The 2008 Formula 1 season ended on a high on the track – but the shock withdrawal of Honda was a sting in the tail.
With 2009 almost upon us it’s time to take stock of F1’s position as one season ends and a new year begins: the quality of the competition, the future of the teams and technology, and the ever-present political dimension.
How times change. A few years ago the grid had a handful of race winners and Michael Schumacher was dominating every championship. At the start of 2009 the previous three championships will have had different winners, all of whom will be racing for top teams. We haven’t had that kind of competitiveness in more than a decade.
There are eight former race winners – plus two more if Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello keep their seats.
Whether any of the drivers on the grid in 2009 bear comparison with the greats of Formula 1 – the Michael Schumachers and Ayrton Sennas – is always up for debate. But in terms of the quality of competition, Formula 1 is in good shape.
Has the number of car manufacturers in Formula 1 passed its peak and is now in an irreversible slide? Or was the withdrawal of Honda the natural culling of an uncompetitive team that wasn’t raising enough sponsorship revenue?
It’s too early to answer that question confidently, but the far-reaching cost-cutting agreement reached by the teams and the FIA shows all parties are convinced that if the manufacturer teams are going to stay in F1, the competition will have to get a lot cheaper.
When was the last time Formula 1 saw an upheaval in the technical rules comparable to the scale of changes coming in 2009? The banning of ground effects in 1983? Normally aspirated engines in 1989? Narrow track grooved-tyre cars in 1998?
With their ultra-wide front wings and narrow, long rear wings, 2009-specification F1 cars are strange beasts.
But the expensive new Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems look set to be more of a bone of contention among the teams. Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo has criticised them, saying they are too expensive and too specialised to assist in developing KERS for road cars. BMW’s Mario Theissen has defended them. But is this a genuine difference of opinion over the future of F1 technology? Perhaps it has more to do with the fact BMW was testing is KERS car months ago, and Ferrari has publicly admitted it has fallen behind on development.
Max Mosley: four more years, or finally retiring? He will make his decision known in the summer of 2009.
He first planned his F1 retirement for 2004, but changed his mind and decided to run for election again. Will the same happen next year? He still has the fallout from ‘Spankgate’ to contend with, and appears determined to carry on bringing lawsuits against publication who displayed the notorious photographs of him being whipped by prostitutes. His next stop is the German judiciary.
There are already rumours about potential successors. Nick Craw, the president of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS), has been tipped as a contender. Mosley referred to Craw in a recent interview, suggesting he was too busy to take over as president of the FIA. Is this a sign Mosley is weighing up the opposition?
The delicate balance of power in Formula 1 seems to be tipped in the teams’ favour at present. As president of the Formula One Teams Association, Montezemolo recently felt confident enough to assert that “the time to divide and conquer to rule in F1 is over.” Having agreed to cost cutting measures on the teams’ terms – no standard engines – Montezemolo now wants a larger share of F1’s revenues, prompting a hostile reaction from Bernie Ecclestone.
At 78, Ecclestone remains unwilling to consider that anyone else might occupy his position in the future. Should Mr Ecclestone become unable to to carry out his duties, one of the most powerful roles in Formula 1 would suddenly become vacant, with no clear indication who his successor should be.
The teams are not just unhappy with the amount of money they receive. Another concern is the gradual loss of traditional F1 venues and countries (France and Canada are just the latest ones) in favour of tracks in new markets which are often of little value to the manufacturers.
Could 2009 be the year we finally see one of F1’s two political titans – Mosley and Ecclestone – step aside? Will we have a fourth new drivers’ champion? Will the manufacturer teams stay? Its an exciting and nervous time to be an F1 fan.
Read more: F1 2009: 10 questions for the off-season