Addressing Formula 1’s Identity Crisis
To a great extent, the Formula 1 crisis is the manifestation of an identity crisis. For a host of reasons – the outsized impact of rapidly evolving technology, noble motives like safety, and far less noble motives like profits – Formula 1’s rules and regulations have evolved considerably over the championship’s history. Through all those changes, there were never any guiding principles – no constitution – to ensure that the sport retained the basic virtues that defined it and made it loved by participants and fans alike.
Nevertheless, from 1950 through the noughties the sport somehow retained its essence. Perhaps this was a happy accident, more likely it was because the sport was controlled by racers who needn’t be told what makes Formula 1 Formula 1.
Recently, however, those in power seem to be concerned with goals and principles that, to me, are the antithesis of F1’s core (efficiency as a first-order goal; artificial gimmicks to introduce randomness in the name of the “show”). Formula 1 today is no longer Formula 1 in my eyes; The name alone does not define its identity.
I sense that Alex Wurz and the GPDA understand this; that this is why they rolled out their excellent fan survey, as a means to extract, distill and define F1’s essence. I applaud that effort, and hope they’ll take their findings to their natural conclusion by ratifying an F1 “constitution” – a set of guiding principles from which the sport must not deviate. After all, how can one propose solutions without understanding the problems; And how can one understand the problems without understanding the goals?
To help with that effort, I put together a draft constitution, and want your feedback. I know a constitution like this will never be welcomed by (most of) those in power today, because it would be at odds with the short-sighted, self-interested motives behind their decisions. But perhaps, with a united message from fans and drivers about Formula 1’s identity, we can begin to hold them more accountable to better decisions.
Formula 1 Constitution:
The basic essence of Formula 1 is simple and pure: It is man working in harmony with machine in the relentless pursuit of speed. It is the pinnacle of motorsport, and thus features:
- The world’s best and bravest drivers
- The world’s fastest cars
- The world’s most professional teams
- The world’s most exciting and challenging road and street courses
There is but one vital sporting compromise that must be made: Technological advances that erode the art of driving cannot be allowed. The role of drivers and the challenge of driving cannot fade with “advances” in driver aids.
There are three other practical compromises that might be made, but must be kept as unobtrusive as possible:
- Safety: One natural consequence of the pursuit of speed is mortal risk. The unacceptable dangers of the early-nineties, never mind the fifties, sixties or seventies, must never return. Having said that, the goal is not absolute safety. Risk is a critical and desirable element of F1. I feel the pendulum has swung too far, at least with respect to paved-runoff (see my piece on the topic here).
- Costs: There is an obvious tension here. Commercial interests must never come before sport, but the sport must be commercially viable to survive. Consequently, minimal cost controls designed to prevent a space race may, at times, be necessary.
- On Track Battles: People often talk about overtaking as if it is the most important thing in Formula 1. It isn’t. If it was, we would give the drivers shifter karts and watch the incredible racing that would ensue. But it is important, and it may be ok to compromise a bit on speed in order to avoid processional races. It requires balance and wisdom, not a heavy hand.
And there are two other principles worth highlighting:
- The governing body must provide a level playing ground. Fairness is a vital element of sport, and thus critical to Formula 1’s credibility. This doesn’t mean equality in outcome – in fact, it means the opposite. No team or driver should be given an unfair advantage by virtue of the regulations (sporting, technical or commercial); Nor should any team be penalized for success.
- Heritage and continuity matters. This is more difficult to achieve in Formula 1 than in other sports for which technology plays a far less important role. However, changes that rob fans of the opportunity to make comparisons between heroes that span generations should only be made when there is a clear justification.
Notable Omissions: While a constitution should focus on what the sport is and not attempt to list the things that it is not (which would be endless), I feel compelled to highlight a few oft-cited motivations for change that I think are misguided and don’t belong on the list:
- The “Show”: If the sport adhered to the principles described above, we’d have a spectacle. There will be boring races and predictable seasons at time, but that’s ok. Because we’ll have something beautiful and pure – the essence that the sport has lost in recent years; the essence that made people fall in love with Formula 1 for generations before. The sport never needed reinventing. And it certainly doesn’t need gimmicks like DRS, hi-deg tyres, double-points, standing restarts, reversed grids or “innovative changes” to the weekend format (yuck). The sport wasn’t broken until they broke it in a desperate attempt to capture the attention of the non-fan.
- Efficiency: Efficiency has always had a place in racing – as it relates to the pursuit of speed. However, efficiency as a first-order goal that competes with speed is the antithesis of Formula 1. The introduction of that goal in 2014 has changed the sport, and made it worse. Formula 1 should never succumb to political pressure or manufacturer interest – no matter how intense – to the detriment of the sport.
- Road-relevance: Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great when technology developed in Formula 1 trickles down to road cars. But trying to force an unnatural connection is a fool’s errand; As regulations have changed to accommodate an artificial link to the road, the sport has suffered (is there a single fan or driver out there that derives his interest in F1 from road-relevance?) This will only become more problematic as road car technological priorities shift towards efficiency (notably motivated by environmental regulations, not enthusiast demand) and vehicle autonomy (truly the antithesis of the sport!)
- Manufacturer involvement: Again, don’t get me wrong – I want manufacturers involved in F1. They bring credibility and marketing firepower. But recognize that their motivations are different from the “racers”. Their focus will be on selling road cars (and now eco-friendly road cars). They will abandon the sport when they struggle or when economic conditions deteriorate. So welcome them into the sport when they want to join, but never (a) Change the sport’s essence to accommodate their whims, (b) Give them more compensation than they earn, or (c) Turn your back on the little teams – the racers – that are the lifeblood of the sport.
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