Motorsport Thoughts

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Formula One's Image Crisis

The motorsport press over the past couple of years have been full of articles about how to improve the 'show' of Formula One.

All kinds of ideas are discussed: reducing aerodynamic grip and increasing mechanical grip, reducing the number of driver aids and electronics on the car, introducing spec engines, spec tyres, control parts or such like, and other changes to the technical regulations. Then there's the discussion of the sporting regulations: changes to the points system, qualifying changes, starting the cars in reverse order, making drivers change cars during the season, or calls for Michael Schumacher to be banned altogether.

And to be fair some very good points have been put forward, many of which are points that I would make when in conversation with people who I think are similarly-minded to me i.e it's all about the racing. I don't sit there supporting any one driver, I just like to see a good race where hopefully things change throughout it to give us a good spectacle.

Now to my eyes there haven't been too many races like that in F1 recently.

So it would seem to me at least a simple idea to reduce aero, bring back slicks, ban driver aids and auto gears, sort out the mess that is qualifying, go to good circuits, do a load of other things and all of a sudden everything would be hunky dory and Formula One would be better than ever. 125cc Grand Prix Motorcycling but on four wheels. Brilliant.

But it's not that simple.

The first problem is that the technical changes that people like me keep harping on about will have a tough time getting past all the manufacturers. Anything that levels out the playing field will struggle because big-money manufacturers aren't in the business of having a level playing field.

And the second is because there are a lot of fans out there who aren't interested in seeing a level playing field.

That's the one that none of the press seem to want to mention.

The thing is, it appears that TV viewing figures are going up, despite the red dominance. And there are plenty of new countries out there who want a slice of the action; host their own Grand Prix, back a team - it has to be said that F1 is going to a wider audience and it has to be said that having Michael at the front all the time makes it easy to understand. Simple guide to F1: Michael wins. The race for second might be quite interesting. A lot of those who want a piece of F1 don't need to know any more about it than that. Maybe a dumbed-down, easy F1 is better even if the racing is dull. People still watch it...

The question that the FIA and indeed everyone who controls the sport is: is this a good game to play?

It's all well and good having money flowing into the sport from people who maybe don't know so much about it, but what happens if the money stops. What happens if these Middle-East (to give an example) backers decide after a couple of years that it isn't as interesting as they thought and cease the cashflow? Or what happens if the people who do know what's what - say, Paul Stoddart and Eddie Jordan, get bored and fold their teams up?

My thoughts are that those who are investing in the sport need to be checking the big picture these days - you may want to back the best teams on the grid but you've got to make sure there's a rest-of-grid there first.

There need to be some big-money sponsor people out there - NOT necessarily manufacturers - who will guarantee that the field stays at its current size or (hopefully) gets a bit bigger. Like in the German DTM series, Vodafone sponsor every car in the championship. Something like that would help in F1 - someone needs to make sure that Minardi, Jordan and Sauber carry on being in the sport. If McLaren and Williams suddenly were the backmarker teams with just BAR, Renault and Ferrari in front, it'd look pretty feeble, don't you think?

This is where it all gets a bit tricky with regards to a conclusion both to the situation and my post!

Formula One has never really been about equality and making sure the racing was close. Look back over the years - virtually every year the driver in the best car has won. There has NEVER been much overtaking.

Formula One is about technology. But there's now so much money in the sport that it can't do without cash for the technology.

But the techonology has got good - so good that the racing has become too easy and boring. I watched the Hungarian GP today and was on the point of dozing off at several stages. Added to the drive for safety following the tragic events of 10 years ago, the idea of F1 drivers as 'daredevils', defying death at every turn, has all but vanished.

This has created the potential for a big fall. If people stop watching there won't be the revenue generated so there'll be no point putting any money in from the manufacturers and sponsors.

But conversely if moves are taken to purposefully level out the field (in fact laptimes-wise, it's the closest it's ever been if you ignore Minardi), the viewers might get more excited but the manufacturers won't be happy because they can't show their technology as well.

So there are some big questions that someone somewhere has to solve:
-How much in the way of change technologically will the manufacturers take?
-At what point of dullness will people quit watching to a large extent?
-Do sponsors prefer a predictable F1 to an open F1?
(-And, does F1 need superstars winning every week or many different possibilities in contention?)
-Can someone successfully change F1's image from a technology-led one to a totally driver led one, and do people want that? (customer chassis? - it's been done in the past, why not now?)

I think there's a lot of people around here who would like F1 to become something rather different to it's current form which can gain it some new supporters. The big matter for debate is how much different it can become while still retaining all it's fans, backers and manufacturers it already has.

[Please post any thoughts in the comments...I know that I haven't really reached a conclusion here!]


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