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How Much Has F1 Changed Since the Turn of the Millennium?

With almost all of the 2022 cars now unveiled and pre-season testing underway, the beginning of the new season is just weeks away. This will mark one of the biggest changes the sport has ever seen, with lower-profile tires, a completely new aerodynamic concept, and cars that look radically different.

Of course, this isn’t completely alien to fans as Formula 1 is not a sport that remains static. Every year, there are tweaks to the technical and sporting regulations that aim to ensure fair competition, and, every now and then, the FIA pushes through a bigger raft of changes that are designed to mix up the pecking order.

So, even without this year’s radical race car reshaping, F1 was very different from how it looked at the start of the 21st century. Here’s how that happened.

Partnerships

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One of the most notable differences has been in the way that F1 now works with other sports and other brands. For much of the last four decades, the sport was run almost single-handedly by Bernie Ecclestone, a one-time team owner who turned a crusade for a better deal for constructors into a multi-billion pound empire.

Under Ecclestone’s leadership, F1 was famously run on “gentleman’s agreements” and handshakes, rather than the more formal way of doing things which is common in modern business. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with that approach, just that it was old-fashioned.

He also had a preference to only sign a small number of sponsorship and partnership agreements with brands, helping to make it more exclusive.

However, since 2017, the sport has been under new management with Liberty Media taking over. They’ve made a number of big changes, including building a larger management structure, formalizing more of the sport’s agreements, and signing more sponsorship deals.

They’ve also worked more closely with other sports, particularly US leagues. One of the biggest of these was the NBA, which had a big presence at the United States Grand Prix in Texas.

The NBA is one of America’s biggest sports leagues, up there with the NFL and MLB. Each of its games is watched by around 1.2 million people, though some can attract as many as 15 million fans. It’s also one of the most bet-on sports in the country, especially during the playoffs when fans keep a close eye on the teams with the best NBA Championship odds provided by OddsChecker to help make their wagering decisions.

With so much interest in basketball, F1 hosted a free throw challenge between its drivers and some big names from the NBA in 2021. At that same race, Shaquille O’Neal brought the winner’s trophy to the podium in a very fitting car.

These cross-pollination promotions help F1 to attract new audiences, especially in the United States, which is an under-exploited market for the sport. This is also why Formula 1 agreed on a deal with Netflix to create its Drive to Survive series, helping to show the human side to the sport rather than just being about cars.

The Cars

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F1 cars are always being developed as the teams remain locked in a battle to outdo their rivals. Since 2000, there have been several major evolutions in the car, as well as countless minor ones.

We started the century with cars that could not reach the end of a Grand Prix without stopping for at least one refueling pitstop. This would mean drivers hurtling down the pit lane into a box lined with mechanics, several of whom would be responsible for topping up the tank. However, several fires and safety issues eventually led to the banning of in-race refueling in 2010.

The giant black circles that connect the cars to the track have also changed numerous times too. The early 2000s saw the height of the tires war era, as 22 years ago F1 teams could choose between rubber from Michelin or Bridgestone. Those tires were not the smooth slicks we see today; they contained four mandatory grooves which were designed to slow the cars down for safety.

Pureists didn’t like these grooves, and they were eventually taken away in 2009 as part of a major overhaul of the technical regulations. Michelin also pulled out, making their Japanese rival the sole supplier. Then, after two seasons, they were replaced by Pirelli who have been given the task of making tires that degrade quickly to create more interesting tires strategies.

The size and shape of the aerodynamics have changed drastically too. Ferrari began to add more curves to their cars, particularly around the sidepods and “coke bottle” area during their dominant period in the early 2000s, then cars began to sprout odd aero appendages. These were outlawed in 2009 when the front wings were enlarged and the rear ones squashed inwards and upwards. This process was reversed again over the last decade until we ended up with the rounder ones we’ll see in 2022.

Race Weekends

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Going into the 2000 season, the race weekend format was quite different from what fans are familiar with today. Qualifying was not split into three knockout sessions, but rather drivers were simply given one 60-minute session in which they could complete up to 12 laps and set their fastest time.

This was a bit boring, so F1 experimented with single-lap formats where drivers would have just one attempt at setting a lap. Eventually, the current format was settled on, though during the refueling era, drivers in the top 10 would have to try for pole with their race-start fuel.

Sundays also included an extra session is known as “warm-up”, where drivers would spend 30 minutes checking their cars were ready for the race. This was scrapped in 2003 after parc ferme rules were introduced that prevented teams from touching their cars between the end of qualifying and shortly before the race. This was also the year that the T-car was banned, meaning drivers who crashed during a race that was red-flagged would not be able to sprint back to the pits and jump in a ready-made spare.

Much has changed in F1 since 2000; in fact, just about every element of the sport has evolved in some way. But while the cars may look different, be raced to a different schedule, and with more sponsors placed around the track, the sport retains much of its charm as the pinnacle of motorsport.

About Nina Smith