Roar From The Paddock: Edition 7 – What Can F1 Do To Fix Its Lack of Competition?

Mercedes F1 Grid
Feature Image Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport/Daimler AG

Roar From The Paddock Returns With Feature Writer Specialist, Aaron Gillard Analysing The Issues And How Formula 1 Can Change To Stop Its Recent Lack Of Action Conundrum.

The 2019 Spanish Grand Prix was far from a classic. This year’s edition saw a lack of action, no fight to the front runners and left fans a bit of a sour taste as once again, F1 has left a round with a meh race.

Whilst the racing has produced some interesting match ups; Ferrari’s recent use of team orders, the battle between Bottas and Hamilton, and how can we not forget the fight between the midfield teams.

It has proven to be not enough for F1 and Motorsport fans to leave satisfied after watching a race for two hours. Some feel bored whilst a few just turn off after a couple of laps, knowing who has a pretty good idea on who will win the race.

It’s been a problem for so long, the recent F1 owners, Liberty Media have tried to come up with solutions to make the race more entertaining. A ‘Super Bowl’ in the world of Chase Carey. But even the Super Bowl can be a bit of a bore fest every so often (take this year’s with the New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams for example).

People want to be entertained. It’s hard to satisfy everyone who watches a sport. Some find it easy whilst others, not so much. It’s a difficult task to provide a consistent level of excitement in every Grand Prix, Football Match, NFL game etc. Sport’s level of consistency is always challenging to accomplish.

What Is The Problem?

Mercedes have been a dominant force. But that is not their fault for being such a power house. Every since the introduction of the V6 Hybrids and the recent shake-up with the cars in 2017, Mercedes have been the team to always crack the code and be the best in F1. Ferrari and Red Bull have both provided some challenge to Mercedes, but it is never enough to stop them winning both drivers’ and constructors’ titles for five consecutive seasons.

Ferrari this year have been somewhat a confusion. A team that showed strong promise in pre-season testing, can’t bring the fight to Mercedes and now is fighting between themselves with Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen however, is thriving over Ferrari’s squabble and could end up surpassing both red cars at the end of the season, but even they can’t match Mercedes’ level.

And when we go pass the big three, there is a big gap from the midfield. Renault, Alfa Romeo, McLaren, Haas and Toro Rosso are seconds off from the top three and have rarely a chance to collect a decent result. And there are Williams. A heritage team making up the final numbers. We can all agree it is sad to see them so far back.

But this is the problem, the gaps between the teams are too big. We often see the top teams run away, the midfield squabble with each other and Williams  getting lapped. Sure, this sort of tier has been around F1 for decades. But the top three have been dominating and pretty much, run the sport, leaving smaller teams behind and no chance of obtaining a sniff of possible glory.

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The cars are some of the fastest the sport has ever seen! These impressive machinery are one of a kind, but there is a simple problem with them. Aerodynamics. An F1 car these days generate so much aerodynamics that it makes it hard for cars to follow each other, due to the amount of dirty air it gets from simply following a car behind.

We have the best drivers on the grid, with the fastest cars in Motorsport, but they can’t find a way to create a spectacular race. What can F1 do to address this?

Ways To Possibly Fix F1?

A Shake-Up To The Cars & Teams

The main concern surrounds the cars. This current regulation of F1 provides the fastest generation of cars we’ve ever seen, but it also one of the dirtiest in terms of aerodyamics. The cars introduced in 2017 were made to make the cars more faster, but challenging to drive physically due to the extra downforce and G-forces the driver would have to take. But this has proven to create less overtaking due the dirty air and the amount of downforce the car behind loses when following closely.

It is estimated that the car behind loses 50% of its downforce when they follow a car behind, according to F1’s Managing Director of Motorsport, Ross Brawn. The amount of dirty air generated is so powerful, drivers lose grip in the tyres the more often they follow a car behind. This is why during a race, we see gaps form between cars.

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This has been a dilemma for many years in F1. The solution to finding a way to minimize dirty air and allow cars to follow one another, in return create some great racing. They’ve made the first steps into a solution this year with wider rear wings and more basic front wings. The results has somewhat been an improvement, but the issue still lies.

Brawn and his group of engineers at F1 are still at work finding a way to build the ‘perfect’ F1 car for the upcoming 2021 regulations. The proposal for the new cars are estimated to lose just 5% of downforce when they follow each other, and this is just two years away. If this works, F1’s overtaking issue might come to an end. But we’ll have to see in near future.

Another problem with the cars is simply, cost. F1 is a very expensive business to run and the teams have to invest massively in resources, cars, engines, employees etc. to try and get two drivers the best result possible. But there is a massive gap between teams over how much they are spending.

Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull spend hundreds of millions to make the best car possible thanks to their bigger budget and association with worldwide brands, whilst smaller teams like Williams or Racing Point spend far little and have to do what is best with their budget. This leads to not only them losing on track, but in the prize money as well. As expected in most sports competitions, the team who is successful the most, gets the most money. The worst, gets small portion of the pie. This in return means the worst teams may continue this pattern and the best teams achieve more success.

In other words: the rich get richer.

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In a rare event of Friday practice running cancelled or limited, it often has led to quite an intersting race as teams have to rush all their work into one day on Saturday, just as they are preparing for qualifying.

There have been discussions and some comments from teams and drivers over scrapping or reducing Friday running. Some exmaples such as the United States Grand Prix in 2018, proved to be a thrilling race and was all up in the air after Friday was washed out due to heavy rain. But then, there have been cases where limited Friday running has made no effect.

This year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Free Practice 1 postponed after a drain cover came loose and damaged George Russell’s Williams. Despite the short running compare to normal, the racing still didn’t produce a dramatic result.

Whether F1 will go with this path remains unclear. However, if they do decided to scrap it completely, it would effect how ticket prices shape up with one less day of running. Race organisers don’t want to lose the money by the lack of action on track over one day. Friday tickets don’t cost much but it could be make back by adding extra to Saturday, Sunday or weekend tickets. And F1 tickets nowadays are quite the price.

And what about the support series? Where do they fit in in all of this? Some run on a Friday and have races set for Saturday. Scheduling might be a headache as a result of this.

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There have been talks of a cost cap to be put into place, to even the odds for all the teams. This option has been discussed in the past, but fell through just as three new teams (Virgin, HRT & Lotus) entered the sport in 2010. All three teams now have folded. A budget cap has been a concept in American Sports for sometime and has made the competition more even, making it hard to predict.

If F1 wants to go down this road, they’ll need to properly manage the cap as the sport invest in many departments. Engine, car manufacturing, drivers salary, employees salary. These are some of hurdles that will need to be tackled.

It’s hard to manage a budget cap, hence why such rule hasn’t been implemented yet. Plus it would mean the bigger teams would have to make dramatic cuts to their season, something that is easier said than done. But this open of budget opens doors for new entries into the sport.

A budget gives teams like Racing Point, Williams etc. a chance to play evens with Mercedes and Ferrari. It is not fully guaranteed that they can compete with them, but it’s a good chance a change like this will help the sport.

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Changing Tyres?

Strategies have long been part of the game in F1. But this generation of racing has solely been based on how the tyres perform. No refueling, it is a simple race to the finish with tyres the only factor to deal with. This has boosted the number of overtakes in a race, but the latest spec of Pirelli tyres has led to races often become a simple one-stop race.

Pirelli has produced tyres that has made the racing more better during their early years of being in F1, but after the dramatic blow outs at the 2013 British Grand Prix, the tyres are more harder. Even with three dry compounds at a Grand Prix, the races often see the cars make one trip to the pits. Sometimes two if teams want to be faster, but compensate by making an extra stop.

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It is hard to find a way of making the races more exciting with the tyres, because if you have softer tyres, the teams are doing to do whatever way they can to save as much grip as possible. Tyre management has never played a crucial role until now.

More harder tyres means the drivers can push more, but most likely will try and get as much life to the tyre as possible by conserving the set throughout that stint.

There have been talks about introducing a mandatory two-stop in the races, but that has fell through and even if it did come into action, the teams will most likely follow the same step.

But even if Pirelli make softer tyres, it might allow a few drivers who might take a gamble and start on a medium or harder tyre, use the alternative strategy and make a jump on drivers who start on the softer tyres during the race.

It is a complicated situation, with no real solution. Pirelli do a good job in making tyres for F1, but the tyres are simply too durable. Even the new Pirelli range, the tyres can last a long time.

The push for 18-inch tyres looks to be a shake-up as part of the 2021 regulation change. They will be tested in FIA Formula 2 in 2020 before a possible entry into F1. The change of rims means the tyres may have to work as harder, but opens the chance for the teams to add bigger brakes, allowing the car to brake later in the corner.

Maybe the change to 18-inch tyres is what F1 needs. Who knows. If it is successful and enters the sport in 2021, expects journalists, pundits and analysts to be talking about them often.

A Change of Race Tracks?

A few fans may argue that the race tracks on the current F1 calendar don’t provide many overtaking chances or for quality races. After five races in 2019, the one race that provided decent action was Bahrain. Even Baku a circuit that produces some chaotic races, wasn’t great.

There are some tracks that often provide great racing, but they too fall into the void of dull Grands Prix. It is a hard one to solve. Tracks ain’t the issue but you want to go to places which can have opportunities to pass.

It is hard to find tracks that can host an F1 race and have overtaking chances. Not every track can be like Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, Circuit of the Americas etc. Even those tracks have dull races.

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Not every race can be a thriller, it never has. Throughout periods of F1 history, there have been some dull races and the occasional good ones. Tracks such as Monaco nowadays often ends on Saturday because the racing on Sunday barely has any overtaking. With Monaco specifically, it sometimes doesn’t help to have wide cars on a narrow street track.

Barcelona last time out proved to be a circuit where the teams know so much from pre-season testing, they known the track in and out, meaning some teams can deploy their strongest set up and know what they’re doing from the get go.

The Spanish Grand Prix is looking likely to disappear in 2020, with Zandvoort and the Ducth Grand Prix revived for next year’s calendar. Zandvoort in particular is an interesting circuit filled with bankings, fast corners and few long straights. But from past experiences in FIA European Formula 3, racing is tough there and overtakes rarely happen.

The track will need to be modified in order to meet to F1’s standard, so hopefully the configuration doesn’t change too much and who knows, but it needs to prove to be a solid race track for the series. Otherwise, fans will begin to wonder whether swapping Zandvoort for Barcelona was a good idea.

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The TV Coverage

Gathering all the resources and right tools to create a great race is one thing, presenting it to a worldwide television audience is another. Some races in 2019 have provided not much action, but there have been on-track battles occurring at each race. The problem is, we don’t see it very often. The coverage often focuses solely on the top six and we get small glimpses of the lower end of the field.

We saw in this year’s Chinese Grand Prix, F1’s 1000th GP event some poor directing and camerawork from the FOM team, which is strange because they often produce a solid job over race weekends. But this year has been somewhat of a drop.

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Fans want to see battle for the lead and up front, but often in the last few races that has rarely been happening. But FOM’s worldwide feed focuses on top group and often miss out on a battle for 9th or 12th etc. It might not interest people seeing a fight on track in a lower position, but you want to showcase some action. Not many people are interested in looking at a Mercedes blasting away with a sizeable gap to one another. A few people might like to see Alexander Albon fight with Romain Grosjean for the last point.

Everyone wants to see footage of on-track battles, whether it is for third or ninth or fifteenth place. It helps produce a better show to see battles on track. Sure, we want to see fighting up front, but that will take time to fix. Presenting a different style for TV is a fix that can be done this year.

Or… Leave It As It Is?

Leave it how it is now. Don’t make too many drastic changes to the point where F1 might lose some of its fanbase or even worse, itself.

F1 has always been about which team can produce the best car over a season, with the best drivers around some of the best circuits in the world. It has always been the formula since the sport’s inception in 1950, and a lot has changed since that first race at Silverstone. But the main core structure remains the same, F1 is about who can do it the best. It is unlike IndyCar, Formula 2 or Formula E where a team is given a spec-car, same regulations and they go.

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The current era of Mercedes dominance might be hurting F1, but there have been patches in history where teams dominant the sport. Red Bull in the early 2010s, Ferrari between 2000 to 2004, McLaren in the late 80s with Senna and Prost. This is natural. There rarely has been a patch where it is all up in the air between several teams and drivers for the title at the final race. Between 2000 to 2018, only eight times the title battle was decided at the final race.

Races have never always been spectacular. Fans have a hope that every race will be amazing and dramatic. It rarely happens when every race is like this. You get races which often produce a surprise or two, but frequently having this doesn’t become a ‘surprise’ anymore.

You want smaller teams to produce a shock or a surprise here or two.

F1 never stops or halts. There will always be changes coming into the sport every year. Big or small, they’ll impact it someway.

Is the sport in a crisis? No. Every so often we hear on social media whether the sport is going through a rough patch. It has a few bumps but this has often been the case for the last few decades. The sport has the potential under the guidance of Liberty Media to go somewhere and make the sport great. They have worked hard into making it great for the fans who attend the races. Now, they need to create a show on the track.

Hopefully under the 2021 rules and regulations, F1 can be a great action sporting event on track that will get new fans around the world tuned in. Their social media channels have done a good job in bringing in fans with their posts and relations to trends online. Let’s hope in a few years time, F1 will be competitive and great to watch on TV and on the track.

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