This week Formula 1 finds itself once again embroiled in a controversy that it doesn't need to, a controversy that could have a pretty significant impact on the sport, but is so complex that most folks have a hard time understanding just what's going on.
In a nutshell - the rules state that teams aren't allowed to develop and improve their engines during the racing season. Mercedes did so well in 2014 that Ferrari and Renault have both been pushing to get this rule waived, arguing that they can't catch up to Mercedes due to the restrictions on development in place.
After reviewing the rules as they were written for the current engine Formula, both Ferrari and Renault have discovered that they are worded a bit vague. So vague, that they could be interpreted that there is no restriction on engine development after the start of the 2015 season - an interpretation that Race Director and Chief Rules Interpreter Charlie Whitting agrees with.
Unless you're a new manufacturer to the sport - and then you can't develop your engine in 2015, you're stuck with following the 2014 rules. Once you submit your engine to the FIA for scrutinizing (aka homologation) you can't change it. Honda, who is returning this year is a bit upset over this new development and has complained to the FIA.
Still following along?
Between seasons, manufacturers can only upgrades specific components of their engines. For the duration of the period where the current rules are in effect, the number of components a manufacture can upgrade each year decreases... For example, (and these numbers are hypothetical for illustrative purposes) going into the 2015 season, teams can only upgrade 16 components, into 2016 - 12 component, etc...
Still with us? Because this is where it gets screwy..
If you're Mercedes, Ferrari, or Renault, there's a natural progress here, and more importantly every one of your competitors is playing by the same rules. Unless you're Honda, or another new team... The way the rules are currently written and instituted - the first year you're in the sport you're stuck with the 2014 rules for the development freeze, the second year you're in the sport you're then bound by the same upgrade restrictions as the rest of the field... In other words, based on the current implementation of the rules - Honda must submit their engine for homologation at the end of February, and then can't develop their engine any more because the rules says that as a new team they need to do this just like all the teams that competed in 2014. However, in 2016 Honda is limited to only being able to upgrade the same number of components as the rest of the field in 2016. At no time does Honda get the same chance to upgrade their engines in 2015 as the rest of the field.
The whole intention behind the restrictions was to control costs in the sport. By eliminating in season testing and development of the engines, development costs are constrained. Less testing and development, less cost. By constraining the costs you're creating a more level playing field across the grid, smaller teams with smaller budgets don't need to pour money that they don't have into in season developing and testing. But the rules need to be applied evenly across the grid. A new manufacturer needs to be able to participate at the same level as the rest of the grid. The rules interpretation that Charlie Whitting and the FIA appear to be implementing this year, even it is inadvertently being done because the rules were writing poorly, don't layout an even field.
FOM and Formula 1 can't afford to give the impression that they're not making a level field. After loosing two teams from the grid, Formula 1 needs to attract more teams. If Formula 1 handicaps Honda by following the rules as they are currently interpreting them then they are discouraging teams and manufacturers from coming to the sport. There has been an increasing level of chatter over the last few months that a member of the VW group - either VW our Audi, could come to Formula. But if Formula 1 handicaps a new team and forces them to compete at a disadvantage then they're also discouraging others from entering the sport. How do you attract new teams and new manufacturers when you also tell them that they'll be competing at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the grid?
The thing is, this is a controversy that Formula 1 shouldn't find itself with. Providing a level playing field across the grid seems like something that would be obvious. But apparently to the forces that rule F1 it isn't. This is something that the FIA should be weighing in on. So, where is the world motorsport governing body?