The race weekend in Hungary was proof, if any was needed, that the current crop of team bosses have lost track of what is needed to run a racing series, a seemingly simple process that is at risk of getting lost amongst recrimination and self interest while the future of the sport is uncertain, and the current season was encapsulated by the snorefest shown on television sets worldwide. Changes to the series have been clearly necessary for some time, and to that end FIA President Max Mosley announced in April plans for sweeping changes to the make up of the cars that compete in the Formula One Championship, to the dismay of various team bosses up and down the paddock.
Mosley initially pointed to changes that he would make in 2008, at the expiry of the current Concorde Agreement, and then gave the teams an ultimatum - come up with a workable alternative which will significantly slow down the cars in racing trim for the 2005/6 seasons, or he would use Article 7.5 of the Agreement, which allows changes to be enforced unilaterally by the FIA on safety grounds.
The Technical Working Group (TWG) - comprising the Technical Directors of each team - has had four months to come up with a workable alternative to Mosley's recommendations, and in those four months they have agreed upon precisely nothing. And, when you consider the inevitable debates the team principals will run though before signing off on a new agreement for the chassis, engine, tyre and qualifying requirements necessary to race next season, the delay looks farcical. The potential of these changes is incredible, but they need to be made as soon as possible to allow the teams to dream up the cars that will carry the immediate future of the sport.
Like everything in Formula One, the meetings of the TWG are generally kept confidential; everything is carried out away from the prying eyes of the media and the public, so when the official FIA press conference was held on Friday in Hungary, it was a glimpse into the soul of the entity that is supposed to decide what the future of the sport will be, and it wasn't pleasing to the eye. After the press conference a journalist noted that if you ask one question to six people you will probably get six answers unless they are Formula One people, in which case you will get thirteen. It was a fair summation.
When asked what the forthcoming regulations would compromise of, Ferrari's Ross Brawn stated, matter of fact, that "the diffuser is changed to produce less downforce, the front wing is lifted up, the rear wing is moved forward and there's one set of tyres for the whole race."
Brawn went on to determine that "the aerodynamic regulations are virtually agreed. I'm pretty certain they're the regulations which will go through, because I believe five or six teams have now written to the FIA saying that those are the regulations they want, and therefore there is no other process in place for an alternative set of regulations.
"I think the tyre regulations are in place, because Michelin and Bridgestone have written to the FIA and jointly asked for a solution, which the FIA accepted. I think the only debate as far as I am concerned is the engine regulations, where two teams in particular are objecting to the proposals. But in terms of building a car and knowing how the tyres are going to be run next year, we think it's clear." Renault's Pat Symonds agreed with Brawn, and it seemed that all was running smoothly.
Except that Minardi's Paul Stoddart didn't see it this way at all.
"Now wait," he interjected. "It has not been agreed. Ross is saying five or six teams - it requires eight votes in the technical working group to get it through, and that's the problem we have time and time again." Eddie Jordan weighed in, noting that he was completely unaware that six teams had agreed to the full set of regulation changes, and agreeing with Stoddart that, as ever, the stumbling block was going to be the team principals agreeing to the changes. And they should know.
It was shaping up to be yet another in a long list of disagreements between the team bosses and the engineers who provide them with the tools to go racing, and it was an indication of a familiar problem in Formula One - if the engineers, who are hot-wired to compete and defeat each other in their day to day lives, can agree with each other about what is required, then why can't their bosses?
Let's take a look at what the TWG has agreed upon. The amended chassis seems to be okay, with Symonds noting: "I don't think we have any problems. I think this will apply to all teams; it has been under discussion at the TWG for a while, and from it the principles were well established and the detail really didn't cause much discussion. So I don't think there are any problems there."
Brawn agreed and, noting the safety concerns of the FIA, stated: "I think there is a reasonably substantial reduction in downforce that will reduce cornering speeds, and certainly move in a direction of slowing the cars down. So I think it is pretty clear what is going to happen, and on Sunday morning we have a Technical Working Group meeting to just go through some details, I believe they are going through some details, and I think most people now are building their cars for next year."
Naturally enough, Stoddart disagreed, living up to his reputation. "The first thing is that we are not preparing and getting ready to build a new car and there is a simple (reason) for that: we cannot afford to make a wrong choice. Here we are at the Hungaroring, traditionally a bit of a watershed race where people announce drivers, engines and are well advanced on their design and build programmes for the following year, and we haven't got a clue what the regulations are."
Brawn noted that, after Michelin and Bridgestone met and discussed a common goal for the forthcoming season, the issue of tyres was settled, incorporating a reduction of sets of tyres for a race weekend and one set of tyres for both qualifying and the race, as well as the same prime and option specifications for all customer teams. For such a vital component of a Formula One car there was remarkably little argument from Stoddart or Jordan, although Sauber's Willi Rampf, looking uncomfortable at being drawn into discussing concepts usually dealt with behind closed doors, voiced a word of caution.
"On the tyre side," Rampf said, "we don't exactly know what the tyre regulation will look like, but if the tyre regulation does change the strategy for next year - say one and two stops instead of three stops - this would obsolete the different chassis concepts, and when we are in the design phase fuel cell volume is something you cannot change during a season. So we have to make a best guess what is the fuel cell volume for next year."
Getting the tyres specifications right is vital - so much now flows from tyre technology that any error will be fatal to a team's chances in the race. Refueling was brought back into the series in 1994, and it changed the face of modern Formula One, and one set of tyres for qualifying and the race will have an equally radical effect - Symonds noted that "if the qualifying procedure goes in a particular way I can tell you at a race like here in Hungary you would be looking at a one-stop race, and simulations say that you go to lap 49 here. If you can't overtake on this track, and you have only one pitstop that's two thirds of the way through the race. I don't think it is very exciting, and I think we have to be very careful of that."
To take that one step further, if fuel cells can be built to accommodate it, the inability to change tyres could result in races without pitstops – why give away time in the pits if you have to run the whole race on the same tyres? These are potentially very exciting changes to the series, but obviously the car designers need the time to come up with a design that can accommodate these changes, and with nothing yet decided this time is dribbling away.
A word of caution should, however, be noted - Symonds was clear on one particular problem that could arise: "I am very worried that if we do go to the single tyre rule that we will produce a show that I don't think will be as good as the show we have now, and I think that is something we need to be very careful of. People say they want to see overtaking, they want to see a change in the order of the races, and it may not happen so much with a single tyre."
Brawn seemed to think that the chassis and tyre regulations are agreed, or as agreed as they can be right now. "The FIA have said this is a proposal we are prepared to accept because we think it's a good proposal, and unless you can come up with an alternative proposal, which requires eighty percent, then this is the one by default that we are going to apply. So six teams have written to the FIA and said we are going to go along with your proposals. So by definition there can no longer be a majority for an alternative proposal. So as far as we're concerned, it's done."
The six teams mentioned are the six represented in the press conference, and yet if they could disagree as much as they did on Friday, then what chance is there of them convincing Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and the Japanese manufacturers to go along with them, especially when it comes to something as contentious as the format of the engine that will be run?
The current plan, apparently agreed by the group of six, is two fold - for 2005 the existing 3.0 litre V10 engines are to have their life expectancy extended to two race weekends, with a 2.4 litre V8 to replace it the following year. Initially this was to be raced next year, but the lead time necessary was such that the interim step was brought in.
"I think on the engine we are in broad support of the two main proposals," Brawn noted. "It is just the timescale makes it quite expensive to do it. Obviously over a longer timescale it would have been a little bit more economic, but I think the 2.4 V8 is necessary to reduce the speeds of the cars, and I think the two-race engine ultimately will make it more economic for the teams with smaller budgets to operate so we need to support it."
It's clear to see why the six teams supported the proposition - Ferrari have enjoyed engine superiority for some time, and extending the life of the engine should be no problem for them, or their customer Sauber. Renault have a noted power deficit, so they aren't going to lose much, while Cosworth are already used to extending the life of their engines via their deal with Minardi.
What isn't clear is how they are planning to convince the other suppliers to go along with the plan. BMW's motorsport director Mario Theissen has already given his thoughts on the matter: "what I can say is that we're questioning the change to a two-race engine format for next year, because that would require a design change and would mean you have to drop some of the work already done. If we went to a two-race engine format now, everybody will have to rush to get something done for next year. You couldn't do a reasonable job - so I would expect more engine blow ups."
More ominously Burkhard Goeschel, main board director at BMW, has stated: "we are committed to motorsports, (but) it's not a question of Formula One. If Formula One is going another way which is not congruent to our ideas and values as BMW, then we would change to another kind of motorsport. We want to race in the top league, that's the only question. If it is attractive and interesting for us we will stay in Formula One. But if it is not, then we won't do it."
Perhaps Brawn is right when he says that six out ten means there can be no chance of an alternative eighty percent agreement, but if one or more of the others drop out of the sport then where does that leave their agreement? Or, as Mosley pointed out about the team principals' meetings when he announced his short lived retirement earlier this year: "people often agree things and then they go away after the meeting and change their minds completely, and that means you've wasted a day." What is to stop one or more of the six changing their minds and flopping over to the other side?
Unfortunately one issue that the TWG can't address, one that is of vital importance to the design of the cars but it outside of their remit as it falls under the sporting regulations rather than the technical, is the question of qualifying. The common perception in the paddock is that the current format isn't working, and an alternative format has been put forward by Jaguar's Tony Purnell, which involves two mini races worked out with a lottery draw for the grid, with the results being aggregated to form the grid for the main race.
This proposal seems overly complicated, and certainly difficult for the fans at home to work out, as well as having ramifications on engine and tyre life – a far more simple alternative would be to run one session on a Saturday, in reverse order of the results from the previous race, so that potentially each lap is quicker than the previous and takes provisional pole, generating interest throughout the hour.
But the major issue for the TWG is to know what kind of a qualifying format they are gearing their new car designs for, so they can agree on the regulations. As Symonds noted: "it's all very well saying let's get the technical regulations sorted and then we can get on and design our cars, but that is not actually the case. The sporting regulations will always have an influence on car design and, very specifically, the qualifying regulations will and, being even more specific, whether or not you start the race with the fuel you qualified with. It really has a fundamental bearing on how you approach the strategy of the race and, hence, the simple design parameter of how big you want your fuel tank."
Right now there are more questions than answers, and as Jordan repeated endlessly: "It is just preposterous to think that a set of rules and regulations for next year's Championship are not clear and defined at this moment in time."
Purnell made a defining comment about the nature of decision making, between the TWG and the team principals, in Formula One when he said: "I was thinking of the comment that it is too democratic, but really it's more like the communists with their committees. You know committees never decide anything, and what we really want is a dictator, but a benevolent one, that we vote in every three years or something, because that is how practical democracies work. Any democracy which works like the team principals' meetings will be doomed to failure."
To the unfamiliar, Formula One may seem like a dictatorship presided over by Bernie Ecclestone, but the Briton is principally involved in exploitation of the commercial rights of the sport. That he has done a spectacularly good job within his remit is self evident, but comparisons that have been drawn between him and, say, the France family in NASCAR are very wide of the mark.
In NASCAR, the regulations are handed down from on high, after a brief period of consultation with the participants, and are then written in stone and unarguable. Unfortunately there is no single person responsible for this aspect of Formula One, and over the years this had led to more disruption in the sport than any other area.
Letting the teams decide how to run the series is a ridiculous situation – self interest rules the day every time, and agreement is accordingly almost impossible to achieve. Mosley, for his part, recognised this and has tried to rectify the situation by pushing through his ideas under the only avenue available to him – the safety clause of the Concorde Agreement. Whether it will work is not yet clear – it is one thing to have, allegedly, six teams agreeing to a change of the regulations, but all it will take is for McLaren or Williams to fundamentally disagree and attempt a legal challenge on these changes actually being for safety and the whole house of cards could collapse on itself.
But where does that leave the current mess? Pat Symonds noted that "our problem of today, I believe, is pretty well there. I am quite sure the technical working group will effectively ratify these proposals on Sunday, and I'm sure that there will then be further argument, but strictly speaking, once that's done, those are the rules. Now, I know that perhaps that's an idealistic view and that there are certain team principals who have a lot of say, a lot of influence and they can turn things round, but we're doing everything we can to resolve this situation, and think we're behaving responsibly and professionally."
At the end of Sunday all of the major players left immediately after the processional race, and I managed to catch Symonds as he was leaving for the airport. When I asked him if the TWG had signed off on any of the regulations he said no, not yet. "So for all of the emotions and floral language of the press conference nothing is changed, nothing is resolved?" I asked.
All he could do was nod and smile, embarrassed, as he walked towards the car park.
That Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen are being considered by some fans and, perhaps, some teams for a drive next year - in what will see to the biggest driver shake up in years - speaks volumes about the inherent conservatism of the sport today. Both drivers won a Championship or two, of course, but Hakkinen has been out of racing for three seasons (some would say four, given his 2001 season), while Villeneuve has missed one year and hasn't won a race for seven.
In a sport where you're only as good as your last result - witness Jarno Trulli shifting from being the new hero for winning in Monaco to being apparently unable to renegotiate with Renault for next year after one bad result in France - these periods away from the sport should be fatal. It shows up a strange characteristic of modern Formula One, and it's not a pleasant one - one mistake makes a driver a fool forever unless you are bathed in the soft lights of a Championship, no matter how long ago it came to you.
By a remarkable coincidence, the majority of the race seats in Formula One are up for grabs for next year. At the start of the year the following drivers had a contract for 2005: Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari, Jenson Button at BAR, Fernando Alonso at Renault, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren, and Felipe Massa at Sauber.
To this list you can now add Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber and Giancarlo Fisichella, as these drivers have since signed contracts with new teams (Toyota, Williams and Renault). The latter two had existing contracts with their teams, but had a get out clause to move up the grid when opportunity knocked.
As of the start of August there are a remarkable ten seats still available for 2005, and the silly season is in overdrive pumping out rumours of which drivers will fill them. Not so long ago this many vacancies on the grid would have guaranteed a number of new drivers being given the opportunity to confirm the promise they've shown in the junior categories on a bigger stage, but the current state of Formula One mitigates against that happening again.
And the reason for this is money.
The amounts of money that are being spent in Formula One today are astonishing - there are now four teams who have an annual budget in excess of 400 million dollars each (Ferrari, Renault, Toyota and McLaren), and obviously the higher the budgets go the higher the expectations are for a return on those funds. Most teams now literally cannot afford to take what they consider to be a risk.
Which is why this year's driver market looks like nothing so much as a shuffling of the deckchairs on the top deck of the ocean liner - drivers like David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher may not win Championships (and their careers to date suggest as much), but equally they are regarded as solid drivers who won't make too many mistakes and may even, on their day, claim a win or two, and as such have an appeal to those controlling the purse strings of Formula One.
It is also why the names Hakkinen and Villeneuve can come back into play - both men have managed to beat Michael Schumacher to the title in the past, and in a year when the German has won all bar one race, that is a big positive for both men, even if it is questionable as to whether either could repeat the feat on return to a sport that has already moved on since they last sat in a car.
Hakkinen, apparently bored in Finland after two years away, has asked his good friend Ron Dennis for his advice (and blessing - there was a contract in place that gave McLaren first call on the Finn's services should he return) on a potential move to Williams. Villeneuve was forced to sit this year out when no one picked up his services for 2004, and is known to be keen to return.
Given the inherent conservatism of those pulling the purse strings in Formula One, both former Champions have a chance at a return, but should they? Should the series welcome with open arms a man who wants to return because he's bored, and another who no team boss thought worth signing last year? Both are certainly well known, and would bring in a lot of publicity, but is that enough to justify holding somebody who could potentially do a better job out of the series?
The other side of the money equation is that it is now almost essential for a young driver to have access to large amounts of it to get into Formula One - if the large teams are too financially conservative to bring untested talent into the sport, then the corollary of that is the small teams need funds from anywhere they can get it to try and keep up with the spending spree going on around them; this means that drivers are seen as a legitimate source of revenue.
Giorgio Pantano was seen as one of the stronger drivers below Formula One, and yet it took him three years in the holding bay of Formula 3000 before he found enough money to buy into a Jordan seat. It wasn't money well spent - the car looks evil, and his career is effectively finished after one season in the big time unless his manager can find more backing. Both drivers at Minardi brought a budget as usual, but unusually Jaguar second driver Christian Klien had his way smoothed by Red Bull's Euros.
There are a large number of drivers outside of Formula One looking for a way in, and the vast majority of them are simply not up to the job - those who suggest that anyone could drive the modern cars well simply hasn't had any access to the cars in any form. The modern Formula One driver has a very specific style that he needs to adapt to in driving the cars, has to have a remarkable level of fitness and ability, as well as a phenomenal work ethic to keep up with the demands that come from 18 races as well as testing and public relations demands. It is much more than a full time job - it is a life.
This doesn't mean that there are no drivers worthy of a chance at the big time, but few of them now have access to the amounts of money required to buy their way into Formula One. One advantage of the new rules regarding third drivers on the Friday of a Grand Prix weekend is that it has given a chance to younger drivers to prove their ability in a Formula One car against a known quantity. Bjorn Wirdheim proved his racing credentials by claiming the Formula 3000 championship last year, and this year has done a solid job in the same team as a driver who is being tipped for future glory - anyone who has read his column oin Atlas F1 will have seen his approach is positive and, more importantly, is working.
Timo Glock, the young German who is the third driver for Jordan fresh from European Formula 3, may not have had high hopes for his year considering the lowly position of his new team, but fortune smiled on him with the misfortune of teammate Giorgio Pantano, when a storm in a teacup kept the Italian out of the race in Canada and gave Glock his chance at a race seat - he grabbed it with both hands and, through a combination of good driving and good luck, brought home two valuable points on debut.
Both men have proven their abilities to drive a Formula One car, and are clearly strong racers that would be worthwhile additions to the field. However, they run the risk of falling into the testing ghetto - Anthony Davidson is young, personable and bloody fast, and yet he is now in his third year as test driver for BAR despite a junior racing record that is actually superior to friend and team leader Jenson Button.
Davidson's long term manager Didier Stoessel has now sold part of his contract to management double act David and Steve Robertson (managers of Kimi Raikkonen and on/off/on again for Button), acknowledging that he can only praise his client for so long before it falls on deaf ears, and that a fresh voice (or two) was needed. There are ongoing talks with a few teams, but a lack of budget is, again, doing him no favours if he wishes to avoid falling back on his existing testing contract for next year again.
Outside of the Formula One paddock Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi has dominated this year's Formula 3000 Championship, winning all bar one race and leading commentators to compare his dominance to that of Michael Schumacher in the senior paddock. At his only Formula One test to date, in late 2002 with Williams, the team were astounded that he was able to sit in a car he had never been near, at a track he had never driven, and be able to run within a second of Montoya after just a few laps.
Even further afield Richard Lyons, the young driver from Northern Ireland who is hoping to follow in Eddie Irvine's footsteps, has claimed five out of six poles in this year's Formula Nippon, the Japanese equivalent of Formula 3000 which used to be a particular favourite of up and coming drivers (Irvine, Ralf Schumacher, Mika Salo and Ralph Firman have all come through the ranks of Nippon) but perhaps isn't getting the publicity it once did. That he has achieved this with a team whose performances in the past have been Minardi-like makes it even more remarkable.
Are there any guarantees that any of these young drivers could step up into a Formula One race seat and perform? No, but equally there are none that Hakkinen or Villeneuve would either. Wirdheim, Glock and Davidson have strong racing credentials as well as a year or more under their belts in Formula One cars and have learnt all of the circuits - these are strong credentials for any young, keen driver to be given a chance to prove themselves in the top flight.
The advantage that Wirdheim and Glock have is that their existing teams are aware of their abilities, and both teams will have at least one race seat available next year. The disadvantage is that neither team is exactly flush with funds right now. With ten seats available there is everything to play for, and as Wirdheim's manager Christian Horner noted it is just a case of “banging on doors, pointing at his record and showing them the laptimes from this year.” And hoping that talent will suffice in place of budget.
Liuzzi has generated a lot of buzz in the Formula One paddock, aided in no small part by manager Peter Collins (the former team boss of Lotus). “Tonio's results this year have been good, and we are certainly looking for a race seat in Formula One,” he noted in Germany, “but do we turn down a testing spot? It all depends on the team.” As Collins noted, his results certainly justify giving him a chance. That he has some backing from soft drink giant Red Bull isn't doing his case any harm, either.
Lyons is being promoted by former F1 driver and paddock regular David Kennedy, who has stated that he will be looking for his charge to be given at least a Formula One test later this year, after which it will be clearer as to his abilities in the senior category. Don't be surprised if this test is with Renault, who have a sponsor in common with the Ulsterman - sponsors are always looking for some return on their money.
With the above drivers, and others like Jamie Green and Nico Rosberg making names for themselves in European Formula 3 below them, there are drivers outside of Formula One who are more than worth looking at. If fiscal conservatism dictates that young drivers need to prove themselves in a Formula One car before being given a race seat, then the third driver Friday sessions are a perfect answer for wavering team bosses to both have their cake and eat it - give them a shot on Friday, and if they work out move them up a year later.
The sport's fans are its lifeblood, and the only way it will have a future is to introduce some new names from time to time to give the fans someone new to get excited about. In a period when the sport could use a shot in the arm to reignite interest - if two of the last three seasons have been judged as boring by the existing fans, what chance is there to bring in new ones? - it would be the worst thing that could happen to the sport if its next collection of heroes are priced out of the game.
Michael Schumacher has stated in the past that he will continue to drive until he stops enjoying it, or a young driver comes along and beats him. Would an older driver have the incentive to beat him, or are they looking for one more paycheck and a year away from the couch in front of the television? In a year where so many seats are available, perhaps it's time to look for motivation, as well as economical wages, from the guys pushing up from below.