Cyril Abiteboul’s objectives are to guide his team towards podiums, victories and – eventually – world titles. Renault Sport F1’s Managing Director has also given himself the mission of saving Formula 1 from itself by showing that it can truly modernize its ways while respecting the sport’s DNA. His mind is full of concepts that he will very happily put on the table; all you have to do is ask.
During the course of our conversation, Abiteboul gave his frank opinion on a wide variety of subjects, spanning from the great overhaul planned for 2021 to human factors which should be better broadcasted, all while including the reorganization of F1’s economic model and a review of the traditional week-end format. And how about organizing rookie races? You want ideas? Here are lots of ’em!
Below is the transcription of our interesting discussion:
In light of the major changes coming in 2021, are you spending more time on the 2020 car’s concept or on the following one?
“We are in a very particular situation, but not only us; all the teams are. Each team has its own strategies and stakes, but for us, it is true that 2021 is an important year. We are in a somewhat complicated situation in which we have to work on three cars simultaneously, on three engines simultaneously: 2019, 2020 and 2021.
“At this time of year we are always working on two cars, that is, the current season’s car and the following season’s car. But there are such major changes in 2021 and they are very important to us because we want to take advantage of this changing of the game rules – technical, sporting and also economic – and start working on 2021 right away. So that is what we are doing, but it requires having this multiple-project plan. Our organization has evolved in order to account for this aspect, with people who are truly dedicated to each project.”
Cyril Abiteboul: “We are pushing hard for an evolution which is almost a revolution”
In regards to the broader 2021 project and the ongoing negotiations with F1 and the FIA, I understand that Liberty Media (F1’s controlling entity) meets with the teams as a group but also individually. Do you feel that the teams are well listened to during these independent meetings? Are each team’s specific stakes understood?
“In fact, it’s more a question of who they want to listen to! There are three (teams) – without giving away any secrets here – who do not really have an interest in things changing (hinting at Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – Ed), and then there are seven others who would rather like things to change. That is why I was a bit vocal early in the season regarding the alliances that can exist between different teams. If we want to be in a progressive sport, teams must be independent. We clearly have McLaren, Renault and Williams which are entirely independent teams, and these are three teams which are incapable today of contending for victory, but we want to be able to contend for victory. These three teams in particular are very progressive and we are pushing hard for an evolution which is almost a revolution.
“But this is not only for our own position (in the standings). The domination of any force for too many years is not healthy for any sport. I believe Formula 1 needs forces that renew themselves. That is why we must not look at half-measures and why we are pushing hard on Liberty. Afterwards, everyone pushes in their own direction.
“In my view, there has not been enough capacity on the teams’ part to join forces and align themselves; short-term advantages and thinking take over and win. Renault has been in Formula 1 for 42 years and right now I represent Renault, but I also think of what is good for Renault beyond my mandate. This type of thinking is not sufficiently present in Formula 1. That is why it is often deadlocked, unlike other sports who are capable of having their revolution.”
It is often said that stability in the regulations allows the field to tighten up. In this case, we are trying to change the regulations in order to provoke that tightening. Is it really possible to accomplish that goal? And in a certain sense in terms of the sport’s notoriety, is it desirable to not have ‘superstars’ regularly running at the front?
“That’s a complicated question, but a very good question! Stability is always a good thing and it’s true that we are seeing the engines progressively converge. That’s a testament to the stability of these engine regulations. I cannot give you a number but we have added an enormous amount of power to the engine despite the regulations’ stability, which proves that the engineering remains phenomenal. And that is also true for the chassis.
“In our case, we are mostly pushing for disruptions regarding the economic model: the redistribution of revenues, on what you may or may not spend… Formula 1 is thinking of doing like what is done in certain American sports, where there is a spending cap or a budget cap. That is where you will typically find disruptions which will be, I believe, capable of moving the goalposts.
“For the rest, you are correct in saying that stability is not a bad thing. But on the other hand, Formula 1 must remain close to the technologies of our environment (the automobile industry – Ed). At one point it was important to have disruption on the engine side, and it was the right thing to do (hybrid power units since 2014 – Ed). Therefore it is a somewhat complicated balancing act that we must find between stability of what needs to be stabilized, but also disruption and revolution of what needs to be changed in order to have something more dynamic and attractive for the fans, for the sponsors and also for the media. And also something that allows temperaments and characters to shine through, like those of the drivers, of the teams…”
…And those of the Team Principals…
“Team Principals as well, indeed! And some antagonism also, in a certain way. In my view, the human aspect must be at least as balanced as the technical aspect.”
Would the adoption of additional standardized parts help in reducing costs? Is there a risk of slightly ‘diluting’ the environment?
“These could be somewhat tactical and specific opportunities; they cannot be globally encompassing. Formula 1 must remain the expression of technology and of permanent research and development; that is very important. But we all spend fortunes on wheel nuts, for example. We all fight each other during pit stops, but we are fighting to see if we can do a pit stop between 2.2 or 1.8 seconds. In my budget, I pump in several hundreds of thousands of euros each year on wheel nuts. Does that really make sense? Is that really necessary? Let’s say we all do our pit stops in about 2.5 seconds and that will be fine!
“Therefore I think we should be a little more reasonable. Changing the steering wheels (every year), punching hundreds of holes into brake discs in order to manage the thermal aspects, does that really make sense? So I think there are tactical things such as those that we can simplify or standardize, and that would be OK. However I believe the rest of the car must remain ‘open’, but there must be some sort of spending cap to ensure we are in ‘always more’ mode instead of ‘always better’ mode.”
In regards to the possibility of having up to 25 Grands Prix a year, there are costs associated to that: logistics, personnel, etc. Should we review or shorten the week-end format, or should we maintain tradition?
“I would say ‘completely’, but I am practically the only one – I don’t even dare saying it anymore! Formula 1 is rather routine: qualifying is on Saturday and the race is on Sunday. The race is 300 kilometres long and we must round it off because we can’t stop in the middle of the (last) lap, otherwise I think we would do it! I’m kidding, but on that point we are completely behind because people like shorter-format sports.
“For example, half-times are very important moments. No race is ever as closely followed as a race where there is a red flag in the middle or when a session is interrupted, which allows time for interviews, media opportunities, etc. So I think there really are things which can be done, all while respecting the sport. I am not really a fan of reverse grids, however we could do fantastic things with the week-end format. For example, we could do short races with rookies, where all teams engage one or two cars with one or two rookies. Let’s say a 20-lap race on Saturday, something very aggressive and very spectacular.
“Regarding the three hours of free practice sessions on Friday… Honestly, when you have a job, who is going to watch Formula 1 sessions at 10 in the morning on a Friday? You normally have other things to do on a Friday morning. Therefore I think some things need reviewing, but I am a little bit fearful that we will be a little bit too conservative because that is the state of mind in Formula 1. But I hope that things will evolve with a new generation of Team Principals.”
*This interview was initially broadcast on FM1033 in the greater Montreal area.