| | | Effective PR

F1 is dead, long live F1.

Bryan Edwards

To say that the the 2021 season of Formula One ended on a sour note would be the understatement of all time.

The series faced an existential crisis. When the teams assembled for testing, nothing would be the same.

When the lights went out for the first race, in Bahrain, only one question mattered: had Formula One survived?

The FIA, the governing body of international motorsport, had spent 97 days producing a report into the events at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that plunged Formula One, and similarly run series, into crisis. The end result was exactly what was known and what I reported the day after the race: Verstappen was a worthy champion but the race result was determined by a failure by the race director, Michael Masi, to correctly apply the rules. The resulting mess could not have been resolved by re-ordering the finish because there are too many variables. Obviously, the race could not be re-run. If the result were to be cancelled, then Verstappen would have been champion by half-a-point but others down the field would have lost points that earned them millions of dollars. Hamilton and, later his boss Toto Woolf, said they recognised Vertappen's Championship but wanted their appeal to remain on foot because it was the only mechanism for investigating the race director's conduct. The FIA said it had inherent jurisdiction and could mount its own inquiry, Hamilton and Mercedes withdrew their protests.

We knew Masi was being removed and transferred within the FIA. We knew that there would be two race directors that would alternate and that there would be supervision from Herbie Blatch, for decades the right-hand-man of Charlie Whiting. Rules have changed to prevent team principals speaking directly to the race director, a good move after the hectoring that Masi took during the 2021 season that reached the level of bullying in the last race.

The end result of all of this was a calm and quiet regulatory aspect to Bahrain Grand Prix on 20th March 2022.

But that was far from the only challenge facing Formula One: after two years, the series is still facing uncertainty over CoVid-19. Teams seem to have abandoned their carefully constructed bubbles and standard operating procedures. Many are not wearing masks. Hugs and mouths close to ears are everywhere. Sebastian Vettel wasn't racing: he tested positive for CoVid-19. He said that drivers should be allowed to race despite a positive test. Hamilton, whose own dose in December 2020 left him stumbling about on the rostrum when he returned from taking a sickie, disagreed, saying that his own experience demonstrated that the virus was not to be trifled with. That was clearly so as, for much of the 2021 season, he demonstrated levels of tiredness that we are not used to seeing him suffer.

There was the fact that so many of the rules were vague. White lines could be declared to be the track limits in one session but undeclared in the next session; track limits would apply at some corners and not at others and then there was the "lasting advantage" rule that, also in the last race of last season, Masi reinterpreted on the hoof.

We were told that there was now a rule: if all four wheels cross the white line, that's a breach of track limits and, depending on the circumstances, times will be deleted or warnings issued leading to a penalty if the conduct continues. So, session two of practice. Perez. All four wheels clearly across the line. Time not deleted. True, it didn't matter one bit whether the time was deleted because practice times don't count for anything except internal data and the delight of anoraks. But if the rule is a rule, then it should have been applied.

Perhaps the biggest thing of all was that by the end of the 2021 season when teams were, mostly, no longer developing but they were making minor improvements, the teams with smaller budgets were making the greatest gains and there seemed to be a very good argument for keeping things as they were: we were treated to some excellent and close racing as the era of the previous design cars ended.

There are many very significant changes to the cars for 2022. The specifications are tighter, the opportunity for individualism seemed to have been reduced.

That, as soon as the whole grid was formed and the cars were all visible in their naked glory, is far from what has happened. If anything, there is more variation in design than there has been for many years. Some teams have gone for bulbous side pods and flowing lines. Mercedes seem to have built everything in the smallest possible space and then shrink wrapped it, completely confounding decades of aerodynamic thinking.

This year sees bigger wheels: pit stops generate their own heroes. The back wheels weigh some 25KG and a single mechanic has to pick it up, line the up in the spindle and put it on all the while squatting. The days of the 1.9 second pitstop - outlawed by the FIA - have long gone. Or have they: Red Bull did it in 2.6 seconds, a second faster than several other teams. The tyre compounds are different but perhaps more importantly, the structure of the tyres is fundamentally different, from low profile to high-sides, requiring a very different driving style.

Much has been made of the consequences of ground-effect. Ground effect was used to great effect by Colin Chapman's Team Lotus: so much so that the FIA banned it. That was the best part of 40 years ago. Drivers complained that the car "bounced" as the under-car air collected then dispersed, causing Mario Andretti to say it was like riding a porpoise. Exactly the same phenomenon is present now. Some cars suffer more than others. The solution has usually been to stiffen the suspension but that has, in some cases, upset the cars on bumps on the track.

The changes are supposed to make racing closer and (a forlorn hops history shows) to slow the cars down. They are also supposed to reduce the extent, and therefore cost, of aerodynamic development.

When the cars rolled out for testing, Ferrari were strong from the outset. Red Bull sorted their car quickly. Mercedes just weren't quick enough. McLaren have a design flaw that's going to take several races to fix. Haas, having effectively sat out last year and then losing a big sponsor and a driver due to sanctions against certain Russians, found themselves recalling Magnussen - and he demonstrated that the car has pace. Alpha Tauri looked handy. Williams seem to have got their act together but in a field where most people have done that they can't shine. But Albon, in particular, is very comfortable in the car.

And so to the race: it was good, the result was surprising and it is obvious that once all the creases have been ironed out (not those in the Mercedes bodywork, of course) Formula One has survived the crises that, less than 100 days ago, threatened to tear it apart.

---------------- Advertising ----------------