Why Formula 1 is getting sick of itself

Whether you are a fan of Ferrari or its boss, Luca di Montezemolo, the Italian head of Fiat is thinking outside of the box and for good reason. I recently commented on a statement McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh made about Formula One just now discovering this new technology called the “interweb” and how it may be used to generate new and exciting ways to connect to their fans as well as possible revenue sources. This past weekend, Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, FIA president Jean Todt and Di Montezemolo met for a summit of the heavy-weights in the series. The topic of discussion was the cost of Formula 1.

Todt commented publicly that the series should reduce its cost by 30% over the next three years or there would be teams leaving the sport. While that may be a bold statement, Ferrari’s di Montezemolo feels something needs to happen and soon. The Ferrari boss told media at Monza:

“We want an F1 with less cost,” Montezemolo said. “Tell me why we have to spend a huge amount of cost to spend 24 hours in the windtunnel to do a small wing flap that for the public [the interest] is zero, for the television is zero, and for me as a road-car manufacturer it is less than zero because we will never use this for the road car?”

This comes from a perspective of one who builds road cars and the presumption we could make is that Mercedes, as well as McLaren, may feel the same while other non-carmakers are equally compelled by the notion of spending less. The fact is, the world just won’t have it right now in this economy and Formula One is facing the recession music.

While Todt has been championing the Sustainability angle and being more “green” ever since he took office back in 2009, the FIA have seemed to lose their main voice of mobility and safety. They certainly haven’t given up on their decades-long cause but most news reports have Todt touting the eco-conscience direction the sport should take. Recently the FIA announced a new series called Formula E that will target that very notion. Interesting then that Todt has most recently re-gained his safety and mobility tongue telling AUTOSPORT:

“Formula 1 is too expensive. With motorsport, I always say what do we need to do? What are our priorities? To reduce the cost, to improve the show, and to implement new technology and revisions for the future, because the world is changing. Plus we need to act as much as we can for the society on road safety, which is a mobility issue.

“We have been doing so much in racing that we still need to work always on improving safety in racing, and to contribute to the society on road safety. That is the priority. All that we can do which goes in those frames, we will do it.”

Notice the change there? It’s subtle but it lacked any mention of sustainability measures and you could barely read a comment in the past couple years without ingesting Todt’s desire for ushering in a “Green” direction for F1. That is a change and perhaps it is because he has a new series to focus exclusively on that initiative while Formula One gets back to the core of the FIA which is road safety and mobility. Then again, perhaps it is a new direction after contemplating the comments of Luca di Montezemolo who said:

“Ferrari has been in F1 for more than 60 years. The success in F1 is crucial. Ferrari will remain in F1 if F1 is F1 and not a race for electric cars or games. It is innovation and technology and, if you have to spend money, you spend it for the advanced research and not for something that is nothing to do with competition.”

Could Formula One be wearing thin on Ferrari with its bits and baubles and this years center-ring attraction called the Drag Reduction System (DRS) in order to overcome F1’s own bane of aerodynamic overload all of which would never be used in road cars any time soon? Di Montezemolo seems to be eluding to that very notion. The reason Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes race is most likely multi-faceted but in the end, they have cars to sell and trying remain in Formula 1 using technology that really isn’t applicable to road cars is something the team owners may be questioning and most likely have been for some time.

In the recent past, former FIA president Max Mosley was keen to slam the door on exiting manufacturers such as Honda, BMW and Toyota instead of working to find a more road car friendly sport and also reducing costs. His idea was to usher in an unrealistic cost cap and open the sport to privateers. Now the series seems to understand that manufacturer involvement is not only good but necessary for the sport’s very survival. Perhaps this is why Ecclestone worked diligently to keep Mercedes from leaving the sport.

As for di Montezemolo’s ideas? They include shorter races for a younger audience or even a two-race weekend. Alternate start times for the summer period when young people are vacationing or on the beach during the height of the day. Perhaps starting later in teh evenings like football (soccer). He says the costs must be maintained and eludes to last year’s row over Red Bull’s spending levels:

“I want to have rules that permit us to spend less, because I don’t think if you say, this is limited to spend [on], how can you control this?” he said. “I think in the recent past, somebody cheated on this.

“So I prefer to have clear rules that allow [teams] to spend less, particularly in something that is not crucial for the spectators or the competition.”

Di Montezemolo is not in favor of the current constructs that Formula One has developed to attempt to overcome its shortcomings either:

“We have to be innovative without losing the F1 DNA, like technology and innovation. Now, the last 10 laps if you are in the lead, you take care of the tyres, because maybe you don’t arrive at the end, you take care of your engine. This is not F1 extreme; it is something we have to look at. Maybe we maintain the race, maybe it is something we change for the future.”

While one could argue that di Montezemolo may be seeking to appease a younger crowd, relying on old petrol engine formats and processional racing is not where we need to return to. I’m not sure Luca would disagree with you on that note but his outside-the-box thinking isa  good dialog for all stakeholders to have. McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh likes to remind fans, every chance he gets, that the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) took an exhaustive survey and the fans spoke and this is what they wanted. That’s convenient position but they didn’t include me in that survey and while average fans may have went off half cocked about processional racing, they are not Formula 1 experts and do not, most likely know what it is they are asking for or what the knock-on effect would be. That’s why fans aren’t starting F1 teams every week.

What do you think Formula One should do? Can you think of any outside-the-box ideas to help Luca and the folks improve Formula One? Or should we still be calling “the show” like it’s something just north of X Factor?  It’s not a show, it’s a sport…I would expect Whitmarsh, Todt and di Montezemolo to know the difference. After all, they spend a fortune just to participate.



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