Formula 1: How the FIA manufactured the 2021 title fight

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Kamran Jebreili - Pool/Getty Images)
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Kamran Jebreili - Pool/Getty Images) /

Preceded by years of Mercedes dominance, this is how Liberty Media and the FIA stacked the deck to ensure the most entertaining season in Formula 1 history.

Entering a crucial season in which Formula 1 began to post record-breaking television and in-person attendance figures following the COVID-19 pandemic, Formula 1 management had primed itself for a period of intense viewership growth, specifically in the lucrative U.S. market.

To capitalize on this opportunity, ownership group Liberty Media set its sights on procuring an eye-catching championship to close a regulatory chapter of Mercedes dominance.

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Having lacked a genuine title fight since 2016 and a battle between separate manufacturers since 2012, Formula 1 had become a stale celebration of Mercedes championships while various midfield teams attempted to claw above one another in an attempt to rival the reigning champions.

Through a series of targeted regulation changes though, the FIA managed to create one of the single most enthralling championship battles in the history of sports.

From an epic chase-down at Bahrain to the final lap of the season in Abu Dhabi, both Mercedes and Red Bull and lead drivers Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen spent 22 weekends extracting the absolute maximum out of their highly developed machinery.

We will take a deep dive into those changes which brought us the unforgettable 2021 Formula 1 season, and how we can reasonably conclude that the FIA directly tailored these regulation changes to place Mercedes back into a title fight.

First, the FIA had to ban their current advantages.

One of the biggest headlines in Formula 1 for the 2020 season (outside of the obvious) was the implementation of a new steering system for the defending champions. With “DAS”, the dual-axis steering system, Mercedes gave their drivers the ability to adjust the toe of the front wheels mid-race by moving the steering wheel forward and backward.

The claimed primary advantage of this system was that it made it easier for their drivers to get heat into their front tires. It is most likely though that the drivers, with direction from the team pre-race, had a rudimentary understanding of how to change the toe throughout the lap in order to find lap time.

DAS was ruled legal for the 2020 season but was immediately outlawed afterward.

Even before the introduction of DAS, Formula 1 had been making a conscious effort to eliminate the innovations which helped Mercedes the most, relative to the rest of the grid. The first of these bans came before the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, when the FIA banned the use of different engine modes from the beginning of qualifying to the checkered flag.

Originally, Mercedes could put their engines into a high-performance “party mode” to secure the front row in qualifying before moving back down to a more reliable setting for the race.

Following this ban, Mercedes were brought back into the same field of play as the rest of the field in regard to qualifying pace, and they were forced to consider the reliability implications of their engine settings on Saturdays.

What made the most tangible difference to produce the Formula 1 championship battle we had all been waiting for was the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations for the 2021 season.

Intended to be the dawn of a new set of technical regulations for Formula 1 before the pandemic, the FIA introduced a specific selection of reductions in aerodynamic performance within their new 2021 regulations on the heavily developed cars.

The primary difference between the 2021 Red Bull and the 2021 Mercedes cars was the philosophical design difference which bled through to the rest of the paddock: high-rake vs. low-rake.

Distinguishing the difference in natural ride height between the front and rear of the car, low-rake designs have more volume for air to flow under the floor with a longer wheelbase. High-rake designs produced more rear end downforce, as the higher rear end ride height enabled larger volumes of air to be pushed out through the diffuser.

Specific regulatory changes such as the shortening of rear brake duct winglets and diffuser fences did play their part in hurting the reigning champions, but the implementation of a new cut-out in the rear of the floor was the key piece.

Tarnishing the carefully designed sealing of the floor, which had helped Mercedes’ low-rake concept be so successful, this single change drastically improved the viability of the high-rake concept and brought Red Bull on par with Mercedes.

It can not be certified that these regulations were intentionally designed to harm Mercedes, but looking back, we can contrast a handful of variables that paint a suspicious picture of the preparations for the 2021 season.

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With the success of the new regulations in the 2022 Formula 1 season, there is no question that the minds of the FIA (including the likes of Ross Brawn and Pat Symonds) have more than enough resources and intellectual capability to custom-design regulation changes that would put the two fastest cars on nearly level-pegging to start the season.