Bernie Ecclestone keeps banging on to his house-trained media that there is an urgent need to change the F1 engine rules. This has been going on for more than a year and it is clear that no-one is really listening. The F1 Strategy Group talks itself round and round in circles and little really changes. So what is being achieved, if anything? The only conclusion that I have been able to come up with, which fits the facts, is that Bernie feels that his control of the sport is threatened and he is keeping everyone guessing, by constantly talking of change. Throwing in flash-bang grenades hither and thither to confuse. If there was no uncertainty about the future, perhaps more manufacturers would come in and, allied to the other big companies, would be in a position to push the sport around more.
In truth, this is already happening because Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull between them control nine of the 10 teams. They have been able to demand more money and more political say than they ever had in the past and Ecclestone was forced to give them what they wanted, in order to get them into line with a commercial agreement to go from 2010 to 2020. He would probably argue that he is protecting the sport from big corporations, but then he is working for a company that is sucking value out of the business and giving nothing back.
The need for control meant that there is now the deeply unfair situation in which the big teams get way more than the independents. Other manufacturers might come in if the others had not had the head-start that they have had, but one must also consider the possibility that they are staying away because they don’t like way the sport is run. Catching up is possible if there is the will to do so.
These are all elements that the sport should look at, as it plans for the future.
The engine regulations were formulated for a reason, in league with the car manufacturers, who were asked what they wanted to see in terms of technology, so to argue that the rules are keeping them out of the sport is rather eccentric. They got what they wanted and the price is irrelevant to those who can afford it, because they need to invest in the same kind of R&D one way or another. There are no restrictions on spending in F1, simply a restriction on what new parts can be applied to the power units at any one point. This is restrictive, but not THAT restrictive. It does what it was designed to do and stops an “arms race” of spending developing and the use of daft things such as qualifying engines and circuit-specific power units, while still allowing the engines to be developed. The fact that the other manufacturers cannot match Mercedes is because they were not as well-prepared and do not have the resources nor the brainpower to close the gap. But they will close the gap in time.
So why does Bernie keep on talking the sport down when he is supposed to be the promoter?
Changing the rules to go back to gas-guzzling noisy old engines might be cheaper, but that would likely drive away manufacturers and with them would go most of the money that comes to F1 outside the TV revenues and race fees. It would, of course, give the bigger teams the advantage because they have more money and more resources to build the best cars. So all it would likely do would be to exacerbate the current problem of having one dominant team. The thing that makes for the best racing is mature regulations, where finding a big advantage is almost impossible. That also reduces costs because most of the possible research has been done and so there’s not much left to try.
OK, Bernie doesn’t like the engine noise, but at nearly 85 years of age, he has lived through a series of different engine formulae and he knows that really what difference does noise really make? Fans will still come if there is a reason to come; if the price is right and the fans feel that the sport respects them. They are turned off by high prices of tickets, the switch to pay-TV and the desire of those in power to push them ever further away from the cars and the people. Noise also probably stops some people coming to races.
The cars today have around 900 horsepower and they do the same lap times as the previous cars (give or take). They accelerate wonderfully, and the braking is spectacular. They are still driven by the world’s best drivers (with perhaps one or two exceptions) and F1 is still a great spectacle.
The primary problem remains that the sport is not working for its own good.
Many worry about sport’s migration to payTV and argue that sport is a cultural activity that belongs to everyone and thus ought to be available to as many people as possible and not just those who can afford to pay. Switching to payTV means smaller audiences, less visibility and the disappearance of the role of sport as an inspiration for youngsters and ultimately less participation both in terms of players and spectators.
If Bernie wants to save the sport therefore perhaps it would be wiser to get rid of the current owners and get someone who cares.
And who cares most about the sport in the longer term? The manufacturers perhaps?