Drivers start-of-season photograph, Albert Park, Melbourne, 2016

F1’s disillusioned drivers have found their voice

2016 F1 seasonPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

What is behind the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association’s extraordinary statement urging changes at the heart of F1 governance?

The letter published yesterday via their Twitter account did not specify exact grievances. In one sentence the drivers put everything on the table, criticising F1’s “rule changes – on both the sporting and technical side, and including some business directions”.

It’s tempting to interpret the statement very narrowly as a reaction against F1’s most recent blunder: the farce which was the first running of the new ‘elimination qualifying’ on the season’s opening day of competitive action last Saturday.

That this rule ever came to pass is a case study in F1’s leadership problems. It began with Bernie Ecclestone calling for some form of reverse grid system to be introduced. The teams successfully resisted that idea but agreed to a watered-down proposal which, conceived and introduced in haste, was never going to work and sure enough didn’t.

Several drivers voiced their objection to the plan before it was introduced. “I don’t think there’s a reason to change [qualifying]” said Sergio Perez during pre-season testing, foreshadowing the GPDA’s claim today that recent decisions “do not address the bigger issues our sport is facing”.

But GPDA president Alexander Wurz has indicated the announcement had been planned well before Saturday’s shambles. Dissatisfaction has been growing among the drivers for years. For some their grievances data back to the introduction of high-degradation tyres in 2011 and the slump in car performance it caused.

“As an F1 competitor, a purist and huge fan of the sport,” wrote Mark Webber in his autobiography after quitting F1 in 2013, “I wanted a category so far ahead of any other that the drivers are intimidated and respectful of driving cars on the limits.”

“We all felt the same, even Michael [Schumacher] on his comeback, but we couldn’t talk openly about not enjoying it as much. We would meet each other at the back of the trucks during pre-season testing and laugh about where the sport was going.”

At the beginning of year six of the ‘designed to degrade’ tyre era, have drivers finally had more than they can stand? Even Lewis Hamilton, who’s previously been wary of criticising F1, has spoken in recent days about his frustration with having to nurse his tyres among other objections.

Others are eyeing other racing series, as far possible within the confines of F1’s growing calendar. Nico Hulkenberg did two World Endurance Championship races last year and won the Le Mans 24 Hours. At least two other top drivers tried to find seats in the endurance classic contested by some of the fastest cars outside F1.

Why does the WEC now hold this appeal for some F1 racers? In their statement the drivers urged F1 to “remain a sport” and provide “a closely-fought competition between the best drivers in extraordinary machines on the coolest race tracks”. Which fits that brief better: nursing a set of soft tyres while jabbing a DRS button around Yas Marina, or pulling a triple-stint at night around the Circuit de la Sarthe?

It isn’t just tyre performance which the drivers are concerned about, but safety too. At Spa last year Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg suffered high-speed tyre failures without warning but afterwards were told to keep quiet about it.

There are other potential causes for the drivers’ dissatisfaction with F1. The rule-happy FIA has banned them from changing their helmets and FOM’s Neanderthal attitude to social media has barred them from sharing the sport with their fans.

But at heart they are drivers and what surely counts for most is that they are not enjoying driving and racing any more. Beloved tracks like Monza are under threat. Plans to overhaul the cars for next year are at an advanced stage, yet the people who will race them have not been consulted. A proposal to reduce lap times by increasing downforce was derided as “the worst idea” by Hamilton.

Wisely, the drivers topped and tailed their letter with declarations of their passion for Formula One. But this letter would never have been written if that passion wasn’t in jeopardy. The real danger that poses to their commitment is why they have taken this unprecedented step.

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