A term being increasingly bandied about in Formula 1 circles is “DNA” – as in “This or that or other is (not) in F1’s DNA”. That of course, begs the question: “What exactly is the sport’s DNA?”
There are as many answers as respondents, with every F1 stakeholder – whether team boss, technical partner, sponsor, race promoter, journalist or fan – having a different take on exactly what constitutes F1’s DNA, and, by extension, F1 itself.
That question was recently posed to a various F1 luminaries. Their answers ranged from “pinnacle of motorsport” through “simply the best” to “evolution of the race car”. If high-level folk, some of whom have been involved with F1 for over 40 years, don’t know exactly what F1’s DNA is, how do they hope to reshape the sport to thwart the challenges of an increasingly disruptive world?
Consider: For many years F1 blazed the automotive trail, with hi-octane petrol, disc brakes, multi-valve aspiration, paddle shift transmissions, turbocharging and hybrid systems all proving themselves in racing – usually F1 – before being adopted for road cars as a result of their successful applications in the highest of motorsport’s echelons. Now, though, the industry is chasing electric propulsion and hydrogen fuel cells.
As Ross Brawn – the ultra-successful former technical director and ex-team owner charged by F1’s new commercial masters, Liberty Media, with wringing change – said recently: “That [new technology] is not F1…” before admitting that the next generation of engines could be less sophisticated, for which read “back to base”.
Thus F1’s role as automotive development pedestal is gradually being eroded, with the electronic systems in latest-generation family hatchbacks, what with their traction control, drive-by-wire and ABS, being vastly more sophisticated than those in F1 cars. Where road car engineers plan to systematically replace human beings with sensors, F1’s regulations increasingly demand that the “driver drives the car alone and unaided”.
Spot the dichotomy, which represents just the tip of an iceberg.
Consider self-driving cars: Every volume manufacturer currently has autonomous cars under development, as do Google, Uber and Apple. Where car companies once happily funded motorsport on the basis that road relevance both sold cars and “improved the breed”, the threats posed by said tech upstarts, with their gigantic war chests, are such that they are channelling massive technical and financial resources towards autonomy.
The issue is that autonomy (and electrification) is clearly “not F1”, and thus manufacturers are embracing Formula E – the fourth season of this nascent category will see no fewer than seven brands represented. Contrast that with F1, which has Mercedes, Renault, Honda, plus Ferrari; a decade ago F1 boasted seven manufacturers, and FE was not even on the drawing board.
Talk to F1’s powers-that-be, and they are in denial about Roborace, the next big thing after FE. F1 faces massive challenges ahead: TV ratings are dropping; Future Kid has little interest in matters motoring; technology has shifted focus as it outpaces the fastest sport on earth. Time to look at that DNA…