The biggest change yesterday’s Formula One Strategy Group yesterday passed involves bringing back a practice that was banned to save costs: refueling. They also started work on a proposal “to ensure the sustainability of the sport,” per Formula One, but initial rumors as to what that may involve aren’t exactly flattering.
Before we get into the rumors about what might be in that proposal, let’s get the items that were for-sure approved at the meeting out of the way. Refueling is back for 2017! Refueling was last seen in 2009 and there will still be a maximum amount of fuel per race, but teams won’t have to carry as much of it onboard throughout the race. They will, however, have to pay to transport all the gear needed to refuel in the pits. Dolla dolla billz, y’all.
Refueling itself is exciting, sure, but it’s not exactly the solution cash-strapped teams were hoping would come out of this meeting. The reason? In-race refueling was banned after the 2009 reason for being too costly.
“It was confirmed that from 2010, refueling during a race will be forbidden in order to save the costs of transporting refueling equipment and increase the incentive for engine builders to improve fuel economy,” explained the World Motor Sport Council in April 2009, as reprinted on The Buxton Blog.
Furthermore, races with refueling weren’t any more exciting than the snoozefests we’ve bemoaned in recent seasons. It’s not a measure that will improve overtaking, or get the cars all closer in performance. As Luke Smith on MotorSportsTalk argues in his insightful look through recent F1 history, teams were content to get a bit more space on their competition whenever they knew they had a bit more fuel onboard than their competitors.
Consider this damning statistic printed in Smith’s article, which compares the number of overtakes per race in the previous refueling era to those in races held today:
Let’s make it quite obvious with two stats:
– Average number of overtakes from 1994-2009: 14.94
– Average number of overtakes from 2010-2014: 48.77
Yeah, that’s definitely a step backwards. The strategy around refueling can be interesting, but when you’ve been tasked with making the show of it all more compelling and exciting, having to keep up with fuel loads just to understand why someone’s jumping ahead of a car in the pits is not the answer.
Also coming in 2017 will be wider tires, which were part of Pirelli’s proposal to keep their bid for F1. Cars will get to drop five to six seconds per lap through a variety of speed mods, which include aerodynamic changes, a reduction in car weight, and higher revving engines. The new higher engine rev limits promise more noise from the power units berated for being too quiet. Formula One also promises “more aggressive looks” in 2017. Three cheers for superficial changes!
In the more immediate future, teams will get their pick of two of the four dry tire compounds to use in a race in 2016. No more pre-selected tire choices from Pirelli. Think of how much more interesting Circuit of the Americas’ first race would have been with a less conservative tire choice, for example. It’s one more thing that’s up to the teams to decide.
And no, as expected, Red Bull didn’t get their fifth engine for this year. Sorry, Red Bull. At least you’re still the least repulsive tasting energy drink? Time to start sending delicious cheese baskets to Audi, I guess. Now that’s a company that knows how to make a racing engine last.
Wind tunnel usage also wasn’t banned, so there’s one cost-cutting measure that quickly moved off the table.
So, to recap, it sounds like they’re going to have to redesign the chassis entirely to accommodate the visual and refueling changes that the F1 Strategy Group approved, and now everyone has to buy and transport refueling equipment. Both of those cost money, even more so than a gentle evolution of the existing cars around similarly sized tires would have. What, then, is the series doing to rein in costs?
Furthermore, in light of the various scenarios presented by the independent consulting company mandated by the F1 Strategy Group, at the initiative of the FIA, to work on the reduction of costs and following a constructive exchange, a comprehensive proposal to ensure the sustainability of the sport has emerged. The Strategy Group member Teams have committed to refine it in the next few weeks, in consultation with the other teams involved in the championship.
While they also mention that there won’t be significant changes to the engines (farewell, less expensive Cosworth options), they don’t get into the meat of what else they may be doing to keep costs under control. All of the other results of this meeting will raise the price of participation, which will keep the grid from expanding as they need it to.
Customer cars (where one team pays to use a manufacturer’s entire car) were one of the biggest rumors flying around today, and while they weren’t explicitly noted in Formula One’s press release, Adam Cooper’s F1 Blog reports that McLaren team principal Ron Dennis convinced the F1 Strategy Group that third cars aren’t just fine if the struggling teams collapse, but that customer cars are a possible next step.
If true, those are big words out of a team who’s suddenly a backmarker with their new Honda power units, Ron. Big, ridiculous, and seemingly uncaring words.
That being said, Honda could use the extra mileage and seat time from a third or customer car could help them develop their power units into something competitive, as they’re struggling with McLaren’s two cars as their only guinea pigs.
Cooper reports that existing independent teams such as Sauber, Force India, Lotus and Manor Marussia would be given the first right of refusal as to whether they wanted to switch to customer cars. Given that Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and Force India co-owner Vijay Mallya have both been extremely vocal against the idea, I doubt any plan that suggests customer cars would gain any traction among the smaller teams (unless you count Red Bull BFFs Toro Rosso).
Kaltenborn explained to Autosport:
I think it’s not at all a good idea. I cannot even follow the argument that it’s going to reduce costs.
Formula 1 is about constructors and we have to meet the requirement of listed parts to be a constructor.
F1 needs in its DNA this challenge. It’s never been any different; you’ve always had manufacturer teams and smaller teams competing against each other.
People like to see a Williams and Force India come really close to beating a really big team.
If there are only three manufacturers, people will see them competing against each other with some other guys at the back having their own fight - and those teams would only be known in their own countries.
To Kaltenborn, a move to customer cars isn’t a move based in fairness that would get more teams to be competitive. Kaltenborn (and many other fans) believe that such a move would only ensure that only the factory teams can compete for a win.
On the other hand, Racecar Engineering pointed out back in 2013 that Formula One has quite the history of teams running other teams’ kit, and that customer cars wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Toro Rosso would once again be able to run Red Bull’s cars with no shame or hum-hawing about where their chassis design came from. Customer cars could also provide more teams the opportunity to bring in a junior team, akin to Toro Rosso. There, fresh driving talent could cut its teeth without having to move onto the main squad, or being forced into a test role that doesn’t get nearly as much seat time.
So, would customer cars actually save the smaller teams, or merely make them a second class of racing? Manor Marussia may have had a better time getting started this year if they were able to use someone else’s car in the interim. However, many fans have grown to appreciate the design challenge of each team being responsible for their own cars. F1 is as much about the clever engineering and the teams themselves as it is about the drivers, and sometimes it’s the backmarkers who produce the most ingenious tricks on shoestring budgets.
The same Racecar Engineering article that explains how Formula One has done this before also mentions that bringing customer cars back could be detrimental in developing young engineering and design talent in the sport. The next Adrian Newey probably isn’t going to start out at Red Bull. He’ll start out at Sauber, Toro Rosso or some other smaller outfit. If the smaller outfits do less design work, that provides fewer opportunities to get young talent the experience they need to move up to the big teams. The whole sport could suffer in the long run.
Likewise, F1 pundit Joe Saward believes that customer cars could crowd out smaller teams who do opt to build their own car. What self-respecting manufacturer would let their customer team get beaten by a Force India or a Lotus? And furthermore, Saward argues that the customer teams would almost be guaranteed to be a second class of race cars. What manufacturer would ever let a customer team beat its factory squad? And how would a customer team ever make the jump to designing its own cars? They aren’t exactly getting to train young engineering talent in the meantime.
“The thing that the big teams miss (or worse, do not care about) is that this will destroy the manufacturing base of the sport – the one thing that makes it different,” argues Saward.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff suggested an alternative: perhaps customer cars are a step too far, but manufacturers could offer up more pieces of the car for sale and thus, reduce research and design costs for smaller, struggling teams.
“We have extended the listed parts list already to a level where you can basically buy the whole car, apart from the bodywork and the monocoque,” Wolff told Autosport. “That is almost like a customer car.”
Wolff himself isn’t a fan of the customer car idea unless the situation becomes dire in Formula One, and the grid becomes so small that the remaining teams and manufacturers have to fill it somehow.
“I am personally against customer cars because I think it is detrimental to many teams who are proper constructors, and this is about being a constructor - it is a constructors’ world championship,” he told Autosport.
Perhaps Wolff has a point. Let’s not throw the idea of a constructors’ world championship out just yet.
Either way, the powers-that-be over Formula One have to come up with something that will ensure the sport will not merely keep existing teams on the grid, but actually grow. There’s a reason we’ve all been drooling over the World Endurance Championship all year: that series is growing, both in prominence and in grid size. F1 should come over and take a few notes.
It’s one thing to mandate changes that make the cars look cool for the fans. Refueling and design tweaks won’t ensure that new and struggling teams will get more competitive, or be able to afford to stay.
Furthermore, if there’s any rumor that gets right to the heart of the utter uselessness of having important matters decided by an F1 Strategy Group comprised of only the most successful teams, it’s the rumor of customer cars. None of the smaller independent outfits seem to want those at all. They want to be able to keep building cars on their own to compete in the constructors’ championship as constructors. Fans want to see more than one or two teams compete for a win as well, so narrowing down the number of competitive teams out of the manufacturers’ self-interest seems wrong.
Perhaps the F1 Strategy Group will be able to take feedback from the smaller teams in the next few weeks and craft a more inclusive solution that would ensure closer racing at a price point where more teams can come in and participate. Either that or, well, why should we give our competitors a leg up? For the health of the sport? Uh, but what if we lose?
If Formula One needs anything right now, it’s a big ol’ slap across the face. It’s past time to put selfish needs aside and include the smaller teams on the bigger plans for the future of the sport. It makes zero sense for the teams most affected by the sport’s cost crisis to be excluded from the primary conversations on how to fix it.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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