Although 2020 will in many ways go down in Formula 1 history as an annus horribilis – albeit thankfully without the tragedies that blighted some seasons – the year just past illustrated that the sport can deal decisively and efficiently with adverse conditions. F1 can arguably hold its head higher than other elite sports following its reaction to the challenges posed by Covid-19, not only with regard to the robustness of its testing regime, but also the extraordinarily low number of infections amongst F1 personnel.
It would be naïve to believe Covid respects calendars more than it respects borders. It was inevitable the pandemic would continue into 2021, and various countries are again in stringent lockdowns.
Last weekend we broke the news that the Australian Grand Prix is likely to be postponed. An official announcement is expected shortly, but the crucial word here is ‘postponed’.
Having salvaged F1’s 2020 world championship season by packing 17 grands prix into five-and-a-half months, F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media is adamant it can stage 23 events this year despite the ongoing pandemic. To do so F1 will need to draw on every one of last year’s lessons, and then some.
As though that were not enough, F1 teams face probably the most challenging season on record. Not only will they need to grapple with uncertain logistics but be forced to gear up for 2022, which brings the most sweeping technical changes in recent history, all while wrestling with the effects of budget caps and revised prize money structures.
There are big changes at the very top of the sport as well. The 2021 season marks the end of the FIA’s four-yearly presidential election cycle and the last of Jean Todt’s three mandates. Meanwhile Stefano Domenicali moves into the Liberty hot seat as replacement for Chase Carey. Clearly, potential for disruption exists.
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Last year folk queried F1’s optimism when it launched its reconfigured, 17-race calendar in response to the pandemic. Former F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone and ex-FIA president Max Mosley even called for the season to be cancelled entirely. Yet Liberty pulled off its fixtures. More recently others made similar claims of irresponsibility when Liberty revealed a 23-race 2021 F1 calendar, but it would surely have been utterly irresponsible to have planned not to race.
A well-stocked calendar is vital to F1’s financial stability after the sport weathered 2020 only by borrowing from the future; if not directly, then in goodwill terms. This applies across the board: Teams kept sponsors sweet despite providing less exposure and no on-site hospitality; some circuits which lost races have not refunded fans or have pleaded with them to roll over tickets; and broadcasters screened 17 rounds – five fewer than scheduled.
F1 itself is indebted to stakeholders: Circuits had contracts cancelled at short notice; teams across the grid earned less; fans did not enjoy the full spectacle – fewer rounds were staged, plus they were excluded from all bar a few (reduced capacity) races – and broadcasters and advertisers did not receive full value. No blame laid at Liberty’s feet, but the fact is strenuous efforts are required to maintain faith and trust. Hence 23 races.
However it is likely the early part of the season will be rearranged, with events slipping down the order or replaced entirely by grands prix in more Covid-friendly territories, primarily in Europe where turnarounds can be quicker. Don’t be surprised if one of 2020’s substitute races replaces China’s round should the country get iffy about admitting foreigners, as is now strongly rumoured will be the case for the grand prix. Another European event is expected to slot into the TBC date created by Vietnam’s dallying.
Liberty seemingly has two options if it is to accommodate Melbourne later in the year: August, via a quick return trip Down Under – this is said to be a ‘no-no’ as it will deprive F1 personnel of a summer break for a second consecutive year – or at the tail-end of the season. The most logical slot is between Brazil and Saudi Arabia, but would that entail either a far-flung triple-header set or pushing the Middle Eastern races back by a week or two. We’ll see…
Due to the ravaging effects of Covid, the FIA delayed introduction of F1’s ‘new era’ regulations by a year to 2022, concurrently imposing freezes on design and development until exactly a year ahead of introduction, i.e. January 1st 2021. You can bet your last coin that all teams were geared up to start work on their 2022 challengers as the clock struck midnight.
The 2022 regulations are expected to be ‘clarified’ considerably as and when ambiguities and unintended consequences are identified. Accordingly, teams are likely to be circumspect about investing resources in ‘grey’ areas, particularly as such activities are now subject to budget cap restrictions and aerodynamic test regulations. F1’s days of open-end spending are over.
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These budget cap restrictions apply mainly to major teams, and they have unenviable issues to contend with: downsizing staffing levels and resources to meet 2021’s budget cap of $145 million (£106m). McLaren is believed to have completed its retrenchment process, but Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are still restructuring departments and transferring staff to advanced (non-F1) engineering divisions.
As revealed here, Ferrari is hard at work at creating a customer division aimed at providing support to Haas (initially), but the plan is to extend the department to (legally) offer its expertise to another team, with Sauber, whose livery and naming rights contract with Alfa Romeo expires this year, being the most likely candidate. Whatever, that should absorb a sizeable headcount complement.
However, with budget caps reducing by a further $5m to $140 for 2022 (and to $135 for 2023), teams need to formulate further retrenchment plans. Carrying over of (large) chunks of last year’s cars for the stopgap 2021 season potentially makes life easier, but car development has not been totally banned, and the year-to-year changes are more extensive than perhaps anticipated.
The partial development ‘freeze’ was formulated with the best of intentions, namely reducing costs and effort during the transitional year. But then – as always in F1, which tends to make last-minute, invariably compromised changes – unintended consequences reared their collective heads once the changes had been agreed.
In order to control development costs a token system was formulated with parts given a one or double token value to enable teams to select which areas of the cars they could upgrade. However, whether by intention or design, non-listed parts sourced from another team may be upgraded for free to their 2020 specification as the supplying teams carry the ‘cost’.
Thus, the likes of Racing Point (Aston Martin this year), Haas and AlphaTauri potentially stand to gain from upgrades ‘paid’ for by their supplying teams, namely Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull respectively. McLaren, which switches to Mercedes power unit from Renault via a pre-agreed contract intended for the 2022 regulations but sources no further parts from the Three-Pointed Star, will expend its token allocation on the engine change.
Tyres will also change for 2022, from 13 inches to 18. Development was shelved last year due to Covid, but will shortly recommence and all teams are expected to contribute to Pirelli’s test programme. These activities will place further drains (and strains) on team engineers just when they can least afford the disruption; given the massive changes required to accommodate low-profile rubber there is no other choice.
Also pencilled into 2021’s agenda are talks about F1’s future power units – a crucial topic given increasing global opposition to fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines. On one hand F1 needs to embrace zero-carbon fuels to remain relevant; on the other it needs to attract additional engine suppliers as safeguard against exits by existing manufacturers, any of whom could walk within a year, as Honda will in less than 12 months’ time.
This is where it gets political: Existing suppliers prefer as little as competition as possible given that additional brands dilute the kudos of competing in F1, while their presence potentially reduces demand on individual suppliers, in turn affecting the marginal costs of engine production. Yet the suppliers need to absorb the extra costs as engine prices are capped.
Engine suppliers, who usually push for delays in regulation changes, are calling for truncated timeframes for alternate fuel engine regulations but disguising their concerns by citing environmental grounds. The shorter the development runway, the less chance of any new engine suppliers appearing. Mercedes’ biggest nightmare is arguably Porsche, while Renault’s is a resurgent Peugeot.
Another engine battleground is the still unresolved question of whose power units Red Bull and AlphaTauri will after Honda leave. The first prize for them is to persuade the FIA, F1 and all teams to accept an engine freeze from 2022 until the end of the current formula (the window being 2025/6 but still open) to enable both teams to continue with Honda power units, if they are bequeathed by the Japanese company upon its exit.
Failing that, they need to persuade Renault to supply them both. But Red Bull and Renault’s shared history is both good and bad. After sweeping to both titles for four straight years (2010-13) the partnership split acrimoniously in 2018. Relations appear to have thawed recently, but one wonders what muzzle clauses would be inserted into contracts should the Red Bull and Renault reconcile…
Another option is for Ferrari, which has capacity for a single further team, to voluntarily supply, say, AlphaTauri. In this scenario the FIA would be forced to call upon Renault to supply Red Bull under nomination regulations that kick in when a team is stranded – the supplier with the fewest customers is nominated to plug the gap. In a stroke the Red Bull teams’ synergies and interdependence with major components would be struck a severe blow.
Finally, 2021 marks the year of big changes at the top of the FIA and F1. After Todt was elected in 2009 he ordered an overhaul of the governing body’s statutes, with limits imposed on office terms (three) and age (75 years) at time of election. Todt was elected thrice (2009, ’13 and ’17) and turns 75 next month. Thus, the FIA’s General Assembly in December will feature presidential elections.
Who will succeed Todt? Candidates are unlikely to show their hands before July, but runners include: FIA Sport deputy-president Graham Stoker, a barrister specialising in sports and international law; Mohammed bin Sulayem, Emirati rally champion, president of the UAE Automobile & Touring Club and FIA official; and world rally champion and motorsport entrepreneur David Richards CBE, chairman of Motorsport UK.
Todt protégé Domenicali’s appointment at Formula 1 Management was revealed and analysed here in October. His predecessor Carey did a sterling job and leaves a largely stable ship for the Italian to steer, but that the ongoing challenges created by Covid mean Stefano’s calm and considered approach will be much needed.
All in, an exceptionally challenging year awaits F1, and not only due to Covid – whose unpredictability is likely to tax the sport’s masters at least as much as in 2020, if not even more so in light of the scale of F1’s ambitions for 2021.
The nation-wide lockdown imposed by British prime minister Boris Johnson this week against the backdrop of a soaring infection rate despite the roll-out of a vaccination programme proved just how quickly things can change. The largely unknown effects of Brexit add further uncertainty in the country which is home to a majority of F1’s teams.
F1 and its competitors collectively managed to weather last year with aplomb, emerging all the stronger for the experience, and the same can be expected this year. But, as the foregoing outlines, it surely won’t be plain sailing.
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