Earlier this week, the F1 Commission met in Geneva to discuss the future of the sport. Up for discussion were louder and bigger engines, new aerodynamic designs and a far more radical path for the future.
Ultimately though, none of that was actually agreed on, ratified or confirmed, with the decision being to have another meeting in one year’s time and re-evaluate the situation.
Instead, what was actually agreed on was a blanket ban on helmet design changes across the course of the season. Sebastian Vettel’s tendency to bring a new one to each race did irk a few people in 2014, and has prompted a widespread change in F1 to prevent a repeat occurrence.
There was an immediate outcry from the F1 community, with a number of ex-drivers and pundits having their two cents and making their bemusement clear. The ‘issue’ of changing helmets was more of a minor annoyance or tick than a serious problem that really needed to be dealt with.
It’s just the latest storm in a teacup to come out of Formula 1. The winter has been a particularly turbulent one, with two teams fighting tooth and nail to survive, one collapsing completely, and the big questions about the cost crisis that engulfs the sport still being asked with very little in the way of a firm answer.
The benefits of forcing the drivers to stick with the same helmet design are quite obvious. Much like a number, it makes them instantly recognizable for fans watching on TV or in the grandstands. Throughout the history of the sport, many drivers have sported an iconic design throughout their careers that has become a part of their legacy: think of Ayrton Senna, Gilles Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher, to name but three.
It is certainly something that has been lost in recent years. Lewis Hamilton traditionally ran with a bright yellow helmet during his karting and junior racing days, but dropped it upon his move to Mercedes in 2013. Vettel’s constant chopping and changing of designs mean that you cannot possibly explain what his helmet looks like – there are too many to choose from.
A very pertinent comment came from ex-F1 and now-WEC driver Alexander Wurz on the subject: “It shall remain our free right of expression”. It is one of the few things that a driver can control. Fernando Alonso traditionally has yellow and blue on his helmet, the colors of Oviedo, his hometown. Others all have certain symbols and messages that are important to them and them alone.
But for some races, they will want to make a change. Home grands prix and special events such as Monaco are particularly popular for drivers who want to make alterations to their design. Kimi Raikkonen famously ran with a James Hunt design on his helmet in Monaco a few years ago, whilst Romain Grosjean less famously paid tribute to actor Matt Le Blanc with his helmet in Austin last year. Again though, it is their freedom of expression.
It is strange that issues such as these sit on the agenda list. In reality, it is such a menial and minor thing that it shouldn’t even come into the F1 Commission’s remit or sphere. The task is to improve the show and to make F1 a generally better sport. It certainly needs improving, but fans will be more deterred from going to a race by extortionate ticket prices than the fact that their favorite driver might have a different helmet.
Yet again, F1 appears to have missed the point. Double points was another example of a storm in a teacup: a measure that was introduced as a knee-jerk response to a problem that was not fully explained or explored.
The fact that drivers are changing helmet design every other race is neither here nor there if we are to look at the big picture: it just is what it is. It doesn’t deter fans’ enjoyment of the sport; it’s merely something the cynics will moan about because they need something to slate.
After all, there’s no need to make mountains out of molehills. F1 should focus on the actual problems at hand and try to make real progress in improving the sport, instead of picking on the minor annoyances that we can quite easily live and race with.