Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali says that meddling with the rules to peg back Red Bull is not on the cards. Whether F1 stands by that resolve remains to be seen.
Red Bull is dominating F1. It has won every race in the 2023 season and every grand prix except one for nearly a year. Only George Russell’s 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix success disrupts a run of Red Bull victories starting with the French Grand Prix in late July last year.
This will be Red Bull’s third title-winning season in a row. F1 has endured worse in terms of predictable outcomes and single-team success.
But one thing that is different is that for pretty much a full year now, there has been next to no doubt which team and, really, which driver will win on a given weekend.
And this is at a time where F1’s popularity has boomed like never before, and it is trying to maintain the incredible momentum of the last few seasons that have benefitted hugely from the Netflix Drive to Survive docuseries, F1’s world-leading return from the hiatus that COVID-19 enforced on every sporting competition, and a blockbuster 2021 title fight.
F1 may not be able to sustain such on-track predictability for much longer unless it accepts that it means people will lose interest. And given the obsession with bigger trackside attendances, bigger TV audiences, and more growth in every metric, there will presumably come a point where the stakeholders draw the line.
That does not mean F1 should interfere. This is not an advocacy of that approach. And right now, F1’s most senior figure says nothing should happen.
“It is not fair to say that,” Domenicali said recently on F1’s official podcast, when asked if he had been tempted to change the rules to rein Red Bull in.
“It is not correct. Because we can be seen as a sport of manipulation. And this is not correct. And this is not fair. And I’m not envisioning this kind of approach.”
After what happened in Abu Dhabi in 2021, Domenicali could perhaps have chosen his words more carefully when he said F1 cannot be seen as a “sport of manipulation”.
Lewis Hamilton used that word in exasperation when he realised he had been robbed of the title at the last minute by a rule-breaking restart after a late safety car, and his fans have unsurprisingly picked up on that.
It doesn’t mean that F1 was willing to let one thing happen but draws the line here. It’s nothing more than Domenicali just saying it would be bad for F1 to clearly orchestrate a change in the pecking order.
That said, there is something about the 2021 season that could be used as proof that stakeholders are willing to interfere if needed – under the guise of a sporting decision, with the consequence (and maybe intent?) of pulling back the leading team.
Mercedes was hurt in 2021 by a suite of floor rule changes over the preceding winter, which shifted the balance of power away from the few low-rake cars (of which Mercedes was one) and helped the higher-rake cars like Red Bull. Without that rule change, there seems a good chance the season would not have been nearly as close, given Mercedes had dominated in 2020 and COVID-era restrictions meant significant car changes were not permitted for 2021.
That change was made ostensibly with safety in mind. The logic was that Pirelli had not been able to develop new tyres, the cars were getting quicker, and even without brand new cars for 2021 the best thing to do was try to trim the downforce.
It’s easy to imagine F1 going down a similar route for 2024, if it decides that Red Bull’s dominance is too damaging after all.
For now, Domenicali says Red Bull should be allowed to reap the rewards of doing the best job. He’s pointed to the gap between all the other teams as proof the new rules are working well, so the priority should be to keep the rules as they are and trust the others to chip away at the gap.
Maybe, he has even speculated, Red Bull just did the best short-term job and got the jump on others, and will be reined in naturally.
“Red Bull did an incredible job and this is a job of meritocracy,” he said. “We need to consider that they did an incredible job.
“It is true that you know the gap seems to be big, but we need to be prudent because we know in life things can change very quickly.
“The others are very, very close, if you look at the gaps of the other team. So I think that they did an incredible job, it needs to be rewarded.
“It’s clear that the aim of what we want to do is to make sure that this gap will stay as small as possible. And I’m sure that the other teams are watching how they can catch up with their development in the context of the budget cap.
“It will be interesting to see if the development curve of the team that today is leading will slow down because they did a better job in the shorter term. That will be very interesting to see in the next couple of months.”
The best chance F1 has of this being naturally resolved is if Aston Martin or Mercedes catch Red Bull enough this season and start fighting for wins. But even then, they need to be challenging Red Bull sufficiently next year as well. Otherwise the cycle just repeats, and it will be a post-popularity boom version of Mercedes from 2014-2020 and the occasional challenges it faced that never developed into actual title fights.
It does seem unlikely that the commercial rights holder will imminently pressure teams and the FIA to explore rule changes that could hurt Red Bull. And it would be wrong to cut Red Bull’s legs (wings?) out from under it mid-season. Just like every past mid-season interference has been wrong.
Circling back to the point about the 2021 floor rules, though, one might wonder if Domenicali’s comments are a hint F1 will observe how this season plays out either side of the summer break, and then ponder how it could subtly intervene.
How it could do that, who knows – accelerate the removal of DRS (a chief Red Bull weapon at present)? Mixed up formats (reverse grids)? Rejigging the 2021 trick and arguing the tyres are being exposed to too much pressure, so the downforce levels need to be cut, could hurt Red Bull the most because it has the car that’s producing the most consistent downforce at the moment – but it could also be fraught with peril, as Red Bull has such a command of this era of car it could just as easily adapt better than any other team.
Domenicali says the right approach is to leave the rules the same and let everybody converge, although that is not a guaranteed win and is a very long-term play. He has also ruled out giving lower-ranked teams even more windtunnel time, for example, effectively boosting the aerodynamic testing handicap system that was introduced a couple of years ago.
But everything he says has the air of ‘not doing something in-season’ about it. Which is fair enough. What he has hinted at is finding ways to “shorten” cycles of domination in the future.
“F1 has been always a sport where there has been cycles, where teams were very dominant and then some other came into the equation,” said Domenicali.
“So, I would say our objective should be to take the strategic approach to make sure that these cycles in the future will be shorter.
“Because that means that 20 cars, whatever they are, will be really in competition.
“This is what I would say, as a commercial rights holder but also as a lover of sport, would like to see.”
F1 is nowhere near that kind of competition now, though. Long-term it might be achieved but patience doesn’t really gel with modern demands. And the line between sport and entertainment is more blurred than ever.
That will be tested immensely as F1 ponders whether to stand by sporting integrity or find a way to gently bring Red Bull’s rampant domination to an end.