Automotive

Opinion: Formula 1 is faster, but have fans been forgotten?

Opinion: Formula 1 is faster, ...
Mercedes has dominated F1 in the last few years
Mercedes has dominated F1 in the last few years
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Mercedes has dominated F1 in the last few years
1/5
Mercedes has dominated F1 in the last few years
Mercedes hammering around the Albert Park GP Circuit
2/5
Mercedes hammering around the Albert Park GP Circuit
Ferrari came out on top in Rd 1 of the Formula 1
3/5
Ferrari came out on top in Rd 1 of the Formula 1
The new F1 cars are bigger, but the racing isn't any more exciting
4/5
The new F1 cars are bigger, but the racing isn't any more exciting
It's time for F1 to pull back the curtain on the sport, and let fans in
5/5
It's time for F1 to pull back the curtain on the sport, and let fans in

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.

Mercedes hammering around the Albert Park GP Circuit
Mercedes hammering around the Albert Park GP Circuit

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.

It's time for F1 to pull back the curtain on the sport, and let fans in
It's time for F1 to pull back the curtain on the sport, and let fans in

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.

16 comments
DFrancis
F1 has been boring for many years, and all because there is no longer any proper overtaking. Yes, cars pass each other, but that's because the blue flag mandates that the driver in front must yield or be penalized. But it did not used to be so. Several decades ago the blue flag was advisory. That's right, it used to be that it was for the driver to decide whether to yield. If they didn't, the driver behind had to demonstrate their overtaking skills. Overtaking is an essential part of racing. Remove that element and you get a boring procession of who can drive the fastest. Trying to spice things up with DRS, KERS, and other gimmicks, turns what ought to be an exciting sport into a joke. Revert the blue flag to advisory to save F1.
Siv
Hopefully Ross Brawn will shake things up. I would get rid of hybrid technology, leave that to Formula E and bring back the sound of screaming V8, V10 or V12 engines. Racing shouldn't be about fuel economy, we have that issue in our real lives and we don't need reminding of it in our entertainment at the weekend. Formula One should be all about flat out racing and no worries about fuel or tyres. Remove as much aero interference as possible, make it all about the gladiatorial battle between the sportsmen who we follow. Someone said at the moment that F1 is 80% the car and 20% the driver. That should be the other way round. Make who drives the car be based on merit not on who brings the most money to the team. F1 should be whoever is the best driver not who has the rich daddy or massive sponsorship. Work out a way of funding the sport so that smaller teams can survive without needing rich kids who bring little to the sport or the spectacle. Make the courses able to fund running a GP rather than making it so expensive to host a GP that classic circuits can't afford it. Get rid of Hermann Tilke, he has created so many boring circuits that although very technical and challenging for drivers do not allow any overtaking. Make them wide, fast and twisty so that cars can go fast and overtaking is possible and watching cars on them is a real spectacle. Ensure that in every country around the world where F1 is watched there is at least one free to air broadcaster who has full rights to show all the Grand Prix. This one thing has lost F1 so many fans, Sky should NOT be allowed to dominate the viewing of F1. Change qualifying so that in the first 2 qualifying sessions the drivers are allotted 5 laps out on the circuit with no other drivers on circuit at the same time. This will take longer, but will allow each driver to have the circuit to themselves and have 5 laps to get the best out of the car. The fastest lap is taken as their qualifying time. As per the current system the slowest cars are eliminated at the end of each of the first two sessions so at the third session you have the top ten shoot out and that is done exactly as it is now. This will ensure that each driver in the first two sessions is able to have a fair crack at getting to the grid position their skill and their car warrants without all the issues of being blocked by other drivers. This should assist in reducing pile ups at the start, as the rear and midfield should be pretty much in the order of skill/performance. Also this should give a better spectacle of speed as each gladiator has the circuit to his or her self and also the sponsers get 5 laps of their advertising on the car being shown! Do away with grid penalties for changing parts, if you need a new gearbox or engine, fit one, it should not be about saving money. This is F1, it's expensive and the bleeding edge of technology. As long as all teams are given sufficient funding to allow this it will be better for the sport. Leave being green and efficient to Formula E, this is the pinnacle and should not be hampered by the real world issues of global warming. The 15 or so cars on an F1 grid is not going to change much even if they are all gas guzzling inefficient monsters. Perhaps F1 should be looking to blaze a trail burning hydrogen as fuel and do away with this electric nonsense. We would get all the noise and the only exhaust gas would be water vapour. Graham Sivill
Tommo
F1 nowadays is like having two washing machines side by side, then switching them both on at the same time and seeing which one finishes its cycle first. Terrible.
DavePorter
I agree with everything said to date. In fact I would go much further. F1 would be more exciting if they took the engines out and replaced them with pedals. Lewis Hamilton said something similar when he longed for the return of kart racing style.
Bob Stuart
I think racing is boring on wide, stiff tires. That's why kids "drift" so slowly but spectacularly now, using dirt-track techniques combined with excess power on pavement. It is probably time to ditch the open-wheel rule. It is very obsolete, somewhat dangerous, and a wasted development path. I'd really like to see a wing pushing sideways, too, instead of wearing out the tires needlessly. The wake problem might be mitigated by reducing power, but like narrow tires, drafting produced better racing. To have exciting racing based on economy, don't have half the field run out of fuel, just penalize them on time for using the reserves, which have visual indicators. For more passing, allow larger main tanks for later starting times. Teams can decide when to start each race after practice results.
ChrisKnowles
Agree with all previous comments. Since the winners of the race are mostly the designers and engineers in the team the TV people should concentrate on those people. But guess what, that would be even more boring. So let's have no restrictions on the cars - fastest one round wins - and yes, there will be greater risk of physical harm. But I understand the drivers are not only extremely well paid, but are also volunteers....
fb36
I think F1 should be about cars first; not drivers. Allow cars to use any kind of engine/tech like gas, diesel, hybrid, rotary, gas turbine. Allow cars to change wheel configurations like 4 wheels at front or 4 + 4 small wheels etc.
Grunchy
I was thinking it might be time to get rid of drivers? Just run it with devil-may-care robots who have no need of self-preservation. That's how you'll see what the cars are really capable of.
LordInsidious
Its too late for F1. They are the pinnacle of motor sport using a motor that is quickly being replaced, oh and they have no plans to change as well. It will be a nice coast into the sunset, but the heyday of F1 is over and not just because of a lack of passing. Everything from imbalanced teams (there are 3 drivers in a field of 20+ who could win the championship), stupid online policies, smug assumption that they are the best racing league and even having boring race after boring race got highlight pulled from sports update shows. This is the classic hare and tortoise tale, the only question is who is the tortoise (I think it will be drones/ e sports)?
Jerry Cline
I am a total F1 fanatic and totally agree with Scott. I do think that one of the opportunities is to unlock the tool boxes and let the teams have increased ability to change the cars. I also think that more driver controlled aero and suspension would help the differentiate the cars and enhance the driver's role. Maybe a 2 tier strategy would be necessary to protect the small teams.