The state of Formula 1 in 2008

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Lewis Hamilton - F1\'s third different champion in three years
Lewis Hamilton - F1's third different champion in three years

The 2008 Formula 1 season ended on a high on the track – but the shock withdrawal of Honda was a sting in the tail.

With 2009 almost upon us it’s time to take stock of F1’s position as one season ends and a new year begins: the quality of the competition, the future of the teams and technology, and the ever-present political dimension.

The drivers

How times change. A few years ago the grid had a handful of race winners and Michael Schumacher was dominating every championship. At the start of 2009 the previous three championships will have had different winners, all of whom will be racing for top teams. We haven’t had that kind of competitiveness in more than a decade.

There are eight former race winners – plus two more if Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello keep their seats.

Whether any of the drivers on the grid in 2009 bear comparison with the greats of Formula 1 – the Michael Schumachers and Ayrton Sennas – is always up for debate. But in terms of the quality of competition, Formula 1 is in good shape.

The teams

Has the number of car manufacturers in Formula 1 passed its peak and is now in an irreversible slide? Or was the withdrawal of Honda the natural culling of an uncompetitive team that wasn’t raising enough sponsorship revenue?

It’s too early to answer that question confidently, but the far-reaching cost-cutting agreement reached by the teams and the FIA shows all parties are convinced that if the manufacturer teams are going to stay in F1, the competition will have to get a lot cheaper.

The technology

When was the last time Formula 1 saw an upheaval in the technical rules comparable to the scale of changes coming in 2009? The banning of ground effects in 1983? Normally aspirated engines in 1989? Narrow track grooved-tyre cars in 1998?

With their ultra-wide front wings and narrow, long rear wings, 2009-specification F1 cars are strange beasts.

But the expensive new Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems look set to be more of a bone of contention among the teams. Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo has criticised them, saying they are too expensive and too specialised to assist in developing KERS for road cars. BMW’s Mario Theissen has defended them. But is this a genuine difference of opinion over the future of F1 technology? Perhaps it has more to do with the fact BMW was testing is KERS car months ago, and Ferrari has publicly admitted it has fallen behind on development.

The politics

Max Mosley: four more years, or finally retiring? He will make his decision known in the summer of 2009.

He first planned his F1 retirement for 2004, but changed his mind and decided to run for election again. Will the same happen next year? He still has the fallout from ‘Spankgate’ to contend with, and appears determined to carry on bringing lawsuits against publication who displayed the notorious photographs of him being whipped by prostitutes. His next stop is the German judiciary.

There are already rumours about potential successors. Nick Craw, the president of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS), has been tipped as a contender. Mosley referred to Craw in a recent interview, suggesting he was too busy to take over as president of the FIA. Is this a sign Mosley is weighing up the opposition?

The delicate balance of power in Formula 1 seems to be tipped in the teams’ favour at present. As president of the Formula One Teams Association, Montezemolo recently felt confident enough to assert that “the time to divide and conquer to rule in F1 is over.” Having agreed to cost cutting measures on the teams’ terms – no standard engines – Montezemolo now wants a larger share of F1’s revenues, prompting a hostile reaction from Bernie Ecclestone.

At 78, Ecclestone remains unwilling to consider that anyone else might occupy his position in the future. Should Mr Ecclestone become unable to to carry out his duties, one of the most powerful roles in Formula 1 would suddenly become vacant, with no clear indication who his successor should be.

The teams are not just unhappy with the amount of money they receive. Another concern is the gradual loss of traditional F1 venues and countries (France and Canada are just the latest ones) in favour of tracks in new markets which are often of little value to the manufacturers.

Could 2009 be the year we finally see one of F1’s two political titans – Mosley and Ecclestone – step aside? Will we have a fourth new drivers’ champion? Will the manufacturer teams stay? Its an exciting and nervous time to be an F1 fan.

Read more: F1 2009: 10 questions for the off-season

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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9 comments on “The state of Formula 1 in 2008”

  1. You have to look at the positives at the moment. The demise of Honda from F1 was a huge shock to the system, but a necessary shock. I am pleased that the teams, the FIA, and Ecclestone have agreed to cut running costs for the teams, and I am thrilled about the ban on aero devices and grooved tyres.
    I am hoping we get an interesting start to 2009, with a midfield team leading the way due to the rule changes. The most thrilling aspect of modern F1 now is the uncertainty.
    I had the pleasure of watching all three major series in 2008, F1, NASCAR, and the IRL. I have to say, towards the end of the season, the NASCAR and IRL races were becoming predictable in that you could only see Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon walking away as champions. Their cars, and the teams around them, were just too good.
    Not so in F1. Both Ferrari and McLaren were making mistakes, as were their drivers, which left you not knowing who would perform better than the other come race day. Then there were the surprises.
    Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen, and Seb Vettel all secured maiden F1 wins. There was the demise in form of championship defender Kimi Raikkonen, and the steller rise in form of his team mate, Felipe Massa.
    And, as if to prove his point, who should win F1s first ever night race, but Fernando Alonso, who in the final four races, scored more points than anybody.
    I thought last years title showdown was exciting, but this years surpassed that. To be in a room, with a large group of people, celebrating as Felipe Massa crossed the line to what ‘WE’ all thought was his first championship title, was amazing.
    To watch, in total disbelief, as less than thirty seconds later, Lewis Hamilon achieved the impossible and came home in fifth, was otherworldly.
    The room went quiet, some even started to weep. All in the space of a mere half minute, no more! That is sport at its best, its heartstopping best. One guy told me he had not felt so bad since watching the Challenger space shuttle explode on tv all those years ago, such was his disappointment at Hamilton’s victory.
    This is what this sport means to some people. Incredible! If I could afford the ticket price, I would book an F1 race as my vacation right now. I cannot wait for 2009 and for what the people on this GREAT site have to say about it.

  2. I think we’d have to say….

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”…

    In fact the whole quote seems apposite don’t you think?…

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    But where would we be without comparison… it’s a human requirement…. and let’s face it…

    F1 is in trouble like the rest of the world…

    But has also never been better…

    Truly the best of times and the worst…

  3. Slim might have bought Honda [planet-f1], according to an Italian newspaper. If that is true, and he is indeed keeping Jenson Button, any idea what powertrain he might have negotiated?

    It beggars belief that Honda were to withdraw completely from the sport — you’d think they could make an arrangement whereby the (already-frozen) engine could be raced as Mugen-Honda units, like during the late 90s where they even score victories with Ligier and Jordan.

  4. “of changes coming in 2009? The banning of ground effects in 1983?

    Normally aspirated engines in 1989

    ? Narrow track grooved-tyre cars in 1998?”

    it was turbos that was banned.

  5. The latest is that Slim’s son has denied any negotiations to buy the Honda F1 team.

    I think Richards is still the best-most realistic hope of getting that team to the start line of the first race in ’09.

  6. how come all the cash parties have started buying these dieing teams, like Mallya bought spyker, now Salim is buying Honda….. what next?

  7. The limit – Interesting comparison with the IRL and NASCAR seasons. I thought Castroneves’ late title charge in the IRL was gripping, and after what happened with Justin Wilson at Detroit you certainly couldn’t accuse the IRL’s governing body of trying to engineer a close championship finale!

    We can’t expect every F1 championship to end like that – we’ll probably never see anything like it again in our lifetimes. I hope in 2009 we see more exciting racing at most races generally and fewer Catalunya or Shanghai-style snoozefests.

    Snowcat – Nice quote! I intend to keep F1Fanatic as a ‘noisy authority’ :-)

    Sush – I know turbos were banned in 1989, the sentence is supposed to indicate that normally aspirated engines were made mandatory.

  8. Anyone who thinks neither Max or Bernie have a solid plan for succession hasn’t thought it through.

    Just like anyone in power, long-term plans are essential for both men. Both will have ensured things will go according to their plan should something unexpected happen.

    Such are the natures of politics and big business alike.

  9. GeorgeK – It’s been hinted at by an insider I know that Richards doesn’t want anything to do with F1 for at least a couple of years.

    Remember, Prodrive have recently pulled out of WRC and are laying off most of the rally staff, so I think it unlikely they’ll splash out on an ailing F1 team.

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