Several years ago I wrote a piece on the Virgin Disruptors website about how F1 was absolutely ripe for disruption and that Formula E was demonstrating all the characteristics of being the Uber to F1’s Hertz: https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/what-makes-industry-ripe-disruption. To some extent this proved prophetic, particularly in terms of engagement from the automotive manufacturers such as Porsche, Audi, BMW and Jaguar all of whom have moved away from F1 and are now engaging with Formula E. However for the racing purist engagement from the automotive manufacturers is the last thing you want, you want good racing with highly talented drivers who are there purely on merit, sadly in this regard F1 is also falling behind.
In my view F1 is now suffering from two related issues. The first is an over-dependence on aerodynamics, this undermines the potential for overtaking and has required artificial sticking plasters such as the rear wing drag reduction system (DRS). The investment in aerodynamics has spiralled the costs of running an F1 team. If you read the recent books on the journeys of some of F1’s leading technical minds – Adrian Newey and John Barnard, you will see that, in the’old days’, F1 teams didn’t have their own wind-tunnels, but relied on facilities at universities (such as Cranfield) to do their research and development, but now any self-respecting F1 team has one or two of their own tunnels in addition to making use of other facilities such as the former Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne. You only have look at the intricate yet ridiculous front wings on today’s cars to get a visual indication that the balance between technology and racing has been lost.
All of this drives an arms race that consumes money in the search for tenths of seconds, it means that if you don’t have the funding of an automotive manufacturer or energy drink supplier you are going to struggle to feed the incessant demand for investment, particularly in aerodynamics. So we have a growing divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, if you are not driving in one of the top three F1 teams then, unless it pours with rain, there is no chance to win a race. This need for revenues at a time of declining sponsorship due to the fragmentation of TV coverage has led to the rise of the pay driver and often behind them the high net worth racing dad. Sir Jackie Stewart once remarked that in running his Formula three team along with his son Paul, they always made sure that they were bringing in more money than the racing dads. The danger being that if they didn’t the racing dads are the ones calling the shots and they are only interested in the success of their offspring, not the long term sustainability of the team, the series or the motorsport industry. Because of the huge rise in costs we now have a situation with wealthy racing dads buying F1 teams to provide their sons with the best chance of success. Of course money has always been a factor in F1 and drivers who can bring finance as well as talent are always going to have an advantage, but things seem to have got so far out of kilter than we are losing the opportunity to bring more natural talent into F1. Paradoxically the answer may not be through feeder racing series which are themselves becoming more and more expensive, but through Esports – this requires relatively little investment and a lot of talent to succeed, as the gap between actual and virtual racing narrows this may well be the area where the F1 teams are able to find all kinds of new talent, not just the type with wealthy parents.
So maybe the big hope for F1 is digital. With simulators replacing wind-tunnels to reduce costs and Esports programmes helping to identify and develop the very best driver talent. The other element that is needed is some form of cost realignment, which, however it is achieved, is a critical part of the long term sustainability of F1, now is the time to make this happen and I wish F1 management every success in doing so.