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F1’s new boss: series won’t go electric, will stay hybrid

TG speaks to Stefano Domenicali on F1’s shiny new future

Published: 27 Mar 2021
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Stefano Domenicali was announced as CEO of Formula One last year following a four-year term as president of Lamborghini. Three months into the new role and on the eve of the Bahrain Grand Prix we caught up with the ex-Ferrari team principal (2008-2014) to discuss how he plans to navigate the politics of the paddock, deliver a full race calendar during a pandemic and the future of F1.

You’re back in the Formula One paddock in a very different role. What's it like?

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I’m very honoured to be back. To be honest I wasn’t really thinking that it would be possible, I wasn’t really expecting a call from Liberty for this position. So I was truly honoured. On the other side, when I came into the paddock for the test, I felt like I had never left because it seemed like the last day I was here. I was just coming in with a different shirt.

What has changed since you've been away?

It’s probably too early to answer that as I’ve only been back officially for a couple of months, but many of the dynamics are the same, in terms of the protagonists, the politics, the excitement, the knives, the smiles, on that nothing has changed.

Clearly with this pandemic – which is very difficult for the world – we need to make sure that we can run the championship. Believe me, it's not easy at all.

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What was done last year was very important in terms of delivering credibility of the system to make sure that the bubble we are in is solid and safe. But this year with the situation changing place by place, nation by nation, we’re on the phone every day with the organisers. That’s the main challenge this year. We cannot waste time, and we must make sure that we are ready for the restart where we can welcome all the fans, all the sponsors and all the partners back to Formula One.

When do you think that's going to be possible?

To be honest, I don’t have any crystal ball in front of me, so I cannot say. But we have to be prepared as soon as it is realistically possible. As soon as we get clearance to receive 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 spectators, then we are ready to do it.

Do you have plans to expand how you bring people into the paddock virtually?

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In the digital space? Yes. We are doing everything we can to allow people to be a part of the weekend. Yesterday at our first drivers’ press conference we took questions from children, from people outside of the core fanbase in the lifestyle space, and there’s more to come on that.

So obviously Coronavirus is a huge challenge, but there are arguably greater challenges around diversity, equality and environmental impact. How do you tackle those?

Our ‘RaceAsOne’ activities will continue and grow and we’re looking at growing our F1 in schools programme to engage a younger, more diverse audience from the outset. On diversity we continue to drive our focus on that. We meet every two weeks with the teams to push that agenda and we are already seeing the changes in the personnel at the track and the way the teams are approaching it. But we will continue to push this subject and truly see the effects in the coming years.

And on sustainability? Formula One has a target to be net zero by 2030, how will you achieve that?

By looking at every aspect of the sport, we’re working on removing single use plastics from our events, in collaboration with our circuits. This week we announced that next year this circuit will be powered by clean energy as they are installing solar panels, but we continue to push on all aspects to hit our targets. And then with our new power-unit which will use sustainable fuels.

Okay, so when does Formula One go electric?

We won’t, we need to stay hybrid. This is a definite decision we’ve taken, and this is also good for the automotive industry and the OEMs as it keeps our platform relevant for future road cars. We don’t have to take electrification as a world-religion. It is not the only way to move forward with cars for many reasons, but we could discuss that for hours…

So, hybrid is our future, the 2025 power-unit will be hybrid and use 100 per cent sustainable fuels, but we need to reduce the costs of the power-unit and platform so it is affordable and less complex. This opens up huge potential for the OEMs to use it in other applications on the road car side.

Therefore, I think that Formula One is giving the right answer, being current with what we want to represent. And by the way, I’d like to stress that we already have a power-unit that is incredibly efficient. It is the most efficient engine on the planet. It’s too expensive, but that’s another problem.

The current power unit uses only 100kgs of fuel to do 305km – no one else is able to do that. And we’re already hybrid, we recover the energy. So hybrid is the future of Formula One.

So the 2025 power-unit will go into road cars, that’s how you see it?

Absolutely, I think so.

That the length of any dominant cycle should be much shorter

Obviously F1 pushed the rule changes back to next season. What's your expectation for this year?

Well, I'm expecting a good fight between an incredible number of drivers, that will be at the centre of our attention. There are a lot of fantastic young, talented and senior drivers that we have, so I'm looking forward to a great show on the track.

On the technical side, I think there is a great interest to see how the first races will turn out, after which there’ll be a decisive moment for many big teams. With the rule changes coming in next year they will need to decide when to stop investing in this year’s championship and focus on the financial change and the big change in the cars for 2022. They will need to decide when they put all of their force into the new car.

Do you think the dominance of one team is bad for Formula One?

I would say that it has been a quite natural in Formula One for one team to dominate. I mean, if I go back to my time with Ferrari, you can go back to McLaren, to Williams. You can go back to so many situations where for many years a team was very strong. So I'm not going to say I’m obsessed by that. I want to congratulate Mercedes for all they are doing. It's an incredible team and they’re doing an incredible job. But now, we need to make sure that the length of any dominant cycle is much shorter.

So, next year we have the biggest changes in F1 since hybrid. Were you disappointed they couldn't happen this year, or do you think that by pushing them back to 2022 it'll be more exciting?

I think it will be even more exciting because trying to deliver them this year would have been a little bit premature with the pandemic. So, I think that a year of delay will be beneficial.

And what do you want those changes to deliver for the fans at home?

Well, that is simple. More unpredictability in terms of the result. And, above all deliver a greater show, give the drivers cars that allow them to express themselves to the maximum – they have to push the car to the limits. They have to make sure that if they are behind another car, they can be there ready to overtake at the right moment, not sat there worrying about the airflow damaging or overheating their tyres or unsettling their aero and downforce.

So, unpredictability, a tremendous show on the track and for the drivers to be in ‘push’ mode the whole time.

Have you watched the latest series of Drive to Survive?

I’ve been pretty busy, but I’m catching up.

It’s been great for attracting a new audience to F1, but do you think it caricatures the characters involved?

All the people involved in F1 know they are part of the show business too. So it's all a matter of understanding if this is beneficial to the sport itself. Which given the audience it reaches we feel it is.

Can we talk about accessibility? It's very difficult as a driver to get into Formula One, unless you have huge financial backing. Do you think there should be an easier access route into Formula One for drivers?

We can’t deny that Formula One – as in all motorsport activity – is not like, say, athletics when you're running on your own. There, you may just need to put a shirt on and a pair of shoes and off you go.

So, of course the level of investment is high, although through the parameter of F4, F3 and F2, we have already significantly cut down the cost of entry. What’s difficult to manage is the pricing that the teams can ask the drivers themselves. It's a mandate that I think is important, that the FIA will keep the right pressure on the system.

But I have to say that we have never had so many young talented drivers on one grid as this year, which means that the parameters are strong in terms of giving the chance to those who have all the right ingredients to make sure they are at the top. But we always need to make sure we have the right people and characters to keep people engaged with Formula One.

You recently announced you would be heading to Saudi next year. Are you worried that by racing in certain countries you validate their behaviour?

No, Formula One and other sporting platforms need to go there and make sure that through us we can accelerate the process of change, and this is really what we are doing.

Our going there puts a huge lens and spotlight on these places and our being there accelerates change. When you talk to the people of these countries the truth and the facts are coming out; we need to understand the background, the historical situation. It would be superficial to say something without knowing exactly what is going on in a country. I think that Formula One will give a boost and help the country affect a big change.

Now that you're free from a manufacturer contract, what do you drive to the circuit in every morning?

Well, for the next race as it’s in my back yard I’ll be walking, I will use my shoes!

What is the one key thing you want to achieve in your first year?

We want to deliver a great season – a complete season – and we’re not taking the challenge of that for granted. If everyone thinks it’s easy, trust me it is not at all. That’s our primary objective. And from the sporting point of view to arrive at the last race of the season and have the final that would be a dream. And from the calendar point of view to announce a second race in the USA, it’s something we have discussed for so long it’s time to deliver.

Where would that be - Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta?

Stay tuned and you will discover…

Illustration: The Red Dress

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