The 2019 Formula One season promises to be one of the most exciting in years. Ferrari appears to be in a position to end Mercedes' five-year domination of the sport, and new aerodynamic regulations should make racing more exciting.
But behind the scenes this is also a critical year for F1. If the sport's owners, Liberty Media, intend to deliver on their plans to revolutionise the sport in 2021, they need to get agreements with the teams in place by the end of June. Failing to do so would essentially result in F1's version of a "no deal", with no guarantee that the sport's biggest names will continue in F1 beyond the end of 2020.
In a Q&A session with selected media, F1 head of motorsport Ross Brawn outlined his expectations for the year ahead and where things stand with approaching deadlines for 2021.
Who do you think looks quick after testing?
RB: I think Ferrari have looked pretty good from the beginning, but they have had a few reliability problems that they need to get on top of. You can look at the times, you can look at the sort of fuel you think they might be running, but you can also look at the cars out on the circuit and you can see the cars that looked settled, stable and comfortable and those that are struggling a bit, and Ferrari look good.
I spent some time in the garage, and it was a nice calm atmosphere, constructive and working well. Knowing [new team principal] Mattia Binotto very well, he will bring a very pragmatic approach -- he is an engineer like me, so he will see things in a certain way. He can get emotional like all of us, that's why we do the sport, but he is very structured and I think we will see a new calm about Ferrari in the coming season.
Mercedes looked a little bit out of sorts, but they will get it sorted out. They are a very strong team and have some very smart people there, and they will work out what they need to do. One of the encouraging things was the reliability of the Honda engine [that will power Red Bull and Toro Rosso], and I am touching wood here because I don't want to jinx it, but Honda have been really encouraging and the performance and reliability of Honda seems a big step up.
Will the 2019 regulation changes improve the racing?
RB: On the regulation changes we have made, we have had mixed feedback. But the worst feedback is that it has made no difference and the best feedback is that it has made quite a significant difference. So once the cars start running closely together, we will take all the information and I think it will be a very useful insight for the work we are doing for 2021. But, just to say, this is not anywhere near the full solution and it is only a fraction of what we know we can achieve for 2021.
How are negotiations over the technical regulations, the governance of the sport and the split of financial revenues going for 2021 onwards?
RB: It's challenging, but we never thought it would be anything but. Getting 10 teams aligned and defining solutions on the revenue, the governance, the regulations, the cost cap -- which is a pretty big challenge -- is taking time. But it is progressing. I think, although it is probably slightly frustrating for the media, I think it is the correct approach that [F1 CEO] Chase [Carey] has made to make it very clear that he wants all these discussions to take place as privately and as quietly as possible because he feels that's the best way to progress things. I can genuinely see there is enormous progress.
If we look at the cost cap, people say nothing is happening but it is not true. We issued draft regulations last year; we issued definitive regulations in January; and this week we have been in heavy engagement with the teams, last week we were in engagement with the teams, and we are preferring to work one on one with the teams to get their feedback and understand their concerns and work out where we can improve. We would never be in a situation, using the cost cap as an example, where we can issue definitive regulations at a date and that's the end of it -- the topic is too complex. So as it evolves and as we see new challenges, problems and issues, we will have to evolve and refine the regulations to achieve the objectives.
And that's no different with the technical regulations or the sporting regulations. In those two areas, technical and sporting, there are well-established routines and protocols, but even then there are arguments, so it would be naïve to think the financial regulations would just be put on the table and that would be it, take it or leave it. Each team has a different set of priorities, and we are trying to find our way through it to get the best solution. I can see some genuine progress, and some of you have commented that there doesn't look to be much progress, but I can ensure you there is an enormous amount of progress. The technical regulations are going well.
Historically the top teams have always received a much bigger share of F1's prize money; how are the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull responding to F1's plans to distribute revenue more equally among teams?
RB: The revenue is a tough discussion, we know that. The ones that have got it all want to keep it and the ones that haven't got it want more, so it's finding the fair balance in how we can distribute the revenues. We know that if we have a more equitable distribution of revenue, we will have a better Formula One, and that's fact. So that is what we are still working towards.
I see lots of progress, and I am still enthusiastic. I have my bad days, like everyone, but 99 percent of the time I see it going forward and progressing. It was always going to be tooth and claw, there is no other way around it. The Formula One teams are too big, too competitive and too aggressive for it to be anything but that. But I think ourselves and the FIA are aligned on what we are trying to do, and that gives a great deal of strength and makes sure we don't waste energy because in the past so much energy has been wasted in battles between the FIA and the teams and Formula One. So I am very enthusiastic about where we are. Everybody would like to see it a little bit quicker, but when it is done, it will be done properly, and we are still on the path.
When is the deadline for an agreement on 2021?
RB: On the technical regulations, there are two elements. One is a default in the middle of this year and that is through the International Sporting Code, but I hope by then we have a clearer picture on the governance for the future and we can help introduce the regulations in a more equitable fashion. But if we are not able to achieve that, then the default for 2021 is working through the International Sporting Code and that requires the regulations to be introduced by the middle of this year, and that's the first deadline.
And for the distribution of prize money?
RB: There is, and that is probably a delicate topic to discuss right here. The same discussions are going on and at the moment we have a strategy group that includes only six teams, which is wrong, and for sure whatever the governance system going forward, it will involve all the teams and it will be a streamlined version of what we have now.
Ferrari currently has the most lucrative deal; will you have to play hardball with them and potentially run the risk of the team quitting the sport?
RB: I think we have to recognise, in Ferrari's case, the importance of Ferrari, the significance of Ferrari and the unique place that it has in the sport, but also we need to find a balance between that recognition of Ferrari as a very important team and an equitable position for the rest. If you were a big sporting company looking at Formula One today and you came into F1 thinking 'what would we be able to get if we win the world championship?', well, even if you win, you only get half of [the financial reward of] a team in the midfield because they have a better deal than you. How are you going to attract new teams when you have such an unfair distribution?
I think Ferrari recognise that and I think Ferrari will fight tooth and nail for the best they can, but I think logic will play a fair part in trying to find a solution. But Ferrari are special; we all know that, and the other teams know that, and they are going to understand Ferrari need to be treated respectfully. All I would say is we want to have a fairer deal than we have at the moment, and I don't think it's fair that someone could come in and win the world championship and be getting half of what someone at the back of the grid is getting because they have a better historical deal. That's something we have to resolve. They are the grandees of the sport, but there is a balance and I think we've got the balance wrong [under the current agreement]. But I think we all know why we have ended up where we have ended up.
Formula E is racing with its second-generation car and is attracting manufacturers keen to push their new electric vehicles on the road. How do you see F1's place in terms of road relevance, and will it ultimately go electric?
RB: If I'm honest, I don't know. I don't think any of us know where the automotive world is going to be in five years' time. There is a massive enthusiasm for electrified vehicles, but they have massive challenges as well, and is there an evolution that is going to come?
If you look at the way electricity is generated in the UK, the pollution from an electric vehicle is still very similar to a very efficient, small petrol car because that electricity has to be generated somehow. We are not generating the electricity that is needed by renewables in the UK at the moment, and that is with the electricity we are using at the moment. Imagine if everyone used electricity to charge their cars. So there are some massive challenges ahead, and I think there are still avenues with internal combustion engines that are worth pursuing.
There is an enthusiasm for electric cars that has to settle down before we can really understand if that is the solution for the future, or maybe it is part of the solution. There is no doubt that an electric car can move the pollution, it can move the pollution from a city centre to a power station, but it doesn't get rid of it at the moment, and that's the important bit to understand. So we need to be the fastest, most powerful and most spectacular, and maybe there will be a different power source in the future that achieves that.
But at the moment, the hybrid power that we have today is pretty impressive in terms of efficiency and power and size. But I genuinely don't know where it's going to go. The FIA has formed a future powertrains group, which we are a part of, to discuss what will be the racing engines of the future and the relevance and how it ties in with transportation. We will monitor it, and we will be told by the manufacturers where we need to be relevant and what we need to do. But it needs to be spectacular and make the hairs tingle on the back of your neck, and whatever power source we can have in the future we will use to achieve that.
Some teams have raised concerns over Brexit and the impact it could have on their operations within Europe. With seven of the 10 teams based in the UK, do you see it creating problems for F1?
RB: Personally, no. There are lots of us that remember the Millennium Bug and the planes that were going to fall out of the sky and it was going to be complete chaos, but I don't think any of us noticed any difference. There will be some bureaucracy that will come from Brexit that is a bit painful, but apart from that, I'm sure you can make arguments that are positive, as well. Formula One teams are pretty resourceful and pretty capable, and this is not going to stop them racing. We are all making plans and all the equipment is going out of the country now, and it will be out of the country for a month or two and we are all making provision for it to get back in the country.
But Formula One teams are pretty nomadic and we operate in countries outside of the European Union anyway, and I don't see it as being in anyway catastrophic for the UK. There will be some irritations I'm sure and things that will be a but painful, but Formula One teams are very good at coping, so I don't see it being a problem.
Silverstone's contract to host the British Grand Prix is due to expire at the end of 2019; is it possible this year's race will be the last British Grand Prix?
RB: I don't think it will be the final British Grand Prix, but whether it will be at Silverstone or not is another matter. We want to have a British Grand Prix and we want to find a solution with Silverstone, but we are differing in our views of what is reasonable and what is not. We are not a massive amount apart, but it's frustrating that we can't find a solution.
But a race in the UK is important for us and Silverstone has been the home of the grand prix for the last few years, but most of us here can remember it being at Brands Hatch and it didn't seem that strange that we had a race at Brands Hatch one year and Silverstone the next. We are determined to make sure we keep a British Grand Prix, hopefully it is Silverstone, but there is no certainty.
Mick Schumacher will make his F2 debut this year; given your relationship with Michael during your time at Ferrari, how excited are you to see his son one step away from F1?
RB: I've known Mick since he was a little boy, and it's been fascinating. I think there was a period when he wasn't sure, but he has now got the bit between his teeth and he is a very determined young man. I think it is fascinating how his competitiveness kicked in during Formula 3 last year, and you've seen it again in Formula 2 in the first test. People who know him, or spend more time with him than I do, say there has been impressive progress in his driving career in the last 12 months or so.
But he is a very nice young man, and staying like that with the pressures and challenges that come, that will be one of the things that will be challenging for him. But I'm sure he will, he's got a very balanced family and they have all known the experience from Michael, so they will know how to handle it if Mick is successful. But it's very exciting and there are so many times when I see Mick and I see Michael in him, so it would be wonderful. But there is tremendous pressure on the lad, so I hope people can keep that in perspective and not hook unrealistic expectations on him.