Formula One has suffered from one fatal flaw the past 6 seasons — too much consistency. For four years in a row, Red Bull Racing dominated the sport, thanks to the aerodynamic wizardry of Adrian Newey, the superiority of the Renault engine, and the extraordinary driving talents of Sebastien Vettel. Then came 2014. That’s when the international open wheel racing series, which rather grandly describes itself as “The Pinnacle of Motorsport,” switched to a new engine formula designed to make the cars more environmentally friendly.
How a sport that loads 400 tons of cars and equipment onto jet planes and flies around the world twenty or more times a year can pretend to have any environmental credentials is a great mystery. The new rules greatly increased the importance of fuel efficiency. Today’s cars not only go further on less fuel, they also recover some of the energy created by burning that fuel by the use of regenerative braking and elaborate heat recovery systems.
The leaders of the sport who approved the switch apparently didn’t know Mercedes had been working on precisely that kind of powertrain technology for years. When the new rules took effect, teams that used engines made by Renault and Ferrari were horrendously unreliable and down on power compared to the Mercedes offering. The 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons saw a procession of Mercedes pole positions, fastest laps, and race wins. The only question during each race weekend was which Mercedes driver would win and which would come second.
Now after 7 years of relative boredom, a genuine battle between two elite teams is taking place. Over the winter, Ferrari has made a dramatic step forward. After five races, it has won two races and Mercedes has won three. Four time world champion Vettel is now leading three time world champion Lewis Hamilton by only 8 points. Mercedes leads the constructors battle by an identical margin.
Hamilton is clearly relishing the rivalry between himself and Vettel. After three seasons of driving around managing tires and monitoring fuel usage, he is finally able to race head to head with someone he considers a worthy opponent. (The lack of friendship between Hamilton and his former teammate Nico Rosberg was one of the few things commentators had to talk about the last three seasons.)
In the Spanish grand prix in Barcelona on Sunday, the race came down to a climactic moment. As Hamilton hurtled down the long front straight at 200 miles per hour, Vettel emerged from the pit lane. The two cars were side by side, wheel to wheel, through the first turn. Hamilton had to cede the race lead to Vettel or risk a crash. Ten laps later, Hamilton whistled by the Ferrari driver, thanks to the ridiculous drag reduction system the sport uses to promote passing. Despite a furious charge put on by Vettel, Hamilton was able to hang on to claim the race win.
For fans, it was a rare moment of drama, one that has reignited interest in a sport that has been hemorrhaging viewers for several years. New commercial rights holder Liberty Media has helped by loosening the social media policies put in place by former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and making the sport more fan friendly.
With a quarter of the season now over, 2017 is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. But F1 still has important issues that need to be addressed. The new aerodynamic rules make it impossible for one car to pass another on the track without using silly crutches like drag reduction systems. Less aero would lead to more passing and fewer front wings that look like they were designed by someone on LSD.
The drivetrain reliability rules are beyond ridiculous. Supposedly put in place to keep costs down, they actually increase costs by pushing innovations that increase longevity rather then speed. But the sport is moving in the right direction for a change. Formula One teams develop their cars continuously during the season. The cars at the last race of the year will be only distant cousins to the ones that started the first race of the year in Melbourne. Watching Ferrari and Mercedes put all their resources into winning could make 2017 one of the most exciting F1 seasons in years.