Why F1 is talking wind tunnel bans and driver salary caps

by Nov 4, 20200 comments


Last week’s Formula 1 Commission meeting was the first held under the new, slimmed-down governance procedure introduced simultaneously with the 2021-2025 Concorde Agreement.

The new structure was revealed here a year ago as follows:

  • Simplified structure with only one level below the World Motor Sport Council (the previous structure had two lower tiers: the much-derided Strategy Group and full, 24-member, F1 Commission)
  • Reduced number of representatives within the F1 Commission from 24 to 12 members, namely the teams plus FIA/Liberty representation, with each group having 10 votes
  • Improved representation of all teams within the F1 Commission – all teams hold full votes, rather than half the grid being members of the Strategy Group
  • Secured the influence of the FIA, the F1 commercial rights holder (Liberty Media) and teams in the decision-making process via the treble voting-block system, with the four power unit suppliers having one vote each where on relevant votes
  • Ensured a certain degree of stability in key regulations of the championship via a restructured voting process
  • Maintained the FIA’s discretionary power on safety, although it may only be applied in instances of bona fide safety issues after consultation with relevant bodies.

The incoming structure provides equal voting rights for all teams – one for each of the 10 – while the FIA and F1 have blocks of 10 votes each, making 30 in total. Compare this with the previous structure where the commission numbered 24 which was made up of all teams, F1, FIA, technical and sponsor delegates, and representatives of circuits and promoters.

Crucially, the commission voted only on matters escalated to it by the now-discontinued F1 Strategy Group, which consisted of the FIA and F1 (six votes each) and six teams (one vote each). The new structure eliminates two major bugbears of the old system, namely unequal team representation and voting on sporting and technical matters by commission ‘outsiders’ who may have vested interests or no competence in specific areas.

Grid, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
F1 claims fans want reverse-grid qualifying races

Last Monday’s meeting was convened as a videoconference after Portuguese authorities scuppered plans for it to be held face-to-face in Portimao. Opening talks covered topical items: approval of rule changes ahead of the 2021 season; rejection of F1’s quest for reverse grid races; and the repercussions of Honda’s plan to leave at the end of 2021, potentially leaving both Red Bull teams power-less.

Approval of the revised regulations was the easy part as these had been agreed in principle, with the commission simply rubber-stamping the changes.

Reverse-grid qualifying races were ruled out, despite F1 claiming over 60% of fans polled via its Fan Voice website were in favour of the change. Four Mercedes-powered teams – Mercedes, Racing Point, Williams and McLaren (from next year) are said to have blocked the proposal.

Red Bull’s threats to leave F1 unless engines are frozen from 2022 to enable its teams to race with Honda’s discarded engines as-is fell on deaf ears. Red Bull was reminded that when freezes were mooted in May they blocked them on the basis that ‘Honda would leave’, while the FIA made clear it refuses to be dictated to. Saliently, Ferrari and Renault confirmed they are prepared to supply engines to the Red Bull teams.

This one is likely to run for a while…

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Then came strategic topics: Although at an embryonic stage, F1 plans to phase out wind tunnels by 2030, not only on cost grounds but also for environmental reasons. According to a source, wind tunnel efficiencies – the actual ‘wind-on’ time during an eight-hour shift, with the rest spent on powering up and setting up models – vary from 15% to 35%, with the main concern being exponential energy usage as airspeed increases.

In addition, wind tunnels require a regular flow of models plus constant maintenance, refurbishment and updates. McLaren’s upgrade of its existing facility to state-of-art standards is estimated to come in at around $20m. Over a wind tunnel lifecycle that pans out at $200m (or more) for the 10 teams.

Red Bull’s engine freeze plan was shot down

The average F1 wind tunnel consumes around 10,000 kilowatt-hours per day to maintain temperatures and operate rolling roads and fans – about the same as an average family house in a year. That pans out at the same energy consumption usage as a 250-house village over a working year – all to hone front wing endplates or barge boards until the next upgrade. Clearly F1 needs to outlaw this dinosaur technology soonest.

Such plans would have been unthinkable just five years ago, although, to be fair, Nick Wirth and Virgin foresaw such a scenario in 2010 but the technology just wasn’t up to it at the time. Great advances in computational fluid dynamics – effectively a computer simulated wind tunnel – and other innovations have been made since.

One is the high-speed Catesby Tunnel, a perfectly straight and level 3km disused Victorian railway tunnel with a 40 square metre working cross section which is being converted to provide repeatable conditions by physically propelling an object down its length at high speed. Thus F1 can finally work towards its wind tunnel-free future.

The prognosis is that the next set of technical and sporting regulations, covering 2026-30, will contain a definitive sliding scale to phase out tunnel usage, although the prevailing framework is expected to provide early pointers and increasing restrictions on tunnel testing.

Also discussed, again conceptually, was the direction of travel for F1’s future power units, particularly as the sport seems committed to hybrid internal combustion engines for now. Thus, sustainable and/or carbon-neutral fuels feature increasingly during such discussions, with the sport’s overall sustainability programme as outlined here last year regularly coming under the spotlight.

Sauber wind tunnel
Wind tunnels may be phased out…

The plan is for F1 become a highly visible pioneer in the use of sustainable materials plus production and logistics processes. Exhaust pipe emissions comprise just 0.07% of the sport’s total carbon footprint, yet F1 is perceived to be a great dirty fuel-guzzling monster. F1 plans to double the bio content of fuel from 5% to 10% from 2022, but the eventual plan is to turn the dial to 100 – an impossible task under an engine freeze.

One of the unintended consequences of the current engines is their cost, which in turn frightened off potential power unit suppliers. The reason for the expense is simple: back in 2009, when the engine formula was conceived, engineers were requested to compile their wish-lists of technologies, then collate them into engine regulations. The result: two complex energy recovery systems, massive batteries and heavy cars.

Thus a different philosophical approach has been proposed: rather than starting ‘bottom up’ as in 2009, the incoming engine regulations for 2026 (or earlier by mutual agreement) will be framed on a ‘top down’ basis: Set an acceptable price for the entire package, then determine the priorities before combining the most desirable technologies that can be afforded within the ‘cap’ into an affordable power unit.

The differences in philosophies is best compared to ordering a new car. If you start with a base price then add the wish-list of options, the result may soon become unaffordable; the alternative is to determine a maximum price, then mix and match the best selection of options within that ‘cap’. A logical move, yet one which has taken the sport 10 years to arrive at.

Whatever, it is clear that F1 is committed to internal combustion engines for the foreseeable future, which is good news for the wider world as the development of bio- or synthetic fuels with road car applications have the potential to reduce vehicle emissions more than a 100 million e-vehicles could – certainly over the next decade.

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Matters relating to the 2021 F1 calendar were also covered. The commission is understood to have unanimously agreed reductions in pre-season testing to a single three-day session at a venue to be decided, most likely Bahrain, but with Catalunya also in the frame. The final decision rests on the realities of Covid-19 as team executives are concerned about subsequent travel restrictions – particularly as Australia is scheduled to open the season and may have exclusions in place.

Computational fluid dynamics aerodynamics work
…in favour of more virtual car development

As part of the early planning there were suggestions that team gear would be transported to Bahrain after this year’s finale in Abu Dhabi in to reduce costs. Then, after the test in early March the new cars plus all kit and any advance party personnel would head to Melbourne from Bahrain. ‘Plan B’ is a return to Catalunya for a single three-day session.

To put this test window into perspective, consider that just six years ago pre-season testing ran to 12 days, spread across three four-day sessions in Jerez and Bahrain. The count has gradually reduced since: F1 this year staged two three-day sessions in Catalunya. The 50% reduction for 2021 continues that trend.

While three days may suffice for the 2021 F1 season, will that hold true the following year when the sport belatedly introduces new technical regulations prescribing major changes such as 18-inch tyres and massively revised aerodynamics? Reducing testing under largely stable regulations is logical, but 2022 will bring new sets of technical challenges, and F1 may discover that additional testing is required, particularly as teams acclimatise to the regulations.

Discussions over salary caps for drivers and the top three executives in each team were more controversial, though the idea has obvious merit. What use, after all, in imposing caps on spending then standing back as teams spend multiple millions on their driver drivers? Top engineers and designers also command seven-figure salaries.

It must be stressed that talks are very much at a preliminary stage, and while the target date is 2023 it seems unlikely salary caps will be enacted before the new regulatory period starts in 2026 – although a two-or three-year notice period is likely to be issued to shut off loopholes in pre-existing contracts. The wording of the regulations will need to be European and British contract law-compliant, which is no easy task in itself.

Drivers, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
Analysis: 2020 F1 drivers’ salaries

However where there is a will there is always a way and, saliently, only two teams have reason to oppose the suggested annual caps of $30m for two drivers. One wonders how shareholders feel about paying $50m when teams could escape with a third of that. Ultimately objections revolve around the removal of performance differentiators only the well-heeled can afford – precisely the reason for evaluating caps in the first place…

The proposed system is simple enough: Budget caps remain as is – so $145m for 2021, reducing by $5m in each 2022 and 2023 – and teams are permitted to spend $30m on drivers. Should they spend, say, $50m, then the excess of $20m would be deducted from their permitted under the cap. The same format will apply to executive salaries if introduced.

There are doomsayers who vow such restrictions are unenforceable, but they said the same about cost caps, yet these are due in two months, albeit with a ‘soft landing’ through to June to ease the transition to lower headcounts. There is, though, a looming problem: On Friday Italian prime minister Guiseppe Conte legislated against the laying-off of staff before the end of March 2021, throwing Ferrari – in the process of reducing headcounts to meet the 2021 cap – a lifeline.

The word is Ferrari is pushing for a delay to the ‘soft landing’. But the Scuderia has an alternative: It could ‘remove’ those that are deemed to be excess under the budget cap, then deploy them elsewhere or place them in a ‘holding account’ unrelated to F1 activities. How F1 handles this one will be interesting as it provides the first major test of the cap.

Finally, a further cost-cutting measure in the form of reductions to race-going headcounts was discussed. Following lessons learned from Covid races a further reduction in 80 staff was proposed, rather than the 120-150 usually deployed by major teams across all activities. A reduction was suggested here in June, but shot down at the team by figures who said we did not understand what it took to operate an F1 team…

Still, the first F1 Commission meeting under the new structure ticked most boxes, with sensible proposals making it to the next round. True, some are likely to be watered down and others may not make the cut, but F1 seems to be heading in the right direction with regards to sustainability and cost controls. Thus, the F1 Commission achieved more in one meeting than the (now-defunct) Strategy Group did in almost a decade.

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