With teams going bust, soporific racing and both attendances and viewing figures in decline, Daniel Johnson explains how to rescue the sport
Bernie Ecclestone has been called either ‘ringmaster’ or ‘supremo’ for decades, but this description has taken a battering the past 18 months.
Dietrich Mateschitz, the Red Bull billionaire, is thought to have grown frustrated with Ecclestone’s failure to deliver on promises, even if he has immense respect for the 84-year-old’s many achievements.
There are also Ecclestone’s tiring complaints about Formula One. More than any other person, he has set the agenda for all the negativity that team principals prefer to blame on the press.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Photo/AP.
F1 has a cloud hanging over it and it is hard to see it clearing until there is a change of leadership at the very top. And then there is Jean Todt, the FIA president. Many in the sport are aghast at his apparent lack of interest.
As one team principal put it to me: “He just isn’t bothered. He’s much more interested in road safety.”Another was even more damning: “What is astonishing is his basic failure to understand the problems, which is remarkable for someone of his experience.”
But Todt angrily denies he is disinterested. He told The Sunday Telegraph: “It is a completely wrong and false analysis to say that Formula One is in such a bad shape. That does not mean nothing needs to be done. To get agreement in Formula One is probably the most difficult thing I have seen."
It is a mark of his and Ecclestone’s failure that agreement on the fundamental issues has proved so elusive.
Verdict: Needs an overhaul.
Sir Stirling Moss’s description to me of F1 being a “nanny state” is not far off the truth. There are incomprehensible penalties for almost every indiscretion.
For a sport that is already complicated, the rules need to be radically simplified. McLaren’s50-place grid penalty in Austria seemed to be the tipping point. As Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, said: “You should not need to wait until 10pm the night before the race to know the starting grid.”
Thankfully, this is one area that F1‘s Strategy Group appears to be addressing with some urgency. The hated grid penalties will be scrapped this year, and there are plans to shake up the format of the race weekend to attract a younger generation of fans.
Both ventures are essential.
These are the most advanced racing machines in the world, but they are simply not fast enough, or sufficiently awe-inspiring to rouse the emotions. Speed is what the sport is all about. In one race this year, the cars lapped nearly 10 seconds slower than a decade ago. That was a real worry.
The cars are not easy to drive, but they are not the bucking broncos of old.Then there is their appearance. If you painted all the cars the same colour, only the diehard fans could tell them apart.
The rules have become so restrictive that great minds such as Adrian Newey, the genius behind Red Bull’s four years of domination, have lost interest in the sport’s creative challenge. By contrast, in the words of former Formula One driver Mark Webber, a leading Le Mans car looks “futuristic, space-age, sexy”.
Formula One needs to recapture this magic.
The engines are the most incredible pieces of technology, but their noise is a recurring issue, too. Fortunately, there is a growing consensus about what needs to be done. In 2017 the cars will be five or six seconds faster, wider and more visually arresting.
But they should go even further, making the cars faster than they have ever been, particularly in the races.
Verdict: In need of some tweaks.
There was a worrying statistic in a survey of more than 200,000 fans, published this week. It found that just 43 per cent believe F1 comprises the finest drivers in the world.The issue of ‘pay’ drivers is a concern. Their presence saps the belief that drivers are selected on the strength of their talent.
For instance, both Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson forced their way into Sauber with sponsorship deals of pounds 15million a year. This has always been a feature of Formula One, but it has become more pronounced.
However, many of the drivers are of unquestionable quality. Arguably the top four or five are as good as ever. Nico Hulkenberg’s victory at Le Mans was a great advert for the quality of the F1 field. Admittedly, its combatants are often wooden and too restrained by corporate interests to be the colourful, flamboyant characters of old.
But this problem is not unique to Formula One.
Verdict: Still the best in the world.
Last season produced some of the best races ever - Bahrain, Canada and Hungary spring to mind - but 2015 has been a soporific affair.The key problem is the lack of uncertainty during a race. Within reason, no one actually cares how many overtaking manoeuvres there are. That there are more than ever now is irrelevant; people want to see battles, jostling for position over the course of 10 laps.
The artificiality of the drag reduction system has made that difficult. What enlivens a race is the result at the front being in doubt for most of the 200 miles. Sadly, with Mercedes doing a far better job than the rest, it has been reduced to a battle of two drivers.
How do you rectify this? Some suggest sorting out the distribution of money is the magic bullet, but this is a problem that Formula One has grappled with for most of its existence.
Verdict A trifle too artificial.
Formula One has always been an arms race. Whoever could raise the most money in sponsorship deals would have more to spend. But that model is broken.Big companies have steadily deserted F1. You need only to look at the bare McLaren livery. Should it really need to cost pounds 200million a year or more to have any hope of racing at the front?
Big and small teams have always coexisted in a mutually beneficial environment. But we are reaching a tipping point where it is becoming impossible for a small team to have any chance of competing on the budgets required.
The result is that they imprudently spend more than they ever did and the future of half the grid is uncertain.
The budget cap is dead, so the best alternative is to standardise plenty of parts while sorting out the biggest problem: the prize money. It is skewed to favour the bigger teams beyond any sensible degree of proportion.From solving this problem, many believe everything else will flow naturally. As Vijay Mallya, Force India’s team principal, put it: “If the stability of all participants in Formula One is addressed as a matter of priority, we will have more exciting racing and we will get a lot more positive media.”