According to Bernie Ecclestone, Ross Brawn told Liberty Media he wouldn’t take charge of their F1 plans if the old ringmaster was kept in charge. Now Brawn is calling the shots and it’s clear he favours a very different and more analytical style than Ecclestone’s “knee-jerk, compulsive” approach.
If Ecclestone preferred the tactics of ‘divide and rule’, Brawn has so far espoused a desire for consensus. But even some of the team principals have recommended he and Liberty Media adopt a take-it-or-leave-it stance over the subjects of F1’s post-2020 regulations.
On Friday Brawn will present his 2021 vision to the teams. As @DieterRencken explains, the complex challenges he faces makes this easily the biggest test of his leadership so far.
The science of Formula 1 can be expressed in a single word: compromise. Essentially F1 consists of taking numerous decisions about a range of compromises ranging from downforce versus drag, risk versus reward, fuel economy versus power, tyre grip versus degradation, fuel load versus lap time, engine reliability versus power, and, commercially, budget versus performance and pay-driver versus results. The list is endless.
The team and/or driver that best plays the compromise game over a full season eventually goes on to win one or both titles. True, outside factors can impact on the overall result, but these tend to balance each out over time, and thus it is usually the team that has taken the best decisions to reach the sharp end and then operate at that level that is crowned champion.
Compromise permeates throughout the sport, from the start of the regulatory process through to final results. Indeed, the start of the regulatory process defines the eventual spectacle, and here more often than not the sport’s rule makers have gotten it horribly wrong. This is not a swipe at the FIA: the governing body’s role is to regulate F1 (and all international motorsport) via commissions upon which various role players sit.
F1 could, of course, go the full hog and have totally open regulations. But the sport would become utterly unaffordable, making it unattractive to sponsors and manufacturers as a marketing pedestal.
Equally, it could embrace the concept of “customer cars”, with a return to non-hybrid engines, specification wings and aero packages, standard transmissions and two-race weekend formats all being mandated to cut costs. But such a formula would approximate F2.
Therefore the tightrope Brawn must walk is to first and foremost elevate post-2020 F1 above F2, but not astronomically so, or F1 will be left with two teams. The ideal lies midway between these two extremes, which is where compromise enters into the process.
The regulatory process calls for F1’s Strategy Group – upon which six select teams sit, together with FIA and Formula One Management (a subsidiary of commercial rights holder Liberty Media) representatives, with the teams holding a vote apiece and the two bodies six each – to frame proposals, which are debated by the F1 Commission (comprising all teams, FIA, FOM, plus commercial/technical and promoter representation).
Once approved by the F1 Commission, the regulations are escalated to the FIA’s World Motorsport Council for ratification and subsequent implementation. There are certain caveats along the way, which in turn allow safety considerations to override regulations, while a time line is in place: 30 April for any rule changes for the following season, save where there is unanimity. The full process is outlined here.
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On Friday morning in Bahrain Liberty’s Managing Director of Motorsport Ross Brawn – a man with a depth of F1 experience ranging from shop floor work through design and drafting to championship-winning technical director and (ditto) team boss – is expected to grab the initiative by presenting the commercial rights holder’s vision for the post-2020 period, when current regulations expire.
Thus, no formal working groups with team input, no Strategy Group input (at this early stage); instead, a pre-pack kit of sporting and technical regulations requiring some assembly – to continue the IKEA parallel – and chamfering around the edges before being presented to the F1 Commission and WMSC.
In the process, Brawn will need to have taken into consideration every single compromise as outlined above, but also the vast discrepancies in team budgets, business models and facilities: It is of no use tailoring rules to suit the might of Mercedes and Ferrari, only to find the rest drop out on cost grounds; ditto the opposite – dumb down the sport by introducing stringent budget caps, and its star players may walk.
Highly on the list of Brawn’s priorities will be commercial realignment – it is no secret that four teams benefit inequitably from F1’s revenues, thus placing the rest at a veritable disadvantage. Scrap the bonuses, and two or three (or even all four) teams may leave, possibly to form a rival breakaway series. Continue the two-tier revenue structure, and F1’s potentially faces the same processions as have blighted it since 2013.
One way of reducing costs would, though, be by reducing the spectrum of “listed parts”* – those parts to which the individual teams need to hold the intellectual property to – and introducing, say, standardised hybrid systems and transmissions. However, consider the outcry caused by Haas’s pushing of the listed parts concept to the very maximum, and then question how willing even budget teams will accept any relaxation.
As an aside, Haas’s interpretation of the regulations – assuming the team plays according to the book, which appears to be the case – provides a cost-effective platform for teams to compete in the mid-field. In tabling his vision for the future, Brawn would have started from two extremes – a “total” car, whereby a team produces its own car and engine (Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault), and a spec formula (F2), then worked inwards.
Where McLaren, Red Bull, Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber have their own wind tunnels, produce in-house chassis and source engines (and transmission in last-named case) elsewhere, Force India procures its entire back-end plus hydraulics / electronics from Mercedes, uses Toyota’s wind tunnel on a contract basis and largely sub-contracts component manufacture, Haas has simply gone to the limit of regulations that apply to all teams.
Force India could have conceivably struck such an all-dancing deal with Mercedes, or Toro Rosso with Red Bull had they stuck to the same engine supplier (and/or specification) for more than a season. So, too, could any start-up with limited resources – provided it’s prepared to compromise (that word) and accept the disadvantages outlined by Haas Chief Designer Rob Taylor here.
So, what are the various compromises Brawn will need to make on Friday in order to:
a) Markedly increase overtaking and thus F1’s spectacle by reducing the sport’s predictability of recent years via technical and sporting means. Many have tried and failed, but this is the key to satisfying FOM’s primary customers, namely circuit promoters and TV broadcasters (and OTT watchers).
b) Reduce costs without dumbing down the technical appeal of F1 to manufacturers, technical partners and so-called petrol-heads without whom F1 would not have alternate engine suppliers, certainly not by end-2020. Already the window for attracting newcomers is closing.
c) Introduce equitable revenue distribution without marginalising teams who have structured their businesses around massive bonuses, while maintaining acceptable returns on investment for Liberty shareholders. This is crucial, for reducing payouts to the Big Four could see them walk; upping payments to independents will impact on Liberty’s bottom line. Either way, provision needs to be made for newcomers.
d) Address the different business models of the teams, all of whom are in F1 for different reasons: The motor manufacturers (four) in order to build image and sell cars, the Red Bulls (two) in order to build image and sell cans, Haas to build image and sell tools, and the rest (three) to perform sufficiently well to attract sponsors in order to keep their businesses afloat. That’s four primary models, covering a multitude of product groups.
e) Ensure the post-2020 regulations are sufficiently challenging for existing teams without setting the bar and costs too high for prospective newcomers, who are already extremely wary about the costs of entry and fear of emulating Honda’s very public failure.
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Those are five massive balls Brawn needs to juggle within the next six months, or F1 will likely be saddled with the current formula for yet another year. That is not beyond the bounds of possibility: F1 had planned a clean break – commercially and technically – from 1 January 2013, yet so long did wrangles, including a architecture change from 4-inline to V6 over the engine formula drag on, that introduction was delayed a year.
Brawn’s challenge is compounded by those Strategy Group members who believe their current agreements with FOM, valid until 31 December 2020 and entered into with previous commercial rights CVC Capital Partners in 2012 – six years before Liberty acquired control of FOM – empower them to vote on all rule changes through to that date.
However, the red elephant in the room is Ferrari’s veto over any rules it disagrees with – and valid until end-2020, by when the new regulations would obviously need to be agreed. Could Ferrari trigger its veto clause over any post-2020 regulations it does not agree with?
That, of course, depends upon the exact phrasing of the veto, but once in the recent past when Ferrari threatened to invoke its veto over a change in engine regulations, the FIA and FOM backed off smartly. The last thing FOM and the FIA – and, above all, F1 – need is for the matter to be dragged through the courts by Ferrari, thus freezing the entire process for many years to come just when expediency is of the essence.
Thus the FIA / FOM need to stand firm in the face of veto and exit threats from Ferrari – aided and abetted by Mercedes. Last year FIA president Jean Todt revealed Ferrari’s veto is under review. However, does the Frenchman, who headed Ferrari’s noughties hegemony, wish to be remembered as the man under whose watch the Scuderia left F1? Ditto Brawn, who led Ferrari’s technical department back then?
With 10 teams currently in the sport there are currently at least 10 opinions about how the sport should restructure itself for post-2020. Add in the opinions of technical directors and F1 personnel fearful of having their careers curtailed by budget caps, and there are literally hundreds of differing ideas doing the rounds – and that is before the opinions of other stakeholders, suppliers, sponsors and fans are mixed into the pot.
There are philosophical arguments, too: some team bosses believe that the engine format should be sorted first – on account that hardware lead times are the longest – followed by chassis regulations in 2019, with commercial aspects being sorted in 2020. Others are adamant that technical and money cannot be separated given how dependent performance is on the latter commodity.
The third faction believes that FOM should present the F1-2021 as a fait accompli, and that those who don’t buy into Liberty’s vision should acquaint themselves more intimately with four-letter terms. All of which points to some entrenched positions and divergent agendas.
According to sources, the exact format of the meeting has not (yet) been disclosed, although expectations are that Brawn and Liberty CEO/chairman Chase Carey will conduct proceedings, with Marketing MD Sean Bratches and other senior FOM folk expected to be in attendance. Equally, no agenda details were available at time of writing, with expectations being that an agenda will be tabled at the meeting to prevent leaks.
There is no doubt that Friday’s summit marks the start of arguably the most crucial period in F1 history, for never has so much been on the line. The sport’s new owners have been in the hot seat for but a year, yet are expected to return an activity that once rivalled the FIFA World Cup and Olympics to its former glory in the face of shifting consumer habits and a diminishing fan base. Then there is threat of Formula E.
Brawn and co. face a daunting task, and there is unlikely to be overall consensus on Friday. In short, the only agreement will be that all parties agree to disagree until the next round of talks. But at least Liberty will have set out their stall, which is more than can be said about the past 12 months. The key word throughout, however, will be compromise.
*Listed Parts: Monocoque, survival cell (as defined in article 1.14 of the F1 technical regulations), front impact structures (as defined by articles 16.2 and 16.3 of the F1 technical regulations), roll over structures (roll structures as regulated by article 15.2 of the F1 technical regulations), bodywork (as defined in article 1.4 of the F1 technical regulations and regulated by article 3 of the F1 technical regulations with the exception of airboxes, engine exhausts and prescribed bodywork geometries), wings, floor and diffuser.
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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