A Constitution for Formula 1

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

Newfound Optimism

I’ll never forget my first visit to a Grand Prix. I was instantly captivated, hooked for life.

F1 in that era – and most eras before and since – was a spectacle. The speed was incomprehensible. The sound – high-revving V8s and V10s and V12s – was glorious, like nothing one could experience outside of a grand prix. The cars looked like wild thoroughbreds that these supermen somehow managed to tame. Mistakes were commonplace and brought real consequences, not penalties.

There was so much to love about F1.

And while it was a spectacle, it was never a “show”. It was real, and pure, and uncompromising. The rules were simple; the teams and drivers just got on with the relentless pursuit of speed.

My, how things have changed.

If I was a young man attending my first race today, I bet it would be my last. What would capture my imagination? The cars don’t look particularly fast. They sound ugly, dull, ordinary. The drivers don’t look challenged, and their mistakes are less costly. The teams seem more pre-occupied with selling eco-friendly road cars than they do with the pursuit of speed.

What would I rush home to tell my mum and my classmates about? The amazing job Hamilton did conserving fuel? The remarkable work by Checo to open his DRS and blast by the helpless car ahead?

I have been filled with sadness these last few years. I still watch every minute of every session. Occasionally, there are entertaining races. But F1 has lost much of what made it special, what made it stand out from other series.

But today, I feel optimism.

I feel optimism because I’ve seen the results of the GPDA survey and Alex Wurz’ synthesis of the findings. Because I see that I am not alone, that the majority among us long for the same purity of sport. Because perhaps, just perhaps, with the insight the survey offers, we’ll eventually see F1’s return.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

F1 Dictatorship for Dummies

F1 is in crisis, and cannot rely on a yield-hungry private equity firm or a committee of self-serving team principals to save it. It needs leadership committed to the sport, not profits.

Though having said that, has it occurred to no one that declines in viewership have occurred in concert with an erosion in the sport’s virtues; with the very compromises in the name of the “show” (DRS; high deg tires and multiple race compounds; double points) and green technology that were supposed to make it appeal to a broader audience?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that F1 hasn’t also faced increased competition for viewers, changing media habits and the declining status of the automobile in our culture (particularly among millenials). Clearly these are meaningful headwinds to attracting and retaining an audience (Bernie’s job must have been a lot easier when there were four television channels to choose from). But were any of the absurd gimmicks introduced in the last few years ever really going to hold the attention of the ADHD Facebook generation? Seems like they’ve only succeeded in alienating the core – the purists like me.

And yet, rather than restoring the sport’s purity and learning to live within the ample means that we The Devoted would provide, the dummies in charge react (in panic) by looking for new ways to sully the sport in the name of the “show” (standing restarts, a ridiculous ban on radio communication, and God knows what they’ll come up with over the winter).

So, not that they’ll listen, but I thought I’d jot down some principles for them, the principles I’d follow if I was in a position to shape F1’s future. Call it “F1 Dictatorship for Dummies”.

1) We want a race, not a lottery. It doesn’t get more offensive than double-points. Perhaps that’s why the news of standing restarts wasn’t met with the horror it deserved – we’d been desensitized. In any event – please, please, please, dummies – stop with the gimmicks.

2) F1 is not just a driver’s championship, it’s a constructor’s championship. That is its essence – the best drivers, the best strategists and engineers and fabricators and mechanics. F1 needs two-car teams that build their own cars, period.

3) The economics need to add up. Success should be incredibly hard to achieve, but not impossible. New entrants should be held to an extraordinarily high bar.  But survival should be viable for any legitimate team.

4) Race teams test. Don’t stop them. It’s hard to claim to be the pinnacle of motorsport but test less than a low budget F3 team. Besides, the teams will spend the money they would have used for testing on simulators and wind tunnels (to less effect). If they used that money for testing, there would be more chances to test and groom promising young drivers (or raise revenue from rich young drivers); more opportunities for the fans to see the cars in action; more stories for the press to cover between races to keep the fans engaged.

5) Engines should take your breath away – like they used to. They are (were) integral to the experience of Formula 1. They should build anticipation as they approach and amaze as they pass by. These dreary new V6s are about as inspirational as a rusty minivan.

6) Racing is about speed, not conservation. It is frivolous by its very nature – entrants spending princely sums and drivers risking life itself, all for the glory of completing a circuit faster than a few other unhinged souls. And yet that’s why we love it. Fuel economy should only be a consideration if it makes the car faster, not by decree from a governing body that’s forgotten what draws us all to racing in the first place. Coasting shouldn’t be in a racing driver’s vocabulary; the idea that lifting and coasting in an effort to stay within an artificially-imposed fuel consumption limit is now a regular occurrence in Formula 1 should offend every racer to his core.

7) Passes should be well-earned and memorable. I long for the processions of the Schumacher-era. Not that I didn’t wish for more overtaking, but I’ll take one great pass over a seasons’ worth in the DRS era.

8) Race cars are meant to be fast – unbelievably fast. And F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle. We tune in to watch supermen struggling to reign in their thoroughbreds (think Senna at Monaco in ’88), not to cruise around in low-grip cars, driving to a delta for 90 minutes and emerge looking ready to start another race.

9) Track limits should be just that – limits. If you make a mistake, you should pay an actual penalty – broken suspension, or at least lost time. We certainly shouldn’t be relying on the (inevitably inconsistent) judgment of a few stewards to impose penalties that fit the crime. And while we’re at it, how about a ban on anti-stall software? If Pastor can’t keep his car pointed in the right direction, maybe he doesn’t deserve to finish the race. I tune in to see him drive, not his onboard computer.

10) Let the drivers race. Penalize aggregious errors – deliberate contact, repeated contact or incompetence – but otherwise, let them get on with it.

11) Don’t force unwanted technology on the teams (I’m talking about you, V6s), but don’t ban good, cost-effective technologies either. The idea of a ban on radio communication or tire blankets at the pinnacle of motorsport is ludicrous – or at least it ought to be.

12) It’s a team sport. Team orders have a place.

13) F1 should be exclusive. What’s wrong with that? This is the pinnacle, after all (at least it was), and the participants should act accordingly.  A spot in F1 – driver, engineer, or any other spot in the paddock – is something to which to aspire. It’s a privelege, not a right, but something that can be earned. That’s part of its allure, and the sport should embrace it. F1 isn’t NASCAR (thank God), nor should it try to be.

14) Technology freezes are a dangerous antidote to a space race, and should only be imposed when the technology is mature. The current engine freeze is a disaster. Manufacturers need time to develop a new technology, or you end up with a Mercedes-esque juggernaut. The only alternative is spec equipment, which is the opposite of F1’s very essence.

15) This is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport. Everything should be built to optimize for speed. Parc fermé after qualifying is a terrible idea – I want to see the fastest cars in qualifying trim, and the fastest cars in race trim. But even more offensive are the long-lived parts, and the penalties that arise when they fail. Engines (and gearboxes, etc.) shouldn’t last long. If limiting units per season really saves a meaningful amount of money (does it?), fine, I can live with that, but make the penalties less draconian. And if it doesn’t save much money? Then knock it off.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne

F1 Needs a Dictator

F1 has many issues, but one fundamental problem: It has fallen into the hands of terrible custodians, who value profit over sport.

Ultimately, we can blame Max Mosley, who (besides being an early champion of these dreadful V6s, at least in concept) signed that ridiculous century-long deal with FOM. This in turn allowed Bernie (next in line for blame) to sell the commercial rights to CVC, which is doing exactly what you’d expect a private equity firm to do: bleed the sport dry with little regard for its future. (Tempting as it is to blame Donald Mackenzie, he’s just doing his job. This should have been very predictable to Ecclestone and Mosley – people who ought to have had more regard for the sport’s well-being.)

Of course, if the teams were left entirely to their own devices, we wouldn’t be much better off. Even if everyone at the table was as noble as a Frank Williams or a Peter Sauber, F1 would still undoubtedly fall victim to the tragedy of the commons. And in reality, in today’s corporate F1, there are far too many in power with Mackenzie’ s sensibilities to dream that a majority could put the sport’s interests first.

What F1 needs is an uncompromising dictator, but one who will fight ferociously to defend the purity of the sport. Ecclestone can apparently no longer fill that role – not just because of his age, but because the sport’s commercial interests are no longer so clearly aligned with its virtues. If forced to choose, I fear that Bernie would value his financial legacy above sporting integrity.

Todt is probably the one man who could fill the role, but he seems totally ineffectual (curious, given that this is the man that turned around Ferrari in the 1990’s – hardly political kindergarten). Perhaps his impotence is a good thing, given that this is yet another man that supported these terrible engines (and more recently, this stupid radio ban). But if not him, who? And when?

Ratifying the 2015 calendar may be Todt’s last chance to take control of the situation. Let’s hope he doesn’t let us down – the future of our sport may depend on it.

PS: I remain quietly hopeful that this is all just another of Bernie’s incredible chess maneuvers – that he will bring F1 to the brink, then buy it back from CVC at a great discount, consolidate power, and reshape F1 to its glorious potential. Let’s hope I’m right, and that he has the energy to see it through.

Follow me on Twitter: @SaveFormulaOne