What is Formula One — and what should it be?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    What does the future hold for Formula One? (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

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    For all the politics engulfing Formula One, one of its more curious sideshows bubbled quietly to the surface late last week.

    Formula One, now directed by the company better known as Liberty Media, filed three new logos with the European Union Intellectual Property Office for registration. They are, needless to say, divisive.

    Rumours suggest F1 could seek to begin implementing one of the three logos at this weekend’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ahead of a full-scale 2018 rebrand. It’s a bold strategy given the current logo, almost 20 years old, has dated well – perhaps too well given people are still surprised to find the inversed number ‘1′ hidden between the F and the opposite red element – and doubly so given all three alternatives look more outdated than futuristic.

    But there is, unsurprisingly, a bigger battle brewing beyond F1’s logo dilemma.

    The Liberty-owned Formula One Management and governing body the FIA are shaping their visions for F1’s future beyond 2020, when most of the agreements binding the sport together expire.

    This is a key moment in the sport’s history. The commercial rights holder, approaching one year in the job, is keen to make its mark, and the FIA want to work with it to make changes it was unable to implement when Bernie Ecclestone ran the show with his adversarial management style.

    In summary the aim is closer, cheaper racing that dramatically shrinks the performance spread and entices new brands into the sport. It’s agreeable enough, but how these goals are achieved will define the sport for a generation, begging the question: what is Formula One?

    F1 as a manufacturer sport
    The principal arguments are making themselves known. When the FIA and FOM outlined their broad-brush ideas for new power unit regulations, Ferrari immediately threatened to withdraw from the sport, emphasising the gravity of the moment.

    The Scuderia has allies, even if they’re less partial to the nuclear option. Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda ventured that he is “worried” about F1’s tack.

    “What they think about the future is worrying me,” he told Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “Developing cars is one of the important foundations.”

    But of course Lauda would say that – Mercedes, like Renault, Ferrari and Honda, is in Formula One to market its road car brand, and the connection between winning on Sunday and selling on Monday relies on the team flexing its engineering muscle to beat the competition.

    The simplification of the power unit, therefore, and in particular the removal of the MGU-H, the one genuinely cutting-edge component of an F1 car, takes the sport a step away from its technological proving ground roots.

    “It portrays it in a way of this is how we’re going forward and none of the current OEMs (manufacturer teams) was particularly impressed,” Wolff told the BBC.

    F1 as a privateer category
    But is a manufacturer-focus necessarily good for the sport? Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner thinks not.

    “With Ferrari and Mercedes sometimes it’s hard to recognise which one is which,” he told Autosport. “They are particularly aligned.

    “I just hope that the Liberty guys have got the courage of their conviction to go through with what their research has told them, and I believe they will.”

    Red Bull Racing has its own interest in seeing power units minimised given it doesn’t build its own. Creating a competitive Formula One car would then boil down to chassis design, reminiscent of the so-called garagiste era of innovative independent teams – or even of the early 2010s, when Red Bull Racing dominated as a Renault customer.

    But to call Red Bull Racing a privateer is somewhat disingenuous given it has manufacturer-level resources at its disposal. A change in RBR’s favour, therefore, would look little different from today, certainly as far as cost is concerned.

    F1 as a level playing field
    Bringing the smaller independents into victory contention through cost and regulatory control and not knowing which driver from which team will win any given weekend would be the dream scenario from a spectacle perspective.

    Cost control is already in the pipeline, and F1 CEO Chase Carey believes he has broad agreement up to this point, but is a future of simpler cars, of a team like Sauber or Force India or some new entrant turning up and dictating the pace, viable for Formula One?

    “A world championship won against Sauber is one thing,” Bernie Ecclestone told La Repubblica. “A win against Ferrari is another.”

    Bernie Ecclestone talks to Niki Lauda and Alain Prost

    (Henner Thies / Red Bull Content Pool)

    To illustrate his point, F1’s former ringmaster then fancifully accused Mercedes of helping Ferrari improve its 2017 engine to give it some worthwhile competition.

    Ferrari, the logic goes, remains the bar because it is historically successful. To create a sport in which winning became easier cheapens that history and therefore cheapens Formula One.

    “I don’t want to play NASCAR globally,” Ferrari boss Marchionne said, triggering a conciliatory tone from Carey.

    “We don’t plan to be NASCAR either,” he said. “[But] you need competition, you need the unknown, you need great finishes, you need great dramas – we’ve got to create that.”

    Somewhere between all these competing interests is the answer to the question of providing those “great dramas”, but navigating there will clearly be an arduous and protracted task.

    If only it were as easy as designing a new logo.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (12)

    • Roar Guru

      November 21st 2017 @ 9:53am
      Wayne said | November 21st 2017 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      I always viewed F1 through the lenses that they are developing technology (bleeding edge) that will eventually make its way to road cars in ~2-4 years time.

      And fundamentally, that F1 was the best of the best, going hard and fast!

      The current product where tyres last one, maybe two flying laps then need to be conserved is dull. The reliability of engines is worrisome as well, I don’t want technology in my car that is a 50-50 proposition of failing each time I run the car.

      • Columnist

        November 21st 2017 @ 11:38am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 21st 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, Wayne. All of those things are definitely the way I see F1 as well.

        I think the tyre problem, at its core, is that F1 is relying so much on them to be ‘perfect’ (though no-one can agree on what this means) and make the racing exciting because the cars are so hard to race close to each other. In the last few seasons they’ve been too delicate and didn’t allow drivers to push, like you say, but then this year they’ve been too hard, which has meant the cars can lean on them more but has meant there’s less passing. So often we see the grid qualify and finish in teammate pairs now.

        I take your point on reliability, though to be fair Mercedes and, to a lesser extent, Ferrari are pretty rock solid. Mercedes only power unit-related problem was a turbo failure for Bottas, and Ferrari’s biggest issue was Vettel’s spark plug failure in Japan, notwithstanding the double failures in Malaysia, which were probably heat-related. The less said about Renault and Honda, the better.

        I thought what Hamilton said in Brazil about being able to push his engine to the maximum was interesting. The rules stipulating that you only get four power units a season has meant they always have to be turned down. What would the sport look like if that wasn’t the case?

    • Roar Rookie

      November 21st 2017 @ 11:39am
      mattatooski said | November 21st 2017 @ 11:39am | ! Report

      Agreed Wayne …. that and the fact the cars are hampered by fuel flow rates, and engines need to be nursed throughout the year (3 next year WTF) poor tyres, all lead to technologically wonderful cars that are rarely used to their full potential.

      I will also add, as a graphic designer, I’m not sure any of those new logo designs are quite right for F1. The old logo has aged very, very well, but it is now dated. I think a rejigging of the old logo would of been better. Brand awareness is such a big thing, and their old logo was a classic design and instantly recognizable worldwide, and highly referenced in the design field. Of the three new ones, the first probably has the most potential, but not in its present state.

      • Columnist

        November 23rd 2017 @ 11:17am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 23rd 2017 @ 11:17am | ! Report

        Yeah, a bit of a sprucing up of the current logo would be worthwhile, I think, perhaps in a way to bring the F2/F3/F4 logos into line in an effort to make it a more coherent ladder. Liberty Media owns the commercial rights to Formula Two and Formula Three at very least.

    • Roar Guru

      November 21st 2017 @ 11:51am
      Jawad Yaqub said | November 21st 2017 @ 11:51am | ! Report

      Great piece Michael.

      I get the feeling that this debate is once again being driven by certain parties being reluctant to change. That initial honeymoon period with Liberty Media has seemingly dissipated, through the discontent with the proposal for the 2021 engine regulations.

      In the end, F1 to me is driven by innovating technology and combining it with 20 of the best athletes in the world to deliver intense racing. I agree, that it cannot be perfect all the time, or that we’ll have 4 cars fighting to win every single race – but as long as it can continue evolving that formula, the sport will continue to grow too.

      • Columnist

        November 23rd 2017 @ 11:19am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 23rd 2017 @ 11:19am | ! Report

        Thanks, mate! I think a common thread among fans seems to be that technology has to play a key part. I’m optimistic that F1 recognises that and will consider it when it decides on a direction to move in. I guess the difficult part is that being on the cutting edge of power unit technology is an expensive game to play, so balancing the desire to be forward-thinking and the need to make the sport affordable and more than a manufacturer playground is the difficult thing to achieve.

    • Roar Guru

      November 21st 2017 @ 12:25pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | November 21st 2017 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

      A lot of the outcries seem to be dictated by those who are simply comfortable with the familiarity of the present and scared of an unknown future.

      Instead of pandering to a particular portion of the sport’s stakeholders, its participants should relish pioneering a new formula, so to speak, and whichever benefits that translate to the public will follow.

      The World Championship is rising seven decades whilst undergoing countless revolutions, there’s no reason why whatever the next direction the sport settles on should be treated any differently, and those who don’t like it can leave, whilst others will enter as in the past.

      • Columnist

        November 23rd 2017 @ 11:25am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 23rd 2017 @ 11:25am | ! Report

        It’s a fair call, and it was always going to happen. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and Ferrari et al won’t vote to lose their power base and financial benefits.

        It’s a high-risk gamble to make, though, to upset the current big teams. While on the one hand changes could open the door to other desirable brands joining the sport — VAG, Aston etc — we said the same things about the 2014 regulation changes, and the only additional brand to enter was Honda. I agree with you that change has to happen one way or another, but trying to find a way forward that still keeps the current lot happy will be an important challenge.

    • November 21st 2017 @ 7:34pm
      Simoc said | November 21st 2017 @ 7:34pm | ! Report

      Ross Brawn says the MGU-H isn’t viable to use into the future and apart from a supercar, the technology isn’t going into road cars. He said given that they had been discussing this for an age he was surprised at the statements coming out of Ferrari and Mercedes. I think that to Brawn the MGU-H technology isn’t an option going forward. He wants the fastest to slowest car differential being substantially closer to what it is currently, plus some noise. Ferrari are close to finally winning a WDC again and feel the rug disappearing from underneath them. Hence the noise. But Ferrari need F1 and stand to lose most without it. Mercedes make a fuss but don’t need F1 anyway.

      • Columnist

        November 23rd 2017 @ 11:31am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 23rd 2017 @ 11:31am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate. Yeah, what Ross says is certainly true at the moment, but the technology is still in its relatively early days. Broader applications might yet be possible further down the track — but it’s fair enough to say that F1 doesn’t have to sacrifice something of itself, like competitiveness or perhaps new entrants, to make itself a testing bed for a select few brands.

        I think some of the negative reaction from the manufacturers had to do with the FIA and FOM going out with a press release about the changes when apparently they’d all agreed to do their negotiations in private, and the subsequent week’s strategy group meeting was kept much quieter as a result. Ferrari’s quit threat was an outlier among the other teams, though considering how often the Scuderia lunges for the trigger, we can probably assume that for the time being Marchionne is more expressing his unhappiness then actually preparing to walk out. Like you say, Formula One is important to Ferrari.

    • November 22nd 2017 @ 12:40am
      Dexter The Hamster said | November 22nd 2017 @ 12:40am | ! Report

      I don’t know if my faith is misplaced at this point, but I do have great faith in Liberty Media taking F1 in the right direction. Your quote above from Carey “you need competition, you need the unknown, you need great finishes, you need great dramas – we’ve got to create that”.

      It seems they are interested in giving the fans what they want. If they do that, I will forgive them for the “updated” logo….

      • Columnist

        November 23rd 2017 @ 11:33am
        Michael Lamonato said | November 23rd 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

        I think that faith is fair. The honeymoon period is certainly over and Liberty is having to face some hard questions about concrete plans for the future, but certainly the guys at the top of the tree know their stuff in their respective fields. Most of all I trust Ross Brawn to keep the sport true to itself, so at least in that respect Formula One as a motor racing category should be safe regardless.

        I’m hoping the logos are some kind of stunt, though!

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