Is it a sport or is it entertainment? This was the question Danika Patrick asked of her co-anchor at this years Indy500 when the governing body of the Indycar series appeared to bend its own rules to ensure the 3 hour long race did not finish behind the safety car.
A similar question can be asked of Formula One, but couched in a slightly different way. Is Formula One a sport or a technology race fuelled by finance?
How F1 dominance comes about
Since the turn of the millennium Formula One has experienced periods of domination never seen in the first 50 years since the FIA instigated the championship in 1950.
Ferrari ruled the roost for six years winning back to back constructors’ titles. Renault then won the next two with Ferrari picking up the two after that.
Brawn F1 broke the mould in 2009 before Red Bull Racing hit a four year winning streak. They were supplanted by Mercedes who dominated for eight seasons from 2014-2021 and now we are back in another Red Bull epoch which looks set to run until at least the next big regulation changes in 2006.
These extended periods of dominance were fuelled by two factors. Firstly at the start of the 1990’s Pat Symonds reveals in F1’s tech boom, tobacco money and more manufacturers that F1 teams would consist of a handful of professional engineers and have a total staff of maybe 50-60 personnel.
Manufacturer’s turbo charge spending
The Tobacco sponsorship boom fuelled a growth in team size to around 300 by the turn of the millennium with many of them now having an engineering or aerodynamic education.
Then came the current era of ‘the manufacturers’ who turbo charged teams’ budgets again. First up it was Ferrari who were believed to have outspent almost the rest of the grid building their 1999 challenger which won the first of six constructor titles.
The only reason the F399 failed to capture the drivers’ championship too was due to Michael Schumacher breaking his leg at Silverstone and being forced to sit out several rounds and allowing Mikka Hakkinen to claim his second world title.
Ferrari dominated until 2006 when Renault who had finally caught up on their Formula One spend.
“baked in” advantages historically banned
Mercedes upped the anti again and in advance of the 2014 introduction of the new V6 turbo engines allegedly invested over $1 billion in developing their all conquering power unit that saw them all but dominate for eight consecutive seasons.
Even in the new cost cap era, teams like Alpine now employ close to 1000 personnel and Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have around another 25% on top of that.
Along with big budgets came more influence from the manufacturers who dislike the FIA making car design rule changes to frequently as they had done historically. Having spent a fortune on gaining an advantage they prefer it to remain baked into the regulations for a number of consecutive years.
Back in the 1980’s a technology developed by a team that gave them a super advantage would quickly be forbidden the F1’s governing body.
Williams active suspension
One of the most infamous examples was the banning of the Williams team’s active suspension in 1994. This technology was developed by Adrian Newey towards the end of the 1991 season and in 92 and 93 the team romped to the championship with much credit being given to the clever suspension system that made the car easier to drive than the competition.
The 1994 Williams without its active suspension was tricky to handle and this clearly played some part in the the tragic death of Ayrton Senna that year in Imola.
The spectre of the current RB19 and the probability its successors will dominate Formula One for years has led to anonymous calls for the FIA to reign in Red Bull Racing by banning certain aspects of its superior design.
Wolff: “F1 is a meritocracy”
However, Toto Wolff addressed this issue in Monaco stating to assembled media, ”Formula 1 is a meritocracy.”
“The [RB19] car is fast in all conditions, the driver is on the top of his game. Even in the race, going off at times, but not retiring, is a skill, and you can see that he pushed.
“All credit to them, we just need to do a better job. We just need to catch up, find intelligent solutions, hope that our development slope is steeper than theirs and eventually fight for this again.”
F1 is sport 1st, entertainment 2nd
Interestingly Toto addresses the topic of whether this kind of dominance is entertaining for the fans, yet sticks to his guns that F1 must accept when a team is dominant.
“It’s a sport, whether it’s good for the show or not,” added Wolff.
“Obviously, a strong fight between ten drivers, or at least two, is much better for all of us, but it’s not happening, and that’s why you have to just accept that and work to get back there.”
Mercedes best placed to dominate next
The Mercedes boss was then asked whether F1 should examine how performance between the teams could be balanced better.
“If we start putting in a balance of performance we will ruin this sport,” Toto replied.
“The best driver in the best car, spending the same amount of money wins the championship, and if you break the rules in either you should be heavily penalised, but only for that, and not for doing a good job,” he concluded.
The cynics amongst us may think Toto argues this way because he knows Mercedes is probably more capable than any other team besides Red Bull to pull off another dominant era in when the regulations change in 20206.
Liberty Media have other ideas
That may be the view of a front running F1 competitor but the Danika Patrick question we began with still stands if not for the teams or the FIA but for Liberty Media who own the commercial rights to F1.
“The show” and “the product” have become well worn phrases used by F1’s CEO Stefano Domenicali and it is certain they will not be content with the current state of affairs
Not only are Red Bull uber dominant but their driver line up is not as well matched as Mercedes’ during the three seasons we saw down o the wire battles between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton for the championship.
Liberty campaign to reign in Red Bull
Sergio Perez car crash of a Monaco Grand Prix has all but certainly written him out of the title running script, which leaves F1 with sixteen races to go and the 2023 drivers’ champion pretty much nailed on.
While there’s little can be done for 2023 it is beyond doubt the powers that be within Liberty Media will be pressing Domenicali to persuade the FIA for some kind of regulation change that will reign in Red Bull’s advantage and prevent another extended period of F1 dominance by one team.
— Formula 1 (@F1) May 26, 2023