Opinion: Formula 1 is faster, but have fans been forgotten?
Formula 1 represents the peak of technology in modern motorsport, but that doesn't guarantee good racing. Over the past few seasons, the cars have become faster and more efficient, but the racing hasn't changed. Frankly, it's still boring and, if you're not a super-fan, tough to understand.
After three consecutive years of Mercedes-dominated, overtake-free racing, fans went into last weekend's season opener in Melbourne full of hope. Changes to the regulations mean the cars look much meaner, and create more downforce in the process. It doesn't take a genius to work out more downforce equals more grip, and grip means faster lap times. The V6-hybrid powertrains are louder than before, too. What more could fans ask for?
Overtaking, for one. Over the course of two hours, there was hardly any passing on the Albert Park circuit. Sebastian Vettel, who won the race from third on the grid, leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas by better maintaining his tires. Strategy is a crucial part of any sport, and there's no question waiting for Hamilton to emerge as Vettel streaked along the back straight was exciting – but it was only exciting if you understood the strategies each team was running.
This focus on strategy, on tire degradation and fuel-burn, makes it impossible for the average armchair enthusiast to just sit down and enjoy a race like they could most other sports. Even if you don't understand the NFL, it's easy to make sense of Tom Brady unleashing a match-winning pass, or Ray Allen knocking down the game-winning shot in an NBA final. The nuances of the game might not make sense, but it's easy to be swept up in the excitement of it all. Sport isn't just about the game, it's about spectacle and emotion, and modern Formula 1 is sorely lacking in both.
The sport has, arguably, always been a money-first game of politics, but it used to be easier for casual fans to get involved. The '80s was all about watching Senna take on Prost, and it was difficult not to be captivated as Michael Schumacher led Ferrari, the heart and soul of F1, to five titles between 2000 and 2004. Then there's the colorful chaos of the James Hunt era, although we're not sure how his womanizing, relentless smoking and drinking would be received today.
Even without the sub-plots and personal drama, the grip-limited monsters that drivers were shackled to helped as well. Footage of Ayrton Senna hustling his McLaren Honda during Monaco qualifying is iconic, but it isn't iconic because of how fast the car is or how wide the wings are. It certainly isn't iconic because his race engineers had just fitted a new diffuser, or Pirelli had given him big tires. It's iconic because watching the car move around, a barely-controllable animal dancing on the edge of disaster, is compelling. Love or hate the sport, the spectacle had universal appeal.
Flick to the on-board of a modern qualifying lap and, while there's no doubt the cars are fast, it isn't what you'd call compelling. Aficionados can appreciate how clean and precise Dan Ricciardo is on his pole lap at Monaco last year, but it might as well be a computer game to most people. You could tell those same people his car is 700 percent faster than last year and although they'd be impressed, it's unlikely they'd feel compelled to watch again. We've reached a point where the sport is only worth watching if you know what to look for. Even if you do know what to watch out for, it's boring watching cars carve a perfect arc around the track, never stepping sideways or acting up.
Formula 1 needs to strike a balance if it's to remain at the pinnacle of motorsport. As much as we'd like to see teams given a control chassis and engine, the sport has always been about advancing technology as well. Even if the fans would enjoy that, cutting the technical arms-race would make it much harder for manufacturers to justify their involvement, because the sport doesn't provide proof of their engineering prowess.
After all, the marketing value associated with developing a Formula 1 car is huge. The paddle shift gearbox in the Renault Clio RS is a touch of F1-inspired technology while Renault is involved in the sport. Lose the racing connection and it's just a sub-par automatic where a manual probably would've served better. Even so, the balance leans too far towards the technical at the moment. These new regulations have made the cars faster, but they haven't made them more interesting for the average viewer. After all, the cars weren't exactly slow before, and unless you're running a stopwatch in the stands faster lap times are largely irrelevant.
The fact that the Formula 1 Strategy Group thought making the cars faster was enough to get fans excited again shows how disconnected it is from the masses. The sport has devolved into a game of engineering cat and mouse, to the point where it's impossible for the average viewer to understand, and playing around with engineering rules won't change that. Even if the racing is light on overtaking, it needs to be easier for fans to enjoy – not for boffins to respect.
This process could start online, where Formula 1 has a tiny presence compared to most other global sporting leagues. At the moment, only cable subscribers or warriors willing to run the illegal-streaming gauntlet can watch races. MotoGP and World Surf League are both prime examples of how sharing clips (or streaming entire sessions) on Facebook can broaden their appeal, and there should be nothing stopping F1 management doing the same.
Changing the sport from something watched by nerds into an accessible spectacle should be easier than ever, given one viral clip can reach millions of impressionable eyes. Watching an incredible overtake or thrilling close call might get fence-sitting fans talking about F1 again, making people pay for coverage and forcing them to hear hours of tire-talk certainly won't.
While we're talking involvement, it's time to drop the cookie-cutter circuits making up most of the modern calendar. The Monaco GP is always a highlight because the track is tough and the setting is glamorous. It isn't just a race, it's a spectacle anyone can appreciate and understand. I've been a racing nut my whole life and write about cars for a living, but I'd rather conduct a detailed audit of the hair on my left arm than watch the Abu Dhabi GP.
Even the drivers think it's boring – Kimi Raikkonen once famously said "the first few corners are quite good, but the rest is shit" when asked about the circuit. If there isn't any glamour, the racing isn't exciting and the track isn't historically relevant, why would non-diehards bother watching? Cut boring circuits like those currently used in Sochi, Baku and Abu Dhabi, and replace them with layouts anyone can enjoy. You might not like F1, but a day at the Melbourne GP might only involve an hour by the track. The rest of the time you can wander the paddock of support races, or even head to the beach. It isn't just a race, it's an event with character.
Finally, and this is a long shot, but regulate for more overtaking rather instead of faster lap times. I'm no aero-genius, but even I know the big wings and fins on modern cars create huge pockets of dirty air in their wake, making it tough for cars to run close to each other. Given the choice between quicker lap times and more overtaking, you'd struggle to find a fan who doesn't prefer the latter. The rule-makers have shown a willingness to meddle with the formula in past, there should be nothing stopping them having another try.
Formula 1 has picked a course, and perhaps it's wishful thinking to believe the engineering-first, overtaking-second focus will change anytime soon. But there are plenty of things management can do to make the sport more accessible. Make it social, do more to bring back the spectacle. The fans are waiting.