Looking for ways to rev up F1

Formula One is going through a critical phase with multiple issues dogging the sport. The FIA and the teams are in discussions to put in place a new set of rules in 2017 to woo the fans back to the circuit.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain celebrates after winning the Japanese Grand Prix. The Mercedes driver completely upstaged team-mate Nico Rosberg, and this has only made things worse for Formula One.   -  Getty Images

Force India Chairman Vijay Mallya has appealed to the European Union on the governance of Formula One and the revenue-sharing system which he maintains are unfair and unlawful.   -  Getty Images

So far, 34 races (including the Russian Grand Prix on October 11) have been run under the new regulations that came into force last year with the 1.6-litre V6 hybrid engines, and Mercedes have steamrolled the opposition by winning 28 of them. As the 2015 season is nearing the finish — only four races remain in the calendar — the teams and the sport’s governing body, FIA, are locked in discussions for a new set of rules that they plan to implement in 2017.

One of the main reasons for fast-tracking the new regulations is the dominance of one team — in this case, Mercedes — that has driven fans away from the sport, with the results of the Grands Prix a foregone conclusion. Lewis Hamilton’s dominance over team-mate Nico Rosberg has only made things worse for the sport.

However, the biggest complaint about Formula One after the advent of the new regulations in 2014 has been that the cars are too slow. Running on fragile tyres, the drivers have not been able to push the cars to the limit. They have been very vocal about not enjoying the current set-up where the accent is on saving fuel and tyres.

With multiple issues affecting the sport, the authorities have decided that Formula One has to be more exciting to attract the younger audience. The sport needs more overtaking without the DRS. There has also been talks of reintroducing the ‘ground effect’ (a system where the underbody of a car is used to create down-force, instead of relying on the front and rear wings).

Today, overtaking in Formula One is infrequent. One of the main reasons for this is cars are heavily reliant on complex front wings to produce down-force. Besides, they need to run in clean air. For instance, when Car B is close behind Car A, the dirty air displaced by the leading car reduces the efficiency of the front wings of Car B, thus making overtaking difficult. With the ‘ground effect’, the problem can be resolved to a large extent, making room for more close racing.

For next year, the FIA has announced a small modification in exhaust rules to increase the sound of the engines. This is in response to constant complaints from race promoters that the 1.6-litre V6 hybrid engines, which are far quieter than the V8 that was used earlier, are putting off the fans.

While the sport needs to usher in some changes to win back fans, there are some challenges to making constant changes. At a time when the new engines have already increased the cost of running a team, perpetual and drastic changes could push the smaller teams into further crisis as they will have to invest heavily on R&D for the new cars.

Any new rule without a fair distribution of prize money is unlikely to produce the desired results. The issue of Formula One’s uneven revenue distribution was a ticking time bomb. Just days after the Japanese Grand Prix, Force India and Sauber approached the European Union with a formal complaint, alleging that the revenue distribution and rule making is completely against fair competition.

In a statement, Force India said, “Sahara Force India is one of two teams to have registered a complaint with the European Union questioning the governance of Formula 1 and showing that the system of sharing revenues and determining how Formula 1 rules are set is both unfair and unlawful.”

The problem pertains to the special payments for five teams — Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Mercedes. Irrespective of their positions in the constructors’ standings, these teams are guaranteed of their payments, in lieu of their continued participation in the sport until 2020. The five teams were chosen for special payments based on their recent and past success in the sport.

Earlier, during the Singapore Grand Prix, Force India boss Vijay Mallya told Sportstar, “The commercial rights holder put itself in a bind when they wanted to do an IPO. They needed to have confirmed participation from the top teams until 2020 and had to pay them more, which has led to this situation. As Bernie Ecclestone has noted, those contracts need to be torn apart for a better and more sensible/equitable distribution, but that can only happen if the big teams agree. The sad part is they look at their own selfish interest.”

Force India is part of the F1 Strategy Group that decided on the rules, which need to be approved by the F1 Commission and the World Motorsport Council. Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Mercedes have permanent positions in the Strategy Group, with the next best-placed team on rotation. The other teams on the grid have no say in the rule-making process.

When asked if the rule changes for 2017 will affect small teams like Force India, Mallya said, “I will not necessarily criticise it because drawing from scratch gives me a good chance to succeed. In designing, there is a lot of emphasis on how to make the sport exciting. But all that is fine provided the finances are made sensible with income distribution being completely lopsided.”

He added: “The big teams want everything and it is one of the continuing arguments in F1. While we are in the Strategy Group, it is dominated by big teams and the results leave much to be desired. For the sport to be sustainable, you can’t have just the big teams running around. The commercial rights holder and the FIA has to realise the sport needs to be sustainable for all and not have only five big teams provide three or four cars. Small teams are as important to the DNA of F1.”

Mallya also goaded the FIA to be more proactive in the rule-making process and said, “It is the FIA’s championship. The FIA has to set the rules and not allow teams to dictate it. They should come up with set of rules and the teams can either take it or leave it.”