As the Formula 1 world welcomes in its 68th world championship season with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, a key issue looming large in the background is the future of the sport as plotted by Liberty Media, a saga that is likely to unravel by mid-season
Of the triumvirate that leads the sport at the moment, Ross Brawn is tasked to oversee the development of new Formula 1 regulations which will come into effect in 2021, however, the opposition to the preliminary vision presented to the teams late last year is formidable.
Dissenter in chief is Ferrari whose president Sergio Marchionne has threatened to pull the iconic team from the sport if the ethos of Formula 1 does remain intact. Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff has more than once backed Marchionne’s stance, warning against provoking the Maranello boss. An alliance of sorts has clearly been reached by the sport’s two leading teams.
Ahead of the season-opening weekend in Melbourne, Brawn spoke to Auto Motor und Sport at length about his vision for the sport while inadvertently revealing that much is going on behind the scenes which not even the best-connected media are privy to.
The question everyone wants an answer to is when the new rules will become a reality, to which Brawn replied, “By mid-season, everyone will know where we want to go.”
With regards to the nature of the rules, Brawn explained, “These rules have clear objectives. One is that the races have to be more entertaining, another that Formula 1 is economically viable for all involved. We want a field with ten to twelve healthy teams.”
“Costs have increased dramatically in the last five or six years, starting from a level when costs were already incredibly high. We have to agree operating budgets that still make Formula 1 the premier class in motorsport but still financially feasible for all.”
“We need cars with which can race together well and in which a driver can show his talent. All our surveys and analysis have shown that Formula 1 drivers are extremely important because most fans are fascinated by the drivers.”
When asked to assess his first season at the helm of the sport, Brawn recalled, “Exactly one year ago, Chase Carey, Sean Bratches and I sat in a small rented office. There was nothing but the three of us. We first had to get to know each other and also the size of the task that was ahead of us.”
“Much has happened in the last twelve months. We now have an organization of around 300 people. We have collected information, analyzed processes and rules, and developed an understanding of what works and what does not. There is an incredible energy in this group to tackle new ideas and projects for the future.”
“I’m optimistic that we now have an infrastructure that can handle this task, even though it might stumble a bit here and there because everything came together so quickly.”
Nevertheless, Brawn acknowledged that his optimism is not shared by all in the F1 paddock, “Of course, the teams, organizers, and TV companies want to know where this journey is heading.”
“The more they hear about our plans, the more they begin to share that optimism. We have had good and open discussions with all parties, something that did not exist before. Everyone sees where our investments are going.”
“That’s the big picture. In detail, we have started to manage the sport so that it continues to flourish in the future. Now that the foundation is laid, it’s up to us to show what we can do,” added Brawn.
He downplayed the initial backlash and said, “Ferrari and Mercedes have told us that they want to see the big picture first. The engine regulations are only part of it. It’s about the business plan, the rules and the rule-making. They are not ready to agree unless they know what our roadmap looks like.”
Formula 1 has two distinct camps in the paddock: The Haves and the Have-Nots, the gulf between the teams is ever increasing to the point that the difference in performance has divided the sport into two clear divisions. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in the top flight and the rest of the teams fighting for scraps.
Brawn suggests a budget-cap of sorts is on the agenda, “We need to create an attractive environment for the [smaller teams]. The last team to say goodbye was Manor. Nobody wanted to buy it, which means something is wrong here.”
“We must create a framework that helps teams survive if they are reasonably business savvy. Teams must have enough income and the costs must be within a structure that allows teams with modest sponsorship income to do a good job.”
“We want the cars to look attractive and spectacular. This requires appropriate technical and sporting rules. We do not want the outcome of the race to be predictable.”
“An example is that cars seldom break down these days. A great technical achievement, certainly but unfortunately that does not make for good stories. Remember the heartbreaking scenes when a car stopped on the final laps? It was a sporting tragedy, but you always remember it. That’s sport.”
“It’s important to have cars that can race well with each other. The car has to also look good on the track. Whether the cars are two seconds faster or slower, no one notices. They will still be the fastest cars out there. Speed is difficult to fathom, for instance, a MotoGP bike is 30 seconds slower than a Formula 1 car but it looks really fast.”
“Hardly anyone knows that the difference in the lap time is so great. The impression that remains is that the MotoGP motorcycles look spectacular, that riders can always take their machines 100 percent to the limit and do not have to pay much attention to tires, brakes and engines and they can fight each other.”
“In Formula 1 we have had some great wet races. Did anyone complain that the lap times were 15 seconds slower?”
When asked to outline his personal preferences for Formula 1, Brawn explained, “The main reason for the spectacular lap times is because of aerodynamics. The grip is incredible.”
“Some argue that you should strip cars of their aerodynamics and simply put on fat tyres. I would not go that far because aerodynamics are not all bad, but at the moment it is very difficult to follow another car.”
“We believe from our analysis that this effect can be reduced with certain regulations. The proposals will be presented to the teams after completing our study.”
“We have to also integrate the halo better into the design of the car so it does not look like an add-on.”
F1 cars today all appear very similar, without liveries they would be hard to tell apart, Brawn wants this to change, “We want a Formula 1 car that inspires people, one that stands for its era. The current cars are certainly not the most elegant designs. The aesthetics could be significantly better.”
He blames this on rulemaking methods of the past, “We have written rules without first thinking about how the cars might look. We also never had a chance to change things quickly when things got out of hand.”
“In future, we need faster decision-making processes to make it easier to correct obvious mistakes. We had the airbox winglet that nobody wanted, but lived with it for two or three years before we could get rid of it.”
As for the profile of teams they want in the series, Brawn said, “Part of the magic of Formula 1 is the mix between manufacturers and private teams.”
“We have to find a good middle ground, especially in the engine regulations. If we still had the V8 engines, would we have new manufacturers in the field? I do not think so. No one builds high-revving naturally aspirated engines anymore.”
“On the other hand, the highly complex technology like the MGU-H keeps many manufacturers away. We are fortunate to have four car companies at the moment. That’s a good number.”
“While on the one hand, we have to respect the investments of the current manufacturers, on the other hand, we must think about how we can attract more.”
“With the current engine rules, we see no chance of attracting new manufacturers, not even an independent manufacturer with the help of a sponsor.”
“The MGU-H is up for discussion. Seven years ago, when it was first baptized, it seemed to be a relevant technology, but it has not been adopted by the car industry,” added Brawn.
Big Question: Can Ross and Liberty find a happy middle ground between the Haves and the Have-Nots for Formula 1 to prosper?