Let the best F1 driver win: force them to rotate teams every race


The 2023 Azerbaijan sprint saw another idea fail to galvanise F1 excitement – is it time for radical change, forcing drivers to race for every team in a single season?

Charles Leclerc Haas 2016 GP

Leclerc in a Haas for one weekend? He's done it before...

Grand Prix Photo

Okay, I’m sorry, but it’s time to beat the driver rotation drum again.

At the moment, we don’t have a proper drivers’ championship, just a teams’ championship. The fact that it was ever thus throughout F1 history, doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t have to be like that! That Stirling Moss never won a world championship means it’s always been a bit of a nonsense.

I know from experience how tedious it is heading off to the other side of the world to watch a race that you know Michael Schumacher is going to win. Ditto, Lewis Hamilton. And now Max Verstappen. Okay, Checo Perez scored a fine Baku double last weekend and the media is doing its collective best to beat up stories about Sergio being in the championship fight. But come on. Has everyone forgotten the last two seasons?

X Max Verstappen Red Bull 2018 Azerbaijan GP

Driver rotation might seem laughable on first glance, but it would certainly spice up the action

Red Bull

Twenty or so years ago, then FIA president Max Mosley half-heartedly wanted to address the inequality of F1. It is, after all, the only major sport where the top performers spend years trying to reach the pinnacle and, when they finally get there, 90% of them can’t perform.

Contrast it with, say, golf or tennis, where you work like a Trojan to get your tour card or break into the ATP top 100, you get there and play with the same sticks and bats as the top guys and there’s nothing denying your talent. Okay, if there wasn’t a separate constructors’ championship, having drivers as part of teams makes sense. But there is. So, for a valid driving competition, the driver needs to be decoupled from the teams.

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Mosley realised that but knew it was complicated to sort out and controversial, so kind of mischievously lobbed in a hand grenade as a diversionary distraction to take people’s minds off other things he was trying to force through which he knew he’d have aggravation with. That was how he operated.

When Max wanted to do it, the maths didn’t really work. He was thinking 18 races and twelve teams. The order in which drivers drove each car for the first 12 races would be decided by lot. After 12 races, the championship leader would nominate the six teams he wished to drive for the remainder of the year. The second-place man would then do likewise, etc. Not ideal.

Today though, we’re up to 24 races had China not bitten the dust. We need a couple more teams, Andretti plus A.N Other, and to hell with diluting a team franchise value. Then they all do two races in each car. And you’d have a proper championship.

Whenever the idea has been mooted, the top drivers and teams have been against it. Wouldn’t you be if you were guaranteed $40m plus for the next few years to drive a car with a preposterous advantage with one guy to beat. Hell, Verstappen doesn’t even like a sprint because it tosses in some jeopardy. Or, if you ran a well-funded team who could afford to pay the perceived top guys that sort of money, you wouldn’t want it either. For a budget cap to truly mean something, driver salaries need to be included.

X Logan Sargeant WIlliams 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Top drivers could show true mettle in back-of-grid cars


Under a rotation system, drivers would be paid a basic salary for being on the F1 grid, whatever number is considered appropriate, then so many dollars per point in the races, with really big money for the championship top three. The bottom three (or maybe five) would lose their F1 drives at the end of the year, replaced by up-and-comers from feeder series.

F1 team rotation: the objections

Arguments against include, “If F1 ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Well, heading to Miami, if the greatest intrigue is whether Perez can hang onto Verstappen or whether the higher temperature will melt the Ferrari tyres sufficiently for Fernando Alonso to beat Charles Leclerc, it could be an awful lot better! Imagine if we were waiting to see what Logan Sargeant or Esteban Ocon can do with a Red Bull, or where Max Verstappen might put a Williams?

And while we’re mentioning Alonso, perhaps the best complete package on the grid, he’s been irrelevant for an entire decade due to the stupid current system. It’s like Djokovic/Nadal playing tennis with a wooden racket for 10 years. Thank God for Aston’s great progress this season, but Fernando’s still not where he should be. Instead of watching him win races (at 41!) we’re getting excited about what a great team player he is telling Lance Stroll to follow suit on a brake-adjust. Had to laugh at that. He sure as hell wouldn’t be doing it if Lewis was in the other Aston! And we’re so bereft of proper stories that we’re over-analysing a bit of something and nothing handbags between Russell and Verstappen in T2/3 as if it was the outbreak of World War 3.

Other objections to rotation: sponsors wouldn’t like it; unnecessary confusion among casual fans; loss of historic driver/team relationships.

Why wouldn’t sponsors like it? They can still back teams, which is what gives them air time, still do B2B deals for paddock presence, and would be freer to do promotional deals around drivers without team sponsor clashes. And, a plus, there would be more ‘stars’ because of better competition. Drivers who worked would rightfully earn money, lazy monosyllabic dolts with the charisma of a wet paper bag, would not.

Livery confusion? Don’t football teams wear away kit? And anyway, it’s sometimes hard enough for commentators to spot who’s who in modern-day F1 let alone the casual fan. Any why, oh why, do we set so much store by ‘the casual fan’ anyway? I still regularly get asked what’s more important, the driver or the car? Well, if you don’t know that, you might as well watch football.

Carlos Sainz Renault 2017 GP

Sainz could sample Enstone again after previous brief stint

Grand Prix Photo

Another objection: As technical rules become more restrictive, cars gradually close in performance, making rotation unnecessary. Really? Hell, right now the second quickest car can’t hold a candle to a Red Bull let alone the 10th quickest car.

Drivers’ true pace revealed

One thing that might need a bit of thought is that F1 might lose its established stars because, in reality, they’re all within two or three tenths, whereas the cars are a second and a half to two seconds apart. It’s only as the season progressed that the true picture would start to emerge. Nobody could ever afford to give anything less than 100% though, because if you’re Verstappen finishing eighth in a Williams, you’d worry that Leclerc might finish seventh when it was his go.

“People pontificate about a drivers selecting teams as if it was a studied science”

People pontificate about a driver getting himself into the right car being all part of F1 as if it was a studied science. The reality is, it’s much more random than that. Moss, for example, fell out with Ferrari when, as a youngster, he was promised a car for a race in Bari. When he arrived, they’d given the car to Piero Taruffi instead. Moss was so ticked off he vowed never to drive for them. Had he not been so principled, he’d have won world championships.

And let’s have a quick look at Hamilton’s defection to Mercedes from McLaren in 2012, the move that led to an unprecedented eight years in the best car, allowing him to win 100-plus races. It was sold as fabulous forward-thinking decision from Lewis after successful wooing from Mercedes, Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn.

But what really happened, according to Nick Fry, deeply involved with the commercial side, is a lot different. Yes, Brawn is highly plausible. You only had to listen to him amid the Benetton ’94 shenanigans to appreciate that. So, you had Ross telling Lewis all about the importance of building your own engines and having an integrated package with hybrids just around the corner.

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Fry, meantime, knew that Simon Fuller, Hamilton’s then manager – who’d made his name promoting the Spice Girls – had fallen out with McLaren’s Ron Dennis, who was used to dealing with racing people, not some music wallah. Initially though, Mercedes big boss Dieter Zetsche was not that interested, thinking instead about Nick Heidfeld… Which was when Lauda arrived as non-executive chairman, told Fry to go and get the deal done and he’d ask for Mercedes forgiveness later.

The sticking point was money. Alonso was apparently on £30m at Ferrari and so Fry knew they were going to have to pay Lewis at least that. Mercedes though, would only stump up 90% and no more, so Fry had to go cap in hand to Petronas for some more dosh in return for more stickers on the car.

McLaren, meanwhile, was desperately trying to hang onto Lewis, who would make the final decision. At the Singapore GP, team principal Martin Whitmarsh quietly told the press he was 99% sure Hamilton would re-sign. But that was counting without a ploy from Dennis that spectacularly backfired.

In the background, The Sun newspaper had printed a story about Hamilton going clubbing with rapper J Cole, then partying into the small hours with some friends and 10 women at a London hotel, hinting at a whiff of supposed scandal. So Dennis flew to Germany to see Zetsche (McLaren used the Mercedes engine) and told him that McLaren could wear such behaviour but, for corporate Mercedes, hiring Hamilton would lead to a PR/media backlash they couldn’t afford.

Lauda, meantime, had almost blown the deal by telling Fuller that the money side was sorted when Fry, who Fuller was in daily contact with, knew that it wasn’t. Then Zetsche, by now on-side with the Hamilton idea, rang Brawn about Ron’s visit. Ross told Fry and Fry told Fuller, at the same time as briefing Hamilton’s lawyer… Instead of scuppering the Hamilton / Mercedes deal, Dennis’s ploy moved a furious Hamilton firmly towards it. And so, you could say that Hamilton has Dennis to thank for the most beneficial move in F1 history, just as much as for his McLaren success!

So no, it’s much more down to the lap of the gods than you might think. All you can really say with any degree of certainty is that if Adrian Newey has had anything to do with it, you should be sat in it. So, go on Liberty, from 2026, give us a proper drivers’ championship.