Authors: Rio Sports
Change is coming to Formula One and the sport, which has evolved in an awkward, disjointed and unsatisfactory fashion in recent years, badly needs to get it right.
In the short term the new 2017 regulations seem to have at least worked in the sense of having two teams – Mercedes and Ferrari – competing at the front, with a good chance Red Bull will be joining them as the season progresses. It is a step forward from the dominance Mercedes have enjoyed for the past three years. However, the big three being in a different league to the rest of the grid is not something that should be accepted and nor is the sport’s inability to ensure the survival of new teams in the paddock.
Renault revealed their concept for the F1 car of the future at the Shanghai motorshow on Wednesday. A vision for 2027, the manufacturer presented a 600kg, closed-cockpit car, with four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, driven by a small internal combustion engine, with large battery systems to produce 1,340 brake horse power – a power to weight ratio far in excess of anything previously seen in F1. To put it in context, the current Mercedes engine is producing close to 1,000bhp. It’s a fascinating proposal but first the sport needs to ensure it is still popular and relevant come 2027.
As things stand the de facto two-tier grid is a major problem but the vested interests of the big three and their antipathy to giving away their advantage over the midfield has to be overcome. The next couple of years look promising in terms of competition and the future remains unwritten but in the mid-term the playing field needs to be levelled.
The Haas team principal, Guenther Steiner, knows why it is so crucial to get it right. “If all our fans go away what have the big teams achieved?” he asks. “If you outspend everybody but nobody watches any more it’s no good for their business. Nobody will be making money if all the fans go – all of us will be broke.”
Ross Brawn, F1’s sporting director, is working on how the sport will develop, with engine plans for 2021 already under discussion and a five-year plan for change, including how to make the grid attractive to new entries. Budget control and distribution of funds are key but so too is the model for how teams operate and here Haas is instructive.
The team, who were eighth last year in their debut season, are not content with being part of the midfield battle for ever, nor that there should be a separate midfield battle at all. Their founder, Gene Haas, certainly did not enter F1 only to compete for scraps and knows how to play the long game – he entered Nascar in 2002 and by 2011 had won the championship.
“He knows that it will change,” confirms the Italian Steiner, who previously worked for Jaguar and Red Bull. “The sport will change and you need to be there to be part of it – you cannot jump on to the bandwagon when it’s too late. In 2021 the new contract is coming up and maybe the playing field is going to be levelled and maybe we can compete and we will be ready for that.”
Being there to be part of it is one of the most crucial challenges. F1 has lost all three start-up teams who joined the grid in 2010: HRT, Caterham and Manor. Haas have taken a different approach to ensure they do not follow them. The team have a technical partnership with Ferrari. They use the Scuderia’s engines, and buy in their parts – gearbox, suspension, steering rack, brakes, uprights, pedal box and fuel cell – some fearsomely expensive components to build and develop independently. They design their own chassis in conjunction with Dallara, subcontracting parts of the task to the Italian manufacturer.
It is a framework that ensures they control their budget, as Steiner notes. “It’s much easier to estimate your costs because you have a contract,” he says. “You know if you can afford it or not.”
The customer car concept is not one that is favoured in F1. Teams such as Williams and Sauber vehemently oppose it but Haas are not a customer team. They have a close but legitimate partnership with Ferrari and are a team in their own right rather than merely a client. Brawn very much believes the sport can learn lessons from their example.
Steiner agrees. “People who want to start a team should look at it,” he says. “It seems to be working. The last three teams which entered are gone, it didn’t work so it’s proof that more of the same will not work.”
The big boys will not be laid low by the Haas model but nor would its adoption necessarily devalue the sport. The teams that remain as entirely independent entities will continue to do so but if it encourages new entries, especially from a greater range of countries, it should not be dismissed and that is exactly why Brawn believes it is worthy of further study. If he is successful in building a truly competitive grid, that it could be a healthier and more sizeable one will be a further change for the better.
“It is achievable and I think the will at the moment is there for most people,” says Steiner. “And it will be the best thing for the sport.”