Formula 1 is going through one of its now traditional periods of navel-gazing, trying to work out how it’s going to power itself in the future after the existing tranche of regulations expire at the end of 2020. And it seems the answer it’s heading for is a simplified version of what it already has, but still a 1.6-litre hybrid that will be encouraged to rev a little higher to improve the way it sounds.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner offers another solution: a cheap, off the peg 1000bhp V12 that sounds incredible. I don’t always agree with Horner’s pronouncements but, on this occasion, he is completely spot on.
Ask yourself why F1 cars have small capacity hybrid engines and the answer is clear enough. Is it because it’s what the majority, or even a significant minority of people who actually follows the sport wants? Clearly not. The wishes of the people who finance Formula 1 through their purchase of tickets, television subscriptions or sponsors’ products are entirely ignored because, well, they can be. Forget the spectators who give up time and money to go the races, forget the people who give up 20 Sunday afternoons in the increasingly forlorn hope of watching a decent motor race. Design your sport instead around the only people who want small capacity hybrids in the back of F1 cars: namely the people who make them. Car manufacturers in other words.
But basing your sport around the whims of organisations whose core business lies elsewhere is a perilous policy to pursue. Car manufacturers, whether as a constructor or engine supplier, are not in F1 for the sport but to sell cars, which is entirely fair enough. It only becomes problematic when, for whatever reasons, they decide to go and do something else instead.
A terribly good example of exactly this is happening in sports car racing right now. Three years ago the top level of this branch of the sport had rarely looked healthier. Porsche, Audi, Toyota all fielded hybrid cars in the LMP1 category and despite their massive specification variance – V4, V6 and V8 engines, normal aspiration and forced induction, petrol and diesel power, two and four wheel drive, hybrid provided by battery, flywheel and super capacitor – the cars were all super competitive and the racing was great. But then it all got a bit expensive while, at the same time, manufacturers started to realise that they’d focussed on hybrid for long enough, their long term future actually lay in electric cars and, in the case of the VW owned brands money needed to be saved to offset the expense of the dieselgate scandal. So Porsche and Audi pulled out to join the growing throng of Formula E constructors, leaving Toyota marooned and facing the ignominy of competing effectively in a class of one, and racing to a string of entirely empty victories, or withdrawing entirely.
Will the same happen to Formula 1? Until we see in full what plans Liberty Media have to put some spice back into the show it’s hard to say. But I will always draw a clear distinction between what I consider to be pure race teams like Williams and McLaren, teams for whom racing is not the means to justify the end, but an end in itself, and Mercedes-Benz and Renault whose ultimate agenda lies elsewhere.
For what it’s worth, if I were responsible for making F1 an interesting spectacle once more there are three areas in which I’d focus. First, the cars must become harder to drive. Drivers emerging without a hair out of place at the end of a two-hour race is not what spectators want to see, nor should they be so easy that newcomers to the sport can master them with ease. Second, we need to be able actually to see how hard they are to drive and the drivers’ skills in mastering them. This means elongated braking areas which in turns which means decimating downforce and augmenting mechanical grip so the cars actually slide around and are able to follow and overtake one another. Finally, for drivers who make mistakes there should be consequences. I have no more desire to see a driver hurt than anyone else, but nor should cars be able to fly off the circuit and simply drive back on again if nothing had happened. I’d like to see the return of gravel traps so deep you simply can’t just drive out of them and drag stones back across the circuit. F1 should be the ultimate precision sport, not the loosely interpreted, inconsistently enforced free-for-all it appears to be at present.
Will any of this actually happen? I doubt it. As someone far cleverer than me once observed, F1 is a sport on Sunday afternoons alone – for the other 345 days of the year it is a hard-nosed business. Even so, there is an opportunity here for F1 to demonstrate it’s realised that what matters most is the show and the spectators and viewers who watch it. There may not be another for years to come.
Words by Andrew Frankel, photography courtesy of LAT.