Christian Horner made an interesting point about the future of Formula 1 during last Friday’s team principals’ press conference for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
“F1 is effectively at a crossroads with the new regulations, which theoretically come in 2021 and there will probably be an eight- to ten-year life on [the next generation] engines, so what we are looking at actually is the sport’s relevance pretty much up to 2030,” said Red Bull Racing’s chief. “Now, by 2030 how many people are actually going to be driving [road] cars?
“Are they going to be autonomous? Are they going to be electric? The world is changing so fast in that sector.
“So Formula 1 has some serious questions that it needs to answer today in the choice it makes for the engine for the future. What is its primary purpose? Is it technology or is it a sport and entertainment, and man and machine at the absolute limit?”
This got me thinking about whether F1 still needs cutting-edge automotive tech to remain the pinnacle of racing.
The existential topic of whether F1 should be first a sport or a technical test bed is one that F1 has long been angsting over, and probably longer than it even recognises. And its solutions to combine the two have thus far not been met entirely with success. So will F1 be able to maintain its technology DNA while entertaining as a sport in the face of an ever-more demanding clientele? As cars become electric, efficient and effortless, how can F1 reconcile that with loud, expensive and physically challenging?
At the dawn of the World Championship in 1950, the ethos was simple: make cars fast, go racing, see who was the best. This drew the crowds, who marvelled at those wonderful men and women in their driving machines. But as the technology developed, so did the speeds and the engineering wizardry. In tandem, the regulations became ever-more complex to contain dangerous velocity and police the economic arms race.
At some point in the 1990s, though, ‘the show’, or an obsession to ensure that F1 delivered one, became a pressing need. Multimedia audiences were maturing and were being offered ever-more alternative and intelligent choices to spend their most valuable time. So over the past decade, the FIA and the sport’s promoters have wrestled to make F1 fit a template of ecological relevance, safety, entertainment and cutting-edge technology; some of these aims are diametrically at odds.
But anyone who bore witness to the 1992 Williams FW14B (a technological marvel and runaway winner of its time) being demonstrated at Silverstone this weekend cannot deny that it sounded significantly more exciting than the current crop of cars - which are, let’s not forget, the fastest the world has ever seen.
“I sense that with the new ownership that has come into F1, creating great entertainment, creating great content, the noise, the sound, the exhilaration of seeing the drivers as the star is of absolute primary concern to them,” said Horner. “So I hope that with the opportunity there is with the regulation change that the fundamental aspects of cost, performance and attractiveness to the fans, therefore the noise, the acoustics of these engines, are a key factor in the set of regulations they come up with. And I think that in turn will produce good racing, reduce costs and bring back some to the appeal that engines of a bygone era used to produce.”
F1’s new promoter Liberty Media has made no secret of its desire to make F1 more fan-friendly, and this was in evidence at Silverstone. The schedule was stretched to four days and accommodated several runs in the 3-litre V10-engined two-seater F1 cars (that also sounded better than their modern descendents). Seemingly everywhere you went, there were street-food stalls, beer tents, merchandising stores, friendly attendants, and clean and accessible facilities. But Silverstone has been delivering on this for years...
If Liberty has its way, though, the sport will become ever-more flush with grands prix that provide a Disney-esque ‘experience’. And what’s wrong with that? Well nothing, so long as it doesn’t overshadow the reason those of us who adore F1 fell in love with it in the first place - to see the best drivers race the fastest cars. Technology is cool, but it’s what the drivers do with it that counts - and that’s the key point. Given the choice between the two, I would choose sport, but the cars must remain the ultimate challenge - what powers them is kind of irrelevant.
My sense, from the comfort of the Becketts grandstand on Sunday, was that actually we are entertained anyway. The fans cheered when Lewis succeeded and they cheered when Max repelled; they even cheered for Fernando when he valiantly failed. And when the marshals cleared up some broken Ferrari bits - well, they went berserk. So Liberty would do well, before spending too much of its fortunes on audience research and faceless data, to drop a few fifth columnists into the grandstands of the world and just have them listen in.