Is Formula One’s Strategy Group the solution to or the cause of the sport’s problems?
Today the controversial body will again attempt to chart a course for F1 to escape its present difficulties. Representatives of FOM, FIA and a selection of Bernie Ecclestone’s preferred teams – those who have been given the largest financial incentives to compete – are meeting to discuss F1’s future.
Bernie Ecclestone has repeatedly joked that the only thing they can ever agree on is when to hold the next meeting. But if the discussions really were that unproductive, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Because of the way the Strategy Group is formed, the two most pressing areas of concern are unlikely to be debated at all. The loss of one competitor last year – Caterham – and the continued vulnerability of F1’s smallest teams is unlikely to be seriously considered by a body which largely represents only the wealthiest competitors.
The distribution of F1’s revenues and prize money, which values on-track performance somewhat less highly than loyalty to Ecclestone, is also likely to remain off the table. This is fixed in contracts binding teams to the sport until 2020 (Red Bull’s recent threats to quit anyway notwithstanding).
Less significant points may also struggle to win support. Teams which wanted to be able to use a fifth engine without penalty this year are likely to be disappointed. Unsurprisingly, five races into the season, there are already some manufacturers who have a clear reliability advantage so making this concession is not in their interest.
And then there’s the question of the future direction of Formula One’s rules. Ecclestone has never disguised his contempt for the current engine formula – he’d made his mind up about them long before they hit the track. And no one will have been surprised by yesterday’s release of a letter from Ecclestone’s ally Ron Walker, the former Australian Grand Prix promoter, blaming the V6 turbos for causing fans to turn off in huge numbers (no evidence was offered to support the view; an F1 Fanatic poll last year indicated fan response has generally been more positive).
But the current engine formula has plenty of supporters on the Strategy Group – not least of which FIA president Jean Todt, who framed the current regulations, and Mercedes, who have won 20 or the 24 races since they came into force.
When the Strategy Group does not find itself incapable of taking action, its track record of introducing new rules isn’t great. The hated double points system F1 used last year, railroaded through at Ecclestone’s insistence in a desperate attempt to reverse F1’s falling television audience, is a case in point.
If anyone at the Strategy Group was beginning to doubt Ecclestone’s judgement of what 21st century sports fans want from motor racing, the kicking F1 got last year over double points can only have added to that impression
Perhaps it has also punctured faith in the view that throwing endless gimmicks at F1 will somehow make everything alright, and so we may be spared similar ‘Bernie brainwaves’ in the future such as success ballast, points for qualifying, reverse grids or track sprinklers.
At every turn the prospect for progress appears to be blocked. But if that is the case, it may not be a bad thing. Because there is one radical change Formula One hasn’t tried yet – and that is to stop changing the rules every five minutes.
Williams head of performance engineering Rob Smedley put the case for not making further changes very well during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend.
“In the main we should perhaps think about stopping tampering with it rather than thinking we’re going to create a new set of rules and that’s going to fix everything,” he said.
“Every time you create a new set of rules, you’ll usually find the people with the biggest resource or with the cleverest thinking, or the people who stopped working on the current generation of Formula One cars, come out with quite a big gap.”
“That’s what, when we talk about these boring races, that’s what we’re referring to isn’t it? A team dominating at the front – but a team dominates when we have radical rule changes. I think that we do have to seriously think about not changing anything.”
Smedley is right: History shows that when the technical rules stay stable, teams’ performance tend to converge, and that allows for more competitive and unpredictable racing. As the technology becomes more familiar, engine prices will begin to fall, easing the burden on F1’s struggling teams.
Formula One could do a lot worse than leave things as they are. If the Strategy Group fails to agree anything, that could be a lot better than them agreeing something.
2015 F1 season
- How a secret Mercedes engine mode helped pressure Vettel into a race-ending puncture
- Over 100 driver penalties issued in record-breaking 2015
- Part-time racer? The facts of Hamilton’s ‘jet-set lifestyle’
- A unique atmosphere: Going to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza
- The Complete F1 Fanatic 2015 season review