Even the most committed Formula One fan would struggle to believe motor racing's pinnacle series is in a healthy state at the moment. The French Grand Prix wasn't the first dull race in the series' history and it won't be the last, but it seemed to perfectly encapsulate many of the problems which are hurting the series so badly.
However, the problems are nothing new and many were inherited by Liberty Media when it took over F1 at the start of 2017. The new owners have been working on a new set of regulations for 2021 to tackle these issues.
Below we list the problems and look at the chances of them being addressed.
An uneven playing field
Inequality in performance
Right now, F1 is split into two categories in everything but name. At the front, competing for the Formula One world championship are Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Behind that by some margin in terms of lap time is the remaining seven teams, who are often competing for what is frequently called 'best of the rest' -- fourth place in the championship, seventh position at most races.
There isn't even a contest any more. One of the top three teams can qualify out of position and breeze back to the top six with ease -- a job made even easier with DRS, but more on that lower down. Some have referred to that cluster of teams as F1.5 and a championship table of that series regularly appears on Reddit -- spoiler alert, it's been much more entertaining to follow that than the actual F1 championship recently.
In previous eras, little teams like Hesketh, Stewart or Jordan could steal a shock pole position, podium or victory on a day it got everything right. In the each of the past two seasons, there was just one instance where a team in the midfield has claimed a podium finish -- given that there's 21 opportunities for them to do so, that's a baffling statistic.
Leveling out the playing field and shrinking the gap between first and tenth position in the constructors' championship is one of the main aims of the 2021 rules, which are still being worked on. It is perhaps the most pressing of all the issues facing F1 racing chief Ross Brawn and his team.
Inequality in budget
Another rule being worked on for 2021 is a budget cap, something unprecedented in F1 history. The figure of this has been a sticking point between the biggest and smallest teams and the question of exactly how it would be policed remains open. A figure of $175 million has been agreed in principle but exclusions, including marketing costs and driver salaries, are expected to see the 'real' budgets of the top teams go way higher.
The figure of $175 million is a lot of money, but it's actually far more than several of the teams spend in a year. According to RaceFans.net, in 2018 Mercedes' budget for the year was $400 million, with a staff of over 1,200 employees spread across two U.K. factories. Ferrari's was $410 million, bolstered by the $73 million the Italian team received as part of its historical payment (in other words, it gets a lump sum just to turn up).
By contrast, Force India (now Racing Point) had a budget of just $120 million. Williams, currently rooted to the bottom of the pecking order, spent $150 million. As the table to the right shows, the budgets correlate with the imbalanced pecking order. Renault is one team stuck between a rock and a hard place, as there is no point in investing lots of money with a budget cap incoming, but it can't hope to compete on the level of the top three before 2021 without more investment.
The big teams are concerned about how much they would have to downsize to accommodate a budget cap, but how it would be policed is also a legitimate question -- there are concerns some teams could find inventive ways to circumnavigate the limit through extensive R&D departments for road car divisions. However, punishments if caught breaking the financial regulations are expected to be draconian.
The other side to the team budget equation is income - a large part of which comes from Formula One's revenues. Under the current split -- rushed through under previous ownership in order to get the top teams onboard ahead of a planned stock market flotation that never was - Ferrari gets by far the sweetest deal with total bonuses of $114 million, according to RaceFans.net. Mercedes and Red Bull also get big bonuses in the region of $70-80 million based on their recent championship success, while McLaren and Williams also get extra bonuses as two of the sport's most successful teams.
Under the plans for 2021, the prize money system will be more meritocratic, with the championship positions having a bigger impact on where the money goes. But Ferrari is still expected to be recognised with bonuses for its position in the sport - an argument that is understandable when you see how much red occupies the grandstands at each race. F1 is also hopeful it can increase the size of the teams' overall share in revenue by bringing more races to the calendar. In theory, that would give the small teams less of a hole to plug with sponsorship when it comes to trying to reach the $175 budget cap.
Dominance by one team
Dominance isn't a new thing in Formula One -- the history of the series is littered with it, right back to the 1950s, when Juan Manuel Fangio won in a dominant Mercedes (sound familiar?) and what some still consider to be the greatest racing car ever built. The majority of F1 champions have won in the best car available that season.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Mercedes could feasibly win all 21 races this year -- given the F1/F1.5 split mentioned above, that means the prospect of Red Bull and Ferrari fighting for the remaining scraps on each occasion. The other seven teams do not have the car nor the budget to compete at the front, leaving a situation like we had in France where the fight for seventh, eighth and ninth includes three different teams fighting wheel to wheel.
With a budget cap aimed at curtailing unnecessary spending at the front, the suggestion of having more standardised parts -- in other words, bits of the car which are the same for each team -- would help prevent big gaps forming in the pecking order.
The decision-making process
Also under review for 2021 is the governance of the sport.
If F1 is imagined as a political system, Liberty Media, is like the president, the FIA is like the courts and the teams are like the parliament. However, some teams are more equal than others: five -- Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren and Williams -- are permanent members of the Strategy Group, which is like F1's cabinet. A sixth member of the Strategy Group is added each year based on the team that finished highest outside those five (currently Renault). Each of the six teams has one vote while F1 has six votes and the FIA has six votes -- allowing F1 and the FIA to push through decisions if they work together. Since last year, the four teams not on the Strategy Group have been allowed to attend the Strategy Group meetings but do not have a say.
The Strategy Group's main purpose is to come up with new regulations, which are then sent to the F1 Commission for approval, which includes all the teams. Depending on when the changes are slated for (this season, next season, etc), a different percentage of approval from the F1 Commission is required.
However, the very fact the teams are involved in the process at all is controversial. What's more, Ferrari has a veto allowing it to overrule certain decisions if it believes they are bad for the sport. The top teams also hold an ace up their sleeve in threatening to pull out of the sport altogether. As a result, the team principals of the top teams often act as political animals, aiming to use their power (or the threat of their nuclear option of leaving the sport) to shape the regulations to their benefit.
Although the Strategy Group is in place in the run up to 2021, F1 has promised a much more streamlined governance system after that date in which all teams will have a reduced but equal say in the rules.
A convoluted rulebook
The 2019 season has featured one of the most controversial moments in F1's recent history, the five-second time penalty which cost Sebastian Vettel victory at the Canadian Grand Prix. That was for "rejoining the circuit in an unsafe manner", a definition which has divided fans and pundits since. The penalty was derided by the majority of former F1 champions.
It was not a flash in the pan. Daniel Ricciardo was relegated out of the points at the French Grand Prix when he got two time penalties in one go for some wheel-to-wheel racing with Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen. Drivers are clearly fed up with the extensive rulebook they have to race to -- Max Verstappen recently said the line should be intentionally pushing a rival car into a wall, anything else should be considered fair game. While that viewpoint is up for debate as well there's no doubt the current rulebook often punishes good racing.
It doesn't just stop with rejoining circuits unsafely. Another controversial one is the notion of "track limits", where drivers can have qualifying times chalked off for gaining an advantage by running wide. Ask any driver on the grid and they will tell you that part of the rulebook highlights another problem with F1 which has got worse in recent years.
Having run-off areas made of tarmac seems to be the norm at most road courses nowadays, with a dwindling number of exceptions. Grass and gravel are disappearing from more and more circuits on the F1 calendar, with drivers often given the luxury of large spaces to recover from mistakes. Many take advantage of these when necessary but would happily see them gone, replaced with something to punish a mistake. This change has happened at some of F1's most famous corners, like Monza's Parabolica, much to the chagrin of fans.
It has an obvious drawback. Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat said the Paul Ricard circuit -- effectively a giant car park, with various routes and psychedelic red and blue colours on the ground -- fails to get the adrenaline flowing like Monaco or Canada's circuits do.
But beyond that, it has an impact on the rulebook too. The reason 'track limit' penalties and the idea of rejoining unsafely exists is because of these circuit characteristics.
Such a specific rule against rejoining unsafely -- and intentionally doing so -- would be unnecessary if all circuits had grass, gravel or a wall running alongside the track. A driver who runs wide on tarmac is far more likely to rejoin a circuit unsafely unless he takes action -- when a car has not been slowed by gravel or grass, it usually has not lost any racing speed or momentum. In Vettel's case in Montreal, the grass acted exactly as it should have done, putting the Ferrari driver in a fight to control the car which rendered the idea of rejoining safely or unsafely obsolete.
Of course, a wall remains the best way to force drivers to push the limit as far as they dare, perhaps why a Saturday afternoon qualifying lap at Monaco's Monte Carlo circuit remains the best you will see in any Formula One season.
'Driving like grandmas'
While drivers are being punished for hard racing against their rivals, they are rarely able to race flat-out anyway. The complicated, technological wonders that are F1 cars have become fragile beasts, which often need babysitting from the person in the cockpit. Drivers have become micro-managers within the cockpit, racing while also performing a series of engineering duties to keep the car performing to the max.
In truth, there has always been an element of management from within the cockpit, but the complexity of the current cars means drivers are often coached by an engineer on the sidelines. Despite the incredible work going on to make switch changes at over 180mph, some of the heroism is lost when they are being told by an engineer to drive to a pace dictated by a computer.
F1 has had one single tyre supplier since 2007. Bridgestone was the manufacturer until 2011, when current supplier Pirelli took over. Some long for a return of multiple suppliers, but this has pros and cons -- on the one hand, manufacturers are constantly making better tyres, but on the other, the process can become hugely political and ramps up costs.
The existing problem is specifically with the tyres Pirelli has delivered. The Italian company has a tough mandate -- make tyres which degrade quick enough for multiple pit-stops, but are not so sensitive drivers can't push and with various compounds which all offer a degree of performance. Too often in recent years, races have been one-stop affairs -- the worst thing a race can be from an entertainment stand-point, as it offers the least amount of variety.
In theory, last year's tyres offered plenty of variation in strategy. However, race strategists are averse to making more pit stops than they have to - due to the risk of an error in the pits and the difficulty of overtaking if you opt for a two-stop strategy and get stuck behind a slower car on a one-stop. As a result, the engineers would tell the drivers to manage their tyres to a one-stop, making for relatively slow, processional affairs as nobody wanted to risk damaging their rubber by going on the attack.
In order to combat that phenomena this year, Pirelli reduced the tread depth of the tyre, making it less prone to overheating. The more physical rubber on the tyre, the more heat it retains, and so by reducing the tread depth you have the same grip from the compound but without the risk of it blistering up and losing grip. However, a number of teams have struggled to adapt to the thinner gauge tyres and now the main complaint is a difficulty getting the tyres in the right temperature operating window. Unsurprisingly, Mercedes is the one team that has perfected its tyre preparation this year and as a result has been quick at all types of circuits.
The drivers crave a tyre they can push flat out on, but with heavy cars with more downforce every year (and an extra 100 kilos of fuel at the start of the race) the challenge of producing a suitable product is huge. From 2021 low-profile tyres will change the game again and the removal of tyre blankets should result in tyres with a wider operating window.
Lack of overtaking
The two elements above are factors in one of F1's biggest problems, and perhaps the item which is top of the agenda for 2021. The lack of overtaking in F1 is not a modern problem but it has been exacerbated by both.
This is also rooted in the design of modern cars. The more complex car aerodynamics have become, the more sensitive they have become to running in the turbulent air created in the wake of the car in front -- grip is lower, tyres work harder and degrade faster, while brakes can overheat. Lewis Hamilton has previously likened this sensation to seeing your best friend on the edge of a cliff, but not being able to get close enough to save their life.
Some changes have been made to address this issue -- front and rear wings were simplified for this year, for example, but benefits have been minimal in that department. Ross Brawn has created a team to take a structured approach to solving overtaking and the early signs are very good. At the start of the year, the FIA claimed that the new designs were creating five times less dirty air and the following car was only losing around 10 percent of their downforce when within overtaking range of another car as opposed to the 50 percent loss experienced by a contemporary car.
The hope is that the new aero regulations can improve F1 enough to get rid of one of the most controversial elements in modern F1: the Drag Reduction System (DRS). The DRS refers to the upper element of the rear wing, which can be opened to reduce drag and increase top speed. It can only be used at designated parts of the track and only used in the race when a driver is within a second of the car in front.
The system was brought in after Fernando Alonso saw his championship hopes evaporate while unable to pass Vitaly Petrov at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It is unpopular with purists and has been called a "band-aid" by Brawn as it often results in fairly easy overtakes on the straight. However, when the DRS zones are the right length and well positioned, it can help set up overtaking in more exciting parts of the track. The hope is that 2021's aero rules means it is no longer necessary - although confirmation will only come when the rules are signed off in October
The V6 turbo era
Whenever an old V8 or V10 F1 car completes a demonstration run in a city centre the one thing people remark on is the noise. That was always the case for first time attendees at F1 races too, but the current engine formula has produced an exhaust note that simply isn't as sweet.
By their design, turbocharged engines produce a more muffled exhaust note than naturally aspirated engines and the performance car industry goes to great lengths to tune exhausts to keep smiles on their clients' faces. But in F1 engines have always been designed with performance in mind, and as impressive as the technology is in the current F1 V6 turbos, it simply isn't as awe-inspiring.
When Liberty took over F1, engines were key to their changes for 2021. Now, the subject has been kicked off the negotiating table by the manufacturers that claimed it made no sense to spend more money on developing dumbed down technology. There is a definite logic to that argument, but it means it's still difficult to get excited about the sound of an F1 car being fired up.
As the only four manufacturers in the world with the technology to produce a competitive engine under the current regulations, Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda hold a certain degree of power in F1. The complexity of the technology means no new manufacturers are willing to commit the resources to a project, especially after seeing Honda get its fingers burned when it entered F1 in 2015 and endured three unsuccessful years with McLaren.
The sport can't run without engines, but manufacturers can be fickle and if they left the sport from one season to the next (as Honda, Toyota and BMW did in 2009) it would leave a massive gap. What's more the expense of the engines means works teams such as Ferrari and Mercedes can hold a certain degree of political power over their clients. If F1 politics weren't skewed enough in favour of the big teams (see above) the engine situation only strengthens their hand.
In order to keep the cost of such complex engines down, each driver has a quota for the amount of power unit components they can use each season. They are limited to three engines, turbochargers and MGU-Hs for the season and just two MGU-Ks, energy stores and control electronics. Use more, and the drivers get a grid penalty.
The idea is fine in principle, but for Renault and Honda trying to play catch up it limits development to just three specs of power unit per season. In order to gain ground on Ferrari and Mercedes, Honda have accepted they will take penalties in order to introduce at least four major upgrades over the course of the year. Renault, meanwhile, have experienced ongoing reliability issues at the start of the year, meaning drivers hoping to use an updated engine in the upcoming rounds are likely to receive a grid penalty.
The system is not only complicated for fans, who could see their favourite driver put in a career-best qualifying performance but start from the back of the grid due to factors outside their control, but also hits the struggling manufacturers hardest.
Why can't they just all drive the same car?
One suggestion often put forward in discussions about F1's problems is that, to find the greatest driver in the world, each should be given identical machinery to prove which of them truly is the best. A fine idea in principal, but one that is simply unrealistic for reasons that are important to understand as F1 shapes its next set of rules.
Enzo Ferrari used F1 to prove cars and engines bearing his name were the best in the world. Every time the current Mercedes-Benz board meets in Stuggart, they know their brand is currently synonymous with the excellence which has propelled its F1 team team to this current era of dominance. There would be no reason for manufacturers to pump millions into a single-spec series, the term given to identical machinery, because the prestige of victory would be much smaller.
The knock-on effect of that is obvious: take away big-name manufacturers, and F1 would struggle to command such a big demand for a place on the race calendar, the status of the series would be diminished and drivers might look elsewhere for more appealing places to go and race. Without all that it would just be another racing series. F1 has always been the pinnacle of motorsport from both a racing and technology perspective and keeping it that way is something widely agreed upon in the paddock, albeit with varying degrees.
There are parts of this idea of equal machinery that are likely to come into play from 2021. In a bid to keep costs controlled wherever possible F1 is currently discussing standardising certain parts for every team on the grid -- for example, a tender to build a one-size-fits-all gearbox cassette went out earlier this year. The idea is to standardise parts that don't impact performance and are also not seen by the public, allowing F1 teams to continue pioneering cutting edge technology. But that is as far as F1 is ever likely to go towards identical machinery.
Underpinning everything in the 2021 discussions, with the desire to improve to spectacle, is to retain this aspect of F1.