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F1 drivers worry car changes in ’26 will deepen gap among teams just as competition is picking up

McLaren driver Lando Norris believes Formula 1 is more exciting than it has been in a long time, but fears that may change with new technical regulations for the cars set to take effect in 2026.

11 June 2024
By The Associated Press
11 June 2024

McLaren driver Lando Norris believes Formula 1 is more exciting than it has been in a long time, but fears that may change with new technical regulations for the cars 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 over the weekend at the Canadian Grand Prix. "Now, just when it gets exciting, there's going to be another change."

Max Verstappen of Red Bull won the race in Montreal, his sixth victory in nine races this season and appears to be well on his way to winning a fourth consecutive season championship. The 26-year-old Dutchman has 50 victories in the last 75 F1 races.

Still, some drivers see the competition picking up and three different drivers held the lead in Montreal.

F1 is enjoying a surge in popularity in North American but the series has been criticized for having a predictable product, where the race winner is a foregone conclusion far too often and cars rarely are able to pass competitors. Verstappen’s dominance hasn’t changed that outlook among casual fans.

The series last week outlined a set of proposed modifications coming for its 10 teams in 2026 that it said would make the cars more "agile, competitive, safer and more sustainable." F1 touted the increased use of battery power, lighter chassis and improved aerodynamics as it proposed changing the engines for the first time since 2014.

Of particular interest to the critics is F1’s plan to ensure more chances for cars to pass competitors "through the introduction of a new system that gives drivers a short burst of additional battery power when within one second of the car in front."

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 battled until the final race in one of the most exciting seasons in F1 history.

New regulations took effect the following year and Red Bull won 39 of the 44 races in 2022 and 2023. The lack of drama led some to suggest the sport's popularity in North America was beginning to wane after the success of "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, according to the Canadian Press. "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. After the latest plans were revealed, even Verstappen and Hamilton said they were concerned the gap in competition might increase.

"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 holds a 56-point lead in the drivers' standings going into the June 23 race in Spain. Still, four drivers have won races through this year's nine stops, more than all last season.

Red Bull is also first in the constructors' championship with 301 points. 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 Mercedes has 124.

"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."

McLaren driver Oscar Piastri said F1 is also striving to be at the forefront of technology and innovation.

"You could argue that sometimes that does come at the cost of the racing, which is always a shame,” he said. “We're only just starting to catch up to Red Bull, week in, week out."