There’s an almost cyclical pattern in F1 where every number of years, the sport finds itself in some version of a strife.
This has toned down significantly with the demise of some key players in last decade’s political battles and even further after Liberty Media took over the reins. But much like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, there could be another crisis brewing up for the years to come and we are willfully ignoring it.
Let me be clear from the start I’m not saying I can presume to know everything about the inner workings of Formula 1. I only intend to highlight a spate of recent news and leave the conclusion to the fans who deserve to know what to expect, without any adversity against the sport, its commercial rights holder, or its governing body.
Last week, F1 announced it is testing new sustainable fuel made from bio-waste with engine manufacturers in a step towards becoming carbon-neutral next year and achieving net-zero emissions by 2030. The plan is an ambitious and welcomed effort to recognize the environmental responsibility all industries must assume to help fight climate change. There is absolutely no question about its validity and vision. F1 knows what it needs to fix and has taken a very progressive approach towards its reality in recent years. But it helps that we, as fans, understand where we are and how we got here.
The post-recession world
F1 was not spared the damage cause worldwide by the recession of 2008. Having already faced embarrassment in the news with three major scandals which came at the onset of its biggest calendar expansion since the world championship began in 1950, the sport lost three major manufacturer teams in the space of two years between 2008 and 2009.
After early warnings from the demise of popular minnows Super Aguri, Honda’s B team in early 2008, the factory team pulled out at the end of the year costing the grid four cars in total for 2009.
The Cinderella tale of Ross Brawn’s takeover was accented by growing concern over the possibility of other teams pulling out in a season where F1 had hoped that the overhaul of its technical regulations and introduction of its first eco-friendly project, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), would improve the show and the sport’s future prospects.
The numbers weren’t helped by its three most popular teams (Ferrari, McLaren, and Williams) suffering and dropping down the order. At the end of the year, Toyota and BMW announced they would pull out of the sport, costing us another four cars.
The intricacies of the botched attempt to introduce a cost-cap in 2010 are an entirely different subject for discussion, but F1 found itself in a crisis where it had only four factory teams compared to the six it had just two years before. The Mercedes team was just starting up in 2010 and was consistently in the midfield, and with Renault pulling out in 2011, the number was down to just three (discounting the farcial situation where we had two teams named Lotus in 2011, and the eventual Lotus team not being particularly a factory team in comparison to the size of its peers’ operations).
Happier hunting ground
The situation was further complicated by recovering car brands preferring at the beginning of the 2010’s to invest both in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the newly-inaugurated Formula E.
This was at the height of the hybrid era in production cars, and the dawn of today’s electric era. Car makers naturally felt these were more relevant technologies to their road cars than the naturally-aspirated V8 power F1 had been relying on since 2006 as Toyota, Audi, and later Porsche opted to compete in sports cars while BMW went full green with Formula E. Four years of Red Bull dominance followed and the fans were growing tired of not being the sport’s priority.
To be fair, F1 acknowledged these problems and began addressing them immediately, they were just unfortunate with timing.
As former F1 supremo Bernie Eccelstone’s traditional approach was modernized hand-in-hand with new FIA president Jean Todt’s progressive role in motorsport, F1 surveyed the fans on how the wish to see the sport proceed.
It also introduced a new turbo-hybrid engine formula that had the potential to attract new engine makers to the sport, and changed the technical regulations once again hoping to improve the racing.
Ferrari, McLaren, and Renault committed to this new project to be introduced in 2014, but signs of early trouble emerged as an independent power unit project named PURE, spearheaded by former BAR boss Craig Pollock collapsed due to a lack in funding.
The Honda experiment
F1 was hopeful it was on the right path.
Honda was to re-launch its historic partnership with McLaren in 2015, while Porsche was rumored to have its own project in R&D. This was F1’s most crucial test of these new regulations and Honda was given much leeway to ensure its successful entry to the new era.
Spoiler alert, it wasn’t successful.
The entire engine formula was questioned early in its first season with too many elements that could cause complications in the show. The desire to develop these very clever power units to become both very efficient and very reliable added to their huge cost. Caps on the number of each element that could be used each season were introduced, but this triggered a complicated (and at times farcial) penalty structure. The development token scheme was also too complicated for the fans and even the drivers were complaining that the sport was deviating from its original purpose: racing.
Honda entered its first year with McLaren in 2015 and things were not good. The three-year marriage was overshadowed by severe shortcomings in power, reliability and fuel efficiency (basically the three boxes that each competitive power unit needs to tick in F1).
Things got ugly with subsequent exchanges in accusations between the two bases in Woking and Japan, the repetitive complaints and one-liners by Fernando Alonso over team radio and in the media, and the scare this posed for whoever was watching with hope of hopping on the V6 turbo hybrid train.
The experiment was deemed a failure and it was not strange to see Porsche and Volkswagen taking a step back from their interest in joining F1, and Porsche choosing to compete (and succeed) in sports cars. For the fans, now seven years of Mercedes dominance were not as bad as the four that preceded, as the sport took on a friendlier media approach (establishing a presence in social media, Netflix’s Drive to Survive franchise).
Honda moved its investment to partner the Red Bull project, and despite eventual success with race victories in 2019 and 2020, they have sadly announced they will be pulling out from F1 at the end of 2021.
The Red Bull-Honda project’s like-mindedness was looking promising, and one should not forget the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the global economy and F1 alike, but this raises very important questions for F1’s identity in the future.
Becoming green, and cheap
F1 had been in a crisis of identity all throughout the turbo-hybrid era.
Questions like “is this a sport or a show?” were too frequent for comfort. It was also in the questionable position of treating teams with outrageous disparity after it struck individual deals with the teams instead of opting for the traditional Concorde Agreement that teams would collectively negotiate with F1 in the past, with heavy favoritism to the sport’s ‘big three’.
Add to that F1’s inability now to attract engine manufacturers, the ever growing expenses and the huge gap in performance between the sport’s now de-facto two tiers and we have a very shaky situation on our hands.
History shows that this had always been the case with F1, but the climate is now different.
F1 had always relied on its pedigree as the pinnacle of motorsport to give car makers the opportunity to introduce novel technological advancements. Road safety, fuel efficiency and ride comfort would not be so advanced without F1. This is a fact.
But this doesn’t appear to be inviting enough for car makers anymore. The philosophy is shifting to green energy and fossil-fuels are slowly on their way to obsolescence. This is still years away but it is now a major feature in every car maker’s portfolio.
Suddenly factory teams have to justify their investment in what is still the pinnacle of motorsport, which begs the question should F1 keep developing cars within the fossil-fuel framework?
F1 cannot go electric – that’s what Formula E is for – and even the WEC is down to just one major factory team in its top-tier LMP1 category. The entire racing scene is shifting, and F1 is hoping to react quickly enough.
The weakness in F1’s position can be highlighted by the lack of clarity over its next engine formula due in 2022 along with new technical regulations again to enhance racing. The calls for a simpler, cheaper and ready to operate system are still in the proposal stage just two years before their due date, and this uncertainty isn’t attractive for anyone.
On the other hand, the recent news should not be read cynically at all. The aim to become carbon-neutral next year and reaching net-zero emissions by the end of the decade is a challenge, but it is a realistic one. This is what today’s technological philosophy mandates, and F1 has no choice but to happily oblige.
The uncertainty is therefore not in F1’s relevance to technology, but in the technology’s relevance to the market and the future of the planet.
The verdict: are fossil fuels still relevant for the world?
The short answer is yes. But are they relevant for the future?
There is a vast community of experts and scientists in the environmental, financial, and marketing disciplines still debating this issue every day, and I don’t presume to be anywhere close to qualified for this debate.
Green technology is strongly present in developed countries and has become a usual, promoted feature of life there. Enter any third-world country,however, and the picture is very different. More than half the planet still relies on fossil fuels for essential everyday needs both in industry and in transportation, and the world isn’t yet near ready to abandon this source of energy.
Formula 1, by extension, is taking the defining step of not abandoning the internal combustion engine. Whatever bits and elements they choose to add in order to make them more efficient, the engine is still the very heart of the power unit.
Every support series and every motoracing discipline except Formula E is still using it and will continue to use it until it until it makes sense to stop. Formula 1 is aligning itself with the very critical process of easing the long transition from what had been the way we’ve been producing energy since the dawn of the automotive industry into the future where cars produce as less carbon emissions as possible while being more and more efficient to give you maximum bang for your buck.
Fossil fuels will remain on the backburner for the foreseeable future and F1 is taking steps to ensure ease of access, operation, and spending for new engine suppliers and teams alike to aid in this transition.
Restrictions on costs are finally becoming a reality as evident in the plans to control how teams spend and use their facilities starting next year, and new technical regulations really should start to level the playing field this time.
F1 is still relevant to road safety as we’ve seen this year, and despite the unfortunate timing of these questions, the only crisis that remains is the old one of identity.
I leave the verdict on that to you, and the ultimate decisions will be made by the bosses.
But with social media today, every popular opinion in the consumer base is heard – if not by Formula 1’s leadership, then by the car makers, the sponsors and the media.
Formula 1 is by definition a show, but the decision on whether it is a sport will affect the decision on whether it will take steps to stifle innovation in the future.
To me, this is just not the DNA of F1. What we choose to say on the matter will, in one way or another, affect how it will be resolved, but F1 is finally handling things correctly, and I will be supporting whatever decision that allows me to keep enjoying seeing these cars for as long as possible.
Images via McLaren, Mercedes-AMG, XPB