Making F1 interesting again

F1’s movers and shakers needs to step back and look outside the box and not be afraid of revolutionary changes. Here are five key things that I think the rule makers could look at changing to improve the sport.

Lewis Hamilton, who finished ahead of the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in the French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard, regained the lead in the drivers’ championship from rival Sebastian Vettel.   -  AP

The French Grand Prix was dominated by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, who absolutely blitzed it from the moment the wheels started turning at Circuit Paul Ricard this weekend. The race had its moment of entertainment with the crashes on lap 1 and Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas coming through from the back, giving us more overtaking than we expected, but ultimately the battle at the front didn’t really materialise.

On the whole, I don’t think the season has been too bad, but it’s been interesting to see on social media how many fans around the world have been complaining about the 2018 F1 season. We have had three teams win races. We have two quadruple world champions fighting for their fifth crown. The quality of driving in the top 12 has been exceptional and we have some exciting new talents coming through, all of which has made it very interesting for me, but there seem to be several who disagree.

Perhaps because we’re at the track, we’re in a bit of a bubble. Being in the paddock, in among the news and gossip, focusing on the strategy during the races and soaking up the atmosphere mean that we aren’t seeing things through the eyes of the majority of fans, who are watching from their living rooms. Perhaps as a collective, the sport’s movers and shakers needs to step back and look outside the box and not be afraid of revolutionary changes like cricket has done with the invention of Twenty20 matches.

I thought I would use this column to share five key things that I think the rule makers could look at changing to improve the sport:

(1) We certainly need to make it easier for the drivers to follow other cars without losing too much downforce and therefore improve overtaking. This is something that Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director of motorsports and technical director, has asked his team to work hard on, and I’ll be interested to see how much better this is in 2019. I was never a big believer in the 2017 rule changes that made the cars bigger and faster because of more downforce.

For some reason, it always felt like a band-aid solution to improve lap times, rather than a move to improve the racing. Sure, the races look more spectacular and lap records are being broken in qualifying, but it was pretty obvious that the racing would be worse as the cars are more aerosensitive and the braking distances would be shorter.

The cars are also now significantly heavier than during the V10 era and perhaps more thought should be put into a bit of a diet for them. I recently drove a Juan Pablo Montoya race-winning Williams FW26 from 2004, with over 930 horsepower and only weighing 605kg (128kg lighter than a current car). The speed and agility during changes of direction as well as the acceleration of a lighter mass made the car a fierce, vicious, violent, awe-inspiring beast – which is what F1 cars should be!

(2) Anyone who has met me, heard me on TV or read the things I’ve written will know that I’m a purist to the core. I love and respect the history of the sport as much as anyone in Formula One, yet I do think that the time has come to investigate some changes to the way the format is run.

For example, how about a two-day weekend, which saves money for the teams. On the Saturday morning, we could have a two-hour practice session from 9-11am, followed by qualifying from 1-2pm. Later that day, we could then have a 45-minute sprint race with one pit stop, where the top 10 from qualifying is reversed, with points rewarded to the top six as 10 – 8 – 6 – 4 – 2 – 1.

This would have two effects. First, we would have an exciting race with the midfield teams starting at the front and in with a chance of winning, while the top guns have to fight through. Secondly, the teams would have to design cars that allow the drivers to follow and overtake, as we could create some form of parc ferme where the specification of the cars are frozen for the Sunday. This would stop them having an “overtaking special” front wing or something.

On Sunday, we would then have the main grand prix, with a grid based on the qualifying results like we have now, and which still retains full points so the integrity of the “grand prix” is retained and satisfies the traditionalists.

(3) The distribution of money between the teams is certainly a bone of contention and one that’s not easy to fix. The top three teams receive 54 per cent of the funds distributed by F1 out of the pot of revenue from sponsorship, race-hosting fees, TV rights and so on, which obviously means that the rich keep getting richer. It’s clear that this gap between the top three teams and the rest in terms of what they receive financially directly correlates with the results on track.

I’m not going to even bother trying to suggest a fix for this because it’s layers upon layers of complexities, but it’s clear that the disparity in income does stop us having those Leicester City sort of upside-down results.

The second-place finish for Max Verstappen – his third podium finish of the year and second in row – would be relief for the 20-year-old, who had a torrid start to the season, failing to finish two of the first four races and enduring a string of accidents over multiple race weekends.   -  Getty Images

 

(4) We need to have tyres that allow the drivers to push harder, yet have a predictable amount of degradation, not the graining we have now followed by a “cliff”. The aim should be that we will have two-stop races with drivers driving at 95 per cent all the time, rather than one-stop races with drivers going around at 70 per cent.

Monaco has always been a race that didn’t have any overtaking, but in the past fans still enjoyed watching it because the drivers looked like they were attacking all the time, flirting with the walls and physically and mentally spent at the end. This doesn’t happen any more.

If Pirelli isn’t able to produce these tyres, then maybe we should have some flexibility in the way the sporting regulations are decided for individual races. For example, maybe they need to say that for Monaco, you have to do two mandatory pit stops to change all four tyres instead of just one stop, thereby introducing another element of strategy into the battle.

(5) Getting people within the paddock to be on side and not bashing the sport publicly goes a long way. Take Le Mans this year for example. This is one of the greatest races on the planet and one that I feel very privileged to have taken part in several times. However, the 2018 edition was the dullest and most predictable one I can remember. Three of the major classes (LMP1, LMP2 and GTE-Pro) had the eventual winners on the road, up at the front within the first 45 minutes. Yet everyone – whether it was teams, drivers or the sportscar media – talked publicly about how amazing it was even though privately they all talked about how boring it was!

Formula E is the same in many ways. My friend Alejandro Agag is a brilliant promoter and a fantastic PR man who gets all the teams and drivers on side with an attitude of “look, we all know there are issues, but let’s deal with it internally and tell the world how great everything is.” His charm is infectious and everyone plays ball.

While I do like hearing F1 drivers and people within the sport speak their minds, they need to think twice about knocking the very thing that has put them on a pedestal, especially when things are tough for the sport at the moment.

Looking at the French Grand Prix itself, we all wondered coming into the weekend if Mercedes would have the upper hand like it did in Barcelona. Pirelli brought the thinner tyre constructions this weekend, and the only other race it brought the compound to was Spain, where Ferrari had no answer to its rival’s pace. I don’t believe the conspiracy theories that this was a Mercedes-led change, but in fact it just appears that, for whatever reason, the tyre seems to work better for the silver cars. The good news for the folks in Maranello is that Silverstone is the only other race with these tyres this year, so it’s not going to have a huge effect in the big picture.

Sebastian Vettel will be pretty disappointed with himself after that lunge into turn one. He’s a top-quality world champion who knows that it was an opportunity in damage limitation lost there. Finishing fifth has cost him another five points in contrast to potentially finishing third on Sunday and, like in Baku, these are crucial little errors that could come back to haunt him at the end of the year. Think back to 2017, when the Singapore start and the moment of road rage in Baku cost him enough points to lose the championship to Lewis Hamilton.

Once the opening lap drama and pit stops shook out, the order was pretty set with Lewis and Max Verstappen in a race of their own, while Kimi Raikkonen took advantage of an issue on Daniel Ricciardo’s front wing to claim the podium.

The star of the weekend for me was Charles Leclerc. He underlined his potential to claim that Ferrari seat for next year with a brilliant qualifying and another points finish for Sauber. There has been a lot of talk in paddock about whether he’s ready or not for a top seat, and I think that the only way to truly know is to give the young guy a chance. It reminds me of when McLaren took a chance on Lewis or Red Bull did with Sebastian and Daniel while promoting them from their junior teams. All eyes are going to be on Ferrari to see how that unfolds, as it looks like being the only possible change in the top team’s line-ups for 2019.

Off to Austria in just a week’s time where the weather forecast looks pretty changeable at the moment. Bottas and Vettel had a brilliant nail-biting finish last year and it will be fascinating to see just how the next instalment of the Ferrari vs Mercedes battle unfolds!