Big concept change, the kind that tends to lead to futuristic thinking, the likes of which we saw from Renault earlier in the week with its imaginative RS 2027 Vision concept (pic below) during the Shanghai motor show, or those produced by Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes over the past 18 months, have long since become a thing of the past.
I was lucky enough to grow up through a period of rapid evolution in the sport. I was born when wings were still a relatively new concept. So I followed the downforce era, with its elongated sidepods, skirts and fan cars, as the technology was mastered. Then came the turbo era, with 1500bhp qualifying monsters wielded by globally recognised gladiators on super-sticky qualifying tyres and Bernie Ecclestone growing F1 into a world-leading sport. After that came the aerodynamic era, with its huge expense, minimal gains and precision performance, as F1 shifted into digital development and industrialised factories with wind tunnels as standard.
But somewhere along the line, high-concept thinking became stunted.
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F1, for all the competing manufacturers’ boasts of complex technical advancements through hybrid, tyre and aerodynamic development, is also ever more conscious of its place in the world. Pioneering, to an extent, has been replaced by protectionism, with a need to fit in not only with the values of its perception of its audience, whether that be through ecological concern or political, but also with an obsession to artificially curate the perfect entertainment package through devices such as the drag reduction system, introduced as an attempt to stimulate a synthetic form of overtaking.
There are some very good reasons for all of this.
The world has become saturated with different ways to occupy a consumer’s time, so F1 has competed by ‘improving the show’, experimenting with ways to close off the opportunities clever engineers seek in order to steal a march on rivals, thereby avoiding dull racing (how’s that one worked out over the past three years?). Experiments, by their nature, go wrong more often than not, and there is a case to be made that F1 is no more or less exciting than it ever had been to the true fan.
Another reason is the vast amount of money it costs the paddock to go racing each season (more than £750 million, at a rough estimate). There is an argument frequently made that if you free up development, so you open the doors to a spending war, potentially killing off a number of teams. But back in the days when he was a team chief, F1’s now sporting boss, Ross Brawn, used to say that if teams have access to money and you limit what they spend it on, they’ll just find other ways to spend it. In other words, the chances are they are going to spend it anyway.