Bob McMurray: That’s entertainment
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So that was the first display of the Liberty Media “Brave New World” of Formula 1.
The United States Formula 1 Grand Prix had all the pre-race razzmatazz the new American owners of the sport could possibly muster with dry ice machines, NFL-style cheerleaders, an avalanche of paper chaff and the boxing announcer who has trademarked his famous phrase “let’s get ready to rumble” introducing the drivers.
Add in past US president Bill Clinton and Usain Bolt and you had the archetypical American sports event introduction.
The show was designed for the American audience — and, as such, I thought it was great.
It was entertainment US-style and flagged the sort of approach Liberty Media wants to develop for the sport. But it has to be said the fusion of showbiz and sport presented in Austin, Texas may not have the same impact in most of the other countries the circus visits.
You can just imagine the crowd in Shanghai reacting the way the Texans did.
Many more traditional followers of the sport thought the display was too long, too complicated and, well, just not Formula 1.
Unfortunately those “traditional” followers are getting longer in the tooth. For the sport to prosper, it has to move into a modern era and compete with all the other entertainments on offer to attract a younger audience.
It remains to be seen just what the future will bring as the new owners try to transition the sport into the modern era.
I think a mixture of the showbiz presentation and a “back to the future” approach — to the racing, the cars, the competition and that two hours when the business of racing reverts to on-track sport — is needed to bring the excitement back.
Simpler cars, simple technology and, I hesitate to mention it, but actual racing — with exciting overtaking.
The case for excitement was not helped when Max Verstappen’s stunning drive from close to the rear of the field to a podium position, was overshadowed when he was demoted by the race stewards for “exceeding the track limits” in overtaking the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, something that had gone unpunished for the entire race as other drivers exceeded the track limits.
Consistency was absent at the 2017 USGP and left a dark cloud over the race.
One bright ray of sunshine was the appearance and performance of Kiwi driver Brendon Hartley.
His reward for a great drive is another drive for the Toro Rosso team in tomorrow’s Mexican Grand Prix.
His finish at 13th in Austin will have disappointed some who may have expected more, especially as his teammate, Daniil Kvyat who finished 10th, was under serious threat of losing his drive due to “non-performance” issues.
A quick look at the lap times, however, show Hartley outperformed his vastly more experienced — in Formula 1 terms — teammate and turned in a good, solid performance that pleased his team.
When welcoming Eddie Jordan to Formula 1 with his eponymous Jordan racing team in the early 1990s, the then-boss of McLaren, Ron Dennis, said “welcome to the piranha club”.
That sentiment applies just as strongly today. It is a fiercely competitive environment.
Formula 1, and especially the Red Bull organisation, are not known for sentimentality when dealing with their stable of drivers.
Hartley has earned his drive in Mexico on merit. He may have a harder job, up against a new teammate in Pierre Gasly, seen as a future star of Formula 1.
If Hartley can have another solid weekend but this time prove the faster driver and earn championship points for the team, then his future at the top table of the sport may well be more certain.
He possesses attributes the Toro Rosso team desperately need, especially with a “rookie” driver in the seat for 2018.
He has experience of developing some of the fastest cars on racetracks and with the team having that rookie driver, a new car and a new relationship with a Honda engine, stability and experience will count for much.
Hartley has the ability to give feedback for development, and that is of crucial importance.
He climbed one mountain in his career as a World Champion driver and 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and another when he drove in his first Grand Prix. Adding “Grand Prix Winner” to his CV must be the next peak in his sights.
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