A few changes this season have already been getting some commentary that isn’t flattering with regards to the new regulations and this has prompted and interesting, if not untypical, response from the FIA.
It’s not that the FIA never speak out about an issue or offer communication to teams, drivers or fans but yesterday I noticed a bit of a rare, as in infrequent, communique about the HALO device. I would not have mentioned it if it were not few and far between when the FIA issues feature pieces that endorse one of its regulation changes such as HALO.
The piece was a revealing look at what it takes to create a HALO device and fair enough but 24 hours later, FIA president Jean Todt launched a public scolding of those who have commented publicly in a negative fashion about HALO. The HALO heat as ramped up and the FIA is forced to respond.
“It is short memories and it was a request from the drivers,” said Todt.
“On December 16, 2015, I got a letter than was signed by [GPDA directors] Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Alex Wurz, urging us to decide for head protection for the drivers, and I said, ‘We are there. We will listen.’
“Immediately we asked the technical people as a priority to see what could come out, and on July 27, 2016 they [the drivers] knew a meeting was going to happen – and they said: ‘Don’t be weak. Please respect what we have asked you on safety’. So we committed to taking that into consideration.
“I must say I am so surprised. I love F1 but I hate this part of F1. You have people who don’t have [keep] their word.
“For me we are talking about the biggest asset in life: it is loyalty and having [keeping] a word and having respect of what you have been undertaking.
“We have respected that and some have forgotten that, but that is where we are.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said he’d chainsaw the HALO off his car if he could and Todt wouldn’t comment but did offer the guilt angle that I mentioned in my piece as a prime mover for the HALO decision.
“I will not react to what has been said. It is simply a childish game.
“I will only tell you for me, I love F1, and I think we all should love F1. I think it is very inappropriate whoever you are, just to publicly deny something which is introduced. For me, constructive criticism is always good because it makes you move forward. But public criticism which is not good for the sport – I don’t see the value.”
Todt added that the FIA would be neglecting its duties if it did not introduce a safety device like the halo, having proven its effectiveness.
“For me, the halo is no problem,” he said. “I am amazed to hear some people say that motor racing has to be dangerous and if it [a fatal accident] happens it happens. But if we can avoid that, why should we not protect the life of whoever?
“Halo is a safety device. It is human attitude to be reluctant to change, but once we know the change, after a lot of experiences and a lot of testing is good, we should implement it.
“Can you imagine how we will all feel if something would happen and if we would have had the halo it would not have happened?” emphasis mine.
It’s clear that the FIA do not like having these discussions in the public space and yet today there is another public conversation regarding the recent regulation change mandating a standing restart procedure. Drivers feel this could create chaos and “carnage” but FIA race director, Charlie Whiting, says it is unfounded criticism.
“No driver has spoken to me about it,” said Whiting.
“It seems a bit of an odd comment to me, because they all put new tyres on whenever there is a red flag.
“So I am not too concerned about it. I think the grip was quite low in Barcelona anyway, and they didn’t put new tyres on because it was a quick procedure.”
Romain Grosjean had been the most vocal, suggesting that the grip levels were so low during the tests that he feared accidents when the procedure was used for real.
“Safety-wise I’m a bit concerned,” he said about the possibility of having to do the restart on used tyres. “To me it could be carnage.
“You could lose the car in a straight line. Honestly, I was not having much fun, just trying to upshift and downshift was tricky.”
If you thought that was the end of the FIA mind-spill, it is not. The discussion then turned to Ferrari and the veto power they possess over regulation changes as well as their threat to leave the sport.
Recall, this is a singular moment in F1’s history and the FIA and Liberty Media are keen to recast the complexion of the sport with new regulations, possible cost caps and prize money distribution models. Todt’s comments are key and focused for result.
“The veto was at the time of Enzo Ferrari, and he was isolated in Maranello,” explained Todt.
“That was the only team supplying engine and chassis against some other teams that were all powered by Ford.
“So at this time, it was decided that being away from what is called the silicon valley of motorsport, they needed to have a protection. That is the story about the veto.
“But personally, I feel now I am not in favour of that. Times have changed.”
And the threat to leave the sport?
“They may leave. And honestly, that is their choice,” he said. “They are free.
“Definitely I hope they will not leave. But it can always happen.
“You have seen big competitors leaving. Coming back. But again. It is their choice.
“I feel that a company like Ferrari, racing should not be spending.
“It should be at least equal and even should be revenue – business revenue.
“At the moment I am sure now – it is about six to seven teams who are struggling in F1.
“It is not acceptable to have the pinnacle of motor sport where 60-70 percent of the field are struggling to survive.”
To be fair to Ferrari, and Mercedes, Todt was working a slightly different angle back in 2012-2013 when he was keen to get manufacturers into the sport. His desire for luring new manufacturers was a large part of the justification of moving toward a hybrid engine as it was more “road relevant”. It was slightly in contrast to his predecessor who was keen to bring in more teams and find an affordable engine supply deal that begat Cosworth, HRT, Lotus and Marussia.
It seems now that the goalposts have been moved and the thought of a legacy manufacturer leaving is regrettable but ok with Todt as he feels the competitive balance of the grid isn’t ideal. It is a notion that Liberty Media, Ross Brawn and now Todt seem to be promoting. Making changes to the sport to impact the results, not just the opportunity to participate.
It used to be a team had an opportunity to participate and what they made of that opportunity was up to them. Now it seems that FOM and the FIA are keen to impact or ensure the results of a team’s participation are capable of achieving the “on any given Sunday” scale.
Domination doesn’t bother me in F1. Didn’t mind it when Ferrari or Red Bull achieved it and the only issue I have with Mercedes domination is the hybrid power unit dominance that is baked in but otherwise, I’m fine with it. It seems FOM and the FIA may not be.
One final note about the FIA? Laurent Mekies is leaving the organization to join Ferrari. Mekies is the FIA safety director and very instrumental in the HALO device. This comes just a few months after Marcin Budkowski announced he was going to leave and join Renault.
Mekies was considered a possible successor for Charlie Whiting.