Since Liberty Media officially took control of Formula 1 from Bernie Ecclestone in January 2017, the mantra has always been ‘judge us not on what you see now but on what happens in 2021 and beyond’. That date was significant for the simple reason that the current Concorde Agreement – the covenant by which F1 is run – expires at the end of 2020, after which all bets were off in terms of the regulations, governance and finances of the sport.
In the interim, there was only a limited opportunity for the new management to have a major influence on the direction F1 was taking. It was still in the slipstream of the Ecclestone era.
There have been endless discussions during the past couple of seasons about what that new direction should be. Crucially, the lack of a Concorde Agreement and hence governance for 2021 meant that, in theory, Liberty and the FIA could do anything they wanted and the teams would have little say. It was a unique opportunity to move the goalposts without the inevitable blocking of change by parties keen to protect their own interests.
The existing wind tunnel/CFD limits will rein in the three big players to some degree, but there are plenty of areas where money still talks, and they are likely to hit the ground running in 2021.
“There is an argument to say that those teams with more resource will benefit from that as they go into 2021,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. “But inevitably, when there is a big regulation change, somebody gets it right and others undershoot. And you want to make sure that you are on top of the curve, rather than behind it.”
What went wrong last time
F1’s last major rule change, for 2017, saw a move to high downforce, with a general aim of making the cars faster and more spectacular, and thus more challenging to drive.
Overtaking was not part of the brief and, somewhere along the way, that was overlooked by the technical directors who were involved in shaping the changes.
Despite the protests of then Mercedes tech chief Paddy Lowe – inevitably dismissed as an attempt to maintain the status quo and thus the Mercedes team’s advantage – the rules were passed. And, sure enough, following a rival proved harder than ever with the new breed of wider, high-downforce cars.
“These cars from 2016 to 2017 had a huge increase in downforce and it is worth thinking back on that experience because it was done for reasons I don’t understand,” said Ross Brawn, who returned to F1 after the decision was made. “It’s an example of an unthought-through programme. So the cars are very quick now, but they’re not raceable.”