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Will Liberty’s final bid to win teams over to its 2021 F1 vision succeed?

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Ethelyn Brye is an award-winning author and blogger. Growing up in Switzerland and influenced by renowned Swiss design and a lot of fresh mountain air, she attended and completed design studies in Geneva. Post graduation she moved to Washington State to work for a design firm, but her love of writing brought her to Cyanosaur. She's highly interested in strategy rpgs, mountain climbing, board games with friends and skiing. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her lovely cat Armstrong.

Although it would be pedantically incorrect to state that a decision to ban tire blankets in 2021 has been overturned – the regulations have not been finalized, so no such final decision could yet be taken either way – it nonetheless seems likely Formula 1 will continue to race on pre-heated rubber when it switches to 18-inch wheels in 2021.

This ‘U-turn’, if it happens, will continue a recent trend. Tenders for standardized gearbox cassettes were withdrawn in May and the similar brake tenders (hydraulic systems and friction materials are treated separately) were canceled late last month. Now standardized wheel rims, another tender category, are also said to be under review.

F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media backtracked on other proposals earlier in the negotiations over the 2021 rules. Much-vaunted plans to ban MGU-H recovery systems and claims of cheaper, louder power units and standardized hybrid components were also dropped after no incoming motor manufacturers were attracted by Liberty’s vision for post-2020 F1.

Add in other reversals on proposals to ban on ‘virtual garages’, or reintroduce refueling, or require two mandatory pit stops and various other discussion points, and the number could readily spiral to 10.

That is without factoring in any dilution of F1’s post-2020 regulations into the equation. The budget cap limit has already been raised from a planned $150m to $175m and the list of excluded items has grown quicker than Pinocchio’s nose at a poker table, effectively adding another $75m to the ‘cap’.

The parallels between F1’s tortured path to a 2021 rule book and Britain’s attempt to navigate ‘Brexit’ are too obvious to ignore. Both have postponed deadlines for deals to October 31st, both may yet delay them further, and both are embroiled in crunch meetings as this column is published.

Guenther Steiner, Haas, Sochi Autodrom, 2019

“We need to keep the DNA of Formula 1”If team mutterings are to be believed, Formula 1 is no closer to a deal than Britain. Last week six teams indicated they would not accept the proposed technical regulations, conceived to drastically reconfigure the cars’ aerodynamic properties in a bid to create better racing. The opponents are Ferrari and Haas, Mercedes and Racing Point, and Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

“We need to keep the DNA of Formula 1,” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner warned last month, “and for me, a budget cap is the best way to manage that. The guy that manages his money the best doesn’t need any help, and standardization is very difficult to achieve [so] that you save money.”

McLaren (currently Renault-powered, but switching to Mercedes for 2021) and Sauber (Ferrari) proposed minor amendments to the technical regulations; thus only Renault and Williams are in favor of the ‘interim’ draft regulations as shared with teams in Singapore. The ‘final’ draft is due to be presented today.

The latest F1 buzzword is now ‘unintended consequences’. The sextet argues that despite having expended hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours on wind tunnel and CFD research, and with input from teams themselves, radical changes could well have the opposite effect to what is envisioned: namely closer racing increased overtaking and, above, all an economically sustainable F1.

Ferrari is wielding the big stick in the form of its ‘protection right’ over regulations it believes marginalize its legitimate interests and/or are not in keeping with F1’s DNA (whatever that may be). The team is ably supported by Mercedes and Red Bull, who see said veto as their last stand against any change of the status quo that swingeing regulatory changes could instigate, particularly when coupled with reduced spending caps.

Mattia Binotto, Ferrari, Hockenheimring, 2019

Binotto is prepared to wield Ferrari’s veto…During his post-race media briefing in Japan Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto predicted today’s meeting “could be a very long discussion”.

“The gaps [between the 2021 regulations and team acceptance] are the ones we’ve mentioned since Monza,” he added.

“For us, the aero freedom should be higher, the DNA has to remain there. It has to be a meritocratic sport, not only a show or a spectacle. It has to be a sport. But it is a long list. It’s not the case [here] to go into detail.”

However, a fortnight earlier in Sochi, Binotto had made no secret of the fact that Ferrari may trigger its right: “Obviously we’ve got the veto right and it would be a shame to use it,” Binotto said in direct response to a question from RaceFans.

“I don’t think that’s the intention, I don’t think that’s really what we are looking for. More important is to be very constructive and we’ve got in a month’s time to try to address what’s the fundamentals from now to the end of October.

“If the regulations will not be fully satisfied by the time the end of October, I don’t think that again will be a drama because later on we still have time to evolve, address and improve them.”

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Melbourne, 2015

…which thwarted a rule change four years agoIn 2015 Ferrari threatened to invoke its veto over a proposed change to the engine regulations – a change that never came to pass. At the time FIA president Jean Todt, himself a former Ferrari team principal likened it to a ‘loaded gun’. Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner was critical of Ferrari’s warning shot when asked why the teams had agreed to the veto being renewed as part of the 2013-2020 agreements.

“It was felt that maybe it was safer for Ferrari to have the veto than not have it, that it would actually protect the teams,” he said, adding, “Ferrari is quite a bit different in make-up [following its 2014 regime change] from what it was then, so the veto can work in both directions.” Indeed…

In place of the proposed regulations – framed by the FIA, but with reams of input from Liberty’s recently-formed technical department headed by ex-Renault/Williams technical director Pat Symonds, who has driven the direction of travel – the three major teams propose a middle-of-road compromise, one drawing on elements of existing regulations, and the latest draft. Talk about the potential for ‘unintended consequences’.

That said, according to a source in the loop, the FIA and F1 have studied the proposals, but indicated they will only consider incorporating those that do not dilute the overall concept in any way. The question is whether they can stick to their joint resolve in the face of team pressure.

Crucially, the FIA and Liberty believe the governing body’s International Sporting Code does not require the teams to vote on the 2021-onwards regulations, whether sporting, technical or financial, and that they can be imposed by the FIA provided at least 18 months’ notice is given for major technical changes. That June 30th deadline was subsequently shifted by unanimous agreement.

Zak Brown, Chase Carey, Singapore, 2019

McLaren have indicated their support for the 2021 rules packageThat’s all well and good, save the present governance process, which grants the teams voting powers via the Strategy Group and F1 Commission, expires at the end of 2020. Ferrari also has a seat-by-right at the FIA World Motor Sport Council table during F1 sessions – and there is an argument that the 2021 process falls squarely within the current mandate. Spot the potential for protracted litigation, even without Ferrari’s ‘protection right’?

The FIA could, of course, publish the 2021 regulations on October 31st on the basis that it owns the series, then brazen it out in the hope that Ferrari and friends accept the situation. But that would be a bold gambit given the six-team constellation ranged against change. True, it is far from unanimous, but Liberty’s $8 billion investment would not be worth the paper the shares are printed on without F1’s top three teams.

The F1 landscape has changed massively since the last major change in 2014 – tellingly delayed a year after Ferrari and Mercedes jibbed against a planned switch to four-cylinder power units, instead of getting their way with V6 units.

Ferrari is now a listed entity (and all the shareholder responsibilities it entails), while the Mercedes management board, under incoming chairman Ola Källenius, is currently putting ‘non-green’ projects through the corporate wringer.

At Red Bull, owner Dietrich Mateschitz is said to be disillusioned with returns on F1, so he could wield the exit card on both his teams; while Honda has yet to decide its post-2020 plans. Who would blink first – a trio of teams or Liberty? Saliently, said entrants may take their Ferrari, Mercedes and Honda engine supplies with them, in turn making the entire grid-dependent upon Renault.

Forget not that Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull stand to lose substantial financial sweeteners. As things stand, only Ferrari is due post-2020 bonuses – so Liberty may need to up the financial ante, or face the threat of a walkout on financial and/or regulatory grounds. The indications are Liberty has thus far misread every sign despite the guidance of F1 managing director Ross Brawn, a former Ferrari and Mercedes F1 executive, and Symonds.

Equally, the teams could threaten legal action. But there exists a delightfully ironic precedent: in 1985 Todt, as Sporting Director of Peugeot Talbot, who FISA (the FIA’s sporting arm at the time) to court over a rule change which banned the spectacular but dangerous ‘Group B’ and ‘Group S’ cars.

Peugeot 405 T16, 1985

Todt’s Peugeot team lost a court case over ‘Group B’ rally carsTodt lost on the basis that the governing body owned the FIA World Rally Championship, and was thus free to impose rule changes, in this case, due to safety considerations. The case upheld the FIA’s claim as the rightful owner of its championships, which would, in any event, be difficult to disprove.

There remain two further alternatives to break the deadlock. A decision on the 2021 rules could be postponed further, possibly to December 31st, in order to reach a less-hurried compromise. Or, as happened when the current V6 turbo hybrid engine regulations were set, delay their introduction by a year, in this case to iron out the teams’ major objection, namely ‘unintended consequences’.

Both would hold major implications for F1. Delaying the sign-off of the rules would further reduce the already-tight design and manufacturing windows to 12 months. Postponing the new rules to 2022 would leave egg on the sport’s already blushing face. No amount of ‘best solution for the sport’s future’ PR cooing will avoid that, particularly after the June delay as the regulations were said to be almost sorted, and simply needed tidying.

There is no excuse for the dilemma F1 currently finds itself in. Liberty has long known about the change deadline of December 31st, 2020 and, in fact, promised fans a brighter, better F1 after that date. Yes, it is the FIA F1 Championship, but when all is said and done, Liberty has insisted on providing much of the input and detail the teams are kicking against.

Unless some sensible, hard-line decisions are taken today, post-2020 F1 could prove to be a matter of ‘same old, same old’. How much longer will F1’s already-disillusioned fan base accept a continuation of the current Mercedes hegemony.

Meanwhile, as Mercedes clear a spot on the Brackley mantelpiece for their sixth constructors’ trophy, one wonders whether the Mercedes board has instructed team boss Toto Wolff to ensure the status quo which has proved so rewarding for them, or the F1 program gets culled?

Start, Suzuka, 2019

Fear top teams could quit may force F1 to back downEqually, is Ferrari resisting change as a lever in its fight over revenues by threatening to veto the rules changes unless the FIA makes it worth their while? Do not put that past the modern incarnation of a team once driven by a passion for the automobile in its purest form, now beholden to shareholders and the need to deliver profits.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of today’s meeting, as always in F1, there are too many divergent factors and self-centered interests at play. As is so often the case, its primary players have put their internal agendas ahead of the welfare of a sport.

The fastest sport on earth had seven years to agree on new regulations. Today may represent its last chance to get a deal over the finishing line.

Peter Sauber, the founder of the team which now races as Alfa Romeo, whose 76th birthday coincided with last weekend’s race, captured the essence of that dilemma when I spoke to him in 2010.

F1’s greatest aggravation, he said, is “inability to resolve issues until it is forced into compromised decisions, then living with the consequences until discussions commence all over again.”

Although the Swiss has long been out of F1, his wise words resonate a decade on.

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