stop, when to speed up, how much fuel to use, and so on. There is almost no racing, mostly just “running your program” and seeing how it comes out compared to others.
It’s a long way from that unmuffled F1 car blaring in the pit road next to me. I just never realized this is what the end of the line might look like.