F1 frontline: November 2018

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We’re racing into an age of technical and design overhaul for Formula 1, but can Liberty Media build a platform strong enough to support it?

You know how it is with landscapes; they stay the same for ages then suddenly and dramatically change. We seem to be seeing the construction work for a new Formula 1 landscape right now, something underlined at Singapore with the first renderings of how the 2021 generation of cars might look, the confirmation of Kimi Räikkönen’s departure from Ferrari after eight seasons – and continued revelations about how Ferrari and F1 will be in the post-Marchionne era.

The concept of the ‘friendly aero’ cars of 2021 is still being fine-tuned and any lessons learned from the smaller modifications of next year’s cars will be incorporated. But although creating a car with a less disruptive wake is the key to the changes, Ross Brawn revealed in Singapore that a body designer has also been engaged to look at making the cars more visually attractive within the framework provided by the aerodynamic considerations. The hope is that the bodywork regs can then be configured to prevent the sort of aesthetic aberrations seen in the recent past. At the same time it gives the look of a contemporary F1 car a long-overdue update.

Natural evolution proceeded at breakneck speed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Ten years after the Maserati 250F won its last title, Lotus was introducing the 49! A decade after that and we had the ground-effect Lotus 78. Just look at that visual progress. Even if you go in smaller increments, the advances were very obvious between, say, a 1961 shark-nose Ferrari 156 and a 1962 Lotus 25. Just a few months after dominating F1, the shark-nose was obsolete – visually obviously so.

Form followed function and the new knowledge was being discovered fast. But at some point in the early ‘80s, regulation became dominant in determining how the cars looked and, ever since then, to most casual observers F1 cars have not fundamentally changed their appearance. Yes, as followers of the sport we can see clearly where the aero advances are, but to the casual observer – or the young kid who might be drawn into becoming a lifelong fan – they’ve looked much the same for the last 40 years, regardless of the technology beneath them evolving faster than ever. That’s ridiculous. This is the first serious attempt at combining dense technical regulation with how an F1 car should look.

It would be no surprise if Kimi Räikkönen gets to pilot one of the new-look cars in 2021, when he will be 41. In the meantime, he’s been dragged – very reluctantly – from Ferrari and returns to Sauber 18 years after last racing there as a rookie. That’s a remarkable statistic, the equivalent of John Surtees returning to Lotus in 1978! As with the visual stagnation of the cars, it gives the impression of time not really moving on.

But it is and the recruitment of Charles Leclerc – a man barely more than half Räikkönen’s age – reinforces that message. In Singapore, free to talk at last about his switch to the Scuderia alongside Sebastian Vettel at just 21 years old, there was an underlying steeliness beneath the little boy appearance.

What were his realistic goals in his first year there? “It’s difficult to speak from now, but my target is to do the best job possible. With the car they have this year, it’s a car that can win the title. If next year is the same, then [the goal] will be to win the title. It will be a big thing and I will have to grow a lot as a driver, but…”

Is he ready for such a challenge? When even the vastly more experienced Vettel is feeling the strain? If there are cracks appearing in Vettel’s relationship with the team in his fifth year there, with a second consecutive year of a collapsing title challenge apparently unfolding, it would be no surprise.

When Marchionne was there, the project was building momentum. Coming from where it had been in 2014 to creating F1’s fastest car was deeply impressive. It still has that car but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the calibre of the operational side of the team is not equipped to maximise it – and this in turn is piling the pressure onto Vettel and contributing to some key errors from him. As can be read elsewhere in the magazine, Marchionne had in place a change of management with which to address this, but that is not now happening. Which leads to the obvious question of how or why the outcome will change if those in charge continue to do the same thing. As an observing Bernie Ecclestone recently said about Ferrari, “I think they’ve just got a bit more used to losing than Mercedes over the last few years.”

The untimely passing of Marchionne has also had the effect of moving Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff into a dominant role within the sport. Not only is he running the team, but he’s carrying the heft and political weight of Mercedes in shaping F1’s future – and he’s become the dominant player in the driver market, too. Inevitably, it’s led to something of a backlash from rival team owners. It appears to have left him somewhat shell-shocked and seems to be playing a major part in, for example, Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon being unable to find a ride for next season, despite his very obvious promise. The dominant position, “Is not something I have sought,” Wolff told us in Singapore, “and perhaps I have to withdraw from the driver side of things.”

With Ecclestone stood down and the death of Marchionne, there is an obvious power vacuum – and perhaps Wolff has been pulled into that to a greater degree than he would have chosen. But the structure of the sport is surely at fault if a participant can wield arguably more power than the governing body…

So by the time we see those 2021 cars for real, how will the landscape look? Very different from even the recent past, but not in a way we can yet see clearly. F1 had better hope that the foundations for what it is building are strong.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation