The start of 2021 brought change at the very top of Formula 1’s management structure with the appointment of Stefano Domenicali as president and CEO of F1’s commercial rights holder, with the actual racing season ending with a bang of seismic proportions when the sport crowned Max Verstappen as its first non-Mercedes world drivers champion since 2013.
Almost overlooked in all this drama was that a week after that most contentious victory Jean Todt stepped down from the FIA presidency, having reached both the three-term limit and maximum permissible age (75) at re-election, the Frenchman’s place taken by Emirati Mohammed Ben Sulayem – significantly, the first non-European to hold world motoring’s top job since the formation of the federation in 1904.
In the process the make-up of the FIA World Motor Sport Council underwent drastic change: Germany, France and Italy lost seats their delegates had believed were safer than the halo device, with Fabiana Ecclestone, wife of former F1 tsar Bernie, gaining one of the places. Although the official word is that the nonagenarian won’t have a say in the WMSC, the smart money has it that he will be influential…
Domenicali’s appointment had, of course, been scooped by RaceFans in September 2020 and his start date was awaited eagerly, not because incumbent Chase Carey had done a poor job – quite the contrary, in fact – but simply because after the American had brought stability to the sport after years of profit-plundering by the previous commercial rights holder, CVC Capital Partners, it was time for the sport to move up another gear.
Carey had instilled stability by presenting a totally revamped Concorde Agreement – one that levelled F1’s financial, sporting, and regulatory playing fields – to teams on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis. There had, of course, been push-back – not unexpectedly from Mercedes F1, who wanted matters rolled over a year – but Carey stuck to his guns, and the covenant was signed by all parties in August 2020, effective 1 January 2021.
Simultaneously the FIA introduced a formal budget cap of $145 million, reducing by $5m per year in each of 2022/3 and to be reviewed thereafter, which dealt a triple whammy to major teams: Not only would they need to lay off staff and reduce resources, but do so while racing 2021 cars – albeit modified versions of the previous year’s designs – all while simultaneously developing 2022 cars to F1’s ‘new era’ regulations.
A watershed year approaches: Out goes the (eight-year-) old formula, in comes a much vaunted ‘new era’, which promises increased on-track action at lower costs. Originally scheduled for 2021, it was delayed a year due to Covid. Ironically, the on-track battle was so close it produced the first points tie heading into the finale since 1974, and after seven years of Mercedes hegemony some questioned whether the new regulations were in fact needed after all.
The flipside is that framing entirely new regulations takes at least two years – the prescribed minimum period if the balance of performance between automobiles is heavily impacted – and back in 2019 no one foresaw that 2021 would deliver the most dramatic season in three decades. How does Domenicali see the situation?
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“The 2022 regulations will provide a crucial additive for the championship,” he told RaceFans in Abu Dhabi. “While 2021 has been incredible, we still have cars that cannot follow each other closely [due to current aerodynamics]. The new regulations were delayed a year but they are designed to improve the racing.”
The 2021 season also saw the end of F1’s 13-inch rubber, the sport’s prescribed dimension since 1985, replaced by lower-profile 18-inch tyres. How they ultimately perform is open given no direct comparisons are possible simply because they were tested on ‘mules’, F1-speak for emasculated test cars. Pirelli is bullish they will perform better under all conditions while being more road relevant despite adding 14kg to overall car weight – an undesirable trend.
While F1’s revised prize money structures – which treat all teams equally save for top three performance bonuses and a (reduced) historic stipend to Ferrari – will take at least three years to fully wash through the system despite the provisions of the budget cap, there were immediate effects, not least that Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari admitted to reducing the number of upgrades as the season wore on.
However, the revised governance system, which gave all teams equal votes – save that Ferrari retained its veto, albeit in diluted form – enabled the FIA to expedite rule changes, and thus pit stop regulations and ‘flexi-wing’ provisions were “clarified”, for which read “considerably tightened” during the season rather than being delayed for the new year. In effect, the powers of the major teams were clipped.
That said, a lowlight of 2021 is that F1 did not commence its planned rewrite of F1’s regulations, having previously promised to streamline them provisions to eliminate conflicting clauses – in particular, those contained in the sporting regulations. While such a revamp cannot be completed in a year – certainly not if approached diligently – the longer the delay, the greater the chances of Abu Dhabi’s fiasco repeating itself.
Simply put, there were too many inconsistencies during the year for even the most ardent fan to not question whether Liberty Media, as F1’s parent company the ultimate holder of the commercial rights, and Netflix, producer of the smash hit series Drive to Survive, had hijacked regulatory control of the sport. Not without some justification did https://www.racefans.net/2021/10/21/verstappen-refuses-to-participate-in-fake-drive-to-survive-netflix-series/.
Another lowlight in the eyes of many – although not to promoters or broadcasters – was the emergence of sprint qualifying. Sprints are here to stay – six are planned for the 2022 F1 season – although the overall concept is constantly evolving as Liberty Media, the FIA and team bosses thrash out a better solution to https://www.racefans.net/2021/10/04/f1-has-only-worked-out-one-thing-about-sprint-qualifying-it-wants-more/.
As the season progressed so the considerable catfights and continuous bickering between Mercedes and Red Bull escalated as expected during a championship as tightly poised as the one just past. One sensed the calm and cool hand of Domenicali, who had the advantage that he had once been ‘one of them’ during his Ferrari tenure, working away behind the scenes whenever flames of dissent threatened to engulf the sport.
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“Stefano is charming, he’s Italian, he’s friendly, but don’t be mistaken,” was McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown’s verdict when asked by RaceFans to rate Domenicali’s first year in office. “Underneath that charming likeable guy there’s an immense amount of drive and toughness, and that’s been good for all of us.
“He’s been able to get things over the line, he knows all the characters. There are new races coming, new TV deals coming, sprint races, trackside partnerships. He’s picked up the baton from [Carey], and he’s sprinting with it.” Pun presumably not intended.
Aston Martin team principal Otmar Szafnauer was equally appreciative of Domenicali’s first year achievements, with his stand-out moment being this year’s sell-out USGP. The ex-Ford USA executive smiled as he recalled incessant requests from Detroit associates desperate for tickets.
“You can attribute some of that stuff to Netflix,” he says, “but Stefano is taking that and turning it into what we need to do. He’s found opportunities to build on and exploited others and is doing a great job.”
This is borne out by F1’s share price: On the day Domenicali first slid his feet under the F1 desk it was valued at $40.74; as this written 51 weeks later, FWONK is trading at an all-time high of $62.60. Thus it has appreciated by over 50% in a year despite the effects of Covid which saw one round knocked off the calendar, of that contentious finale and of gathering rumours that Lewis Hamilton may not return.
In early July we indicated Valtteri Bottas was heading for Alfa Romeo – to much disbelief, including from senior team executive Pascal Picci, who subsequently departed in a huff – and that George Russell was a shoo-in for the seat.
Significantly, Hamilton’s contract extension was signed that weekend, before it became known that Bottas, whom he lauded as “the best team mate I’ve ever had”, was to leave Mercedes. Could that, rather than Abu Dhabi fall-out, be the real reason for his current doubts, particularly as Hamilton subsequently admitted to not having a veto over who his team mate might be?
There were never any doubts, though, that Kimi Raikkonen would bow out this year, having come in as F1’s least experienced car racer – with 23 single-seater starts on his CV – and leaving it with the most F1 starts – a record 349, albeit a tally likely to be beaten by Fernando Alonso. Intriguingly, both made their debuts in Australia in 2001, both are world champions and both took sabbaticals during which they raced elsewhere.
During the British Grand Prix weekend we revealed F1 was in talks with Qatar for a race, with a longer term deal on the table although the Gulf peninsula will sit out 2022 due to clashes with its FIFA World Cup schedule. The race came to pass in November – four months from start of talks to start of race is surely some record.
Qatar also has a 17% shareholding in the Volkswagen Group, which is considering an entry into F1 via either or both its Audi and Porsche brands. Last week we revealed the existence of a letter from Audi CEO Markus Duesmann to the FIA and F1 stating a decision will be taken in early 2022.
One of the pre-conditions set by VW Group for entering F1 was that the MGU-H – a massively complex, eye-wateringly expensive technology which is increasingly irrelevant to road car makers – be scrapped in order to reduce costs of both entry and competition as engine supplier. That was agreed at the last full WMSC meeting of the year, so let us now see which way VW jumps.
Last year Honda chose to exit the sport and its timing proved, as usual, impeccable. Having won its first world championship in 21 years the company that professed to love racing leaves no longer able to leverage Verstappen’s title.
Is Honda really leaving F1, or doing so in name only? RaceFans understands Honda will continue supplying unbranded engines from its Sakura base in Japan to Red Bull Racing and sister team AlphaTauri until the end of 2025 (for an inflated fee) – which will, though, be cheaper than Red Bull Powertrains gearing up for manufacture and rebuilding of power units, facilities for which exist in Japan.
Finally, in 2021 F1 bid farewell to two iconic characters, the controversial and enigmatic ex-FIA president Max Mosley and arch-racer Frank Williams, knighted for services to motor racing despite the odds he endured throughout. Both shaped F1, albeit in vastly different fashion, and there are no doubts F1 would be an utterly different place without their respective involvements. Williams, in particular, is sorely missed.
During 2021 F1 delivered a greater spectacle than it had any right to due to the omnipresent disruptions of Covid, while changes at the top echelons of the sport bookended a season that mixed political drama, on-track action and sporting intrigue to perfection during a season that saw two protagonists – seasoned veteran in the best car versus coming man given a first bash in a top car – level-peg on points going into the finale.
As a result – and despite the eventual result – all F1’s key metrics headed in the right direction in most major markets, particularly in the USA and Asia. The 2022 championship will be hard pushed to outdo the season just past, but that is a perennial problem with unexpected classics. Who a year ago could have foreseen how 2021 would pan out?
Next season will be hard-pressed to equal 2021, let alone beat it; if it does, don’t bet against FWONK hitting $100.
- The problems of perception the FIA must address after the Abu Dhabi row
- Why the budget cap could be F1’s next battleground between Mercedes and Red Bull
- Todt defied expectations as president – now he plans to “disappear” from FIA
- Sir Frank Williams: A personal appreciation of a true racer
- F1 should spare us the 20-hour steward debates and ‘Judge Judy’ antics