The Formula 1 world championship will hit 70 this year and appears to be thriving. Under Liberty Media’s maturing patronage, F1 continues to mesmerise a global audience of a size far beyond any other form of motorsport, and judging by the second half of 2019, even the racing spectacle compares positively with so-called ‘golden’ eras.
But under F1’s pristine veneer are rust patches that could turn to rot in a matter of years. As ever, the whims of car manufacturers and their bigger-picture real-world needs are the source.
Of F1’s four major car makers, two have uncertain F1 futures. Honda, engine supplier to Red Bull and its renamed sibling team Alpha Tauri, is committed only until the end of 2021. The current 1.6-litre V6 hybrid engine regulations remain stable for now, and hopes are high that the Japanese firm will remain beyond next year, but the pressures of road car electrification and fleet emissions targets make any accurate predictions impossible. The same goes for every other car maker. Remember also that Honda has previous form in pulling the F1 plug, doing so with zero notice in 2008.
Then there’s Renault, which returned as a full-blown F1 constructor in 2016 – since when it has failed to score a single podium. The team was even beaten last year by McLaren, which pays for Renault customer engines – for now. McLaren will switch to Mercedes power for 2021.
It’s a bleak picture for the French giant, and team principal Cyril Abiteboul desperately needs an upturn in fortunes. Without one, the company board – now short of ‘wanted man’ Carlos Ghosn, the driving force behind Renault’s F1 investment – might be tempted to scrub through this significant budget line.
And what of Ferrari and Mercedes? It’s still inconceivable to imagine F1 without Ferrari, but in our fast-changing world, little remains truly sacred. As for Mercedes-AMG and its record-breaking team, F1 remains a fertile marketing tool. But for how long before the rule of diminishing returns begins to count? No car maker, other than Ferrari, has remained in F1 for its 70-year duration.
What also undermines the F1 landscape are hybrid powertrains that are largely irrelevant to car makers’ marketing needs. The opposite is true for the all-electric Formula E series, which now has factory teams from Audi, BMW, DS, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche. That’s quite a roll call. All that Formula E lacks is an F1-sized audience – and that’s the hard bit.