Toby Vintcent is the author of a series of thrillers set in the world of Formula 1; glowing endorsements for Driven have come from Murray Walker, Max Mosley and the London Evening Standard, while Crash – in addition to its Formula 1 endorsements from Jonathan Legard and David Tremayne – was named as a recommended holiday read by Marie Claire. Vintcent is clearly proving he can communicate the world of Formula 1 not only to seasoned operators, but also to a mainstream audience.
How is Formula 1 not as it should be? I would put at the top of the list: it’s too predictable.
To my mind, this is attributable to one specific policy: the ban on testing. Before the ban, a result in Melbourne at the start of a season might have seen teams finish A, B, C. Two races later and the result might have been B, C, A; and then, two more after that, it might have been F, D, A.
In other words, the teams falling short at a race came away looking to find improvements. But that, inevitably, meant testing. Ban the teams from testing and the intra-season improvements are minimal.
Nowadays, the A, B, C in Melbourne has every chance of being A, B, C in Abu Dhabi – right at the end of the season – killing unpredictability and therefore the spectacle.
Why, then, did this ban come about? The answer to that question, though, is where it all gets political.
At the time of the 2009 global recession, the FIA seemed concerned not to lose Formula 1 teams that were owned by production car businesses (Renault, Toyota, Honda, etc.), most of which were struggling to reduce budgets because of the downturn. Cost restrictions were meant to help; sadly, they didn’t work – two of the teams withdrew anyway.
If I ran Formula 1, I would lift the ban on testing to restore the sport to what it should be: a technological arms race. The chances, then, of one team dominating for any length of time would be hugely reduced. The season should become much more unpredictable – and therefore much more enjoyable to watch.
Formula 1’s commercial development has been extraordinary, admirable and, politically, against all the odds. But has this come at the price of being too successful?
The next thing I would do away with are the artificial gimmicks to try and encourage overtaking: by this I mean tyres that are designed to degrade and the Drag Reduction System (DRS). These two concepts were brought in as desperate measures – given the ban on testing – to try and facilitate more overtaking. The idea being that compulsory switches onto different compounds of tyre with different characteristics were meant to change the cars’ performances mid-race and so liven things up.
DRS, on the other hand, is a completely iniquitous concept: it fundamentally changes the physics of the car behind giving it a distinct advantage. The cars are no longer equal. It’s like being in one of those high-speed walking races at the Olympics, where athletes are compelled to keep one foot on the ground at all times, but allowing the guy behind to break into a run from time to time to help him get past.
If I ran the sport, I would still allow teams to run different tyre compounds at different times if they wanted to, but I would introduce a tyre capable of lasting an entire race; and I would readily ban the Drag Reduction System.
So if you scrap the made-to-degrade tyres and DRS, how do you facilitate overtaking? Apart from my point about unleashing the technical brilliance of the designers to improve performance as mentioned above, I would bring back in-race refuelling.
Every car needs a pretty similar amount of fuel to complete a Grand Prix. If every car carries the full load at the start, which they do now, there is no weight gain or disadvantage between the cars (hence the apparent need for the gimmicks).
When we had in-race refuelling, teams were able to gamble to gain advantage: they could run their cars lighter for certain stints, making them faster – which decidedly helped with overtaking – but that meant, of course, they would have to stop more times to refuel, so costing them time.
You very well might counter this with: what does this do to equity between cars? But that is my point: in-race refuelling is equitable – because the fundamental physics of each car doesn’t change, only the amount of fuel they have tactically chosen to carry at that particular moment. The car trying to overtake is not benefiting from an unfair advantage – it has just chosen to apply a different stop-strategy. If I ran Formula 1, I would definitely bring back in-race refuelling to induce fairer overtaking.
All that, though, is the easier stuff to fix. More fundamental issues concern the structure of the sport and the future of its management. Formula 1’s commercial development has been extraordinary, admirable and, politically, against all the odds. But has this come at the price of being too successful?
Fees a circuit now has to pay to stage a race are staggeringly high. On the plus side, these arrangements ensure the infrastructure at a track is of the highest standard, and that all the safety considerations are fully compliant; however, the prestige of hosting a Grand Prix has driven fees to levels way above any possible commercial return from hosting a race.
In other words, Grands Prix have been elevated to the status of geopolitical vehicles by which cities and countries aim to promote themselves. Should this matter? Not if the higher fee levels are sustainable and we don’t see unsavoury regimes looking to use Formula 1 to make a political point.
It is always declared in business circles that the principal job of any CEO is to organize their succession. Has this happened within Formula 1?
But, the price paid for this fee inflation is the heritage of the sport: gone are the old club and historic venues for Formula 1 like Zandvort, Watkins Glen, Anderstorp, Magny Cours, Jerez, Estoril, Brands Hatch – while Silverstone seems to live constantly under a sword of Damocles as it struggles to keep the powers that be happy financially.
Higher fees are theoretically good news for Formula 1, but is this increased income going through to the right stakeholders within the sport? If more went to the teams, the ban on testing could be lifted; very likely, that would make Formula 1 more exciting again – which would drive up audiences, which would push up sponsorship receipts, which would increase revenues and so on.
These developments – and the future of Formula 1 – are fascinating, particularly over the issue of succession planning. It is always declared in business circles that the principal job of any CEO is to organize their succession. Has this happened within Formula 1? No one knows for sure.
What happens if the succession, when it inevitably comes, doesn’t go smoothly? What happens if some of the stakeholders – the teams, the circuits, the sponsors, the FIA even – see the succession as their chance to shift the centre of gravity in the sport and alter the direction of its substantial cash flows? Are they all likely to agree? Great if they do, but what if they don’t? Could we be heading for a Yugoslavia after Tito? In the face of these possibilities, I have to say that I am truly glad not to be the next person running Formula 1!