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As F1 grid tightens up, drivers fear new regulations could widen gap again


MONTREAL — McLaren driver Lando Norris believes Formula One is more exciting than it has been in a long time, but fears that may change with the sport’s governing body set to implement new regulations.

The F1 grid is tightening after years of undisputed Red Bull supremacy and it’s making for great entertainment, as seen last weekend at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Although Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won out at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the result was far from a foregone conclusion with three different drivers holding the lead.

But just as the competition is heating up, the governing body FIA is unveiling new technical guidelines set to take effect in 2026.

"The last regulation change we did, the last year was kind of the most exciting year between the first team to the last team,” Norris said. “Now, just when it gets exciting, there's going to be another change.”

The 2026 amendments, which haven't been ratified yet, include shedding 30 kilograms and 10 centimetres off current F1 vehicles while introducing improved aerodynamics. Engines will also change significantly for the first time since 2014, becoming simpler to attract new manufacturers

“We have an important place in society to be at the forefront of technology and innovation, and I think that's always what F1's been about in some ways,” McLaren driver Oscar Piastri said. “You could argue that sometimes that does come at the cost of the racing, which is always a shame.

“We're only just starting to catch up to Red Bull, week in, week out.”

Technical developments often introduce an era of dominance for teams that nail the engineering early, while others take years to catch up.

In 2021, Verstappen and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes duked it out until the final race in one of the most exciting seasons in F1 history.

New regulations took effect the following year and sparked Red Bull’s unrivalled run of 39 wins in 44 races in 2022 and 2023.

The lack of drama led some to suggest the sport’s popularity in North America was beginning to decrease after it grew exponentially thanks to “Drive to Survive,” Netflix’s behind-the-scenes series.

“You can have massive gaps (with new rules) and then people are gonna go ‘well, it's just boring again,'” Norris said. “When you look at how it is now it's probably as exciting as it's been in a very long time. I want to just leave it like this for a few years, and I think that's going to be the best for people watching on TV."

The FIA introduced a cost cap in 2021 to curb the disparity between teams. But even Verstappen and Hamilton, who’ve benefited greatly from changes in their careers, said they were concerned by the gap increasing after the regulations were revealed Thursday.

“The longer you keep the regulations the same, the closer it gets between the teams,” Verstappen said. “So ‘26 will be probably quite a big reset.”

“More often than not, when they've done the changes, some teams do better than the others,” added Hamilton. “I hope that with this new regulation change everything's a bit closer.”

Verstappen maintains a 56-point lead in the drivers’ standings. Still, four different pilots have won races through this year’s nine stops, more than all of last season.

Red Bull is also first in the constructors’ championship with 301 points, but Ferrari has 252 even after a disastrous weekend where both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz did not finish.

McLaren isn’t far behind with 212 and even Mercedes (124) is making strides after George Russell and Hamilton placed third and fourth in Montreal.

“That's four teams who are fighting towards the top,” Norris said. “Eight cars, you're going to see different winners. And I think that's exciting for people watching, but definitely you're not going to have that in ‘26.

“Next year should be an exciting year for everyone, just from first to last. I think it's going to be exciting. But then that's all going to go.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2024.