IN FORMULA ONE, IT'S ALREADY 2014
c.2013 New York Times News Service
The competition for the 2013 Formula One drivers championship may have officially ended Sunday with Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix, but as a practical matter, this year’s campaign was over soon after it began.
Vettel’s dominating performance — a record-tying 13 victories in 19 starts, including the last nine races in a row — brings to mind the story of the schooner America in 1851, when it finished eight minutes ahead of 15 competing boats from Britain’s Royal Yacht Squadron in a race around the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria, present for the occasion, asked who finished second.
She was told, the story goes, “Your Majesty, there is no second.”
Apocryphal or not, the anecdote fits the 26-year-old German, whose four driving championships have brought the constructor’s title to his Red Bull team for the fourth straight year. Less noticed by fans, but painfully apparent to other teams, was the performance of Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s chief designer. Cars designed by Newey have now won the constructor’s championship 10 times.
Not that he will have time to savor the victory. With the engines barely cooled down from the Brazil race, the 2014 season is effectively well underway. Sweeping rules changes, including a shift to turbocharged 1.6-liter V6 engines, from the 2.4-liter naturally aspirated V8s used for the last five seasons, have kept the designers and engineers busy for many months, with some teams backing off efforts to improve their current cars in favor of developing the 2014 equipment.
The International Automobile Federation, known by the initials FIA, sets its rules, in part, to keep the racing relevant to road cars. Maximum rpm of the V6 engines will be limited to 15,000, down from 18,000, and the amount of fuel used in a race will be limited to 220 pounds per car.
The net effect of all this will be to create engine development costs of tens of millions of dollars for each manufacturer — and to make it more difficult for new teams to enter, threatening the series’ future.
That’s a problem: Although current regulations allow for a maximum of 13 two-car teams, it has been several years since that many were on the starting grid. In the last two years, there were only 11 teams, or 22 cars, with some entries seen as little more than field-fillers.
Two of the participating teams, Marussia and Caterham, failed to have a driver finish in the top 10 during the season. And while drivers have long brought sponsorship money to help secure their seats, the impression of “bought” drives of slower teams may be at a new high: Two Russian teenagers are scheduled to be on next year’s starting grid.The machinations of Formula One’s administration, the shortage of full fields and the lack of talent at the tail end of the fields, in addition to the financial problems, even of credible teams like Lotus, mean the series is operating, to a certain degree, as a house of cards, one constructed by Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive of Formula One Management.
The 83-year-old Englishman took a championship wrapped in tradition in the early 1970s and turned it into a great money-earner, making himself a billionaire and many others multimillionaires in the process. But troubles — including lawsuits — have piled up.
The question of a possible successor was always shrugged off, but when asked the question in a recent interview, he finally mentioned a name — Christian Horner, manager of the Red Bull team. Horner denied interest in the job, as expected, but a name was mentioned for the first time.
The 2014 rules changes may not advance the development of the automobile in the way that the rear-view mirror on Ray Harroun’s Indianapolis 500 winner of 1911 did. Rather, the biggest questions concern people, not specifications: Will Vettel continue his domination, and will Bernie Ecclestone be there at all?