I’ve decided to start a feature for the blog. Crazy, right? The pace that Formula One moves at is often a bit overwhelming at times, what with driver changes, controversy and secrecy permeating every waking moment of the sport. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and look at the big picture for a change.
This feature will cycle every three months and will, as I said earlier, take a look at the sport with a much broader scope. What has happened over the past three months that could affect the future of the sport, its drivers and teams, and where is the sport looking to be in the future? These are the types of questions this feature will aim to answer, because as we all know, it is very easy to get lost in all the melee.
So, what did 2013 promise? It certainly had a lot to live up to following the titanic battle for the 2012 crown. Two of the sport’s greats duked it out in an almighty battle between man and machine. A fight between the underdog and the overwhelming favorite always promises surprises, and we got them in spades during 2012. Ironically, though, 2013 was nearly forgotten with the 2014 regulations overhaul looming ever-larger in the face of economic uncertainty. Formula One has a knack for sorting itself out in the end, though, and another fantastic battle began to brew come testing.
The preseason itself was all about change. It was nigh on impossible to look somewhere without seeing a brand new driver-team pairing. Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, Sergio Perez to Mclaren, Nico Hulkenberg to Sauber and Charles Pic to Caterham were the big moves of the season, while Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde all got the nod for race seats. Inevitably, on the lips of every Formula One fan was the discussion of pay drivers. Why must money be a deciding factor when choosing a driver? Well, for one, Formula One can’t control the global economic climate. This is a fact some have found very difficult to accept, as die-hard F1 purists detested the invasion of rich youngsters who forced out experienced talent and other more qualified younger drivers in the ruthless battle for a Formula One race seat. Indeed, with the likes of Timo Glock and Kamui Kobayashi getting the boot at 2012’s close, Formula One found itself in need of some soul searching.
It wasn’t just change on the driver front, as Ferrari found itself in a strange position of competitiveness by the end of preseason testing, with Mclaren finding the going much more difficult than in 2012. The likes of Mercedes and Lotus were there or thereabouts, while Red Bull were all but invisible in the test (as usual). While fluctuation in competitive form is interesting and keeps the fans wanting more, an argument could be made that fans could be lost without a clear leader paving the way at the front of the grid. Everyone needs that one team with a target on their back, right? You may say, “Hey, what about Red Bull? They’ve dominated for the past three and a half years”. You would be partially correct in that, as the increasingly formidable drinks company has dented the egos of the heavy hitters like Mclaren and Ferrari over the past couple of years. But be aware that, apart from dominating the 2011 season, Red Bull hasn’t always been the team to beat, and with the financial stability of many of the teams under serious threat, nothing is guaranteed.
Controversy has reared its ugly head this season, as well. With drivers, technology and teams facing some form of scrutiny in the public eye, our appetite for scandal has been thoroughly whetted just two races into the season. This controversy, however, could have some long-term drawbacks attached to it. Teammate relations at Red Bull were officially severed in Malaysia, and teams like Williams and Caterham had to throw away promising upgrades due to their illegality. Regarding the Red Bull issues, I have already voiced my opinions, and while there is nothing I or anyone else can do about team orders in the sport, we can revel in the fact that the ramifications of the events in Malaysia could have a long-lasting effect on the rest of the season and the future of the sport. What Malaysia taught us is that racers are racers, and not even an FIA-allowed rule will stop them from doing what they do best. This very quality was criticized in Malaysia, and for good reason, but hopefully nothing like what was said in the sweltering heat of Malaysia will be uttered again. It left a very sore mark on the face of the sport, one which may take a long time to be healed.
In the end, however, the past three months have been dominated by compromise. Regulation changes loom large for 2014, and up and down the pit lane are worried faces. Balancing focus between 2013 development and 2014 overhaul will be the challenge of the year. Teams who have struggled in the initial races may want to back off this year and focus their efforts on making a competitive car for next season. Alternatively, they could benefit from focussing on 2013 in order to place themselves high in the constructors’ championship and thus the recipients of the monetary benefits.
For some, however, the regulation changes may prove too daunting. The demise of HRT was a very clear warning that the Formula One environment is not financially viable for most teams. What is more worrying is that HRT folded without the costs of major regulation changes in the way. After 2013, the efforts requires to build a completely new car with fundamentally different design philosophies could be the downfall of even more teams. Rumors that Force India, Caterham and Marussia could struggle to remain on the grid are not completely ridiculous, and the sport needs to do something about that. If there is not a feasible working financial plan for Formula One, who knows how long teams, or even the sport as a whole, will last?