When dominance in Formula 1 is criticized as if it’s an exclusively modern phenomenon, the usual response is to shrug it off as having always been the way of things. It’s a valid point, one supported by the fact the drivers’ title battle has only gone down to the wire in the last race 30 times since the world championship was inaugurated in 1950. But it’s also a generalization that ignores the extent to which the nature of team and driver supremacy has changed in recent times.
We are now in the fourth phase of dominance since 2000. Red Bull is all-but-assured a second consecutive title double, one that follows on from Max Verstappen’s first drivers’ championship in 2021. It’s perfectly possible this run of success will extend to the end of the current rules cycle at the end of 2025, and perhaps even beyond that. That’s a horrifying thought for Red Bull’s rivals, but F1 has always, and should continue, to reward the best. What Red Bull is achieving is nothing short of astonishing, and it deserves to be recognized for that.
Prior to this, Ferrari dominated from 2000-2004. That preceded a topsy-turvy interregnum during which Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Brawn juggled success. Then followed Red Bull’s 2010-2013 ascendancy, before Mercedes had its record run of eight consecutive constructors’ crowns and seven straight drivers titles. Aside from 2005-2009, these dynastic streaks have been the norm. With the exception of Nico Rosberg interrupting Lewis Hamilton’s charge in 2016, they have starred one driver with Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen also at the heart of these incredible runs.
The further back in F1 history you go, the less sustained spells of dominance you see. Yes, there are periods when teams are on top for several years – Williams and McLaren in the ’80s and ’90s, for example – but there’s far more variability in the destination of the world championships. To understand why there is more what might be called ‘dominant dominance’ these days, we have to ask what the reasons for this are? And within that, it’s essential to understand which of those reasons are the result of controllables, meaning the regulations, and which are external forces or those emerging from progress.
That latter point is hugely significant. For many decades, grand prix racing was technology-limited. This meant that cars improved with the prevailing technological trends, both those driven by development with motorsport and, more significantly, those outside. That led to cars getting faster, but also a more rapid rate of change whereby both these new ideas and the optimization of them made it easier for the baton to be passed between teams in terms of who had the strongest car. On top of that, teams were small, less ruthlessly optimized in terms of understanding of their cars, and therefore not able to get the most out of them consistently. They were also less reliable. These factors increased the variability of results, whereas today teams and drivers are much more likely to finish where their pace deserves in a race. In other words, a smaller pace advantage today can lead to dominance in a way it couldn’t have done 40 years ago because it would be more erratically and unreliably expressed.
There was also greater scope for finding an advantage. Today, the rules are enormously restrictive and lead to the inevitable convergence around similar solution. You might assume that would lead to closer competition, but what it also means is greater similarity of performance profiles (if you have a car that’s the best on one track, it’s likely to be at least thereabouts on another) with less opportunity to find an edge. The corollary of that is that it’s more difficult for one team or another to find some advantage that is inaccessible to the opposition, for example a close relationship with a supplier in a tire war.
All of this leads to fewer variables, and what variables there are being recently controlled. That’s an important factor because Red Bull’s dominance is not simply one of pace, and there have been more dominant cars on that score in the past, but one of pulverizing consistency. It has won all 12 grands prix this season, and the three sprint races, missing out on pole position just twice. With 10 races to go, that raises the possibility in might win every race in a world championship season.
The finger has been pointed at the regulations for this. Certainly, one of the stated objectives of the 2022 regulations in technical, sporting and financial regulations terms was to level up the playing field. However, it’s important to note that was set as a longer-term aim and that from front to back the field, is by historical standards, fairly tightly packed. It’s just that Red Bull is comfortably on top.
The rules have been ‘blamed’ as, after all, in the final year of the previous regulations cycle one of the most tightly-fought championships in F1 history was the result. But the 2021 battle between Mercedes and Red Bull, with Hamilton and Verstappen going at it consistently, was in itself the product of regulation changes. The floor tweaks that year had a significant impact on the competitive balance between the two to the point where Mercedes believed it was aimed at holding them back. But whatever the motivation, and it was in order to stop speeds growing with the Pirelli tire spec carrying over that season amid the disruption of COVID-19, it’s a mistake to cite that as conclusive proof that the rules shouldn’t have been changed.
There are also those who contend that the cost cap is the problem. It is true that Mercedes and Ferrari can’t improve at the rate they want because they are limited in what they can spend on development, but Red Bull’s rate of improvement is also reduced. This would be a more convincing argument were Mercedes not to have been on top for seven seasons straight from 2014-2020 in the final seven years before the cost cap came in. Unfettered spending didn’t change that.
Rules changes do create the potential for one team to get a jump on the rest, which is a perfectly fair assertion. And generally stability does mean that gaps close up, but in these circumstances there are other factors at play that aren’t necessarily controllable. There’s no question that both Ferrari and Mercedes have the resources needed to do just as good a job as Red Bull, but they have failed to do so. That’s nobody else’s fault other than their own.
Had Red Bull suddenly pulled out of F1 then these rules would be hailed as a triumph, given that the ebb and flow in the best-of-the-rest battle behind them would be for top spot. But any set of regulations that creates a fair battle must allow for the possibility that one team might simply do a better job than the rest.
That’s an important thing to remember when the thorny issue of how to prevent domination is addressed. Ideally, most fans would be delighted to have an F1 season where 10 drivers win races and that produces a thrilling championship battle between multiple drivers, but trying to engineer it is dangerous. You can do so with aggressive balance of performance, but that’s extremely unfulfilling, as well as being ill-suited to the ethos and appeal of grand prix racing.
It’s also important to avoid chasing easy answers. Recent suggestions that Red Bull might somehow be toppled by banning the use of DRS in qualifying are fanciful, as although it would hurt its qualifying form, its key advantage is on race pace. Verstappen is able to win at a canter thanks to a combination of his and the team’s excellence. The idea Red Bull is somehow reliant on a magic bullet is reductive, as it instead has the best all-round car, built on in-depth understanding of the demands of the regulations and the union of aerodynamic characteristics and aerodynamic platform.
F1 supremo Stefano Domenicali recently insisted he had no interest in the kind of “manipulation” to shake things up. That’s the right decision, and not just because it would be contrary to the spirit and ethos of grand prix racing. It’s also because, even if you wanted to do it, it’s very difficult to shake up the competitive order successfully. Sure, you can throw in a sudden rule change that supposedly strikes at the heart of a team’s advantage, but there’s no guarantee it will have the desired effect. It could even increase a dominant team’s advantage, a serious possibility given teams get into positions to win so regularly through excellence.
So what’s the answer for F1? We can all agree that in any sport predictability is bad for business, but it also has to be possible otherwise what you have isn’t primarily an entertaining sport, it’s purely sport-as-entertainment. The appeal is that it’s real, unscripted, and should remain that way. So perhaps the key change is one of mindset to accept that this can and will happen sometimes.
When it comes down to it, the best will prevail. That’s where the long-term view comes into it. One of the key aspects of these regulations is the combination of the cost cap and the more equitable distribution of the prize money shared by teams, which are designed to make the overall performance potential of the teams more even. It will take time, many years in fact, for that effect to set in but is the right way to approach it. But note the word potential, as in order for F1 to remain a sporting competition it’s down to the teams and drivers to make the most of that opportunity.
Right now, there are really only two teams with the all-round resources to take on Red Bull. But a few years down the line it might be that McLaren and, optimistically given recent events, Alpine get to that level. Then, on a long enough timeline, could come Audi and the other teams currently towards the back, including Williams. It’s a utopian vision and like all such futures probably impossible, but it’s certain that we will see a more level playing field in 2030 than we did in 2020 even if it’s still far from an even one.
Even with all things being equal between teams, there will always be winners and losers. With a potentially more even grid (although it will never be identical for all 10 teams) there’s less scope for one team being head-and-shoulders above the rest, and that’s what could lead to a situation down the line where such dominance is more likely to be transient.
But there must always be the chance for whoever does the best job, if they earn a big enough advantage on their own initiative, ingenuity and inspiration, dominating. If not, then what’s the point in competition?