Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s controversial (former) boss, offered a dire warning to the sport in January.
“The rules must be changed: all of them,” he said. “They are too complicated…how are we supposed to entertain people when the audience doesn’t understand a thing any more?
It was only one indication of the unrest that currently dominates Formula One – but it came directly from the top.
Ecclestone was simply putting into words, in his typically blatant and unapologetic manner, what motorsport fans, commentators and drivers have known for years.
The sport is facing an existential crisis.
We’ve watched grand prix racing stray from its glorious, daring and thrilling origins to a tepid parade of underpowered, under fueled cars circling increasingly dull tracks in far-off dictatorships while legendary circuits and audiences in the sport’s traditional fan-base are put on the back-burner.
Soon after his outspoken comments sent shockwaves through the sporting world, Ecclestone was ousted from his position in the wake of Liberty Media’s takeover of F1, a stunning deal that insiders are hoping will offer a solution to the sport’s declining viewership troubles.
Liberty’s newly-espoused mandate is to overhaul the sport and boost falling viewership, which they hope to accomplish largely by growing American audiences. The fact that this has key players, like Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, concerned, speaks volumes of the potential for change.
But the fundamental problems in today’s grand prix far exceed the scope of Liberty’s quest for new viewership.
To name a few: the emergence of dull, impersonal circuits in far-off kleptocracies, and, conversely, the disappearance of legendary tracks as F1 demands tens of millions for hosting races; a stunning lack of competition and the resulting predictability of race standings; a lack of personality in racers; an increasingly disparate prize purse that sees winning teams scoop up large sums while struggling teams become anemic; a complicated set of engine regulations focused on eco-friendly alternatives and energy renewal – at the expense of the noise, grit and raw power of motor racing.
It’s likely that the Liberty takeover won’t address the fundamental issues facing F1.
That’s truly a shame. For motorsport fans old enough to remember previous F1 eras, or those, like me, who grew up with racing aficionados for parents, turning to the glory days of the 60s, 70s and 80s has become a respite from the yawn-inducing contemporary grand prix.
A collective glance over the shoulder, into the days of the past, has become the norm in F1.
Retro Formula One accounts draw tens – sometimes hundreds – of thousands of followers longing for the legendary days of old. McLaren’s social media accounts now focus on the glory days of the late 80s and early 90s, with the likes of Senna, Prost, and Häkkinen dominating their feeds. Formula One’s official social media accounts keep audiences engaged with clips of footage from the sport’s glorious past.
But reminiscing on the exhilarating days of the past – with its grit, raw power, unbridled enthusiasm and intoxicating danger – shouldn’t only serve as a refuge for disgruntled followers of modern day F1.
It should act as a reminder of what first drew audiences to the spectacle of grand prix – and what kept them captivated for decades.
Put simply, Formula One is in crisis – and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the host of issues at the centre of the sport’s declining popularity.
Lamentations over Formula One have come to dominate conversation in the sport. It’s nothing new, of course. Every major technological advancement has induced a volley of cries from the sidelines. Commentators have long decried the sport’s state each season.
But this is different. This is measurable. Viewership is declining, teams collapsing and speculation on who will win each race largely confined to one of the two drivers for the top team. Tracks with storied histories, which played host to legendary battles and drew passionate spectators are disappearing from the race calendar.
It’s time to face facts. Formula One has lost its magic. Here’s what went wrong.
In with the new, out with the good
Historic tracks continue to disappear from the race calendar, bowing out of the sport under exorbitant race-hosting fees. Meanwhile, a new disturbing trend in race hosting has emerged: kleptocratic countries summon massive sums of cash for F1’s bosses, constructing sparkling new facilities in the middle of the desert or in the streets of their major cities.
Oligarchies and dictatorships in the far and middle east have no trouble summoning tens of millions for F1’s bosses – so we continue to witness the construction of yawn-inducing tracks in the middle of the desert, in Russia, and in despotic regimes like Azerbaijan, where rampant human rights abuses and widespread corruption are hushed up with massive paydays for F1’s kingpins.
Last season saw the introduction of the Baku city circuit. It proved controversial for a number of reasons.
Azerbaijan’s government rules brutally, suppressing an array of freedoms with deadly force. Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s ties to the regime erupted in a scandal, when leaked documents revealed the Brit had counselled the country’s repressive administration on how best to downplay the murder of striking workers.
This is the kind of regime Formula One is now aligning itself with.
Russia’s Sochi circuit was introduced amidst the Putin regime’s dazzling array of domestic and foreign transgressions – the annexation of Crimea and ongoing conflict in western Ukraine, well-documented embezzlement and money laundering, failing economy and rampant political repression, to name a few. It seems that no regime is off-limits for the moralists running Formula One.
But beyond the obvious ethics of partnering with despots, the newly-constructed circuits have, by and large, proved an utter bore for spectators and drivers alike.
In a sport where public relations carefully guard every word uttered by drivers and teams, outright criticism of new circuits has become the new norm.
Ferrari’s oft-outspoken Kimi Raikkonen, famous for his candid remarks, famously called Abu Dhabi “boring.”
Drivers openly criticized Azerbaijan’s Baku city circuit. Safety concerns over turn 9, an extremely tight corner hugging a wall of the city’s castle, presented the opportunity for nothing short of a tragedy. And when the circuit wasn’t potentially deadly, it was dull. Long straights linked by a massive rectangle, followed by a series of tight corners, looked awkward and contrived.
Russia’s Sochi circuit was introduced in 2014 to a similarly poor reception. As the circuit map suggested, the inaugural race proved to be a categorical bore. 2015 was similar. 2016 offered a more exciting spectacle, largely in spite of the track – and not because of it.
More money, more problems
Money has long dominated F1 – and understandably so. Motor racing has always been painfully expensive; the barrier to entry set staggeringly high. But the trouble with modern-day F1 is how money is filtered back into the sport.
Top-performing teams get massive pay days, while backmarkers and struggling manufacturers are left with scraps. This disparity begets the lack of competition in modern day-F1, where the leading teams invest their massive winnings into next year’s dominance – while the losers are forced to scrape together the funds needed for a decent aero package and engine.
Take, for instance, the sad case of Manor Racing. The team folded ahead of the 2017 season, collapsing in a financial quagmire after failing to find a buyer. But their money problems began years ago. As a backmarker, their finances were never solid. In 2014 they received just $10 million from the sport’s coffers, while Red Bull and Ferrari each took home an estimated $150 million.
That’s not to mention the exorbitant cost of building a modern-day F1 engine. With the rise of environmentally-friendly regulations, the complexity of today’s engine regulations have pushed teams to spend upwards of $20 million on their motors.
A disparity of this magnitude is impossible to ignore, and manifests itself in the unrivalled dominance of teams like Mercedes.
Turbo hybrids are a complicated, unnecessary bore
Noise, grit, power—for decades, Formula One created, and embodied, these quintessential characteristics of motor racing.
As the environmental concerns of the late 20th century manifested themselves into government regulations on emissions, power distribution and air quality, Formula One followed suit – downsizing engines into efficient, practical modules.
But this has come at the expense of one of Formula One’s best-known qualities: noise. The screams of V10 and V8 engines were long a staple of the sport – an unmistakable roar that sent shivers down spines. Today’s turbo hybrids bear a closer resemblance to vacuums than banshees. Leave your earplugs at home – you won’t need them anymore.
But beyond the sheer value of noise, today’s engines lack in almost every other capacity. Power has been stripped away, revolution limits have returned and strict fuel conservation has teams running their cars on lower settings.
Far from the flagrant, unapologetic symphony of noise, power and strength, modern F1 engines are quiet, boring and practical.
Formula One has always spurred technical innovation in production cars. But with car manufacturers increasingly seeking out green technologies, the sport is nearing a crucial juncture: continue to match consumer trends and manufacturer demands and destroy the very essence of motor racing, or make a conscious decision to consider what drives the fans passion for the sport – and act accordingly.
It comes down to those two directions, as Ross Brawn, F1’s newly installed managing director of motorsports, pointed out recently.
“I think we are at a bit of a crossroads,” Brawn told ESPN. “If we say Formula One has to align itself with road cars, then logically we end up with an electric car that drives itself, and nobody wants that in Formula One.
“We have gone partway into the hybrid route, and they are fabulous engines in terms of the technology, but I want to engage with the manufacturers and get their views on what is the racing engine of the future.
“They must all recognize that if we just keep aligning ourselves, we are going to end up with an electric car and I don’t think that’s what Formula One needs to be. But I don’t have the solution.”
Will F1 continue down this rabbit hole? Will it continue to drive innovation, essentially attempting to squeeze in better fuel consumption, efficiency and green and autonomous technology? And will it lose itself in the process?
Formula One has long depended on shaking up its regulations to encourage competitiveness and dissuade a single team’s dominance. But the dismal performance of turbo hybrids – and the tepid reception from fans – should be more than enough impetus to make the changes necessary to restore the exhilarating noise and performance motorsport fans crave. Otherwise, they’ll continue to go elsewhere – namely, to the WEC and Indy racing.
A lack of personality
As celebrations ensued at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, where James Hunt’s third-place finish clinched the season’s world championship, the Brit was interviewed from London via telephone.
“What are your immediate plans now? ” the interviewer asked Hunt.
“I shall be getting drunk,” was Hunt’s famous reply.
Ever the daring playboy, Hunt’s on-and-off-track antics endeared him to fans, creating a distinct personality that was easily identifiable, honest and real. F1’s legendary drivers have long had iconic personalities to match.
It’s as far a cry from today’s tightly scripted post-race remarks as is conceivable. Under pressure from teams and sponsors to maintain a squeaky-clean image and avoid any possible controversy, drivers seem bound and gagged from expressing any sentiments that might reflect poorly on their backers.
There are notable exceptions to the rule, of course.
Kimi Raikkonen, with his candid, albeit terse, comments, clearly doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do, or say. Perhaps his best known comment – dismissing team orders from Lotus with “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” – was an instant hit with fans, who delighted in hearing a driver express a veritable human sentiment. The phrase has been printed onto mugs, t-shirts and posters, and continues to appear in online racing forums.
But the Finn largely keeps to himself. His outbursts are so rare, and so mild, that he can get away with straying from a script.
The media has a share of the blame for this, too. Any commentary from drivers is parsed for controversy; rivalries are magnified and blown out of proportion; off-track composure is scrutinized for any signs of bad behaviour. Predictably, drivers choose their words carefully, avoiding anything that might be misconstrued in tomorrow’s headlines.
Daniil Kvyat, who was downgraded from Red Bull to Toro Rosso last season, offered a rare glimpse of humanity at the Russian Grand Prix. In the wake of his controversial racing incident with Sebastian Vettel, he shrugged off responsibility and seemed to point blame elsewhere.
“It is easy now to attack me and I guess everyone will, but I don’t really care about that,” Kvyat said. “The second touch he slowed down a lot and I didn’t have time to react.”
The media quickly picked up on this sound bite and turned it into front-page news. Soon, Kvyat had clarified his comments, offering a sanitized apology to “everyone involved” and promising better behaviour in the future. Vettel, for his part, called Kvyat a “madman.”
Aside from the occasional outburst, drivers tend to adhere to the unspoken rules governing today’s athletes – speak only in rehearsed phrasing and avoid any potential controversy.
But drivers are human. So why do we pretend otherwise?
No solutions in sight
The writing is on the wall. Yet we continue to hang onto some semblance of optimism. Instead of anticipating legendary battles and spectacular races, we resort to the prospect that the two Silver Arrows might, by some miracle, crash out, or have technical problems, or that pit strategy might provide an upset to the established racing order.
It’s a far cry from racing’s exhilarating roots – and declining viewership and long held resentment among fans is evidence enough of F1’s deep-seated problems. Yet those in charge still pretend the sport isn’t at a critical juncture.
“We mustn’t talk the sport down, as it is not broken,” Mercedes’ Toto Wolff recently told Autosport. “There are people who will say that they hate it and others will say that they love it. That is OK.”
With respect, Mr. Wolff, it’s not okay. Fans, drivers and teams alike know this. Formula One’s bosses know this. But it seems that pursuing goals that are at odds with the essence of motorsport will continue – possibly until it’s too late.
Those in charge of F1 might be cavalier enough to think audiences will never stray, no matter the quality of racing. But they’re wrong – and will continue to be, at the sport’s expense.