F1 Frontline with Mark Hughes

Sibling rivalry  

As this is written Formula 1 stands undecided on a whole array of potential changes for 2017 and beyond: a cheaper proposal from the engine manufacturers has been put on the table, as requested by Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone, but it remains to be seen if that’s enough to satisfy them (or indeed if they remain united on the issue) and therefore whether the ‘independent’ client engine will happen. The initial 2017 aero regs have been greatly watered down after Pirelli pointed out that the current construction tyres would not be able to withstand the loads nor deliver the lap time gains the downforce increase would normally imply. But there remains an argument about whether to make any aero changes at all given that the watered-down version will probably not meet the original target of beating the old V10 qualifying records from more than a decade ago. 

The red herring of a return to fuel stops has been thrown back into the mix, even though most of the teams are vehemently against it – and even though the statistics show that the lowest average number of passing moves per race aligns very precisely with the refuelling era. 

We’ve written many times on these and related issues, in both the magazine and on the website. Suffice to say, it’s fairly evident that the deeply flawed rule-making process is coming up with deeply flawed ‘solutions’ to F1’s perceived problems. We await further developments in this period of flux, but in summary we believe two fairly simple regulation changes would grasp the nettle of the problem rather than frantically attending to the ever-cascading set of consequences. 1) Mix up the grids (but not in a random way), so that the fastest cars have to work their way through the pack. This would probably entail a preliminary sprint race. 2) Allow teams below a prescribed budget access to full-on performance Pirellis without the current tyres’ heat-degrading composites. Teams above the budget threshold would still have to use the current tyres. That figure should be set so as to be achievable for the big teams – but as they contract, so the threshold should continue to lower until F1 budgets are at a sane level. 

In that way, we might have a sporting chance of an exciting merit-based F1 of flat-out racing with overtaking – and all within a sustainable financial model. The rest – imposing a full radio ban, getting the noise level up etc – would be niceties. The policing of the budget threshold would be much easier than the writing of the regulation. But it would require nowhere near as much ingenuity as is habitually unleashed in exploiting F1 loopholes. This would just require a momentary redirection of that ingenuity.

But we have a whole season to go before any of the big changes – and for 2016 there are actually several fascinating developments to look forward to. Ferrari is expected to have made major gains in its aerodynamics, given the vastly greater wind tunnel time data it gave itself access to with the (now closed-off) Haas loophole. Furthermore, those aerodynamics have been configured around a new narrow-block engine. Combined, these changes might just have made possible significantly greater gains than are available to Mercedes, which is surely now in the area of diminishing returns. There’s good reason to believe Ferrari could be taking it to Merc in 2016. Stand by for some classic Hamilton vs Vettel.

Although Toro Rosso will not have access to the narrow-block Ferrari motor, even its 2015-spec Ferrari engines are expected to be well ahead of the ‘TAG’ Renaults in the senior Red Bull team. Last year’s STR10 was a great little car. Expect the STR11 to be even more aggressively packaged as the technical department under James Key matures and strengthens (Andy le Fleming joined from Mercedes last year). It would be no surprise to see Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz perform regular giant-slaying feats. In the very close fight directly behind Merc/Ferrari, expect Toro Rosso to be right in the thick of it, especially in the early season before its static- spec motors are left behind as engine manufacturers develop their 2016 units. 

There is much that is still epic about F1 and our calls for change are rooted in concern for its future health. There’s no reason why, with a bit of careful tweaking, we couldn’t have the best F1 there’s ever been. Which is why it’s so frustrating that it’s not currently set on such a trajectory.