Formula 1 is no stranger to change. Yet as the championship’s technical director Pat Symonds explained last week, one aspect of Liberty Media’s vision of the sport’s future is revolutionary.
Never before has the series had a long-term plan which covers everything from what the cars will look like, what the teams will earn and everything in between.
And, as the multiple championship-winning ex-F1 engineering chief explained to the Motorsport Industry Association last week, a vital element of their vision for F1 2021 involves the teams designing and building fewer of their own parts. But does that inevitably mean dumbing down the sport?
However, logic dictates that any form of cap – across whatever motorsport category, including F1 – holds dire consequences for the motorsport industry, for it stands to reason that the less teams spend, the lower the income for the industry, particularly if costs are reduced through standardised parts supplied by a single manufacturer.
Thus any talk of budget caps sends shivers through suppliers or wherever livelihoods depend upon F1. And nowhere is that supplier base larger than in the United Kingdom.
Thus the Motorsport Industry Association invited Pat Symonds, Formula One Management’s technical director and the man directly charged with framing proposals for the post-2021 period, to address (and appease) its membership at its annual business conference. This was held in a marquee at Force India’s base in Silverstone in the run-up to the British Grand Prix under the chairmanship of MIA boss Chris Aylett.
While the overall authority for approving F1’s sporting and technical rules rests with the FIA, but the current plan is for commercial rights holder FOM, in turn a subsidiary of Liberty Media, to frame proposals for consideration by the governing body, and subsequent approval and ‘rubberstamping’. Hence Symonds’ presence, presenting a session entitled ‘A Period of Change: Challenges and Opportunities’
“Certainly in Formula 1 we’re going through a period of change,” said Symonds. “Overall [the sport] is going through a period of change.”
F1 is, of course, all about change. That’s its core DNA, not open-wheel racing or wings and slicks, but evolution aimed at producing the fastest racing cars on earth. Crucially, the change F1 faces is not so much technical or even sporting – these are side effects – but rather a massive philosophical change in the approach to the way regulations are framed.
In setting the scene, Symonds recited F1’s mission statement: “Our aim is to unleash the greatest racing spectacle on the planet. Formula One should be the world’s leading global sports competition, married to state-of-the-art technology – ‘that’s important’ – to excite and engage in all fans of all ages, with iconic live event celebrations in destination cities and across leading television and digital platforms around the world.”
“[The statement] goes on to talk about ‘embracing innovation’,” he continued, “and ends by saying, ‘Formula One is committed to being a premier sport, defined by excellence, excitement and star power on and off the track. The success is ultimately measured by an ever-growing global fan base, whose expectations are exceeded by the experiences we deliver, at every level.’”
According to Symonds, F1 will not be “dumbed down”, whether technologically or in broadcast terms: he cited OTT streaming and the various digital platforms recently embraced by F1 as examples.
“As we continue to grow in that area, a lot of apps, a lot of internet-based content that we’ve delivered, as well as television content,” he said. “But my job is much more about trying to produce some thinking which will lead to regulations, determined by the FIA. It will give us a very strong [F1] in future.”
The key is, of course, how FOM goes about this process.
“I think when we started this process we had to ask ourselves a few questions. A phrase I use a lot is ‘evidence-based decision making’. It’s something Formula 1 is not used to. In my world, I want evidence [whether] we’re doing the right thing. It’s possible to do that. I’m an engineer; I’m used to doing that sort of thing. It’s called ‘modelling’, and experimentation is all we have to produce that evidence to make decisions from.
“I’ve often told engineers that they’ve got to be qualitative, not quantitative. We are really working towards using evidence to decide how we take Formula 1 into the future. So as we set each idea, each regulation, we ask ourselves a number of questions.
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“We’ve asked ourselves, ‘Is it making the racing better?’ ‘Is it making the racing safer?’ ‘Is it removing ambiguity?’ ‘Is it costing less?’ ‘Is it improving the show, is it improving the sustainability of Formula 1?’ which is slightly different to ‘costing less’.
“So we’re aiming to get a set of regulations for 2021, a new Formula 1 car for 2021,” he continued. “We’ve tended in the past to not look far enough ahead. We haven’t had a long-term plan in Formula 1. Because what that leads to, is obstruction by those who are trying to protect their competitive advantage.
“With the governance [process] we have in Formula 1 at the moment [the Strategy Group] that can be a real block to progress. So we’re trying to look a bit further ahead. The teams are, I think, appreciating it. They’re certainly very well engaged with us, and they’re very happy to talk about things in the future because it’s not affecting their performance this season or next season.”
All well and good, but how does Symonds see the process working? Effectively he plans to frame regulations that foster overtaking by mechanical and aerodynamic means.
“[In the past] year-on-year, as the cars’ performance improved, [so] the ability to follow close got worse. The other thing we’ve done in looking at 2021 is we wanted to decide what should be the performance differentiators,” he explained to the MIA audience, made up mostly of engineers and component suppliers.
“At the moment you can spend money wherever you like. You can spend quite an awful lot of money trying to [find] performance. Those are the rules that are tightened down to the 100 pages of regulations that govern Formula 1 and the many [not in the public domain] technical directives that govern Formula 1. It’s become more and more important that the small, incremental improvements get performance. Those cost money.”
The trick, according to Symonds, is to define the crucial performance differentiators, and put a stop to wastage on the others.
He considers power units, aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics to be the key performance differentiators, and thus “Those things are where we want to allow the teams to show their excellence, and to win through a meritocracy.
“But in other areas we want to try and bring a little bit more prescription into it. The areas that fans don’t see. They don’t care whether a wheel nut is made out of aluminium or titanium or steel. So let’s get rid of this game that is going on there.”
In broad-brush terms, there will be free(r) areas, some standard areas using supplied components and prescriptive areas, the design of which is prescribed, but teams are free to either make them to specification, or out-source. The crucial thing as that these must be produced to specification to control spend.
“It would be foolhardy to have a single supplier for brakes,” believes Symonds. “A carbon brake takes several months to manufacture and if there was a problem with one, Formula 1 would stop racing. It’s foolhardy. So while I said we want to be more prescriptive on those areas that are not part of the performance differentiation, it doesn’t mean really dumbing them down.”
Equally, Symonds is targeting “less predictability” in racing. “To know what the result is before we go a sporting event really doesn’t attract anyone. We sometimes get one or two races like that in Formula 1. We want to bring less predictability into the sport. And we want closer grids. And I think we can do that.”
In effect Symonds is attempting to change the slope of performance gain per euro spent. “At the moment there’s no doubt the more money you spend, the more successful you’re going to be. That will always be the case, we can’t change that completely.
“But what we can do is we can lower that slope. There are certainly technical ways you can do that and that’s what a lot of our aerodynamic work is about, which is going actually extremely well and been very good in liaison with the teams.”
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Where former F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone’s tenure in F1 was informed largely by seat-of-the-pants feel – a sort of suck-it-and-see approach that sometimes worked, but more often did not – Liberty’s approach is scientific, more psychological.
“We want less deterministic outcomes, less predictability. We want to build to a crescendo by understanding some of these things.” Symonds explains how F1 is beginning to grasp what makes people enjoy races. “The experience of watching a race, of watching a sporting event, of watching anything, is largely based on how they felt at the peak of the experience, and indeed at its end.”
“We understand those sorts of things. It’s one of the reasons why the current qualifying situation we have is actually very good, because it builds to a crescendo. People remember that. Q1? Is it very interesting? Probably not, but people don’t worry too much about that because it is a means to an end, to get to a very exciting Q3.”
A large part of building that psychological immersion relies on what Symonds called “building a multiple platform experience.
“You’re not going to go to many races as a live event, so we’ve got to build platforms that today the younger people are using to really enjoy what they’re seeing. The days of just watching television are long gone. My sons have never watched a race distance, watching on television.”
A sustainable F1 is a healthy F1, and here Symonds referred to the 36 Formula 1 teams that failed over the past 25 years: “A terrible statistic. Some of them were poorly financed; some of them really maybe shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but that has an immediate economic impact on the industry, and if a team failed it’s very, very sad.” In reality the sport has lost close to 100 teams in its 68-year lifetime.
“All of you out here who are supplying the motorsport industry have all at some time had your fingers burned,” he said pointedly. “You have [teams] who have gone broke and owed you money. We don’t want that sort of thing to happen, that’s bad for everyone. So we’re going to build the sport up; if we build Formula 1 up, I believe other things will follow it. So please, don’t think that we will be cutting you out.”
Thus Liberty plans to grow the sport by attracting new audiences that, in turn, generate new revenues. Hand-in-hand with that go cost cap – although Symonds would not confirm the much bandied-about figure of $150m per annum excluding drivers, management, marketing and engines. However, a FOM source confirmed during the grand prix weekend that was the target number.
“Let’s take ($150m) as an example, that’s about 130 million pounds, but it does exclude an awful lot of functions,” stated Symonds. “Top teams at the moment, in the area of the cost cap, are probably spending 150 million pounds; mid-teams maybe 90 million, some probably less than that. If we [redistribute] the resources, then you look at, let’s say 10 teams, spending around the 130 million pound mark, or about 1.1 billion.”
According to his calculations that equates to three teams on 150 million, and seven teams on 90 million – effectively the current situation. “So honestly,” he says, “I think the cost cap is not something to be worried about. But there will be more races: there will be more parts being used.
“So maybe at Brackley [Mercedes headquarters] there won’t be 700 or 800 people working there, there will be more at Enstone [Renault] or at Grove [Williams] or wherever. I think we’ve also made it very public that the income will be redistributed in 2021, there’s no secret about that. The numbers are not in the public domain, but they are aimed at providing much more sustainable business for those towards the back of the grid.”
Thus the post-2021 Liberty model is a cheaper yet better F1, one that ultimately improves the sporting spectacle by recognising the need for performance meritocracy while reducing both predictability and, crucially, the costs of competing on a level playing field in order ensure Formula 1’s sustainability.
“Without an improved product we lose our audience, and therefore we lose our income. And without this sustainable business model we lose our teams.” Symonds concluded. “I do believe the solutions are at hand, and I do believe that in Formula One that we are making some positive moves to the future.”
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Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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