A break-away series led by Ferrari might not be as outlandish as you thought. In fact, it might even save the sport.
As the 2018 season begins, so does the countdown to 2021, when the next chapter of the sport is set to begin with new contracts, new technical regulation – and the possibility of no Ferrari or Mercedes, who might (or might not) embark upon setting up their much-vaunted breakaway championship. This threat mentioned at regular intervals by Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne might just be seen as a very aggressive negotiating ploy in ongoing discussions with F1’s owners Liberty Media about the financial terms of their F1 participation 2021-onwards. But it’s also possible that the very speaking of a rival series’ name could set into motion other unintended consequences. Which might actually be a good thing.
At least two potential randomisers could take this into a bigger orbit and escalate the discussion from a bit of typical F1 squabbling into something that radically changes the sport’s trajectory. Consider the business world in which Liberty operates and the strategic planning of its rivals. Think of Amazon, already going into competition with organisations as diverse as DHL, supermarkets and digital streaming content providers. Its recent toe-in-the-F1-water with the McLaren documentary follows taking the Top Gear baton with Grand Tour.
The potential future rewards of streaming content for a sport as popular as F1 are vast. What if an aggressively expansionist company thought backing Ferrari and Mercedes in forming a breakaway championship (to which it would have the digital and other rights) would be doubly attractive, in that not only would it be a big gain for them, but it would hurt Liberty, one of its key marketplace rivals?
If such a thing were to get to the feasibility study stage (if it hasn’t already) and, beyond that, to the planning stage, then that Ferrari threat wouldn’t be so empty. In this scenario Ferrari would be seen by most as the bad guys, the team that split apart F1 into parallel-series obscurity. But what if there was a way of bringing the public on side? What is the thing the fans say they dislike most about current F1? The quiet engines. Enter randomiser number two.
If Ferrari (and Mercedes) were to say their series was for agile, light, beautiful cars with screaming 1500hp naturally aspirated motors, filled with the true DNA of F1, what then? If F1 continued in its parallel series without Ferraris and with quiet hybrids and cars about 200kg too heavy? If Ferrari, Mercedes (and whichever independent teams came with them) competed in this rebellious, noisy ‘Amazon’ championship versus the official ‘Liberty’ traditional F1, with perhaps Renault (signed to F1 on commercial terms through to 2024), Honda and their satellite teams in their quiet 800kg hybrids, spending the manufacturer R&D budgets. Which series would win?
Formula 1 is already committed to continuing with some form of the existing hybrid turbo V6 post-2021. They are only arguing over the details now. They are incredibly impressive pieces of engineering but remain hugely unpopular with fans. Furthermore, the batteries and cooling needed have made this generation of F1 car truck-like. They’re mighty fast in isolation but at about 250kg heavier than a 1980s/90s car, aren’t good at what Hamilton calls ‘close combat’. So why is F1 wedded to this concept when the opportunity is there, post-2020, to wipe the slate clean and start with something better?
Answer: because Liberty insists it and the FIA are aligned, so that they cannot be divided and conquered by the teams. The FIA’s President, in turn, is adamant that the sport is aligned with the car manufacturers – and these manufacturers fund F1 from their R&D budgets (which are much bigger than their marketing budgets in terms of F1 spending). The manufacturers are therefore imposing, by proxy, a formula that the fans – and most of the teams – do not want. Renault pushed for the hybrids in the first place and is keen to retain them, as is Honda. Mercedes has always been ambivalent about the formula but set about dominating it regardless. It remains ambivalent about a post-2020 formula, especially as it has a reserved place in Formula E with which to claim road car relevance. Ferrari? Having spent a lot of money getting up to speed with the technology, it’s been keen so far to continue with it – but is strongly against the greater standardisation of parts Liberty hopes to introduce.
But surely if Ferrari is smart, it will withdraw its support of the hybrid and make a big play of how its proposed future series would bring back the glamour and noise. The potential of a highly motivated Amazon underwriting an alternative series and making it feasible might be the only thing that could break F1’s insistence on shackling itself to the unpopular hybrid. Either by going ahead with the rival series or threatening with real intent to do so if F1 remains hybrid, Ferrari would be seen as throwing its considerable weight around for the good of the sport rather than just itself (which is how it is perceived at the moment).
So we could have a field of beautiful cars with simple wings, most of the downforce derived from the underbody (did you see how good the new Indycars looked on track in the opening round?), weighing 500kg, agile and raceable, powered by wailing 20,000rpm V12s, V10s and V8s, all easily buildable by Ilmor and Cosworth for the independent teams. You might even get Red Bull – usually anti-Mercedes and Ferrari, pro-Liberty, but also long-opposed to the hybrid – to lend its support. Then you’d have all three top teams aligned against the imposition of the hybrid and for the curtailment of the excessive sway of the manufacturers. The current top three teams and their star drivers (and how difficult would it be to convince McLaren to join up if supplied, say, with a Mercedes engine?) would carry enormous clout if they had something like this they could rally around.
In this way the Scuderia could eventually be seen as the saviours of the sport. Wouldn’t that be something?
Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation