The four faces of a Formula 1 conflict

Motor Racing – Formula One World Championship – Formula One Testing – Day One – Silverstone, England

At the end of June, the FIA introduced its regulation changes plans for the 2015 Formula 1 season. The new rules spanned a number of areas (e.g. no pre-season testing outside Europe), but the change that got the most attention from the media was standing restarts after safety car periods. The fans were baffled and so were the drivers.

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The negative reaction towards the change, however, meant that the plans for it were short-lived and just a month later the FIA announced that the 2015 F1 season would not feature standing restarts. A brief look into the points of view of the main stakeholders in the sport demonstrates why the idea was doomed from the start.

Drivers: Safety

At the end of the day, it is the drivers that put their lives on the line during a race. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association has a long track record of safety-related rows with the FIA. It was disbanded in the 1980s and reformed in 1994, in the wake of the black weekend on Imola. In the next fifteen years, the association was at the forefront of minimizing the risk faced by Grand Prix drivers.

This is where GPDA’s aims were at odds with the FIA’s standing restarts plans. Currently, the probability of participating in an accident during the first lap of a race, when the field is packed, is considerably higher than the probability of getting in trouble in any other lap of a Grand Prix. Now, there is one peak period when the danger for the drivers spike. If standing restarts were introduced, the dangerous periods would have multiplied (especially in places like Monaco).

FIA: entertainment

Formula 1 is a sport, but pure sport does not bring revenue. Entertainment does. In an effort to make the sport more popular, the FIA has introduced a number of odd regulation changes. The lack of close racing has always been considered the plague of the sport, so to improve the show at one point the F1 drivers were only allowed to complete one qualifying lap each. The current qualifying system is so difficult to explain to new/young fans that one would fare better at teaching the nuances of the offside rule in football to preschoolers.

This is all because it is believed that F1’s business problem is the quality of the racing (the closer and the more shocking it is, the better). The truth, however, is that Formula 1 does not have a (coherent) marketing strategy. Bernie Ecclestone shaking hands with media bosses was a great way to launch the sport as a business, but we do not live in the 1970s anymore.

Instead of looking critically inwards, the sport’s governing body would rather look around for a crazy solution to make Formula 1 less of a sport and more of a show. The truth is – uncertainty generates interest. Even Sebastian Vettel’s most ardent fans probably did not like the idea of knowing that the chance of him being beaten at any given 2013 post-summer-break race approached zero. Uncertainty, especially in terms of track position, peaks at the start of a race (this has to do with the danger but also with the ease of overtaking before the field has had the time to spread out). The FIA was attracted to the standing restart solution because it could have improved the show by bringing about multiple periods of high uncertainty during a single race.

Teams: success

Being successful is the singular purpose of any racing team. This cannot always be quantified as winning a race or a championship; just remember the elation at Marussia when Jules Bianchi won the team’s maiden points during the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix. Success is better described as meeting or exceeding target finish position. Maximizing one’s probability of success is therefore the primary motivation behind any given team’s political moves.

In the case of standing restarts, Charlie Whiting admitted that the idea came from a discussion with a McLaren employee. Given Mercedes’s 2014 dominance, one can easily see why the likes of McLaren, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari would support a rule that penalizes the frontrunners (the further up you are, the more you stand to lose rather than gain during a standing restart). Such position, however, is myopic, because next season McLaren might be the team dictating the proceedings (if the Honda engines are as good as they expect them to be). Rule changes have unexpected consequences: “the double points at Abu Dhabi” rule, which was introduced to fight the Vettel-Newey dominance, might end up causing an irreparable rift at Mercedes.

Fans: fairness

The fans are the least influential Formula 1 stakeholders. There is no lobbying organization for fans. Yet, the fans are actually the most important F1 stakeholders too. Without them, the sport does not exist. The tracks are empty and broke; there are no sponsors. Even if FIA and FOM, locked in their 1970s ivory towers, fail to recognize the power of the fans, their viewpoint matter too (especially to the sponsors!). And the fans really care about fairness and justice.

In the days after the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, there was a huge backlash against Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing as some video clips posted on YouTube suggested that the World Champion had made an illegal pass during the race and should have been penalized. The sentiment towards the “double points at Abu Dhabi” rule was similar because it is biased towards a good performance at the last race of the season.

The reason why most fans did not like the standing restarts ideas was not because they do not like change (Formula 1’s regulations are not the Terms of Use of Facebook), it was because such a solution is biased against the frontrunners. Of course, it would be “fun” to see a few more starts, but Formula 1 is a sport and justice and equal opportunity are important part of what fans value.

The road ahead

On every given Formula 1 regulation change, there will always be a plethora of viewpoints. The backlash against changes, however, would be minimized, if the FIA bothered to consult the drivers and the fans (marketing research and opinion polling are not funny gimmicks) before proceeding with every crazy idea the not-so-successful-at-a-given-period teams suggested.

Testing the water by announcing and quickly dropping a rule change worked here, but as we saw with the “double points at Abu Dhabi” rule, sometimes there is not enough time for trial and error. And one can only imagine the outrage, if Lewis Hamilton happened to win every race between Belgium and Brazil and ended up losing the title because of an unfortunate retirement at Abu Dhabi.

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