Formula One in 2018 will be noticeably different for a number of reasons. Not only is Liberty Media committed to the vast rebrand it started at the end of last year, but F1 embarks on a new era with cars featuring the Halo device.
As always with change, some people aren't happy. While there are some very logical and sensible statements to be made against some of the things being done in F1, it's hard to ignore two counter-arguments which keep getting lazily thrown around against just about every change implemented in the sport. This is an attempt to show why both are flawed.
"F1 has bigger things to be dealing with!"
This was the rather bizarre reaction many had to F1's unveiling of a new logo at the end of 2017 and has been repeated for decisions such as the scrapping of 'grid girls' and the tweaks to the 2018 weekend schedule (including the apparently inconvenient decision to make races start ten minutes later than usual to aid broadcasters whose programming begin on the hour). But it's a strange argument which seems to suggest F1's bosses are sat in offices doing nothing else but thinking of changes which can be made immediately.
While F1 does have big problems to solve -- to name a few: the huge imbalance in performance between the front and back, big disparity in budgets, a new generation of race car which has made overtaking more difficult -- these require long-term discussions and, crucially, are locked up in contracts signed before Liberty Media took control of the sport.
Getting annoyed that the only visible change you can see is about something small overlooks the fact Liberty is being proactive in its attempts to find solutions to F1's fundamental flaws. It is in discussion with teams about the implementation of a £150 million budget cap, it has tabled a post-2020 engine blueprint aimed at driving costs down and bringing in new manufacturers, while technical chief Ross Brawn has installed a team beneath him whose primary objective is to improve overtaking and the overall spectacle of F1 races at the next rule change.
But these things do not happen overnight, especially in a sport where teams and manufacturers are part of the decision-making process (one of them, Ferrari, even has a veto) and have such strong and conflicting views. To demonstrate how complicated any discussion of merit about long-term change can be, see Ferrari's threat to quit the sport last year having seen Liberty Media's first proposal of the next set of engine regulations. These discussions are slightly more problematic and time-consuming than making sessions start later in the day.
Dismissing Liberty's aggressive approach to change is also a disservice to what they are trying to do. Bernie Ecclestone turned F1 into a behemoth, but it was backwards in many key areas -- social media was almost non-existent, decisions were knee-jerk (such as the qualifying format debacle in 2016) and younger fans were actively neglected.
Liberty inherited a sport brimming with untapped potential and an almost unbelievable reach worldwide. It also inherited a sport so many more people would watch if it was marketed and sold the right way -- the world's fastest drivers in the world's most advanced racing cars, at some of the greatest racing circuits on the planet. While Ecclestone was more interested in reaching people who could afford a Rolex, Liberty wants F1 to be enjoyed by ordinary race fans and discovered by people who have otherwise never seen or had reason to watch a grand prix.
Intriguingly, despite the press release explaining why this year's session times had been tweaked -- to capitalise on larger audience shares in Europe and to give broadcasters more time to build hype around an event -- social media still seemed full of fans confused as to why Liberty had arrived at these research-based decisions.
The new logo is a good example of some missing the bigger picture. As iconic as the 'Flying 1' logo was, it was old school, a throwback to an age when brands did not need to work across multiple digital platforms. In modern society, we are constantly adapting and eliminating jobs or things which are no longer relevant or the best example of that idea. It was naïve if you thought Liberty Media was going to arrive in F1 without a significant rebrand of its new product. That's the nature of business and Liberty wants its striking red F1 to be synonymous with the sport it is dragging into the brave new world of modern media rather than the one it is trying to leave behind.
The big decisions will come -- Liberty will get some right, and they will get some wrong -- but at the moment, small changes are being made because they can be.
"This goes against the DNA of Formula One!"
This one was heard the most after F1 decided to implement the Halo for the upcoming season (but being used more and more frequently whenever a new concept is put forward) -- the idea that F1 has some codified blueprint about what it should be seems to have lodged itself in the minds of many fans and drivers.
The official definition of DNA in the dictionary is as follows: "The fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable."
This sounds like the opposite of F1. This sport has no written constitution. The history of the world championship is littered with weird and wonderful innovations and ideas -- a six-wheeled Tyrrell, the X-wing Tyrrell, those horrific noses in 2014, ground effect cars and the Brabham fan car ... the list goes on and on. Some succeeded, some failed; some were loved, some were hated.
If you had your own personal time-travelling DeLorean and went back to 1967, a game of football would look similar to now -- 11 players on either side, the same defined markings on the pitch, a ball, a goalkeeper allowed to handle in the area, a referee, two linesmen. But F1 would look radically different to today. If you then skipped ahead to 1982, once again the game of football would look very similar to the one you'd left behind (minus aesthetics such as kit colour and ball type); while the F1 championship would feature radically different cars, radically different safety standards, different circuits, different rules around what is deemed acceptable on a race track and so on.
While football's rule book stays largely unchanged over time, F1's does the opposite. One of its "fundamental and distinctive characteristics" is the commitment to change and evolution -- rather than a maintaining of the status quo -- in the constant pursuit of perfection or the next great idea. The fact the championship does not have an unshakable doctrine from which every decision is derived from, inspired or constricted by is one of its greatest qualities.
If you are obsessed with the idea F1 has a DNA, here is a point to consider -- in the good old days of yore, handfuls of drivers would be killed in accidents every year. Drivers didn't wear seatbelts, because it was considered safer to be thrown from a car than to be trapped inside one which caught fire. Highly flammable fuels were used in race cars. Helmets took years to properly catch on and, when they did, it took even more years to make them as safe as they are today. Races would go ahead at circuits with abysmal safety standards. That was just how it was. Luckily, F1 did not have a set of "unchangeable" commandments. It adapted, innovated, and the sport became better and safer as a result.
Let's take Halo as an example. The Halo may look ugly -- and boy, did some of the prototypes look ugly -- but the decision to incorporate it on this year's cars came after painstaking research about how to save lives, and avoid losing another Henry Surtees or Justin Wilson. Lining up on the grid of the IndyCar race which claimed Wilson's life in 2015, had you told every driver an ugly contraption on top of their cockpits would save the life of one of their friends and rivals, it's hard to imagine any refusing on the grounds it just didn't look quite right.
The Halo is happening. F1 is evolving and it will keep evolving, that fact should be celebrated. Halo is the first step on the journey towards the amazing concept cars we've seen over the past few years, all of which feature a canopy or closed cockpit. Though it might be a painful way of getting to that end product, at the moment it's the best option we have. The only thing that won't change about F1 any time soon is the one thing it has always been and will continue to be -- the best drivers, in incredible cars, racing for the honour of being named champion of the world.