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Strategy Group Gives Honda A Break, But Can They Actually Improve F1?

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Surprisingly, the often inept and self-interested Formula One Strategy Group has made some constructive decisions. Changes to the power unit penalties which are crippling this season will be rushed through. On the other hand, they’re sticking to plans to overhaul the car design. Let’s look at today’s decisions.

The F1 Strategy Group isn’t exactly known for making decisions that benefit the sport as a whole and not just the member teams on the Strategy Group. Their plan to bring back refueling from the Strategy Group’s May meeting, for example, was unanimously rejected by all the team principals in June for being too costly and for putting crews and drivers in additional danger.


This latest meeting, though, had a mix of good and bad. Actual care was shown regarding the issue of manufacturers getting up to speed with the current engine package! Then again, the controversial ban on driver aids and coaching was strengthened. Worse yet, plans to shake up the cars’ design in two years (at great cost) are still being put forth as a good idea when the sport needs to find more ways to cut costs for struggling teams.

Here’s a look at what the Strategy Group decided this time.

Power Unit Penalties Will Be Softened

Grid Penalty Roundup has become a depressing weekly feature here, as teams who used to be competitive like Red Bull and McLaren struggle with unreliable power units this season. Penalties were devised before anyone ever expected so many cars to be stuck with unreliable power units, so teams are often stuck with penalties on top of penalties for not qualifying high enough to serve all of their grid penalties. When you’re racing a Red Bull whose Renault power unit may or may not even make it through the race, having to serve a drive-through penalty on top of starting from the back of the grid feels like the FIA has added insult to injury. They’re already driving wounded this season!


Surprisingly, the F1 Strategy Group voted to do something about this.

“Following the Austrian GP, an overhaul of the power unit penalties has been unanimously agreed and will be submitted to the F1 Commission via an express fax vote for an adoption at the World Motorsport Council in Mexico City next week,” explained an FIA press release today.

That’s right: these power unit penalty tweaks could be adopted as early as next week, and apply to this season. As Autosport understands it, the Strategy Group wants to do away with the extra penalties for unused grid penalties so that the worst fate a team will face for using an extra power unit will be a move to the back of the grid.

Additionally, new engine supplier Honda will get a break after all.

“Furthermore, it was agreed to allow an extra power unit per driver in the first year to any new manufacturer entering the championship and, for the sake of fairness, the measure will apply retroactively to Honda for the 2015 season,” read today’s FIA press release.


Curiously, though, this only applies to new teams when Red Bull was the initial proponent of adding an additional engine for the year back in May, however, Red Bull asked for it to be applied across the board. Sorry, Red Bull. Everyone (yourselves included) thinks that Renault has had ample time to get its crap together with this year’s power units. No extra power unit for you.

It seems like Red Bull should be more focused on securing a possible power unit deal with a manufacturer that does have its crap together than asking for another Renault engine for 2015 at this point, anyway.


“Even a B version of the Ferrari would be better than the A version of the Renault,” Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko told Sport Bild, as quoted by Fox Sports. Mmmhmm. They’d lose their de facto factory team status with Renault by switching to Ferrari power, but if Renault can’t produce a working power unit, who cares?

2015’s done for Red Bull and Toro Rosso. Put a fork in it, and put those cows on the grill. At least Honda re-postponed their inevitable back-of-grid-start end for a little bit.


A Bigger Crackdown On Driver Aids And Coaching

Perhaps the ambiguity over whether or not Mercedes told driver Lewis Hamilton a bit too much about his teammate’s car at the Canadian Grand Prix spurred a clarification on what can and cannot be said in radio communication. From today’s FIA statement:

Increased restrictions on driver aids and coaching received unanimous support and will be rapidly implemented, starting from this year’s Belgian Grand Prix - with a particular emphasis on race starts – and in 2016. These measures will bring back the driver in full control of the car, enhancing races excitement and unpredictability.


The Belgian Grand Prix is in August, so this change is coming up fast.

If this was The Morning Shift, I’d put this in the “Neutral” section. Teams have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and it’s their job to get both drivers to finish as well as possible in order to score constructors’ championship points. On the other hand, some fans want to see drivers really work for a win, and having all that information fed to them makes the task of driving the car to a win considerably easier. To me, this seems like a distraction from the bigger issues at hand, such as...


More Speed! More Aggression! More Noise! (And More Costs, Too)

The F1 Strategy Group doesn’t seem to understand the biggest problem with this season. When only one team nails a rules change, it makes for some rather dull racing out front. Fewer cars vie for the top of the podium this season, and silly types who don’t realize there’s an entire field of cars still battling for position behind the front runners tend to tune out.


That’s the problem: F1 is losing viewers because too few teams are battling for championships. That’s what should be fixed—before sound, before looks, before any of the superficial brouhaha. Even if the cars sounded meaner than the V10 and V8 eras, we’d be just as unhappy if the racing sucked. Sure, there’s a lot of whining about sound with the quieter power units, but I feel as if that’s a secondary problem to the fact that it’s become a Lewis vs. Nico season, and not even Ferrari’s wonderboy driver Sebastian Vettel can catch either of the Mercedes cars.

The solution to the problem would be to allow those other, struggling teams a chance to catch up somehow. The solution to F1’s woes proposed by the Strategy Group, however, is to swap up the rules to make the cars look meaner (read: require teams to do more testing to make new looks functional), faster (read: even more R&D fun-time needed to make sure they actually nail those changes) and louder (well, at least this one sounds relatively simple). They’ve been talking about doing this since May, so it’s well on its way to becoming a finalized set of recommendations for the World Motorsport Council to approve next week.


“A new set of regulations aimed at achieving faster and more aggressive looking cars for 2017, to include wider cars and wheels, new wings and floor shape and significantly increased aerodynamic downforce has been outlined and is currently being assessed by the teams,” explained the FIA.

Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but this all sounds like more expensive work. Perhaps one of the struggling teams will nail it, as Mercedes did with the new V6 hybrid power unit formula. More likely, though, is that the teams with the resources to rush through a decent design under the revised rules will stay ahead, and the new louder, meaner, faster rules will simply mean that under-resourced teams will remain under-resourced and unable to catch up.


The changes to the exhaust will come before any other changes are made to the cars, however, as the FIA statement states that the new exhaust will “improve engine noise by 2016.”

Let’s Look At Customer Power Unit Costs

If the costs of developing all-new wider cars shoots up in 2017, perhaps they can make it up a little bit with the smaller teams by tweaking customer power unit costs. From the FIA statement today:

Mandate has been given to the FIA and FOM to propose a comprehensive set of measures for power unit development and cost of supply, including full review of the token system, increase in race fuel allowance, limits on the usage of engine dynamometers etc.


Maybe the Strategy Group gets the real issues at hand more than the Pontiac-esque “Wider is Better” mandate lets on. This could be a step in the right direction, provided they find a more reasonable way to price power units to customer teams. Limited dyno usage is one way to ensure that every manufacturer is forced to conserve costs somewhere, for example. Perhaps limiting the cost of developing the power units could make up for to make up for the possibilities of increased fuel consumption (hinted at here—it’s always one step forward and two steps back, eh?) and developing all-new bodywork.

Autosport says that this look at power unit costs is “part of a wider tweak of the current engine formula.” No one’s really happy with this too-quiet, too-costly formula, but how can it be tweaked now without pricing out the smaller teams? Everyone’s already geared up for the V6 hybrids for a while. That being said, this part of the FIA’s statement at least hints at the idea that conserving costs may factor in to whatever changes the Strategy Group is considering.


More Pirelli Tire Choices For Teams

As previously reported, teams will get to select which of the Pirelli compounds they want to run for a weekend. The FIA statement does confirm that it’s Pirelli whose finalizing this plan for 2016, however, not Michelin or anyone else.


Possible Changes To Qualifying And Race Weekend Formats? Huh?


No, seriously, what?

No one I know thinks that the race weekend format is an issue whatsoever with this season. No one. It’s simple and easy to follow.


The FIA left this purposely vague in their statement:

Several exciting and innovative changes to the qualifying and race weekend formats have also been discussed and are being evaluated by FIA and FOM for a 2016 introduction.



Fortunately, F1 journo Will Buxton elaborated what these possible changes were. According to Buxton, the Strategy Group proposed that Free Practice 3 be replaced with a qualifying session, where cars will be sorted by lap time for a Saturday evening race. The Saturday race would be a one-hour qualifying race for the main event on Sunday.



What?! Why overcomplicate a good thing?

It’s not the format that needs improvement. It’s the racing—the number of competitive teams, the ability of new teams and manufacturers to come in and participate, and the ability to pass and make things exciting.


Photo credit: Getty Images

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