Analysis: It's time to sort out the 'dog and pony' show

The Canadian Grand Prix highlighted some of the main problems Formula 1 is currently facing, with drivers focused on saving tyres, brakes and fuel rather than pushing to the limit. It's time to end this, says Jonathan Noble

For a sport that is supposed to be about the ultimate battle between the world's best drivers, the Canadian Grand Prix delivered us a perfect storm of everything that can be wrong with modern Formula 1.

The build-up should have been dominated by the talk fans want of an intense head-to-head title contest between gladiatorial superstars. Instead, we arrived in the paddock chattering about power unit development tokens.

But it got worse. The weekend narrative became one of engine penalties, grid confusion, and drive-throughs. Somewhere F1 has got a bit lost in all its technicalities.

People tune in to F1 to watch a brilliant race. A bit of overtaking doesn't go amiss, but all that is demanded is an unpredictable fight for victory and an appreciation that these are the best drivers in the best racing cars battling it out on the limit.

Not every race can be a proper thriller, but Canada fell far, far short. The order of the day was not 'push, push, push', but back off, save those tyres and save those brakes. No wonder Fernando Alonso hated it.

The lack of a safety car at a venue that has so often produced drama was singled out as the cause of a dull Sunday – but it is a bit of a chicken and egg argument.

Was there no safety car because the modern cars are now too easy to drive? Are drivers, as one suggested to me, managing tyres and fuel so much they are no longer anywhere near the limit so there is no longer the risk of crashing by themselves?

While Canada may well have been a one-off – for it has always been a race of fuel and brake saving, and Ferrari's true form was extinguished by reliability niggles and engine mapping woes – equally F1 would be wrong to just ignore what has happened.

In fact, there seems to be a growing acceptance in the paddock that the time for change – but the right change for fans – has come.

On Sunday morning, surprising the amassed Italian media, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne made a surprise appearance in the F1 paddock after jetting across from Venice via Detroit.

It was significantly his first appearance at an F1 race since he took over at Maranello last autumn.

And for paddock regulars who over the years have grown used to the appearance of Ferrari's top man being the cue for a theatrical blast at the sport, a call for urgent rules changes and perhaps a quit threat thrown in to the mix too, this was a totally different proposition.

There was very much the sense that this was a watching brief visit, no call to arms for F1 to consider revolution and deliver a Utopian future. Instead, there was a fully reasoned analysis of where things stand, why discussion is the best way forward and why F1 has got itself in to the mess it is in in the first place.

Calm and assured, Marchionne laughed off talk of there being a 'crisis' summit with Bernie Ecclestone – but did acknowledge that all was not right.

"Bernie loves to call everything he does a crisis," he said during a small media gathering in the paddock. "Bernie and I and the rest of the teams recognise the importance of making the right calls for the development of the sport.

"To say that he and I and the rest of the constructors are happy with the development of the sport over the last four or five years would be blasphemous. It's not true.

"We have a challenge ahead of us. Ferrari has indicated its willingness to participate in the shaping of the sport. I have had conversations with Dieter Zetsche and the other people on the F1 Commission, Toto [Wolff] and Niki [Lauda] and so on. We're all committed to doing the right things to try to bring the sport back."

What Marchionne subscribes to is not that F1's problems can be laid at the door of a single entity: be it FOM, the FIA or the teams. Instead, it is the result of evolution heading down an incorrect path, as sometimes happens in nature.

"I was having a chat with somebody this morning, this sport and the rules and the way they have been constructed, are the result of a variety of attempts by people who have either been in leading positions or near leading positions in particular seasons to try to protect their competitive positions," he said.

"And Ferrari are as guilty of that as Mercedes is now. I understand it, because we would have done the same thing had we been in that position. Is it the right thing for the sport? Probably not.

"Having said this, let's sit down and talk about it. We need to be constructive and not have any crazy preconceptions about what can and cannot be done. The sport is too important as a sport to take it lightly, and we shouldn't."

But F1 faces the incredibly tough challenge of dealing with costs, a subject that has singularly failed to be addressed over the fast few years.

Marchionne is well aware that opening up regulatory freedom is a one way ticket to a spending war - "this sport can burn money faster than the speed of light" he muttered – but equally he thinks that a level can be found to justify the kind of spending manufacturers are currently making.

"Bernie and Jean Todt and I have had this conversation over and over, and I've discussed it with Dieter (Zetsche): when you are racing out of a company that makes cars, you can justify a lot of things to yourself," he said.

"Ferrari has historically always been self-financing in its F1 activities because it uses that as its marketing. That's what it does and nothing else. The essence of Ferrari is F1. They are identical. They are synonymous.

"Other car companies have the luxury of looking at F1 as a means of advancing a brand with other objectives.

"Ferrari does not have that objective and there are some others, including [Christian] Horner, who don't have that opportunity because he doesn't have a car company on his side.

"Now, God bless him, he is dealing with a product that has much greater margins than I would ever get out of the car side, so he shouldn't be complaining very much because I understand financial restrictions are not his problem...

"But the combination of the technical work that goes on here and the transformation of all that into something that attracts audiences is crucial.

"You cannot have one without the other; otherwise I'd much prefer to run test labs and cars on benches and not come out here.

"I love Montreal but it doesn't mean we have to come out here and carry on this dog and pony show if there is no way of attracting an audience. Without them, you've got nothing."

He's right. F1 can talk all it wants about how great the new hybrid technology is. It can deliver its explanation for why Canada did not thrill.

But if it does not produce a better spectacle that it did last weekend, get back to rules that help make drivers and driving the most important thing, then who is going to want to tune in or visit the 'dog and pony' show when it comes to town?

The faster, more powerful, louder and better looking cars coming for 2017 cannot come soon enough.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Event Canadian GP
Track Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve
Article type Analysis