How F1’s “process-driven” improvement plans are listening to the drivers
Formula 1’s sprint weekend experiments at Silverstone and Monza have ignited a debate about the future of the format and how it might be tweaked.
F1 managing director Ross Brawn has said the series should wait for the third sample at Interlagos before forming a definitive view and making any modifications. Nevertheless, after the first try at the British Grand Prix he met with the drivers and canvassed their views on how it played out.
It’s far from the first time that Brawn has sought the opinions of drivers. Both he and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali now regularly appear at the regular FIA drivers’ briefings on race weekends to update everyone on plans for the future, while also listening to feedback.
It’s an initiative that has been welcomed by Grand Prix Drivers' Association chairman Alex Wurz, who is keen to see the opinions of the members taken on board by those in charge. Having been a driver himself and worked in the media, with manufacturers and in team management with Williams, he has a clear big picture view.
“This is very good, and also Ross going to individual drivers and smaller groups,” Wurz said. “This is his job as the sporting boss. It's our job to sometimes not see the commercial view, which he is representing, and to see the longer-term view, because the drivers have a super pure idea about racing.
“We grew up with loving this sport, and we want that the next five, six generations love it the same way that we've seen it as a sport. And I use the word sport on purpose, and not show.
“From selling the sport, which is his job, he's right to ask those questions. But also we have the right to voice our opinion. It's a very good conversation and dialogue. Not always the same opinion. But it's good, very good.”
Ross Brawn, Managing Director of Motorsports, with Mick Schumacher, Haas F1, on the grid
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The canvassing of the drivers on rule changes reflects the philosophy that Brawn and Domenicali are now espousing. The Italian noted recently that the drivers are “the soul” of F1, citing the passion that was generated by Max Verstappen at Zandvoort.
The Netflix series Drive to Survive has done much to alert the world at large to the fact that F1 revolves around personalities, and it’s not just about fast cars.
“It's a very welcome culture change from the Bernie [Ecclestone] days,” Wurz said. “God bless Bernie, he built up all of this, for us to now take to the next level. When he started selling the business and acquiring it back, but not having the full control, it led to political moves. So now we learn from that.
“We drivers were fighting to have social media accepted. We threatened Bernie with a strike, and we would have done it. You were not allowed to do any photos or filming from the paddock, in the days when social media was creating government changes. He was adamant but we were too, and in the end, the modern day succeeded.
“Now all the moves Liberty made have led to a significantly better product. So this is great. And Stefano's view, celebrate the drivers, is very good, because there's an emotional connection. We should also celebrate teams like McLaren or Ferrari. There's so many stories to be told in sport, and I think we are in a good direction.”
Inevitably the sprint race format is the major subject of discussion at the moment. Wurz, who also serves as a TV pundit, makes it clear that he is not keen on the change.
“We can argue it up and down,” he said. “Did the sprint event lead to this then extremely entertaining race? I believe they are not linked to each other, because the pitstops were not the result of the sprint.
“I think also as the GPDA we did suggest a few years back if you're doing rule changes, don't do it for an entire season. That was after the elimination qualifying system, we said maybe do it on individual events to test.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, and the remainder of the field at the start
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
“Like race car development, it's process-driven. So here we get data, then we analyse what do the viewers like? I will always be cautious, because the sport is a global magnet, it’s a global sport, so we don't need to reinvent it, we just need to trim it to stay in line with modern expectations. But a lot of it is done with much better visuals, faster camera cuts, less being on the sponsors all the time.
“I will personally prefer to leave qualifying alone, and definitely under no circumstances go to a reverse grid.
“Because from that moment on, it's not a sport, it's a show, because my sporting world understanding is that excellence should never be penalised.”
Few are very keen on the idea of a reverse grid influencing the main race on Sunday. But would Wurz approve of a standalone Saturday event with a reverse grid, as is currently being touted by Brawn?
“If that's a situation which is being discussed, my opinion is it's also on very thin ice. Because if then this reverse grid race becomes very spectacular, and the grand prix is boring, then you will shout, ‘We want all reverse grid races’.
“Then you will have tactics in qualifying, on what race are you actually going for it? How do you monitor it?
“We want the best, but we want to compete against the best with equal opportunity. Every driver tells you, please make the cars the same speed, and then we can fight it out. And this is then so authentic, and not artificially created. I don't think this sport needs it.
“Because then we are a show, and show business in reality is much more competitive than the sporting environment. If you start to be a show you compete against computer games, Hollywood and all other shows. I don't want to be in this segment, it needs to be sport.”
Alex Wurz with Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
Wurz is adamant that one of the F1’s traditional problems is the gulf between the wealthiest and poorest teams, making it correspondingly harder for the latter to compete.
As he notes, the drivers simply want to see the cars closer together, and the hope is that will start to happen as the budget cap kicks in and reduces that performance gap in the coming seasons.
“There are rules that should give equal opportunity to show excellence. And this was at fault at F1. But because of this historic fault, I call it the Bernie business model, we were in this position to have separation of too much lap time between the rich teams and the poor teams. But this is changing.
“In the last decades, we had the wrong framework, where the rich teams got so much money and the poor teams not, resulting in not equal technical possibilities. Because it is an engineering sport, and engineering is very cost intensive nowadays.
“So with getting towards a budget cap, and still not great but better money distribution, I think over the next years, we will see that the cars get closer together.
“This initiative of simplified aero, better following behind each other, and a budget cap should naturally lead to a very close sport. Then we don't need to make it an artificial show.”
Wurz is keen to also acknowledge the opinions of the public, and welcomes the latest survey run by Motorsport Network and supported by F1. The GPDA was involved in a previous version back in 2015, which provided F1’s insiders with a first proper look at what fans around the world wanted.
“It was something that we at the GPDA take pride to have initiated, together with Motorsport Network,” he recalls. “At the time it was the biggest sports survey ever conducted, and Motorsport Network is taking it further, step-by-step.
The drivers stand on the grid for the national anthem
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“Back in the day we as drivers wanted to give the following message – that motorsport, especially F1, is process-driven. We're looking at data, we're doing research and then developing the product. While at this time, there were a lot of what we called knee-jerk, fast reactions to problems which were coming up in the paddock.
“But we said maybe it's not a problem for the audience at home, because they still switched on the telly, and it's not like some paddock voices said. It was an incredibly interesting survey, and it set a standard, which is now continuing.”
Wurz cautions that F1 must listen to a wide range of fans, and not necessarily just to those who shout loudest: “I welcome the move to engage with the audience, and to not only listen and read the forums of the hardcore fans, or the fast opinion givers.
“If you read a forum, there is so much human behaviour of negativity sometimes, but it's not reflecting opinion. And with a well done survey, you can actually filter out between age groups, between different ways of engagement, TV streaming, only social media following hardcore fans, but also casual viewers, male, female, all groups.
“Let's hear from the fans what they think. Hopefully all the fans do their own research, and not just follow some opinion leader's last TV comment – because the opinion you give as a fan in the survey does influence the sport.”
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