THERE ARE PROBLEMS WITHIN THE SPORT AND RUMBLINGS OF DISCONTENT
The small UK village of Silverstone becomes the focus of the Formula 1 world this weekend with the British F1 GP, and unlike the recent Austrian F1 GP, where the crowd numbers were almost half of the 2014 figure, the Silverstone event is sold out.
Probably the Lewis Hamilton factor has a lot to do with the large number of British fans but I worry for the future of Formula 1. The F1 paddock was, for pretty much three decades, my “village”.
The strip between the team hospitality units and the garages was my local street and like any small village, especially one that travels the world together, the occupants of the village were either good friends or acquaintances.
Formula One star Lewis Hamilton.
Yet now I look at the TV pictures of the paddock and all I see in the background is other TV production crews, press and media personnel or the odd team member with a tyre trolley.
No fans, no small kids with autograph books, no “village” life — and that saddens me.
The “Mayor” of the village is Bernie Ecclestone and like any good mayor he knows his people and knows them all well.
In 2013 I attended the Belgian F1 GP at Spa and was in the paddock with Jan McLaren, Bruce’s sister, introducing her to those in the paddock I still knew when I spied Bernie.
We politely waited for him to finish his conversation with a team boss and my introduction proceeded.
After graciously greeting Jan, Bernie turned to me and said “Where have you been lately Bob, haven’t seen you around”.
I hadn’t visited the paddock, the village, for some eight years at that point.
He really doesn’t forget a face.
Just lately the calls for Bernie to step down as “the boss” of Formula 1, for that is what he effectively is, have been growing ever louder amid accusations that he is losing his grip and the sport needs a new face to lead it.
In an interview Bernie was apparently asked “how many millionaires have you made in this paddock?” to which he is said to have replied, after briefly looking up and down the paddock, “All of them!”.
But it is obvious that anybody born on October 28, 1930, as Bernie was, is not going to be around for too many more decades, much less be running what is still the most watched sport in the world, bigger than all and any sports with the exception of the Olympics and the Football World Cup.
Yet there are problems within the sport and rumblings of discontent from almost every direction.
Formula 1 in the 1950s was almost a “gentleman’s” sport with mainly rich, slightly eccentric, cravat-wearing chaps with romantic names like Moss, Fangio, and Ascari ruling the roost.
Towards the 1960s and into that decade came the younger, hungry drivers like Brabham, Hulme, Clark and Rindt and they took on a hero-like status.
The 1970s was the real beginning of the “professional” era with sponsors and money flowing in from TV and Bernie was front and centre of that era.
The 1980s brought a flood of new teams and “aerodynamics” became the watchword.
Superstar designers could name their price, but Formula 1 prospered as never before. Names like Senna, Prost, Lauda, Mansell and Villeneuve ruled supreme. By the 1990s the technical rules were tightening and the F1 cars began to look as if they were all cast from the same mould. Then the cost of competition began to climb to atmospheric levels, but still F1 prospered.
Into the 2000s and the cracks began to show, and in 2015, I fear that the F1 bubble is about to burst.
The viewership, while still enormous, is contracting at an alarming rate. F1 is haemorrhaging fans and few new ones are jumping in. We have technical penalties that, while essential, casual fans do not understand nor care about, except to laugh about them.
Run off areas where once a driver had to respect the track limit for fear of dangerously crashing.
Aerodynamics that prevent overtaking, real racing.
Drivers who seemingly cannot be bothered with actually communicating with their own paying fans.
Teams that cannot afford to even be on the grid without some paying driver filling the coffers.
A world of the extreme “haves” and poor “have nots”.
The sport is now owned and being bled dry by a faceless private equity firm.
Above all we have people, fans, viewing the actual racing as “boring”!
All these things and more are causing fans, the public, to lose interest in the sport and I for one have trouble blaming them.
The village, the street, is awash with concern that maybe now the bubble really is about to burst.
I respect Bernie, I like him, I worked for him once, but is he losing his grip on the sport?
Surely his major objective before he retires — if he ever will — is to get Formula 1 back to what it once was.