IT IS BEING ABANDONED BY FANS AND IS DRIVING TEAMS AND TRACKS TO THE WALL, WRITES TOM CARY
As he departed the French Riviera on his private jet after the Monaco Grand Prix, at least one man not named Nico Rosberg will almost certainly have been smiling. Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s incorrigible chief executive, last week described Rosberg — to the German’s face, no less — as “bad for business”.
A one-sided championship is of no use to Ecclestone.
Lewis Hamilton looks to have the measure of his Mercedes teammate again this season, but Rosberg’s win at least reduced the deficit to the Briton to 10 points, and added a little spice to proceedings. Never a bad thing in Bernie’s world.
What with Ferrari just about keeping Mercedes honest, the championship might even stay alive until the final rounds without the need for double points or random sprinklers (two of Ecclestone’s more outlandish ideas to generate public interest; the second never got off the ground, the first was ditched after one season). Formula One badly needs the driver race to stay alive.
These should be golden times for the sport, with a marketable, mixed-race world champion at the top of his game, closing in on a hat-trick of world titles, which would draw him level with his idol Ayrton Senna. Instead, fans are turning off in droves, pining for a return to the Brazilian’s era, when sparks and fists flew, drivers raced at the limit and engines roared.
TV audiences are down $370 million in the past six years, leaving the sport’s brains trust — the laughably named Strategy Group, which comprises Bernie, FIA and the sport’s leading teams — scrabbling frantically for solutions. Two weeks ago, in a move typical of the muddled thinking that currently afflicts the sport, the Strategy Group unveiled a raft of plans, including bringing back refuelling, only to hit reverse gear in Monaco when it was pointed out that, actually, that might not help the drive for cost reduction.
Everyone is clear that change needs to happen. But no one is quite sure what the solution is. At the recent Telegraph Business of Sport conference at the BT Centre in London, a panel of motorsport experts looked blank when asked what they could do about it.
Matthew Carter, the chief executive of Lotus, said it was not within his team’s power to do anything. “We’re told what engine we have to put in the back of our car,” he said. “FOM [Formula One Group] and the governing body decide where we race. All we can do is try to keep reaching out to young people, the people we believe will be watching the sport in the future, via social media, via Twitter, via Facebook. There is not much more we can do.”
In a bid to be proactive, the sport’s drivers association, the GPDA, is currently canvassing fans on what they want to see Formula One do. The last time this happened was when the Formula One Teams Association conducted the “largest survey of F1 fans ever”. The upshot was Kers, a divisive bit of technology which has driven away many purists — Formula One’s traditional fan base — who lament the “artificial” nature of the overtaking it produces.
Others feel disenfranchised by the steady moves to pastures new. F1 was once an almost exclusively Europe-based sport; now European races account for just 36.8 per cent of races as Ecclestone has chased the money around the globe. How much further can that figure fall?
While teams (at least those that have not been put into administration by the lopsided division of revenues) talk up the traffic they are generating on Facebook, citing the innovative schemes they are deploying to engage a younger audience, the German Grand Prix has slipped quietly off the schedule, following its French counterpart into the abyss, unable to afford the exorbitant race fees.
This despite the fact that Germany is represented by a championship-winning manufacturer and a four-time champion driver. Formula One still has plenty going for it. But something needs to change.