Back to the future, after Mr. E’s departure

In its 68th year, Formula One enters uncharted territory. No, we are not talking rule changes or a reigning champion not making the grid. Indeed, Nico Rosberg’s won’t even be the biggest absence in the paddock.

If Formula One were a religion, Bernard Charles Ecclestone was its presiding deity. No one wielded as much influence and made as big a difference in the 45 years he was associated with the sport actively – first as a team owner and then the administrator who made it a well-oiled money-spinner.

Even as the commercial rights changed hands like a baton, the 86-year old Ecclestone managed to survive at the top. He was loved, hated, and – for a while – even considered immortal.

That is until Liberty Media, the sport’s new owners who took charge last year, expended with his services in January. But it is also a measure of his thorough control of the sport that his role had to be divided among three people.

The first sign of the post-Bernie era was witnessed during pre-season testing in Barcelona, where, finally, teams and drivers were able to post photos and short videos on their social media page to drive fan engagement.

When Mr. E was at the helm, no F1 material was to be given away for free and this new move was a breath of fresh air for a sport that has been losing popularity for years.

Triple world champion Mercedes again set the pace in testing, but there was a renewed sense of optimism with Ferrari’s times. F1 desperately needs Ferrari fighting at the front end, and there is a collective prayer on the lips of fans that the Prancing Horse’s early performance endures through the season.

Red Bull is tipped to make the biggest step forward: design whiz Adrian Newey has always found a magic bullet when there have been big changes in regulation, especially on the aerodynamics front. But, times from testing don’t always paint a true picture, and, for the past three years, Mercedes has been able to turn it up when it matters, especially during qualifying.

Still, it is better to be at the top of the timesheet than at the bottom, like McLaren-Honda. The partnership that began in 2015 was supposed to rekindle the success of the late ’80s and early ’90s when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost blazed the tracks, but Honda’s power unit has been a big letdown over the last two years.

This year offered a chance to re-design and close in on Mercedes, but instead it has gone back in terms of power and reliability. McLaren did the fewest laps in testing and there are already visible cracks in the partnership, team boss Eric Boullier and star driver Fernando Alonso publicly expressing their anger with Honda.

What pre-season testing did confirm was that the new regulations, put in place to speed up the cars, have worked, with lap times close to 3.5 seconds faster than those seen last year. The wider tyres give more mechanical grip around corners, and with aero modifications, some long-held lap records could be broken.

A part of the reason for these changes was to make cars faster and harder for drivers, like it was in the past. Even as the sport moves forward, into a post-Bernie era, it has also turned the wheel back to regain its appeal. But, while cars will be faster, the jury is still out on whether this will allow for better racing: the higher downforce means following a car, and by extension overtaking it, will be even more challenging.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:21:13 PM |

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