With the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship at an end, and the world champion crowned three races before the end of the season, it is safe to say that Mercedes AMG Petronas ran away with the championship. That is a major problem, and is doesn’t look like steps are being taken to solve it.
The most commonly cited issue with a single team dominating the season is dwindling spectator attention. While yearly average attendance at races this year is again slightly lower than the previous year, that may not be the biggest problem right now. Competition is crucial to developing technology at the bleeding edge, and technological development has always been the driving factor behind racing, well before the marketing teams got a hold of it.
If competition drives development, then one team running away with the championship each year jeopardizes manufacturer involvement, since there is less to be gained from staying in the sport. This recent lack of competition severely reduces the trickle down effect manufacturers are used to seeing. It is true that we no longer see technology filter directly from F1 to road use, but information, data, and the principles learned certainly still do.
Photo: F1 Fanatic
Most notably these days, aerodynamic development and maximizing power unit efficiency are the key areas where Formula 1 is playing a major role. Ever since the Lotus 49B showed up sporting wings, the name or the game has been maximizing downforce (or reducing lift) while minimizing the drag penalty incurred. It’s not hard then to draw similarities between optimizing the aerodynamics of an F1 car for speed, and optimizing the aero on road cars for zero-lift and low drag - the principles are the same.
While we can all bemoan the loss of the mighty V-10 era from a spectator perspective, it is hard not to see the benefit of having turbocharging back at the highest level of motorsport. Especially with the fuel-flow limits being imposed, every power unit supplier is being forced to address power unit efficiency over outright power. With turbocharging now becoming the norm for road cars, this produces mountains of data on how to build fuel-efficient yet incredibly energy-dense engines and hybrid drivetrains.
The issue is that current testing restrictions are stymying development in these fields. Teams are so restricted right now, that if a clear leader emerges, all the rest of the field can do is wait it out and hope to improve during the off season. We have seen this happen with Mercedes this year, and Red Bull Racing before them. This is clearly an issue, and that is even before we mention how the lack of seat time days is affecting the rookie performance of future F1-hopefuls working as test drivers.
A solution is easy to find though; all we have to do is look at the 2016 FIA MotoGP rule book. To put it simply, well performing teams - those that are regularly on the podium or scoring points - have a set amount of fuel to use per race, a certain number of power units they can use per season, and all engine development is frozen. Underperforming teams - those that haven’t scored points, or a certain number of podium finishes or wins - get some concessions in the form of more fuel per race, more power units per season, and crucially, unlimited engine development. Now, keep in mind, this is a very basic summary of this rule. For a more detailed explanation, check out this article: These Changes Are Why You Have To Start Watching MotoGP.
This is a rule F1 should adapt. This can keep the current testing schedule the way it is, so off-season spending is somewhat curbed, as it is now. Crucially though, this would allow struggling teams to catch up during the season, not only making the competition closer and more relevant, but also more exciting for spectators. An added bonus here would be that since some development would have to take place away from the race weekends, test drivers would also get more seat time, thus reducing the risk of rookie drivers being huge liabilities.
Then, at a certain number of points earned or podium positions won, those concessions for a team would be eliminated, development would be frozen, and that team would be under the same rule set as the front runners.
Imagine, instead of Mercedes running away with the title, and everyone complaining about the dud of a Honda power unit McLaren was stuck with, McLaren Honda could actually work on significant changes throughout the year. As they get more and more competitive and start challenging for wins, that development gets frozen, and they go back to the standard 100kg fuel allocation. Not only would this make for a more exciting season, the off season work would start at a higher benchmark, which would then push the technological envelope even more the next season.
Finally, we may see Alonso happy.
Photo: Agence France-Presse