Issue 5: The Future of Formula One

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24 March 2014

There’s an excellent article in the April issue of Motorsport Magazine that sketches out an alternative vision of F1. The author, Mark Hughes, proposes a version of F1 that echoes its early years of ‘electrification’ in the late 1970s when the sport was characterised by technical freedom, un-spun personalities and no big money. The article is a’ call-to-arms’ aimed squarely at racing purists and committed fans of F1. And it’s been long overdue.

I agreed with pretty much all of Hughes’ vision, in particular his proposals that the revenue generated by F1 stays in the sport, a core of traditional circuits being maintained every season, the opening-up of the technical regulations, cost control, the end of silly driver penalties and the re-introduction of a tyre war. Gimmicks like DRS and double points in the final round would go too, thankfully. Hughes’ article is the core of a blueprint for much-needed change.

One has to admire Bernie Ecclestone’s success in turning F1 from a relatively marginal sport into the mainstream commercial success it is today. He’s made a lot of money for himself and since the mid-2000s, for F1’s commercial rights’ holders. However, in the pursuit of ever greater revenues, the racing has suffered and the ordinary fans have suffered. Increasingly in the last few years, I’ve often thought about what F1 would be like without the big money. What if the F1 teams could no longer spend millions of dollars in wind tunnels, simulators and on supercomputers finding those extra two or three tenths of second a lap that mean the difference between fifth place and third place? Would that threaten F1’s place at the pinnacle of technology? F1’s state-of-the-art technology is part of its attraction. But recently it seems that the teams need to spend ever increasing amounts of cash in order to find what are relatively small performance gains in the grand scheme of things. What value do exhaust blown diffusers, f-ducts and flexible wings really add to the sport? Not a lot for the money they cost to develop, in my view. So why not impose a cost cap and open-up the technical regulations as Hughes suggests? One only need glance at the lower single-seater formulas or at historic racing, e.g. the Goodwood Circuit Revival, for confirmation that fantastic wheel-to-wheel racing is entirely possible without the big bucks. True, money has given the fans and the teams state-of-the-art facilities at circuits, but who wants to watch F1 cars whizzing past empty grandstands at tracks in countries with little or no interest in F1 racing? Not me. F1 can still be the pinnacle of technical ingenuity on a fraction of its current total development budget. As Hughers argues, remodel F1 so it is no longer driven by commercial success, but by the quality of on-track racing. If that means a smaller fan base and circuit infrastructure that’s not quite as good, so be it.

I would add a few things to Hughes’ future vision of F1:

Do more to protect and promote the heritage of F1. The F1 World Championship has a fantastic history, but we rarely hear about it, except in specialist publications. The on-track rivalries, the personalities and the cars all lend themselves to stories that would inform and entertain. True, the recent ‘Senna’ documentary and Ron Howard’s 2013 ‘Rush’ movie have made steps in this direction, but these are one-off events. For every race, why don’t TV companies delve into the archives and compile a narrative of the racing history at that venue or for that race? It would be cheap and easy to do and help keep alive the heritage of the sport. Likewise, for some races, especially in Europe, why not have teams demonstrate some of their historic cars that raced at those circuits? I’d much rather see that than the F1 stars slowly driven around a lap on a flat-bed truck…

Return to countries that have established F1 fan bases. I’m sure this is partly what Hughes meant when he said that a core of traditional venues should remain while other venues would hold races on rotation. Why is F1 not in countries like South Africa or Argentina? It’s a travesty that there is only a single race in South America given the continent’s history in the sport. Why can’t F1 return to Zandvoort in the Netherlands? The reason now is money and infrastructure. But after the revolution that won’t matter nearly so much. Fans in these countries who have missed out on F1 could now enjoy it again live. And TV viewers would not have to stare at F1 cars competing in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people in a sterile venue in order for the promoter to pick up multi-million dollar racing hosting fees.

Do more for the live audience, not just the TV audience. Like many fans, I’ve paid exorbitant ticket prices to attend F1, I’ve trudged through mud, got soaking wet, stood in long queues for food etc., all in aid of watching F1 live. However, I can’t help but feel that I get less for my money now than I used to. If I recall , back in the 1990s, there used to be more support races at F1 events to entertain us throughout the day, there also used to be more access (obviously not to the pit-lane or paddock, but still I used to be able to get pretty close for autographs etc.) Much of that has gone now. It’s almost impossible to get inside the track at Silverstone. Yes, GP2 and GP3 provide some entertainment (better than F3000), but the cost for this is now around £200 for a grandstand seat at Silverstone. In the new era, race hosting fees would drop so fans would pay less to be part of the live audience, making it better value. That’s the theory at least. F1 could take plenty of lessons from the Goodwood motorsport events about how to entertain and create value for a live audience. People come away from Goodwood with a great feeling having had a very memorable experience. F1 should aim for the same for its live audience.

Put F1 back on terrestrial TV, worldwide. In the early years, F1 had to fight to get the TV companies to show the sport. Then, 30 years later, none of the terrestrial stations could afford to show F1 anymore, so races went behind a paywall. I resent having to pay for something that was until recently, free. Especially as I have to pay Sky. In the two seasons of Sky’s coverage of F1, I don’t believe they have added anything at all to the sport. The BBC did as good if not a better job than Sky when covering F1. It is F1’s current commercial model that has meant that access to live F1 has been taken away from the mass audience. How does F1 think it will attract new fans if only a few can afford to pay to watch it live on TV? The commercial rights’ holders don’t care about the sport’s long-term health, but someone should. As such, F1 now has an ageing audience and is very bad at communicating with younger potential fans. Put F1 back on terrestrial TV, stream it live online and make heavy use of social media to promote itself to younger people. Like many young people, I get all my news online now, I regularly use social media, but I can’t stream F1 live online. For all of F1’s state-of-the-art technology, it’s still rooted in 20th Century means of mass communication.

This vision of F1 is not particularly likely to be implemented, however, current events make the opportunity for some change to take place more probable in the next few years than in the previous decade. The key is the control of F1’s commercial rights. The will to put in place measures to control development budgets will also be important in the future otherwise F1 will lose teams that can no longer afford to compete. Who wants to watch a series with only five or six teams fighting for wins? That the teams themselves cannot agree on much at all is a big obstacle to moving forward. An inability to agree on major decisions on their part is understandable to some extent; they’re in an intense competition with each other. However, they have frequently allowed themselves to be divided and conquered. The recent demise of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) was just the latest example of this. Therefore, for this vision to come to pass, F1 probably needs a steward, custodian or caretaker to impose these measures rather than agree them. I’m not sure who that is or who they answer to, but the current division of power in F1 is not giving us the fans the best formula.

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