Formula 1 has suffered from “system issues” around its rulemaking process and the controversial finish to the 2021 season was a “symptom” of that, McLaren’s Zak Brown has claimed.
Motorsport’s governing body the FIA is conducting a review into the conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and the unprecedented way the rules were applied around a late safety car that created a one-lap restart and allowed Max Verstappen to beat race-long leader Lewis Hamilton to the grand prix victory and the championship.
In addition, new FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem has begun a consultation process with all 10 teams on various issues, not just the Abu Dhabi GP.
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has said in a wide-ranging address on the team’s website that this is an opportunity to “reform the way F1 operates”.
“It is obvious to focus on the events of Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, which are the subject of an FIA investigation, but this was a symptom rather than cause in my view,” Brown said.
“There have been systemic issues around alignment and clarity on who makes the rules – the FIA or the teams – that have manifested themselves in the past couple of years, at times in a high-profile way.”
Brown has pointed out “signs of organisational difficulties” such as the chaotic handling of the cancelled 2020 Australian Grand Prix at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the farcical 2021 Belgian Grand Prix, which had an official result declared, half-points awarded and a podium ceremony despite no green-flag running and only three laps under the safety car.
He said these were “hallmarked by a seeming lack of preparation for the events unfolding and temporary inertia on the solutions”.
“Greater clarity on the roles of the FIA and F1 and the need for increased leadership of the sport will undoubtedly be on the agenda for Mohammed Ben Sulayem and [F1 CEO] Stefano Domenicali and their respective teams,” said Brown.
“Previous administrations pursued a mainly autocratic style of governance, so to point the sport in the right direction it was necessary to take a more consultative approach with teams and stakeholders.
“But now the sport has been successfully reset, moving forward there is a need to shift back to stronger, more directive leadership and governance at the top of the sport.
“It is clear that some of the rules and their governance are not acceptable as things stand.
“No one is happy with the inconsistency in the policing of the regulations, but which has been habitually exploited by teams for competitive advantage.”
In December, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said teams were being “held to ransom by ad hoc decisions” on technical and sporting issues.
F1’s governance process includes input from the teams at various stages and was altered with the signing of a new Concorde Agreement in 2020 to ensure rule changes could be voted through with a majority rather than unanimity.
Brown claimed last year that blocking teams from any involvement in the rulemaking process would be better than the current system.
And he has given specific examples of recent controversies that the teams have fed into, such as the agreement for races not to end under caution where possible – which is what made FIA race director Michael Masi fast-track the process of ending the safety car period in Abu Dhabi – and also team radio access that has resulted in increasingly “pantomime” conversations being broadcasted.
“I have said before that the teams have too much power and it needs to be reduced,” he said this week.
“We have a significant role in the drafting of the regulations and governance of Formula 1 and that influence is not always driven by what is best overall for the sport.
“Yes, teams should be consulted, and their informed perspectives considered, particularly on long-term strategic issues. But at times it has seemed the sport is governed by certain teams.
“Let us not forget that we, the teams, have contributed to the inconsistencies in the policing of the regulations as much as anyone.
“It is the teams who applied the pressure to avoid finishing races under a safety car at all costs.
“It is the teams who voted for many of the regulations they have complained about.
“It is the teams who have been using the broadcasting of radio messages to the race director to try to influence penalties and race outcomes, to the point where an over-excited team principal plays to the gallery and pressurises race officials.
“This has not been edifying for F1. At times it’s felt like a pantomime audition rather than the pinnacle of a global sport.”
Big teams using sprints as excuse to raise cost cap
Brown said he is confident that the FIA and F1 will provide “increased leadership” and that collectively F1’s stakeholders will “not shirk responsibility when it comes to tough decision-making”.
It appears McLaren would like to see this extended to the F1 cost cap, introduced in 2021 and reduced this season as part of a gradual drop in the spending limit – but the subject of “lobbying”, Brown says, from big teams to be increased again.
The argument from F1’s biggest teams is that the cost cap should rise because of the introduction of Saturday sprint races, of which there were three in 2021 and are meant to be six in 2022.
These races came with a small spending increase last year but, with the exact rules for the sprint races still not finalised, Brown says teams are being misleading about how much extra money they really need.
“Some teams still look for excuses to raise the cost cap and win world championships with chequebooks,” he said.
“The ongoing lobbying by certain teams to increase the cost cap for sprint race damage is a continuing example.
“The Saturday sprint race initiative by Formula 1 has added new viewers and raised the profile of the sport to expand its global fanbase.
“However, these teams continue to demand a raise to the cost cap by an inordinate amount of money, despite the clear evidence that little damage was incurred during these races last year, in a thinly veiled attempt to protect from their competitive advantage being eroded.
“The current governance structure of the sport enables a situation where some teams, to protect their own competitive advantage, are effectively holding the sport hostage from what’s best for the fans and therefore the sport at large.
“These teams seem unable to accept that a budget cap is in the best interests of the sport and cannot kick their habit of spending their way to the front.”
‘B team’ concern remains
Brown has used the same medium to criticise aspects of F1 and its governance in the past, focusing mainly on elements like the budget cap and close team alliances.
He has reiterated concerns about the latter, saying “the threat of A and B teams has not gone away”.
McLaren dislikes how closed aligned various teams on the grid are, such as the relationship Ferrari has had with its customers Alfa Romeo and Haas at different points over the past few seasons and the fact Red Bull owns both Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri.
Brown has accused smaller teams of voting against their own interests in the past to toe a party line.
That could explain Brown’s reference to “holding the sport hostage” in his comments about the cost cap, as it implies that the voting process could be abused to prevent F1 implementing the rules it wants for the sprints.
Brown says it is “vital” that F1’s governance changes further as the regulations “are heavily biased towards B teams/customer teams which is not in line with F1’s principle of a group of genuine constructors competing with one another on even terms”.
“It is diminishing what being an F1 ‘team’ means and the fabric of the sport,” he said.
“F1 needs to be 10 true constructors, where each team – apart from sharing the PU and potentially the gearbox internals – must design and produce all parts which are performance relevant.
“Right now, there is too much diversity in the business models between teams.
“Trying to apply the same set of complex regulations to each, and then policing them effectively, is needlessly complicated and compromised as a result.
“This cost-capped environment should allow teams to become more recognisable entities in their own right within a realistic budget, without the concern of significant performance differences based on how much each team can spend.
“In a nutshell, the current situation allows B teams to be overcompetitive compared to constructors, and A teams to be overcompetitive by having the benefit of a B team.
“Without a correction, the way things stand mean that any team with championship aspirations needs to have a B team in place and that simply is not Formula 1.
“On top of this, the voting pressure placed by the A teams on their B teams is not consistent with the promotion of an equitable sport based on individual team merit.”