How did F1 end up with a race as bad as the French GP?

LE CASTELLET, France — You’re unlikely to see a better performance in a Formula One car this year than Lewis Hamilton’s on Sunday. He barely made a mistake, coped with a number of small issues in the cockpit and trounced his teammate by 18 seconds to take victory. But perfection is meaningless without perspective, and with no one close enough to challenge Hamilton for the best part of 90 minutes, it was hard to get excited about the reigning champion’s fourth win in as many races.

In many ways, the French Grand Prix was a showcase of modern F1’s problems: One team dominated at the front, the race was all but decided after the first corner and the one bit of excitement (Daniel Ricciardo’s overtakinging on the final lap) was blotted out by the stewards after the chequered flag. It was no surprise, then, that Formula One’s vultures were circling over the 2019 season on Sunday night, ready to attack a championship narrative that has very little meat left on the bone.

How did we get here?

If Ferrari had been competitive in France, it’s likely the focus would have been different after the race. But if anything Mercedes looked more dominant at Paul Ricard than it has at any point this season. The technical reasons for Ferrari’s struggles this year are many and varied, but fundamentally it comes down to Mercedes adapting more quickly to changes to the aerodynamic regulations and construction of the tyres over the winter.

The irony is that those changes were designed to make the racing better, and arguably the spectacle on Sunday would have been more tedious without them. Had the 2018 regulations continued for another year unchecked, the aerodynamic surfaces of the cars would have become increasingly complex, making them all the more prone to losing performance when running in the wake of another car. But if one thing has become clear during Mercedes’ period of dominance, it’s that the team from Brackley has been best placed to adapt to changes to the rules.

Mercedes worked hard to adapt its aerodynamic concept of previous years to the new rules, while Ferrari’s development direction has led the Italian team down a blind alley. If anything Ferrari has even more of an advantage in engine performance over Mercedes than last year, but its shortfall in downforce is a crippling weakness at the majority of tracks.

The French Grand Prix saw Ferrari bring a raft of upgrades to its car to try to determine a new development direction, but on Sunday team boss Mattia Binotto admitted there were as many questions as answers from the weekend.

“I don’t think we’ve got all the answers from this weekend because the floor was not working properly and somehow there is a lack of answers,” Binotto said. “We will still work on that one.

“I think we’ll have some test items again [at the next round] in Austria, to try and better understand. I think we will fully understand normally when all the parts fully work as expected.”

As much as anything, it was Ferrari’s lack of progress that raised alarm bells in France. The prospect of Mercedes winning every race this year has quickly gone from a joke at the opening rounds to a serious concern as we approach the midway point of the season.

Red Bull, which has also fallen from its 2018 level of competitiveness, has pinned the blame on changes to the tyres over the winter. In an attempt to promote closer racing, tyre supplier Pirelli reduced the tread depth of the tyres to stop them overheating and blistering, allowing drivers to push harder for longer. The blistering has all but disappeared this year, but difficulties generating and keeping heat in the tyres has affected almost every team on the grid except Mercedes.

Once again, it’s hard to argue against the fact Mercedes has done a better job this year. The change in tyres was in no way aimed at helping the world champions, and all ten teams tested the tyres following the final race last year in Abu Dhabi. But that hasn’t stopped suggestions that Pirelli should revert to last year’s thicker tread tyres to try to trip Mercedes up.

“I think it’s pretty logical that the ones who feel that they haven’t understood the tyre properly will try to trigger change in the tyres,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “My sportsman approach is that I don’t think F1 should change the rules because some are doing better than others, and I don’t mean it in an arrogant way — on the contrary, but this is an unforgiving, hi-tech sport, we have given it a big push over the winter to get on top of our set-up issues and understand how the tyres functioned last year. We were given a few sets in Abu Dhabi to try to understand and it seems that we have done OK.

“Changing the regulations midseason is something that, it is almost like introducing a balance of performance in a sport that was always about unforgiving excellence. If the sport needs that then we need to have a debate about the philosophy as the pinnacle of motor racing.”

And so we arrive at one of the biggest questions in the sport: Is F1 about sporting excellence or entertainment?

The French Grand Prix was a fine example of sporting and technical excellence. A driver and team operating on a level that was simply unbeatable. Yet in doing so it is turning off the fans who have turned up, for the most part, to see the fastest drivers in the world compete in the most technically-advanced cars.

“I hear you and from a fan’s perspective I get it,” Wolff said on Sunday night. “But what would you do if you were in our shoes? You would continue relentlessly to push for performance, it’s what we do in all areas, but equally the fan in me sees races that are less enjoyable to watch.”

Deeper problems

But even with Ferrari and Red Bull struggling to match Mercedes at the first eight races of the season, it’s clear F1 has deeper problems. The fact that only three teams have won a race since the start of the 2014 season tells you everything you need to know about the deep-rooted inequalities in the sport.

F1’s current owners, Liberty Media, were aware of those shortcomings when they took over F1 at the start of 2017 and a plan was laid out to make a major change for 2021. But with just 18 months until the start of that calendar year, the countdown to agreeing those regulations is already in the red. At a meeting two weeks in Paris an extension was granted until October this year to agree on the 2021 regulations, while the first step in addressing the obvious inequalities in F1 was put in place with an agreement on a cost cap from 2021.

Present at the meeting were bosses from F1, the FIA and the 10 teams, and for the first time Lewis Hamilton. Although he doesn’t claim to have all the answers to F1’s problems, it was interesting hearing his views on the way the sport is making decisions.

“We’ve never been in that room before,” he said. “It’s the first time us drivers have been in the room and I really think we had an impact. They thought we do need the drivers here. The fact it’s taken so long to realise that is not so great, but on a positive side they’ve listened and I think they are welcoming us to be in the decision process. We need to be at the next meeting. Part of next chain of emails that is happening, even if it’s just small things. The weight thing for example.

“From how it’s set up, just from watching when I was there, it’s not good. Really not good. They won’t like me saying that,” he said. “I think ultimately the FIA, they’re the governing body and they need to make all the decisions. The teams shouldn’t be involved in that in my opinion because the teams all want to do something for themselves. That’s the natural thing, they’re competitive.

“But if you get central group of people telling us, like the FIA for example, that their sole job is to make the sport great again, hiring individuals or whatever, they should have the power. They should make the decisions. But even currently they don’t have, necessarily the right answers, because they’re sitting there talking about making the car heavier which baffles me. Why?

“The car is already 130kg heavier than when I first got to the sport. What they don’t know is we have the best brakes we can possibly have, as great as can be, they’re overheating and fading so putting the car another 20kg heavier just going to get worse for the brakes and you will have to do more lift and coast and more fuel save which has a knock on effect.”

It’s important not to see 2021 as F1’s promised land. By their very nature, the changes in 18 months will be the first step in setting the sport in a better direction. Mercedes’ domination this year is proof that knee-jerk changes are not the answer and its unlikely anything can be done to guarantee the 2020 French Grand Prix is more exciting. But the hope is that the sport’s stakeholders can overcome their differences and use races like Sunday’s to focus on the areas that need addressing. – RPM