Will Liberty’s final bid to win teams over to its 2021 F1 vision succeed?

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Although it would be pedantically incorrect to state that a decision to ban tyre blankets in 2021 has been overturned – the regulations have not been finalised, so no such final decision could yet be taken either way – it nonetheless seems likely Formula 1 will continue to race on pre-heated rubber when it switches to 18-inch wheels in 2021.

This ‘U-turn’, if it happens, will continue a recent trend. Tenders for standardised gearbox cassettes were withdrawn in May and the similar brake tenders (hydraulic systems and friction materials are treated separately) were cancelled late last month. Now standardised wheel rims, another tender category, are also said to be under review.

F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media backtracked on other proposals earlier in the negotiations over the 2021 rules. Much-vaunted plans to ban MGU-H recovery systems and claims of cheaper, louder power units and standardised hybrid components were also dropped after no incoming motor manufacturers were attracted by Liberty’s vision for post-2020 F1.

Add in other reversals on proposals to ban on ‘virtual garages’, or reintroduce refuelling, or require two mandatory pit stops and various other discussions points, and the number could readily spiral to 10.

That is without factoring in any dilution of F1’s post-2020 regulations into the equation. The budget cap limit has already been raised from a planned $150m to $175m and the list of excluded items has grown quicker than Pinocchio’s nose at a poker table, effectively adding another $75m to the ‘cap’.

The parallels between F1’s tortured path to a 2021 rule book and Britain’s attempt to navigate ‘Brexit’ are too obvious to ignore. Both have postponed deadlines for deals to October 31st, both may yet delay them further, and both are embroiled in crunch meetings as this column is published.

Guenther Steiner, Haas, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
“We need to keep the DNA of Formula 1”
If team mutterings are to be believed, Formula 1 is no closer to a deal than Britain. Last week six teams indicated they would not accept the proposed technical regulations, conceived to drastically reconfigure the cars’ aerodynamic properties in a bid to create better racing. The opponents are Ferrari and Haas, Mercedes and Racing Point, and Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

“We need to keep the DNA of Formula 1,” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner warned last month, “and for me, a budget cap is the best way to manage that. The guy that manages his money the best doesn’t need any help, and standardisation is very difficult to achieve [so] that you save money.”

McLaren (currently Renault-powered, but switching to Mercedes for 2021) and Sauber (Ferrari) proposed minor amendments to the technical regulations; thus only Renault and Williams are in favour of the ‘interim’ draft regulations as shared with teams in Singapore. The ‘final’ draft is due to be presented today.

The latest F1 buzzword is now ‘unintended consequences’. The sextet argue that despite having expended hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours on wind tunnel and CFD research, and with input from teams themselves, radical changes could well have the opposite effect to what is envisioned: namely closer racing, increased overtaking and, above, all an economically sustainable F1.

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Ferrari is wielding the big stick in the form of its ‘protection right’ over regulations it believes marginalise its legitimate interests and/or are not in keeping with F1’s DNA (whatever that may be). The team is ably supported by Mercedes and Red Bull, who see said veto as their last stand against any change of the status quo that swingeing regulatory changes could instigate, particularly when coupled with reduced spending caps.

Mattia Binotto, Ferrari, Hockenheimring, 2019
Binotto is prepared to wield Ferrari’s veto…
During his post-race media briefing in Japan Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto predicted today’s meeting “could be a very long discussion”.

“The gaps [between the 2021 regulations and team acceptance] are the ones we’ve mentioned since Monza,” he added.

“For us the aero freedom should be higher, the DNA has to remain there. It has to be a meritocratic sport, not only a show or a spectacle. It has to be a sport. But it is a long list. It’s not the case [here] to go into detail.”

However, a fortnight earlier in Sochi, Binotto had made no secret of the fact that Ferrari may trigger its right: “Obviously we’ve got the veto right and it would be a shame to use it,” Binotto said in direct response to a question from RaceFans.

“I don’t think that’s the intention, I don’t think that’s really what we are looking for. More important is to be very constructive and we’ve got in a month’s time to try to address what’s the fundamentals from now to the end of October.

“If the regulations will not be fully satisfactory by the time end of October, I don’t think that again will be a drama because later on we still have time to evolve, address and improve them.”

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Melbourne, 2015
…which thwarted a rule change four years ago
In 2015 Ferrari threatened to invoke its veto over a proposed change to the engine regulations – a change which never came to pass. At the time FIA president Jean Todt, himself a former Ferrari team principal, likened it to a ‘loaded gun’. Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner was critical of Ferrari’s warning shot when asked why the teams had agreed to the veto being renewed as part of the 2013-2020 agreements.

“It was felt that maybe it was safer for Ferrari to have the veto than not have it, that it would actually protect the teams,” he said, adding, “Ferrari is quite a bit different in make-up [following its 2014 regime change] from what it was then, so the veto can work in both directions.” Indeed…

In place of the proposed regulations – framed by the FIA, but with reams of input from Liberty’s recently-formed technical department headed by ex-Renault/Williams technical director Pat Symonds, who has driven the direction of travel – the three major teams propose a middle-of-road compromise, one drawing on elements of existing regulations, and the latest draft. Talk about potential for ‘unintended consequences’.

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That said, according to a source in the loop, the FIA and F1 have studied the proposals, but indicated they will only consider incorporating those that do not dilute the overall concept in any way. The question is whether they can stick to their joint resolve in the face of team pressure.

Crucially, the FIA and Liberty believe the governing body’s International Sporting Code does not require the teams to vote on the 2021-onwards regulations, whether sporting, technical or financial, and that they can be imposed by the FIA provided at least 18 months’ notice is given for major technical changes. That June 30th deadline was subsequently shifted by unanimous agreement.

Zak Brown, Chase Carey, Singapore, 2019
McLaren have indicated their support for the 2021 rules package
That’s all well and good, save the present governance process, which grants the teams voting powers via the Strategy Group and F1 Commission, expires at the end of 2020. Ferrari also has a seat-by-right at the FIA World Motor Sport Council table during F1 sessions – and there is an argument that the 2021 process falls squarely within the current mandate. Spot the potential for protracted litigation, even without Ferrari’s ‘protection right’?

The FIA could, of course, publish the 2021 regulations on October 31st on the basis that it owns the series, then brazen it out in the hope that Ferrari and friends accept the situation. But that would be a bold gambit given the six-team constellation ranged against change. True, it is far from unanimous, but Liberty’s $8 billion investment would not be worth the paper the shares are printed on without F1’s top three teams.

The F1 landscape has changed massively since the last major change in 2014 – tellingly delayed a year after Ferrari and Mercedes jibbed against a planned switch to four-cylinder power units, instead getting their way with V6 units.

Ferrari is now a listed entity (and all the shareholder responsibilities it entails), while the Mercedes management board, under incoming chairman Ola Källenius, is currently putting ‘non-green’ projects through the corporate wringer.

At Red Bull, owner Dietrich Mateschitz is said to be disillusioned with returns on F1, so could wield the exit card on both his teams; while Honda has yet to decide its post-2020 plans. Who would blink first – a trio of teams, or Liberty? Saliently, said entrants may take their Ferrari, Mercedes and Honda engine supplies with them, in turn making the entire grid dependent upon Renault.

Forget not that Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull stand to lose substantial financial sweeteners. As things stand, only Ferrari is due post-2020 bonuses – so Liberty may need to up the financial ante, or face the threat of a walkout on financial and/or regulatory grounds. The indications are Liberty has thus far misread every sign despite the guidance of F1 managing director Ross Brawn, a former Ferrari and Mercedes F1 executive, and Symonds.

That does not bode well.

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Equally, the teams could threaten legal action. But there exists a delightfully ironic precedent: in 1985 Todt, as Sporting Director of Peugeot Talbot, who FISA (the FIA’s sporting arm at the time) to court over a rule change which banned the spectacular but dangerous ‘Group B’ and ‘Group S’ cars.

Peugeot 405 T16, 1985
Todt’s Peugeot team lost a court case over ‘Group B’ rally cars
Todt lost on the basis that the governing body owned the FIA World Rally Championship, and was thus free to impose rule changes, in this case due to safety considerations. The case upheld the FIA’s claim as rightful owner of its championships, which would in any event be difficult to disprove.

There remain two further alternatives to break the deadlock. A decision on the 2021 rules could be postponed further, possibly to December 31st, in order to reach a less-hurried compromise. Or, as happened when the current V6 turbo hybrid engine regulations were set, delay their introduction by a year, in this case to iron out the teams’ major objection, namely ‘unintended consequences’.

Both would hold major implications for F1. Delaying the sign-off of the rules would further reduce the already-tight design and manufacturing windows to 12 months. Postponing the new rules to 2022 would leave egg on the sport’s already blushing face. No amount of ‘best solution for the sport’s future’ PR cooing will avoid that, particularly after the June delay as the regulations were said to be almost sorted, and simply needed tidying.

There is no excuse for the dilemma F1 currently finds itself in. Liberty have long known about the change deadline of December 31st 2020 and, in fact, promised fans a brighter, better F1 after that date. Yes, it is the FIA F1 Championship, but when all is said and done, Liberty has insisted on providing much of the input and detail the teams are kicking against.

Unless some sensible, hard-line decisions are taken today, post-2020 F1 could prove to be a matter of ‘same old, same old’. How much longer will F1’s already-disillusioned fan base accept a continuation of the current Mercedes hegemony.

Meanwhile, as Mercedes clear a spot on the Brackley mantelpiece for their sixth constructors’ trophy, one wonders whether the Mercedes board has instructed team boss Toto Wolff to ensure the status quo which has proved so rewarding for them, or the F1 programme gets culled?

Start, Suzuka, 2019
Fear top teams could quit may force F1 to back down
Equally, is Ferrari resisting change as a lever in its fight over revenues by threatening to veto the rules changes unless the FIA makes it worth their while. Do not put that past the modern incarnation of a team once driven by passion for the automobile in its purest form, now beholden to shareholders and the need to deliver profits.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of today’s meeting for, as always in F1, there are too many divergent factors and self-centred interests at play. As is so often the case, its primary players have put their internal agendas ahead of the welfare of a sport.

The fastest sport on earth had seven years to agree new regulations. Today may represent its last chance to get a deal over the finishing line.

Peter Sauber, founder of the team which now races as Alfa Romeo, whose 76th birthday coincided with last weekend’s race, captured the essence of that dilemma when I spoke to him in 2010.

F1’s greatest aggravation, he said, it its “inability to resolve issues until it is forced into compromised decisions, then living with the consequences until discussions commence all over again.”

Although the Swiss has long been out of F1, his wise words resonate a decade on.

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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31 comments on “Will Liberty’s final bid to win teams over to its 2021 F1 vision succeed?”

  1. Different management and yet the same story.

    1. Too much power in hands of few(Ferrari, Mclaren, Williams, RBR and Mercedes) has led to this problem. Also that discrimatory award and Veto in hand of single team doesnt help either.

    2. Just bring the new rules progressively over a given number of years. Don’t try to introduce all these new concepts similtaneously.
      Risk to leave everything as is, and there’ll be more teams calling quits than new entries to the championship

  2. F1 didn’t and doesn’t need such big changes.
    Yes, we need a fix for financial distribution, some tweaks for cars, but not a radical move to “stock” Indycar 2.0

    I already mentioned here once – I have never thought I will be happy Ferrari has Veto right, and that I hope they use it.

  3. The biggest problem for F1 is that the amount of money put in by the teams has been allowed to spiral out of control. If the sport was cheaper for teams to run without the need of major backing of a car manufacturer (Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, McLaren, Alfa Romeo) or wealthy owner (Red Bull, STR, Racing Point, Haas) then you leave the sport with people who just want to race and prove they are the best at producing a car, paired with the best drivers.

    Far too much self interest in the sport. Too much else depends on the teams winning. Merc will pull out if they aren’t challenging, Ferrari rely on the F1 presence to sell cars etc. Teams that just go racing for the sake of winning is what F1 needs. The sport needs to cut costs to a point where sponsorship and prize money keep a team afloat. Then we will see an F1 we all want to watch, and I bet it won’t need DRS, reversed grids, qualifying races, Bernie’s joker lap idea, Bernie’s artificial rain races etc…!

    1. You are living in a fairy tale, if you think that some teams/people race just for the sake of winning. All the teams in F1 have one goal, To make money, directly or indirectly.

      And personally I’d hate watching your poor mans series. F1 has always been a rich mans sport, fans need to get over the millennial me to mentality.

      1. I agree, Dan. All the current teams in F1 have one goal. But if you watch BTCC for example, they race to win. Hardly any team has a separate business interest where the team is propped up by it. They rely on income from sponsors in the majority. Winning means they either keep their sponsor or become more appealing to another. I’d rather see a series where it is survival of the fittest.

        1. Some would argue that a, “winner takes all”, is survival of the fittest. Which is what F1 almost is at the moment.

          1. But it isn’t winner takes all. Ferrari don’t win the championships and get more money than anyone else. Williams get heritage payments and come last. How is that a fair distribution of winnings? “Winner takes less” is the phrase you are searching for.

        2. @tonyyeb

          But if you watch BTCC for example, they race to win.

          they race to win in order to sell cars for the manufacturer that is backing them.

          and it should also be noted here that the boom period of touring car racing was the periods that had a lot of manufacturer interest. the btcc in particular is a shadow of what it was 20-25+ years ago when there was tons of manufacturer’s with full on factory teams pushing the series forward to it’s most popular period.

          Same with indycar and it was also the same with f1.

          Fans always love to hate on the manufacturer’s for various reasons yet any category always tends to have it’s most exciting, interesting & popular periods during times that feature heavy manufacturer involvement. and they then all tend to decline in popularity during periods where it’s more about the independants despite fans often claiming thats what they would prefer to see, you get that & people start to lose interest… tis fact.

          1. @roger-ayles I’d argue the BTCC is at it’s most popular for years, with very minimal manufacturer interest. Lots of private teams, with only a few with direct support (10 cars out of grid of 31, and how much Vauxhall contribute is often doubted). I doubt many people would say it is “in the shadow” of it’s hey days of the late 1980s, early 1990s.

          2. @tonyyeb, at its most popular with whom?

            @roger-ayles is right that, when you compare the viewing figures and the attendance figures now with what they were back in the 1990s, the current figures for the BTCC are significantly below those historical peaks – they’re not even where they were in the mid to late 2000s.

            Back in the 1990s, the peak viewing figures for the BTCC highlights shows were in the order of 3 million, whilst crowds were averaging 30,000 to 35,000 per weekend. These days, the average crowd attendance is closer to 20,000-25,000, and only occasionally peaking up into the 30,000+ category, whilst viewing figures have gone from that peak of 3 million in the 1990s to 1.2 million in the mid 2000s to now having a maximum peak of 520,000 (most races peaked at just 350,000).

      2. Jose Lopes da Silva
        16th October 2019, 17:37

        Do you like to watch a driver that can’t be fired because his father bought him a team?

    2. then you leave the sport with people who just want to race and prove they are the best at producing a car, paired with the best drivers.

      @tonyyeb or pre-qualies :p

  4. It is impossible to form any really educated opinion on this, without being involved in all those meetings and negotiations…and those who are involved do not necessarily appear to have the proceedings under control, either. I agree that Liberty Media exhibit tendencies to steer F1 more towards the ‘entertainment’ category, while at the same time there is no doubt that the teams seem to have too much power in protecting their self interest…they call it saving the ‘sport’ aspect of F1. Both sides have their arguments, and the consequences of that are that everything from technical to sporting regulations keeps getting more complicated and (and unfathomable to common fan) in order to get everybody a piece of what they want…and that cannot end well, can it? Formula 1 needs to remain a sport that also entertains, but above all it is a business and there is no escaping that…wherever it will lead.

  5. That phrase – the DNA of Formula 1.

    The DNA of F1 EMBRACES change:
    Thats why cars are different now from race 1, engines at the back and amazing aero.
    Thats why drivers are safer now than race 1, death and serious injury is an exception rather than the norm.
    Thats why tracks are safer than race 1, modern barriers have undoubtedly saved lives.
    Thats why cars are faster than race 1, all of the above (and probably more) contribute to safe high speeds.

    Thats why I am exasperated about people using that phrase “The DNA of Formula 1” as a reason to defeat change and evolution in the sport.

    Apologies – end of rant.

    1. @ahxshades because the changes been proposed go against a lot of the dna of the sport & are effectively trying to turn it into a massively restricted, budget gimmick ridden show that would be GP1 in all but name.

      i’m glad teams (and drivers) are pushing back on some of those elements because a set of regulations that is too restrictive, too spec, relies on too many gimmicks and cap teams too much simply isn’t something i’ve much interest in watching because that vision simply isn’t f1.

      for all the more recent complaining about some aspects of f1, it’s many of those same aspects that got people interested in f1 and allowed it to grow to where it is. f1 without technology, performance, innovation, different cars/engines, pushing boundaries and so on would never be as popular as it has been to this point regardless of how competitive the teams are or how much passing happens.

      there is a reason categories below f1 that do offer better racing are not as popular, they don’t offer what f1 does.

      f1 should be f1 and not try and copy other categories and turn itself into gp1.

  6. Oh who cares. I’ll be watching something else than this billion dollar soap opera. Who’s standing with who, who likes this and who likes that, waah waah waah….Call me up when you put rubber on road. If this dies with a last season of 16 GP1 cars to fulfill existing contracts, fine.
    Kill the sport, not that it resembles one anymore anyway.

  7. I’m pretty darn happy with F1 at the moment, I just wish that it wasn’t quite so hard for more teams to compete for wins.

    Most of the items that the FIA has given up don’t seem all that important. I do hope to see the new aero concept. I think the cost cap is logical-ish, but I think there’s going to be ways around it.

    My big wish was for a negative-feedback system that would give us some surprises; For example, lower-performing teams would get to participate in FP1, while the top several teams had to wait for FP2/3. I wouldn’t want to see the big teams get punished, I’d just like to see the other teams have some extra opportunities to work out their kinks.

  8. Just bring the new rules progressively over a given number of years. Don’t try to introduce all these new concepts similtaneously.
    Risk to leave everything as is, and there’ll be more teams calling quits than new entries to the championship

  9. Ah yes Dieter, the parallels with Brexit continue. The teams must beware Americans smelling of chlorine and offering cheap chicken in reverse order
    Once again I am prompted to remark that Liberty never understood what they were getting into and still appear not to. When will it dawn that Bernie’s way, however much we all despised it, actually worked?

    Time for the FIA to wake up and just issue the regs. Damn the torpedoes, full ahead both,

    1. @rpaco, It is Bernie’s way that has saddled F1 with massive debt, which starves teams of sufficient funds to allow the innovation that made teams like Lotus, Brabham and Williams giant killers, if only until the giants managed to copy and improve. A series like F1 that returned 90% of revenue to the teams would have far less need for restrictive design rules and could also afford sponsorship friendly free-to-air TV deals.

      1. Yes actually I meant his talent for negotiation not his bleeding the sport dry.

  10. This situation embodies the real DNA of F1: Pinnacle of motorsport political machinations.

    No other series offers so much off-track action. Although…. Liberty, political rookie, is at a severe disadvantage – they even fumbled Bernie’s fail-safe ‘Divide and Conquer’ strategy.

    Liberty only succeeded in uniting (for now) Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. Bernie must be either chuckling or recoiling in horror.

  11. I’m wondering whether Liberty dropped the ball by assuming everything was set in stone and moved on to their next “new thing” (screw around with qualifying) or was it a case of “let’s distract them all with talk about reverse grid qualifying races so they don’t look too closely at the regulation situation”.

    Not really surprised, and a little bit over Liberty’s “everything’s going great, the teams are all on board” statements when clearly that’s not quite the case.

  12. Would you trust the “DNA of Formula 1” (whatever that is) to Liberty? They’ve employed some of the biggest cheats the sport ever had, and really haven’t shown any ability to improve or fix anything that Bernie did. Liberty (and the FIA) should understand they only need Ferrari. Any other team could go away, Formula 1 survives and the investment is safe. Do the deal with Ferrari, and tell everyone else to take it or leave it. Simple.

    1. @gabe, Really ! You would follow F1 if the teams were, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Abarth or Lancia.

      1. roberto giacometti
        17th October 2019, 5:26

        Don’t forget Jeep and RAM !!

  13. …from Liberty’s recently-formed technical department headed by ex-Renault/Williams technical director Pat Symonds…

    hmm so this explains why the proposed regulations are delayed

  14. roberto giacometti
    17th October 2019, 5:25

    What an absolute minefield !!
    Here’s my idea – press CONTROL ALT DELETE and in one strike of the pen – go back to 1982 specs.
    Everyone go out and buy a Cosworth DFV engine ( Are Cosworth still making these ?? , I’m sure they would be happy to recommence supply) and bolt it to the back of your chassis , with whatever manual gearbox it was in the day ( Xtrac I think ).Chassis has to be made by each team themselves.
    No aero , except for a wing on the front ( a single plane item) , and a bigger wing on the back ( no more than 2 planes) . No barge boards , no extra winglets , no diffusers, no side skirts.
    Steel brakes, no tyre blankets, no telemetry.
    If Ferrari and Renault want to play , 1.5 turbo engines allowed. No Hybrids. (NB – mercedes).
    Simple really.

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