Bernie Ecclestone, the 85 year old major domo of Formula One racing, is not a happy man. He has been in charge of the all the sport’s commercial interests for more than 30 years and he says Formula One in 2016 is “The worst it has ever been.” That’s a pretty strong statement coming from someone who been there and seen it all since before Ayrton Senna rose to prominence on the world’s race tracks.
What has gotten Bernie’s knickers in such a twist? Primarily, he dislikes the fact that Mercedes has utterly dominated the current era of Formula One, which adopted a new powertrain formula starting in 2014. The rules package is intended to make Formula One more “green,” by forcing teams to make their cars more efficient.
The cars now operate under two fuel constraints. First, they can only start the race with a maximum of 100 kilograms of fuel on board. Second, the rate at which fuel can enter the engine is severely limited. To compensate, the cars are built to recapture as much of the heat generated by the engines as possible. That heat is turned into electricity, which is stored in batteries onboard the cars. In addition, the cars use regenerative braking to recover some kinetic energy while slowing for corners.
The electricity available can be used to do a number of things. First, it can power an electric motor to help the combustion engine move the car down the track. Second, it can be used to spin the turbocharger up to speed, which limits the amount of turbo lag when the driver plants his right foot hard on the accelerator.
The problem, in this insanely complex hybrid system, is there is not enough electrical energy available to do everything at once. Complex control algorithms decide when to send juice to the electric motor, when to harvest it from the MGU-H (motor generating unit – heat), when to send it to the turbocharger, and when to store it away in the battery. In essence, success in Formula One is no longer about horsepower; it is about software.
While all the teams agreed to this cockamamie new formula, Mercedes did a superior job of making all the pieces of the system work together. The result, says Ecclestone, is that “I wouldn’t spend my money to take my family to watch a race. No way. What’s the point when you pretty much know — and the bookmakers know, and they’re not stupid — that Lewis Hamilton will probably put the car on pole and more likely than not win the race, and the other Mercedes will be on the podium?”
Ferrari’s Sebstien Vettel declared last week that F1 is no longer “about the sport and which driver is the fastest” in this new era of “far too complex” technical regulations. “The dominance of Mercedes has taken away the excitement for many fans,” in Vettel’s opinion.
Vettel, you may recall, won the World Driving Championship four years in a row driving for Red Bull. He conveniently forgets that during that period, it was more than likely at each race that he would put his car on pole and win the race, with teammate Mark Webber taking second position on the podium.
Lewis Hamilton, who has won the driving championship two years in a row driving for Mercedes, has some things to say to Herr Vettel. “It’s pretty funny, because he had four years of it and I’ve only had two,” he told Britain’s Sky television. “Until I get to his level I won’t have bored them as much as he has!”
Ecclestone, however, agrees entirely with Vettel. He has been pressuring the teams to alter the current rules package, which he labels “a disaster.” The current rules are supposed to remain in effect through the 2020 season. He blames Mercedes for blocking proposed rules changes that would go into effect at the start of next season.
“Most of the participants are only thinking about what’s good for them in the short term,” he told the Daily Mail. “Long term for most of those people is two or three races.” Thanks to intransigence by Mercedes, Ecclestone says there is “no chance” F1 teams will meet the March 1 deadline to agree to sweeping 2017 changes. Mercedes, for its part, may have reason enough to resist altering the rules package. There are rumors it spent over $5 billion on the development of its hybrid powertrain. If the rules are changed, it would lose any advantage from that investment.
But the person Bernie is most angry with is Jean Todt, the former Ferrari team boss who was elevated to head the FIA after Max Mosley was forced out. You can be certain that Todt did not get the position without the support of Ecclestone. He now blames Todt for being more interested in road safety than the current state of affairs in Formula One. “He should carry on with the other stuff, but hand over responsibility for formula one to someone else,” he said. “I am going to speak to him about it.”
Ecclestone has a right to be annoyed. What passes for racing today is more of a procession than a speed contest. Drivers must conserve fuel, conserve tires, conserve brakes, conserve engines and transmissions. Most races now begin as a sprint for a few laps and then turn into parades as the drivers go into “limp home mode” to avoid putting too much strain on their machines.
That isn’t what fans want to see. It is true that Formula One has had other periods where one team or anther was dominant. But the current era truly has produced a pale imitation of actual racing. Want to know what would get the fans fired up? Bring back racing that looks like this.