Formula One Champion Mika Hakkinen on Racing

The recent news that Honda pulled out of Formula One for financial reasons, and that the team has been restructured as an independent under a new name, Braun F1, stunned the world of racing. Honda was one of the biggest teams, managed by one of the world's strongest auto manufacturers. Many believed Honda's decision to walk away because of the cost of motor racing marked the beginning of serious financial problems for the sport. If Honda went, they wondered, who would be next? Smaller teams, which have difficulties in the best of times, may also follow. And with numerous top sponsors having trouble of their own—financial firms, in particular—some have speculated that Formula One, like other sports, could be facing a very difficult period. Yet the 2009 season, which begins March 29 in Melbourne, will see no drop in the number of teams racing. Nor is there any reason to think that the number of fans who turn up and watch each race on TV around the world will diminish. In fact, in my view, F1 has reacted with characteristically strong leadership, and it is using the economic climate and the need to cut costs as an opportunity to reinvigorate the sport.

For years people have talked about how costs were escalating, but the bigger, successful teams were reluctant to make changes, and smaller teams suffered. Now we have a situation where everyone wants to keep the excitement but lower the expenses. So F1's governing body has decided to put rules in place that will reduce the number of engines a team can use, which will help decrease costs for the smaller teams who have to buy their engines. The governing body has also reduced the amount teams can use wind tunnels in the design of their cars—the way some teams were spending money to improve the car's aerodynamics was just incredible.

By making rule changes now, F1 is making itself stronger and more attractive to teams and sponsors. But care is needed. Too many changes can dull the sport. For instance, F1 has already agreed to cut the number of test sessions a team can have, which lowers costs. But that may also prevent younger drivers from acquiring the kind of experience they need to take on and win against drivers from the bigger, wealthier teams. Similarly, the idea that all teams must use the same engines has been floated. That, too, would trim expenses, but it would also diminish the excitement. F1, after all, has always been about technical innovation, and there is a huge amount of knowledge and research that goes into F1, which finds its way onto the highways of the world.

The rule changes will mean that Formula One will increasingly be as much about the driver as it is about the amount of money spent on the car. Yes, some of the old winners will still be around. Success breeds confidence, and some of the F1 athletes are just naturals—the racing equivalents of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. Britain's Lewis Hamilton of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team raced go-carts as a child. When McLaren boss Ron Dennis met him 11 years ago, he was so impressed he immediately told him he could try out for the team—when he was still a boy. He won the world championship last year after one of the most exciting finishes ever, beating Ferrari's Felipe Massa by just one point at the Grand Prix in Brazil, Massa's home country. Hamilton's reflexes, keen understanding of what his car can do and his ability to communicate effectively with engineers and the technical staff around the car mean that he is likely to be an F1 winner for years to come regardless of the rule changes. Lewis's teammate, Heikki Kovalainen, who I know a lot about because he is a fellow Finn, is also likely to do better this season, as he understands the team and the races better.

But the rule changes could mean some dramatic turns are in store. Ferrari suffered from technical problems last year and could now have trouble fielding a strong car in light of the new rules. Some other very good drivers could also thrive as a result of the changes. Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, who became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner last year at the age of 21, could both force Hamilton and others to raise their game.

Team spending is still an issue, and it is one that the International Automobile Federation is continuing to work on, with even more rule changes planned in the next two years. Thus far, the changes have balanced the need for cost savings with the desire to maintain F1's status as the world's premier racing sport. But whatever they do to the cars and the budgets, the benefits of the rule changes are becoming increasingly clear: they allow the teams to save money and stay in the race, and they put the emphasis where it should be—on the daring young men who can race at up to 300 kilometers per hour, bringing entertainment to millions at every turn.