There’s a certain well-worn maxim that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. While serviceable enough in most contexts, it sits uneasily upon the shoulders of Formula 1 as we contemplate a 2024 season of almost no change – and a To-Be-Confirmed future ruleset arriving in 2026 under which not a lot will change. Late capitalism dictates a trajectory of eternal growth and it appears F1’s stakeholders have bought unquestioningly into an immediate and distant future in which the rapid growth curve (in both audience reach and commercial revenues) seen in recent years is extrapolated onwards to the stratosphere. Strap yourselves in – billion-dollar franchise values here we come!
And yet there is evidence to suggest the froth is blowing off. We’ll skirt past last year’s survey which majored on F1 social media interactions being in sharp decline; the commercial rights holder disputes the numbers and, indeed, the source was one of those PR-guff-dressed-up-as-news emails that sensible folk delete straight away (unless it’s a slow news day). Let’s consider, instead, the hard facts of audience fatigue: flattening TV ratings, plus indifferent ticket sales at many venues.
That’s why we’ve taken the opportunity this month to muse over whether doing nothing is the right course of action. While F1 may not be in need of an intervention so substantial as to merit the term ‘fix’, there are tweaks and corrections which would improve the spectacle. Our main aim in composing this shopping list was to avoid ill-considered sticking-plaster solutions which have arrived freighted with unforeseen consequences over the past few years. We are, after all, still living through an era where tyre performance is essentially defined by Bernie Ecclestone’s ‘lightbulb moment’ during the 2010 Canadian GP.
Sadly, it looks as though more rather than fewer of these “patches” – not my word but one chosen by Red Bull technical director Pierre Wache – are in prospect. Come 2026 the MGU-H, that most difficult element of the hybrid powertrain to get right, is to be deleted in the name of ‘simplicity’ (ie forming less of a barrier to entry for new power unit suppliers). In tandem with this, the contribution of the electrified part of the powertrain will rise to 50% of total power output. Simulations are suggesting cars may run out of battery power on some tracks. Active aerodynamics have been proposed as a cure for this, at a cost of making the target car-weight cut of 50kg more difficult to achieve.
Active aero may be an increasingly frequent feature on high-performance road cars but in Formula 1 it appears to be the epitome of a sticking-plaster fix to a self-created problem. Feel free to disagree – we might even help F1 move that poor benighted social-media-interactions needle…