France celebrated its 60th Formula 1 grand prix this weekend and the resulting social media and press reaction has been very unflattering. In fact, it’s been downright harsh.
The wave of fan and press negativity started in Canada two weeks ago when the sport’s governing body, the FIA, deputized three stewards to oversee the race. In doing so, they penalized the race winner, Sebastian Vettel, which in turn altered the on-track results via a 5s penalty handing victory to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.
The inherited win was met sheepishly by Lewis who knew he had been beaten and yet both he and the team made platitudes to the growing chorus of moans from fans by blaming the inanimate object—the rules. Them’s the rules, don’t blame us, change the rules.
Two weeks later and the sport’s fans are still discussing the penalty and on the backside of the French grand prix, where more penalties were given removing Daniel Ricciardo from a points finish, the wave of negativity is turning into a tsunami of anger.
I’ve been arguing these issues for years now while the press has gleefully peddled the narrative but now even the press, at the risk of biting the hand that feeds, is starting to call foul on a series that is seemingly intent on destroying itself. Lewis Hamilton said:
“We don’t write the rules,” Hamilton said. “We have nothing to do with the money shift [between the teams] and all that stuff.
“You should put the pressure on the people that are at the head, that should be doing the job.
“I think they are trying to. But for many, many years they’ve made bad decisions.”
“I think it’s important for people to realise it’s not the drivers’ fault.
“This is a constant cycle of F1 for years and years and years, even before I got to F1.
“It’s because the way Bernie [Ecclestone, ex-F1 boss] had it set up, the decisions they were making back then.
“It’s still the same and until that [rulemaking] structure changes it will continue to be the same in my opinion.
“That’s not my job to do that. My job’s to come here and do the best I can as a driver.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff blamed the rules in the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix. Most of the drivers interviewed in France disagreed with the penalty in Canada. The opportunity to right the wrong was afforded the FIA this weekend in France as Ferrari asked for a review and it was flatly denied with mocking and jeering of Ferrari because of their use of Sky Sports F1’s SkyPad analysis among its new information that should prompt a review.
The penalty isn’t the issue, it is the sheer domination of the sport by Mercedes who were instrumental in influencing the current set of regulations and masterful at exploiting a set of regulations tailor-made to their success. The hybrid engine era has bankrupted three teams, placed several more on life support and created a propeller-head championship in which it is team engineers vs team engineers and increasingly less to do with the drivers.
I’ve listened for years now about how we should deduct three of Michael Schumacher’s world championships because he had the dominant car over the entire field. Oddly there is silence over such a notion about Lewis Hamilton’s five titles and the domination is such that Schumacher could only have dreamed of having this kind of advantage for six seasons.
The Mercedes team isn’t the issue, it is their influence over the sport and the delicate balance that Formula One Management (FOM) and the FIA are trying to manage to keep manufacturers in the sport. The FIA’s Jean Todt fears losing Mercedes, as does FOM, and they are folding like a chaise lounge with regards to making serious changes to the sport to create exciting racing again. They would seemingly rather be a rapid-prototyping R&D lab for Mercedes and their road cars than an exciting sport.
Meanwhile, Formula One’s new-ish owners have meddled in new logos, theme songs, fan events that do very little and a dodgy streaming service that crashes entirely even though it is well in to its second season of deployment. They’ve increased staff, rented posh offices and with precision, pomp and circumstance, they’ve put lipstick on the pig. Few are buying it.
F1’s troubles are at the DNA level now. The methods, politics, regulations and genuflecting to Mercedes have all passed their sell-by dates. The FIA’s Jean Todt remains quite and it is difficult to read his inaction as anything other than being purposefully obtuse or worse, feckless in his role and powerless in his scope due to his boorish commitment to sustainability and keeping up appearances while rubbing shoulders with global dignitaries over climate change, plastic straws and road safety programs. Doesn’t matter what you think of these issues, Formula 1 was not created to be the solution to any one of them.
I’m not one for conspiracies and I’ve ignored the accusations that the sport is being manipulated by FOM, the FIA and Mercedes to exploit their media magnet, Lewis Hamilton, and give him the dominant car and pathway to eclipse Michael Schumacher’s seven titles. The theory says that the British fans would be elated and it would drive up revenue for everyone.
Again, I’m not one to believe these kinds of accusation but when Pirelli changed their compounds mid-season in 2018 to accommodate a graining and heat issue that teams were having, Mercedes came on song with the thinner tread. This season, guess what we have? Thinner treads and the Mercedes is the only car that works with them. It’s one thing to suggest that Mercedes got it right and it’s the same for everyone but eight races into the season, I’m having a hard time believing that no other engineers, including Adrian Newey, can figure out how to get heat in the tires.
The calls for a change in tires has been met with excuses about how they can’t change tires mid-season etc. Odd, they did last year. Excuses have also been offered about changing regulations mid-season but I’ve been around long enough to remember the J-Damper (Mass Dampers) changes that immediately impacted Renault or the flexible floor that hobbled Ferrari or the cold and hot blown diffusers banned ahead of the British GP.
The issue isn’t the Paul Ricard circuit, France or Canada, it is the over-litigious nature of the stewarding on a series that is being beaten like a rented mule by one team for six years now and people are tired of it. The first glimpse of someone beating Mercedes and the FIA reverse the result. Justified or not, the fans are buckling under the weight of a bloated system far too aligned with the causes of manufacturers, political ideologies, floundering management, Pay TV-only viewing and no one with the guts to take the risks needed to get the sport back to rude health.
Let’s say you change the regulations to a simple, high-efficiency V8 engine with KERS and limit the total downforce of a car—monitored by FIA sensors on each car—and good, grippy tires that do not degrade unnaturally as well as no DRS. Let’s say Mercedes pouts and leaves. Maybe Ferrari pouts and leaves. What if you were left with privateer teams with healthy balance sheets and close, wheel-to-wheel racing? McLaren, Red Bull, Haas F1, Williams, Racing Point, Alfa Romeo, Toro Rosso and two or three new teams that could afford to go racing with this package might produce better racing and the balance between drivers and engineering could be more equal. However, would F1 survive in the loss of revenue that some argue would occur if Mercedes and or Ferrari left?
I understand why long-time sports journalist, Oliver Brown, wrote this headline in the Telegraph. I know Oliver and I are both fans of F1 and have been for years…that’s why it hurts to write headlines like his or editorials like mine. I love this sport. I want it back. I have no idea where Chase Carey was in 1972 but I doubt he was watching the Lotus 72’s run around Monaco…I was and I was just a boy.
Otherwise, who’s ready for the 2020 season and a seventh title for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton? It’s hard to believe that FOM and the FIA would wait until 2021 to make any changes knowing they are bleeding out in the parking lot of a half empty Paul Ricard circuit. At least we have a new logo, dramatic theme music and a dodgy streaming service so we’ve got that going for us.