After a few months of furtive activity inside manufacturing factories, wind tunnels and cockpit simulators, Formula One gets ready for another year. The cars will supposedly be faster and the racing more competitive. But will that be enough to draw fans back to the races?
It has been quite apparent for some time that F1 is a sport in crisis. Audiences have declined by a third since 2008 and television cameramen have had to carefully manipulate their angles to avoid showing the empty stands. Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement in November last year brought F1 some much-needed publicity and may rekindle some interest at the start of the season but overall, the sport remains monotonous and passionless.
Most of the races in the past few years have been, to put it bluntly, boring.
Abandoning its own history
Many of the former fans of Formula One have switched to other motorsports because they feel that it has lost its magic. Historical circuits have been ignored in favour of new locations in far-flung corners solely because they can pay more for the privilege of conducting a race. The money-mindedness of the F1 bosses has taken a toll on the essence of the sport.
At a time when attentions spans are limited and many competing sports are vying for the fan's attention, the new venues do not offer a sense of excitement or nostalgia to the loyal F1 aficionado. Singapore and Abu Dhabi are perhaps exceptions with their unique night races. But in the past decade, many circuits have been adopted for a couple of years and then left abandoned as some other location offers to pay a few million more.
The F1 juggernaut these days gives the unedifying impression that it simply follows the money. Imagine if the tennis circuit skipped Wimbledon one year and played a tournament in Turkmenistan because it offered more prize money. Imagine if the Australian cricket team ignored the Ashes and toured China instead because the Chinese won a bidding war.
But such decisions are commonplace in F1. After two continuous decades on the calendar, Hockenheim has seen races only every alternate year since 2006. There will be no Grand Prix in Germany this year, for the first time since the 1950s. Azerbaijan, it seems, has more bags of cash to spare.
An unchecked oligopoly
The current financial model within F1 is a large part of the problem. Ferrari gets paid hundreds of millions of dollars from the coffers every year for simply turning up. Distribution of television revenue is skewed in favour of the larger teams while the smaller teams pick up the scraps.
The Caterham F1 team went bankrupt in 2014, Marussia followed it next year and Manor has been the latest victim of the inequalities perpetrated by F1's governance. A team of limited means, one that isn't backed by a global conglomerate, can't ever challenge for the podium as it simply doesn't have any money to develop a competitive car. They can barely pay for the exorbitantly priced engines.
As a result, a top team in F1 is never beaten by an underdog. When the most exciting storyline in sport - David defeating Goliath - is so utterly impossible, is it really a surprise that fans are shunning F1 in favour of other pastimes?
If this was the corporate world, a regulator would step in and order a change in the rules. Engines would be made cheaper and collusion would be punished. Maybe it would split up some of the teams to encourage competition.
But the top teams again have a veto within the current governance committee and they have no desire to fiddle with a favourable status quo.
Cars overshadow the drivers
Mercedes came up with an engine much more powerful than the others after the last revamp of the rules in 2014. Their engineers performed a tremendous feat but it has unfortunately meant that the races are now uncompetitive.
They have won 51 out of 59 races in the past three years. Only once in the last season was a Mercedes works car not on the podium.
While F1 is a technical sport, the car has overshadowed the drivers. There is a general sense that you could put any of the twenty drivers in one of the Silver Arrows and he would probably end up in the top three.
Such a farcical handicap cannot be imagined in any other sport. No one would watch tennis if players with a Wilson racket could hit the ball twice as hard, but only a couple of them were allowed to use it. Football would be so boring if one team was allowed eleven players while all others were allowed only five.
From Michael Schumacher to Ayrton Senna, F1 has always been about its personalities rather than just its machines. In the current situation though, anyone who isn’t in a Mercedes simply can’t win. Fernando Alonso can rarely race above the eighth spot as his McLaren-Honda is no match for the other cars. He may be an extremely skilful driver but it doesn’t matter.
This continued imbalance infuriates fans and it makes the sport seem inherently unfair. Racing car brands have some equity but most people watch a sport for human achievement. They gather around their heroes and urge them on. If the sport doesn’t give them that opportunity, they will simply change the channel.
Change in leadership
Such issues have been prevalent for many years now and the rot has reached the roots. Many argue that Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 promoter, is to blame.
He exploited the sport’s commercial rights for the past 40 years with a myopic focus, making it difficult for the fans to remain connected. A sport that was once viewed on free-to-air channels across Europe is now only available on paid cable.
Bernie Ecclestone gets confused while passing through a revolving door
However, the F1 Group has new owners now. Liberty Media acquired a controlling interest in late 2016 and Ecclestone has been replaced by new leadership. Chace Carey, a man once tipped to be the successor to Rupert Murdoch, is now the chief executive.
Carey is a man with considerable experience but he has an unenviable task. Even the best doctors in the world sometimes put down their stethoscopes when they realise the patient cannot be saved.
Also Read: Mosley would have kept Ecclestone at F1 helm
Has F1 reached that stage? One can only hope it hasn’t. For in spite of all its problems, there still is no greater thrill than watching those fearless men driving their magnificent machines wheel-to-wheel through a tight corner.Published 10 Feb 2017, 20:52 IST