Who holds the power?

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Ask Chase Carey about his vision for the sport a decade from now, and he’s reluctant to look that far down the line. “I operate in three-year cycles. I don’t like to get too far out there. The sport has all the attributes it needs to be great. So, in reality it’s doing the things we’ve talked about – we’re not looking to change the sport, but we can make the competition, the action on track better, more exciting, less predictable. We’ll continue to build the energy, week-long celebrations and spectacles, new fly-aways to add freshness – and that’s never-ending. We’re not done. The minute you think you’re done you’re probably dead.”

It may not sound like a vision – because even as the executive chairman of F1, the man who runs the show on behalf of Liberty Media, he is not in a position to have a vision of how the sport will be, only of how it’s presented, consumed and sold. He’s got Ross Brawn, a heavyweight of the sport, steeped in it, trying to restructure things on the sporting and technical side to improve the show – but even he is limited in what he can do, given the constraints of the task. F1 is way more resistant to radical change than any other motor sport category – because far too much money is made from it. As such, the threat of a breakaway championship, as Liberty has worked hard to keep Ferrari on board, seems largely to have subsided.

The power is held by the car manufacturers, two of them in particular: Ferrari and Mercedes. They now define the sport’s centre of gravity, and where the manufacturers would like the sport to be is much where it is now, with them on top calling the shots. What we get for 2021 – the manufacturer preference of existing hybrid technology and only a casual nod towards any sort of cost cap, or the Liberty preference of much simpler engines and a savage cost cap – will determine how F1 will look a decade from now. The smart money at the moment would be on the former option.

That may sound ominous, but 10 years is a long time and what may sound outrageous now could turn out to be over-conservative. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the radically different aerodynamics already being planned for 2021 work well in generating cars that can follow each other closely and race wheel to wheel. There are then many ways this could all turn out well, despite the challenges. Here are two quite different possibilities from either end of the manufacturer control spectrum, each totally consistent with the current trajectory. 

1) Ferrari and Mercedes get their way, the competitive landscape remains unchanged, the popularity falls as costs continue to increase while the PR value decreases and after four/five years all the engine manufacturers apart from Ferrari pull out. Without a manufacturer consensus throwing its weight around, Liberty is able to formulate an old-fashioned, noisy, normally aspirated F1 based upon small independent teams being able to buy competitive engines from independent engine builders. By force, it becomes much cheaper. A renegade, retrograde style of F1 emerges that captures the public’s imagination by how it celebrates running against the tide. Encouraged by the great reaction to this, Liberty/FIA become emboldened enough to ban any team guidance by radio, leaving all the crucial choices up to the drivers, who become much more openly free-spirited. All this together with the amplifying effect of Liberty’s city celebrations. Could happen…

2) Liberty and the FIA together manage to put enough constraints on Mercedes and Ferrari with regard to the engine formula and cost control that Honda and Renault become fully competitive –and other manufacturers even join, encouraged by swingeing dyno limits applying to existing manufacturers and none at all to new ones for the first couple of years (something that Liberty and the FIA are working on right now). With four fully competitive engine providers, the factory teams bestow satellite status on favoured independent teams for full and healthy grids. All four factory manufacturers get robust junior driver programmes up and running and together with Liberty and the FIA find ways of opening up the lowest levels of racing to a wider entry level, giving less dependence upon family money. They all follow a recognised ladder of categories and championships, the competition is intense and the best of the exciting new generation get to F1, ensuring a regular turnover there.

But both these scenarios are based around current technology. Opening it up wider, by the mid-2020s what if the pace of automotive electrification is making the hybrids look like dinosaurs and the manufacturers still hold the power to determine where F1 is going? Say the electric technology advances are such that it’s feasible to run vastly powerful cars flat-out for an hour and a half and F1 becomes Formula E’s big brother, but with far fewer restrictions and vastly greater performance. The purists hate it initially and many can’t accept the loss of a whole dimension of what made them fall in love with racing – the noise. But it generates new followers and grows on enough of the existing ones that it becomes the norm quickly enough. The heavy technical learning curve ensures competitive volatility for years.

Looked at another way, what if any motor racing comes to be seen by manufacturers as a PR liability in a new, more extreme environment? Furthermore, let’s say the TV model has broken down almost entirely – there are so many ways of watching that the big-money TV deals have gone. So Liberty Media decides to do it all in-house; it is a media company, after all. It generates its income from subscription fees – and with the manufacturers and the TV companies gone, it can afford to think radically. In the spirit of carnival, it decides to go for the motor racing equivalent of 20-20 cricket: rotation! Each driver does one race (or two, depending upon number of drivers and races) for every team – and the draw is made the week before the race, live on Liberty’s F1 channel. The best team is champion constructor and we find out the real driver hierarchy.

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