A few years ago I attended a wedding that included a speech so bad, it stays with me to this day. The Father of the Bride decided that he was going to try and crack some jokes. Unfortunately, they were all at his daughter’s expense. So, rather than telling the world how proud he was that his beautiful little girl was all grown up and getting married, it turned into a very public, horribly painful lampooning of the bride on what should have been the happiest day of her life.
Dietrich Mateschitz is a public hero in Austria. The Austrian Grand Prix, at the racetrack he owns, saved and regenerated into a beautiful and glorious theatre of speed, is supposed to be the centre-piece of his racing empire. And yet the week leading up to the race was filled with public admonishment of the team’s engine partner and a public berating of the product, the state of the sport and the strongest threat yet that Red Bull would quit. If it was a driver mouthing off so loudly, he’d be warned under Article 151c of the Sporting Code that he was bringing the sport into disrepute. That it was a stakeholder in the sport made it perhaps even less palatable.
What should have been a happy occasion became overtly awkward and uncomfortable.
It was that ill-fated wedding all over again.
Of course, Mateschitz and his deputy Helmut Marko’s words did not find much sympathy with the fanbase at large. Patience is running out fast for those who have followed the sport for longer than the recent few years, with a team which never saw fit to make such protestations of boredom with the singularity of team success when it was they who dominated the first four years of this decade. Comparisons are easily drawn with their rival teams who have endured years, and some of them decades without a championship triumph.
Lest we forget, these are regulations the teams, Red Bull amongst them, helped formulate. Everyone knew what they were getting into. Everyone signed up to them. Some win, some lose. But when those who fail to succeed decide to pick up their ball and threaten to go home unless they’re allowed to win it all becomes a bit whiney and pathetic.
And yet, just as with that ill-fated wedding speech all those years ago, you can find some sympathy in what the man was trying to do, and from where he’s coming. He is frustrated as hell that, under the current system, there is very little chance for success. To him, it probably seems as though he’s taken his ball for a kickabout with a few mates, and has ended up playing Real Madrid. He believed he was going into one situation but he’s found himself at the centre of one in which he can’t hope to compete.
That Renault has done a poor job this season cannot be denied. Far from taking a step forward from 2014, they’ve fallen backwards. But if Renault is to be maligned, what does one say of Honda? Their weekly failures are becoming an embarrassment. Yet McLaren refuses to throw their engine supplier under the bus. They are working together to resolve the issues, while the relationship between Red Bull and Renault slips ever further towards an inevitable and messy divorce. Ironically it is Ferrari, whom Red Bull left to switch to Renault engines, that now falls back in favour, with Sergio Marchionne stating in Spielberg that he would be “more than glad” to help Red Bull get back to winning ways.
Honda has tried to make light of its woes by humanising each power unit with its own twitter account and robot face. We joked over the weekend that one could imagine making a cartoon series about them, albeit a fairly depressing one. For just as you grew to love a character, it’d be killed off mid-episode. Sort of an anime, F1-themed Game of Thrones.
So if you’re Honda right now, what do you do? Do you spend your tokens, keep turning up with an engine that doesn’t work and hope that by tinkering with it, it’ll miraculously start working? Do you keep wasting money on a unit that may be fatally flawed? Do you say to hell with the penalties, and whatever fines the FIA is going to throw at you, and go back to the drawing board and come up with something fresh… something that won’t be an embarrassment? Or do you say that you made a mistake and pull out all together.
The fact that any of those could seem like a viable option should give us all food for thought.
One could forgive McLaren for venting their frustrations, as has Red Bull. And in many ways I can see where Red Bull is coming from. But if it is all Renault’s fault, then why is Toro Rosso, which also runs Renault engines, a far more dependable and often competitive prospect this season than Red Bull? Why is the RB11 so skittish through medium to high speed corners, when in years past it was precisely in these areas that the car was so strong? That has nothing to do with the engine and everything to do with aero. To blame, as Christian Horner did when I spoke to him on NBCSN during FP2 in Austria, 80% of the team’s woes this year on their engine supplier seems therefore, a touch extreme.
But I do see the frustration. I do see the mess. And it is one which could and should have been avoided.
Introducing a new engine formula at the same time as insisting on an engine freeze was bold at best from the FIA, and has resulted in the situation we have at the moment. For while one manufacturer has excelled in these tough conditions, all the others are suffering in their wake. Save for the use of a limited number of tokens, their opportunities of catching up grow ever smaller. And so the disparity is unlikely to be resolved.
I just don’t think that arguing about it from the perspective of it all being desperately unfair because you’re not competitive is the smartest idea. If Red Bull’s protestations are to be treated with the merit they perhaps deserve, perhaps suggesting a solution, rather than coming across as a bad sport, might be a better alternative.
To me, the best and only option right now would be to scrap the development freeze. Tell every engine manufacturer that they’ve got until the end of the calendar year to throw as much money, testing, and development work into their power units as they want in order to achieve a set parameter of performance. Make these things sing. Then, on January 1st 2016, the window closes. Keep tokens into the following years to allow gradual development and keep the interest in the engine formula, but given the current disparity perhaps we need an amnesty of sorts, to allow everyone to start from a relatively level position.
Spend what you want. Do what you want. Make as many changes as you want. But the sole caveat is that you do it off your own back. You don’t pass the cost onto your customers.
If a championship-winning team is so unhappy that it threatens to quit the sport, and one of the great motor makers in the world struggles so much through a weekend that the combined grid penalties it is handed total the equivalent of two and a half full F1 grids… something needs to be done.
Renault and Honda have not forgotten how to make engines. Their struggles however do show how great the technical challenges of these regulations are. But by forcing them to wallow in failure, you embarrass these great corporations and force them and their customers to the edge of desperation. You move them one step closer to the door.
The sport is not broken. And shouting that it is, just because you’re not winning, doesn’t help. But there is a way to improve the product and save the blushes of those who power the show.
For the greater good, the FIA, Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda need to agree to thaw the regulations, and go to town on technology.