The decline of F1: has the jewel of motorsport slid off track?
With severely reduced viewership and predictable, one-sided races, where is Formula One now heading? A writer's opinion.
As the year draws to a close, another season of Formula One steadily decelerates to the festive season. This year saw Lewis Hamilton equal his hero Ayrton Senna’s record of three world titles, an accolade achieved by only an elite handful that have driven a Formula One car.
But even with the relentless tenacity, and blood, sweat and tears of drivers and engineers involved, the sport has lost the charm it once had in Senna’s time and even in the early stages of Hamilton’s career.
Despite this, at face value nothing seems to have changed. The cars still have the same sleek front noses, complicated rear wings and a cockpit that looks too small for anyone but a racecar driver. The top three drivers at each race still spray 600-dollar champagne at each other before verbally jabbing each other at a press conference 15 minutes later.
If everything really is still the same, why has viewership fallen by close to 7% over the last two years? In what direction is the sport really heading?
The biggest issue is that there is in fact no agreed direction in Formula One. No one really understands the management of F1, which includes Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights owner and CEO of the Formula One group, a few private companies, the FIA (governing body for motor racing) and the teams themselves.
This often makes it unimaginably arduous to come to a consensus in decision making, and even once these are made, there is almost always a party that remains unhappy.
In October this year, Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, proposed a price cap on engines which are sold to customer teams (such as Force India and Williams, who buy their engines from teams such as Mercedes and Ferrari) to increase competitiveness in the sport.
Ferrari, as the biggest team in Formula One and the only team with veto power, vetoed this move for personal economic interests.
In response, Todt and Ecclestone devised a new plan to give smaller teams a sustainable alternative engine plan. This was blocked once again. This time, by a collective group of the teams, tyre suppliers, sponsors and circuit representatives, called the F1 Commission.
In short, we have a growing unprecedented power struggle between the controlling hierarchy of the sport and its competing teams. This is disastrous for Bernie Ecclestone, who at the age of 85 is only in the sport for the power he has over it - and the likely filling of his bottomless bank account that comes with this power. And equally so for Todt, who would naturally want control over Formula One as the head of its governing body.
Determined to win back their influence over Formula 1, the heavily influenced ‘FIA’ declared that Ecclestone and Todt would have the mandate to “make decisions and recommendations regarding a number of pressing issues in Formula One.” It didn’t take long to realize this is just a friendly assertion that Ecclestone and Todt will have the final say in important matters within the sport.
Unsurprisingly, Ferrari revolted against the FIA, now with the backing of the other two engine powerhouses in F1 - Mercedes and Renault, exacerbating the situation even further.
But some argue that this stronghold of dominant teams is the underlying cause for reducing interest in Formula One - and there are very few reasons which come to mind to oppose this view. The huge disparity between the best and worst in Formula One is the reason why we are faced with this issue in the first place, and the structural flaws in the sport does not help its cause either.
Not only do the teams that perform better get a lion's share of funding, but the historic ‘big’ teams, McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari, pocket an additional share of the prize money.
We haven’t seen a closely fought championship between different teams since 2008, barring an exception in 2010, and it doesn’t look like this is changing drastically any time soon with Mercedes’ recent annihilation of the sport. Ecclestone went as far as to say that if Mercedes and Ferrari “were to put their hands up and say Christmas is going to be on 26 December, everybody would agree.”
It’s hard to say this, but he does have a point. All but three of the teams in Formula One are at the mercy of Mercedes and Ferrari, who supply them with engines. As Ferrari have shown in the last few months, they aren’t afraid to stretch their veto power either. All this comes together in giving a couple of teams complete control over the sport. With this control, comes outright dominance in the sport. And this is where it all starts to unravel quite quickly.
People watch sport expecting the unexpected. Sport hinges on the element of surprise, the shot of adrenaline that makes your stomach grumble and legs tremble. It’s like a thriller movie, as we subconsciously permute all the different scenarios with the next free-kick, ball bowled or pit-stop taken. Formula One has lost this.
When I can wake up on race Sunday, and know that Hamilton is going to finish first, Rosberg second and Vettel third, there is something going wrong. What’s even worse is that supporters of teams losing out such as McLaren, stop watching - after all, who wants to spend time seeing their team lose race after race? All these issues culminate to reduce the viewership of Formula One.
At its core, the sport is a very complicated mess. We all want to see a level playing field with pure racing, where every team can compete. That is sport in its finest form. As a Mercedes and Hamilton fan myself, I want to see Formula One go back to what enthralled me to start watching it in the first place.
Remove the unnecessary rules and regulations that tie Formula One. Let it free. But the only way to do this is if the teams can cooperate with the sport’s governing body. History shows us that solving problems in Formula One has never been this easy, and the sport has always been entangled in its fair share of controversy.
This knot isn’t going to be untied overnight, but the first step in doing so is for the teams, especially those high up in the leaderboard, to take a long look at themselves and start working with the organisations that govern Formula One. This is the only way the sport will grow back to becoming what it once was.
So Marchionne and Wolff*, the ball is in your court. Give us the game we want to see. And if you do, a decade from now I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.
* Sergio Marchionne is the president of Ferrari, and Totto Wolff is the executive director of the Mercedes F1 team.