As Patrick Skene Caling writes in Wheels on Fire (The Spectator, June 2020), “Formula One motor racing is the perennial, worldwide contest that most reliably gratifies hero-worshipping, power-worshipping, money-worshipping, technology-worshipping ghouls, and some others.” Today’s F1 is slated for only the few who completely monopolize each race. It is reminiscent of Formula One during the 1950s when Ferrari and Alfa dominated the circuits until the mid-1950s with the emergence of Mercedes-Benz who ruled with impunity. In 1952, the sport was so uncompetitive, that the World Championship crown was offered to the more unpredictable and stirring unsurpercharged, 2-litre Formula 2 championship. This is as bad as presenting the National Football League’s Superbowl trophy to the college winner at the Rose Bowl.
The ‘50s saw Formula One as a gentleman’s sport in a cavalier age. Some drivers, like Mike Hawthorn, actually wore a suit and bowtie when racing. Top drivers, the likes of Ascari, Fangio and Moss were household names no matter where you lived (without social media). Entering the ‘60s, the cars evolved into lighter modifications transforming front engine to the rear allowing greater speed, flexibility, while front and rear wings provided unquestionable downforce, but like their predecessors, the cars were equally hazardous. It was a time when the persona of the driver, often depicted by the media as akin to playboy status, was as important to the perception of the sport as was the emerging financial security from sponsors and TV coverage. Such coverage catapulted the image of drivers, such as Clark, Hill, and Stewart to stratospheric notoriety. But it was the 70s when corporate commercialization changed everything. Corporate involvement enabled teams to experiment outrageously with side and underbelly skirts for magnetic downforce, the introduction of six-wheels, and Bernie Ecclestone’s determination to mold Formula One from an elite country club atmosphere to a lucrative global phenomenon that would only be surpassed in profit and viewership by the World Cup. Sadly, it was an era when too many brilliant drivers lost their lives mostly due to a lack of safety features in cars and tracks. On-the-other-hand, South- and North American and Australian drivers helped expand the sport’s tentacles beyond the confines of Europe and Britain.
Politics dominated F1 in the 80s as did turbo engines. Teams were often dictated by arbitrary commercial goals. It also became more apparently predictable as to which teams dominated the scene, usually confining the field to one or two teams. The only excitement focused on a fierce rivalry between teammates, such as Senna and Prost. Formula One was now more business than sport.
The 90s was seminal in ensuring better safety, but also purged the sport to a squeaky clean corporate image. Schumacher replaced Senna as the king of F1 while Mansell proved that a driver could adorn a F1 and Indy crown consecutively. There was a lust for technology as cars became more engine-efficient, faster and ridiculously expensive. The 2000s saw the emergence of Hamilton and his dominance, the decline of the omnipotent Team McLaren, and the strength of the expensive turbo-hybrid muscle. Arguably, one of the most remarkable and memorable achievements of the era was the Cinderella story of Braun, a team that emerged like the phoenix rising from the ashes of BAR Honda by the former Ferrari guru, Ross Braun, debunking dismissive and derisive views that both team and drivers were has-beens. Not only did they exceed at winning the World Championship in their maiden year, they morphed into the uber-giant of F1, Team Mercedes.
Regrettably Formula One has become a bit of, dare I say it, a nerd sport as it exonerates its precociousness: ultra expensive so only the few, and sometimes shady, can play, exceedingly technical that the drivers seem coincidental (try and find a driver’s name on the car), and an identity crisis equal to a premier league team relegated to the fourth division. Teams have become engineering labs for Big Tech and telecommunication clients. What it has gained in sophistication, it has lost in charm, romance and excitement. It is obvious that F1 caters to whoever has the largest budget, but who is their audience? Speed doesn’t necessarily produce great racing, it is overtaking and wheel-to-wheel combat that enthralls spectators. In yesteryears, drivers were the key interest in the sport and racing was fascinatingly close and dangerous. Today, the technology is the key: sophisticated, progressive, expensive, safe and impressive, but leaves the races as predictable as your morning cereal. The only time the races are truly exciting is when the two top teams are out of contention and we witness great racing between the remaining contenders. Former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson states, “Formula One has always been more of a manufacturer’s championship than a driver’s championship. If you’re not in one of the top cars, it’s tough mentally.” Former F1 driver, Takuma Sato, agrees. “I know how tough the competition is in F1 – it’s all about technology and science, and research and development.”
Here are some suggestions that could improve the sport and appeal to a wider demographic audience:
• Reduce or eliminate the massive financial budget discrepancies between the top four teams and the mere contenders. A financial minimum and maximum cap should be enforced to level the playing field. Unfortunately, this is hard to police. However, FIA could remove the following payments: Constructors’ Championship Bonus (CCB) for the top teams. This also applies to the Heritage Payment for the weakest team. Instead, have a kitty surplus that can aid teams that are suffering, but once they gain their momentum, they must repay 25 to 50 percent of the loan back. And drop the Team Payment to Ferrari. This is an abomination. A bonus fee, a very handsome one at that, simply to encourage Ferrari to participate each year because FIA blindly assumes Formula One wouldn’t survive without the Prancing Horse’s participation. This is nonsense. Formula 1 could exist without Ferrari just as it has without Brabham, Lotus, Tyrrell, BRM, Vanwall and countless others. As Mark D. Miles, chief executive for Hulman & Company, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway admits, “Frankly, with F1, there are so few drivers every year who have a chance to be competitive.”
• Reduce or eliminate the groundforce so that it is the driver’s ability, not technology’s mastery, that pilots the car. There is too much technology in F1. Yes, it is remarkable what a microchip can do, but I want to see what a driver can do on his own merit; otherwise, place the technicians on the podium instead of the drivers. Take away any technical device that can assist a driver to grip the tarmac or pass, like DRS (or only allow it to be used twice during a race). Only keep certain technology for safety issues.
• Reduce the size of the cars so passing is easier.
• The only technical data shared should be during qualifying days. No data should be exchanged or permitted during the race. No radio contact should be allowed. A team can use pit boards, but it is up to the driver to make his own decisions. Modern F1, the pits are practically driving the car for the driver.
• Bring back refueling as part of racing strategy. Cars could have smaller fuel tanks – about half the size they presently have. This would lead to more pit stop strategies.
• More tire and engine suppliers to increase the scope of competition, with the likes of Volkswagen, Mazda or KIA entering or one of the American top 3 manufacturers. I understand that there is a correlation between racing and dealership sales, but the Asians have a monopoly on car sales in the U.S., so the Big Three are much more focused on trucks (hence the allure of truck racing).
• Have one race as long as the old Nurburgring course (14 miles) as a contrast to all the rest. It would be a race of endurance, skill and courage.
• Have two shorter races instead of the one. The first race, on the Saturday, has the top qualifying cars at the front of the grid. The second race, on the Sunday, has the same top qualifiers at the back of the grid. This rule is similar to professional downhill skiing.
Of course, certain teams and individuals would oppose any adverse changes, particularly if it came to sacrificing their lucrative spoils.
No one wants to watch chronic boring racing. Each year racing magazines bring up the contentious debate as to who are the greatest drivers of all time, not who are the greatest teams of all time. I don’t believe anyone wants to watch one team dominate the sport other than the rabid tifosi. Formula One does not show the best of racing, but the worst of the modern attitude from drivers who don’t like to race in the rain and find it unmanageable to techno geeks who are designing cars that can almost drive themselves. Bring back the best of the past by merging it the best of today for a better tomorrow.