Ahead of the curve

While some industries treat change with scepticism and unease, or even deny they must address it, there are a rare few with change ingrained in their DNA.

Formula 1 racing is perhaps one of the best examples, with teams constantly looking to gain even milliseconds of advantage over their rivals, while the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) seeks to balance safety with racing competitiveness and spectator entertainment. We met with the FIA’s brand-new head of F1 to discuss his approach to change.

Nikolas Tombazis is that rare breed: from childhood he knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. Already excelling at maths and physics, aged 10 he saw his first televised motorsport race and was hooked.

An illustrious career in F1 has followed. He spent 25 years working as an Aerodynamicist for some of the sport’s most iconic teams, including Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton, before joining the FIA (the body which regulates the majority of motor racing) in 2018.

Initially Head of Single Seater Racing Technical Matters, in January 2023 he was named Single Seater Director; his seniority was further established when FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem announced he was stepping back from day-to-day control, leaving Tombazis, 55, the main point of contact for F1.

Much of F1’s appeal for Tombazis – both as a child and to this day – is that it is constantly evolving. Indeed, in the 1970s he was most fascinated by ground-breaking developments in aerodynamics that were revolutionising the sport (he went on to study aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering and achieved his PhD at Imperial College, London, in 1992).

“We’re a technological sport,” he says. “If we stand still and do nothing, the cars are nonetheless going to develop and become more sophisticated. If you see a race from 100 years ago, it’s completely different. By its very nature, the sport needs to change.”

Advancements in engineering, technology and materials mean cars competing today are more powerful and faster than ever before: top speeds in the 1950s were around 180mph, compared to today’s 225mph. But the safety expectations for drivers, spectators and the hundreds of people working at the track on race days have also been completely recalibrated, and the FIA needs to balance both alongside the motorsport spectacle for fans.

“In the 1950s and 60s, drivers were like gladiators,” says Tombazis. “They were doing a dangerous thing, and if a couple were killed a year, well, that was sort of part of the job. That is clearly unacceptable today: having these superstars getting killed would be a disaster, from every point of view. Society would never tolerate it. So that has pushed us, step by step, to improve.”

But while F1 cars have never been safer, especially following the addition in 2018 of halos, to protect drivers’ heads, danger is inherent. This was made abundantly clear in the 2020 season at the Bahrain Grand Prix, when Frenchman Romain Grosjean collided almost head-on with trackside barriers at 119mph; his Haas team car was ripped in two, leaving the front end on one side of the barrier and the back, containing the driver strapped in his seat and ‘safety cell’ engulfed in fire, on the other.

Grosjean was trapped in the fireball for 27 seconds as he fought to break the protective headrest restraint with his helmet and wrestle his trapped foot from the chassis, wrenching it out of his racing boot to do so. The shots of him leaping over the mangled barrier, to the safety of race stewards, are harrowing and incredible in equal measure.

“I was horrified,” Tombazis says, recalling the incident unfold before him. “It was shocking to see this massive ball of fire.” The FIA’s immediate priority, once it was established Grosjean was, miraculously, OK (he suffered burns to his hands but was otherwise largely unharmed), was to quickly ascertain why the crash and subsequent fireball happened.

The Geneva-based body carried out interviews, inspected physical evidence, reviewed video analysis, and examined data from the car’s internal accident data recorder. They also had data from Grosjean’s radio communications earpieces which also houses accelerometers (introduced in 2014, these measure the forces drivers are subjected to). Its analysis was then peer-reviewed by its Serious Accident Study Group before results were published in March 2021 and changes to fuel cells introduced.

The investigations also revealed that the car’s halo had suffered significant impact damage from the barrier that would otherwise have been inflicted on Grosjean’s helmet, concluding it almost certainly saved his life.

For many, including viewers of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive – the hugely popular behind-the-scenes series, which devoted much of an episode to the crash – seeing a car split in half was as shocking as the fireball.

But not for Tombazis. “Sometimes cars should split,” he says matter-of-factly. “What shouldn’t happen, and what we took steps to avoid afterwards, is that when they do, when the engine flies off, it shouldn’t rip apart the chassis in a way that exposes the fuel tank. That caused the fire. So now teams must demonstrate that when engines do get detached, the chassis remains intact.”

Collaboration is integral to F1’s ability to react and change at pace. The sport has myriad stakeholders, most with competing priorities and rivalries: the FIA, commercial rights holder Liberty Media, teams, drivers, sponsors, manufacturers, broadcasters and, of course, fans.

The FIA organises and chairs regular meetings throughout the year with team bosses, to discuss regulations and other sporting matters, as well as hosting specialist committees on technology and finance, as it seeks to establish a broad consensus.

As Tombazis says, “We have to try and get to this middle ground, where the races are exciting – it is entertainment after all, and we are dependent on people watching it – but where the sport also [works] for the big companies involved. The third pillar is sustainability financially, for teams to survive.”

However, the FIA can push through rule changes if there is an immediate risk to driver safety or health, as it did last season.

Cars use downforce to run as low as possible to the ground, thereby boosting speed. But following FIA rule changes governing the underside of the car in 2020, two problems were starting to emerge. The first – dubbed “porpoising”, after the way dolphins leap in and out of water – was a violent repetitive jarring caused by a stall in the aerodynamics as air passes under the floor of the car. Bouncing, a similar but different issue, was where the low ride height caused some cars to smash into the track on uneven surfaces, leading to headaches and back pain as drivers were jolted around the cockpit.

Not all teams, however, were equally affected, with some teams, notably Red Bull, learning quickly to engineer the issue.

But with mounting evidence of driver injury – primarily drawn from in-ear accelerometers – the FIA felt compelled to act. It had already called extraordinary meetings with the teams’ Technical Directors but following an especially large number of driver complaints after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in June 2022, it confirmed teams would be required to make immediate adjustment.

Normally, any rule changes are flagged well in advance. But Tombazis is adamant that the FIA was right to press ahead in this case. All the evidence was pointing to a serious risk to drivers’ long-term health, and they trusted the data.

“If you ask me, do I think that every single time we’ve done the right thing in terms of the data we had, then yes, I can answer categorically yes, absolutely, every single time,” says Tombazis.

“Now, if you ask me in hindsight, was every decision right – no, there were mistakes. You need to accept that you make mistakes. You need people who criticise you, sometimes not very pleasantly. But you need to accept that ultimately you have to try and do the right thing. Sometimes not making a decision is worse than making a bad decision.”

The cockpit halo that wraps around the front of the driver’s head is a classic example. Despite being introduced following consultation and in response to several crashes, many fans and even some teams were unhappy, arguing it was a step towards enclosed cockpits and could cause visibility issues. Fast-forward to 2020, however, and it was widely acknowledged that the halo (one of a number of governing body-imposed requirements) helped save Grosjean’s life.

In the heat of competition – “It’s days like today, I am reminded of how lucky I am. It takes a millisecond to go from racing to a very scary situation. Today someone must have been looking down, watching over me!” Sir Lewis Hamilton after a collision with Max Verstappen left Verstappen’s Red Bull rear wheel resting on the Halo of Hamilton’s Mercedes, immediately above his helmet.

Data is king in F1. The race is always on to gather, review and apply learnings as teams look to refine, improve and, ultimately, win by ever-narrowing margins.

“If you go to a debrief after a team has won a race, and you didn’t know the result, you’d think there must have been a disaster,” says Tombazis. “Yes, they will have a glass of champagne on the day, but come Monday, they will be analysing every single thing that went wrong, big or small, and they will assign responsibility to an individual to sort it out.” He points to Mercedes AMG’s Sir Lewis Hamilton, who can often be heard on the car radio questioning team decisions mid-race. “But he almost always goes with the data and then he wins the race, and you’ll hear him say, ‘OK, actually you were right’. It’s much less about gut feeling and more about science.”

So what, in Tombazis’ view, does the future hold for F1?

Much is uncertain, but Tombazis is clear: it is change that will continue to drive the agenda. “F1 needs to think ahead; it can’t just stay where it is and assume the popularity it enjoys nowadays is a foregone conclusion,” he argues. And he accepts one of the biggest challenges remains tackling F1’s carbon footprint. Cars, technology and people are transported by air, sea and land around the planet every few weeks during the season; in 2019, F1’s CO2 emissions each season were 256,000 tons. It has committed to being net zero by 2030.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think about the environmental impact, but nowadays, it would be deeply irresponsible if we pretended it didn’t matter,” warns Tombazis.

“This is going to force transformation in our sport. It is our choice whether we change or not – but if we don’t, I think we’ll be responsible for our own demise.”

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