How Budget Cap, New Aero Rules are Keeping F1 Title Battles Close

The new-for-2021 budget cap is helping this year’s Formula 1 title fight stay exceptionally close, believes the championship’s motorsport managing director.

After several years of discussions and negotiations, Formula 1 finally introduced an annual spending cap in a bid to help save the teams from themselves. There are exemptions, loopholes and clauses to the cap, set at $145 million, but F1 appears to have stumbled into a perfect situation for its 2021 season.

Minor regulation changes were made for the 2021 season in a bid to slightly reduce downforce levels and this brought Mercedes and Red Bull closer together than they had been in 2020.

And both teams, along with their eight rivals, are preoccupied with what’s looming on the horizon. In just five months’ time, Formula 1’s teams will be racing new cars that will look very different from the current models. That means the majority of resources are being poured towards the 2022 project that offers a blank sheet of paper, opportunity, and the riches that come with it.

That also means there has been limited development of the 2021 machines, forcing teams and drivers to work with what they have, in a bid to steal a march on the opposition.

Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton are separated by only six points in the most captivating fight between different teams in a generation. Hamilton has been champion four years running, winning by 46, 87, 88 and 124 points respectively.

“Both championships (driver and team) are poised to take us through to the end of the season and provide one of the most exciting ends to the year that we’ve had in a long time, F1 is blessed,” said Ross Brawn after the Turkish Grand Prix. “Why are we having such a great season? When I ran teams, there was no silver bullet. It was a case of chipping away at everything to make incremental improvements. I believe it’s the same with the sport.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the cost cap and the rules changes that were implemented are having a positive impact on the closeness and intensity of the championship. There is no capacity for a team to pour massive resource into a championship and try and run away with it. The resources are now limited and the teams are also focused on next year’s car, which is requiring a lot of time and resource.

“And this is all contributing to a close championship. We still want a meritocracy. We still want the best team to win. But we don’t want them to win by a country mile simply because they’ve got a bigger budget than anyone else. It’s pleasing to see the way things are developing.”

Next year is taking up the bulk of the focus, but that isn’t to say either team has flown the white flag on 2021. There has been a lot of focus on engine performance through recent weeks. Both teams have taken on fresh engines, incurring penalties along the way, in a bid to balance performance with reliability. Under current rules, engine development is not permitted but components degrade over time while aerodynamic set-up also influences straight-line speed ability. The last three circuits have suited Mercedes—a situation was expected—but Red Bull has suggested their rival has made a step.

“Their straight-line speed has taken a significant step recently and I think that whereas we could match them with smaller [rear] wings previously now we can’t get near,” said Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner after Sunday’s race.

“We saw that particularly at this circuit [Istanbul] where Lewis in particular had a significant straight-line advantage with a bigger rear wing of the car. We’ve got to maximize our package as best we can and, as I say, it’s surprising that they appear to have made the step that they have with the power unit.”

Not so, says Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, reckoning his squad is now simply getting more out of its existing package compared to previous months.

“I think we have gradually understood the car better,” he said. “The regulations that came in at the beginning of the year created a situation where you need to run the car [in a window] where we haven’t been running in the last few years. The more we run it, the more we drive, the more we could simulate situations, the better we have performed. The car today is definitely in a much better place to where it was in the spring and the summer.”

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