The key to enthralling F1 fans is not to artificially close the competition, but to accept that most races won’t be like Monza 1971 and instead focus on making the cars vastly more spectacular, says David Malsher.
The recent U.S., Mexican and Brazilian grands prix marked a little milestone for me – it was the first time since 2007 that I’d watched three consecutive Formula 1 races ‘live’ on TV. This is such a rare occurrence because 1) most start at 5am on the west coast of America, and 2) for seven months of the year, my personal schedule revolves around that of IndyCar. Consequently, I record F1 races and watch them long after I know the result.
But for the purposes of this column, I decided to catch the races from Circuit of The Americas, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace as they broadcast, so I couldn’t fast-forward through the dull bits. My simple purpose was to try and imagine how a new fan may or may not have been captivated by Formula 1's show.
Given that this is the third year of the AMG Mercedes-Benz era, and that the biggest stories pre-U.S. GP had centered around Lewis Hamilton proving far better at using a phone app than in getting his racecar off the startline, my hopes weren’t high. Polesitter Hamilton did get away well on this occasion, however, which decided the race.
Still, over the first third of the race we were able to watch Daniel Ricciardo trying to hold off Nico Rosberg; Max Verstappen recovering from a poor start to pass Kimi Raikkonen and move in on Rosberg’s tail; and the meteoric early progress of Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean.
Some of the tension disappeared in the middle third once Verstappen suffered his mechanical strife, a) because we lost one of the hottest talents in F1, and b) because the Virtual Safety Car he caused effectively ended the chances of the Rosberg/Ricciardo battle going all the way to the checkered flag.
But over the closing stages, there was another fine battle to watch, between three cars whose strategies converged so that they were trying to occupy the same piece of pavement at the same time. Carlos Sainz Jr. had a good-handling car, Felipe Massa had a strong engine, and Fernando Alonso seemed to be running purely on adrenaline and opportunism.
So overall… yeah, I thought it was an OK race. And bless the TV director who did an excellent job of finding the battles up and down the field, even when it was only between the lackluster Renaults.
My conclusion was that there was just enough going on for a potential new fan to want to watch the next race… in which case he or she would have found the Mexican Grand Prix a grave disappointment for 95 percent of the distance. No amount of great TV direction could disguise that.
The Verstappen/Vettel/Ricciardo battle obviously ended the boredom over the final five laps but overall, the race proved 1) that close competition cannot be created simply by using tracks with a long straight followed by a slow corner (which was once theorized as a cure-all for the lack of overtaking in racing), and 2) DRS is most definitely not F1’s panacea.
And then came the Brazilian Grand Prix which was fantastic entertainment… in between stoppages and yellow flags.
What defines a great race?
You’d think this would be something everyone agrees on, but not so. There are several people who mistake a great result for a great race. Had, for example, the Haas team and the Mercedes team swapped fortunes in Mexico, so that Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Grosjean finished 1-2, Hamilton and Rosberg finished in 19th and 20th – and everything else had been identical – I’m sure the number of folk who said it was a dull race would be at least halved in number.
The Viva Mexico fever would have erupted at a home win for Gutierrez, the copywriters would have had a field day and everything would be sunny in the F1 bubble. No passing maneuvers, but who cares? We’ll remember this race forever. It’s a classic.
By the same token, picture this. Imagine the two Mercedes drivers collide at the start, limp to the pits for repairs, and drop to the back of the field. Then the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Toro Rossos have a torrid six-way scrap, with constant passing, wheel rubbing, gesticulating, controversy, bitterness and desperation.
Hamilton and Rosberg, meanwhile, scythe through the field and grab their customary P1/P2 at the very last corner on the very last lap.
Now to me, that would still be a great race, but I guarantee the majority of commenters and even writers would be bitching about another boring Mercedes 1-2. The 90 minutes of brilliant action would have been wiped away by a results sheet that looked all-too familiar.
What constitutes a great season?
Judging by fan reaction on our comment forums, it certainly seems to take more than two title contenders to make a great season. Rosberg has closed the win ratio to Hamilton from 5-11 in 2014, 6-10 last year to 9-9 in 2016.
The guy who was once regarded as the underdog in the team is leading the reigning champion in the points race, so there should be more intrigue this year, especially since Mercedes managers have continued to allow their drivers to go at it.
And yet we’re now at a stage where objective fans don’t care which Mercedes driver prevails; they tune in hoping this will be the race where both silver cars are defeated.
This prevailing mood of indifference toward the brilliant job Mercedes-Benz has done over the past three years is also because – and this is only a personal opinion – there is distinct ambivalence towards the contenders. Hamilton is perceived as the better driver, but the real or perceived drama around him outside the cockpit is tiresome to many. Meanwhile I get the impression that Rosberg, who’s regarded by many as not quite worthy of a World Championship, has gained a lot of public support by not being Hamilton.
Far fewer people have passionately taken sides as they did in F1’s previous classic intrateam rivalries such as Hamilton vs. Alonso, Alain Prost vs Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet vs Nigel Mansell or Alan Jones vs Carlos Reutemann. This is more like… well, Jenson Button vs. Rubens Barrichello at Brawn GP in 2009. Fans of both are interested; the rest of the world raise their fingers in a weary ‘Whatever’ symbol.
The objective fans
Putting personal preferences aside and looking at Formula 1's last three events in a purely objective manner, I'd say we've had one OK race, one bad race and one excellent race. And to be honest, that sounds pretty typical of F1's average since it began 66 years ago.
Usually, the best teams employ the best drivers and adopt the best strategy, and therefore they disappear into the distance. Then come those who’ve got the second best of everything, and so on.
This is a sport and therefore a meritocracy. Do we truly want it any other way?
If you read some comments from fans or even some commentary pieces from journalists, you’d think that way back when – with ‘when’ being defined as the first two or three years of their interest in racing – Formula 1 races were like NASCAR at Talladega, with constant battles for the lead, and the Top 20 covered by only five seconds with two laps to go.
Yeah, sure. Can you imagine the venom with which these people might condemn races that we now regard as classics, such as Monaco ’61 or Estoril ’85? Not enough lead changes, cars couldn’t pass easily, boring…
These are folk, one assumes, who reckon Jarama ’81 would have been so much better if the cars had had a DRS system.
Be careful what you wish for
If your desire is to see the winning spread between more drivers and teams over the course of a season, and for the top 16 on the grid to be compressed into one second, then follow IndyCar. But one of the reasons the racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series is more reliably good is because there is a common chassis, just two engine manufacturers, and the cars are so spec that teams have little latitude for tailoring car setups to their drivers’ tastes.
No question it's a philosophy that works as far as the racing is concerned, and few would deny that the 2012-’14 (pre-aerokit) Dallara DW12 produced some of the finest action ever seen in Indy car racing’s 100-plus year history. The likes of Dale Coyne also loved the fact that with a suitably talented driver such as the late Justin Wilson, he could often see his little team going wheel-to-wheel with the big-budget Ganassi and Penske operations.
But there are still a ton of IndyCar fans who think such technical commonality is terrible and who yearn to see more engineering innovation. Inevitably, too, some of the richer team owners wish to spend their money on proper engineering departments and resent such strict control on development because it prevents them from separating themselves from the herd.
So as Formula 1 fans, would you wish to see everyone running the same chassis and aero package? Would it still be Formula 1? And to what extent would it cure F1's perceived ills? Remember that even if every team received the same kit of parts but were free to modify or apply them in different manner, the best funded teams would still rise to the top and pull away.
Do not ‘equalize’ the racing
I’d like to assume this goes without saying but I take nothing for granted, so here goes: Formula 1 should never, ever fall into the trap of adding ballast or some other form of Balance of Performance during a season. Giving the teams the same kit of parts with which to work through an off-season would be one thing.
To constantly tamper with cars throughout a season to ‘make things more even,’ be it with boost restrictions, torque curves or weight, is a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.
Imagine if, at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi GP, one of the Mercedes was going to the grid 75kg [165lbs] heavier than the other. Would you even bother watching?
In short, penalizing drivers and teams for their success cannot be contemplated.
A solution to strive for
If we agree that Formula 1 cannot be democratized in terms of car performance, we are also accepting that races will take a hierarchical shape. If you line up the grid with the fastest cars at the front and the slowest at the rear, there’s no logical reason to expect the race finishing order to be substantially different.
So chances are that for large parts of any given race, each car will be running alone. The vital thing, therefore, is to make the cars more spectacular to witness running solo. To quote F1 great Tony Brooks talking to Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck: “To be worth driving or watching, a racecar should always have more power than its chassis can comfortably cope with.”
It is such a simple maxim and one that is absolutely true. Veterans recall Can-Am with misty-eyed fondness, but it’s not because the racing was great; it wasn’t. It’s the fact that watching Denny Hulme, George Follmer and Mark Donohue individually wrestle their 800, 900 and 1100hp machines with very basic aero downforce and on crossply tires was a spectacle in and of itself.
So it’s time for Formula 1 to up the horsepower and the mechanical grip, slash downforce to where the front and rear wings are simple single-plane affairs that don’t disturb the air for those following, and enjoy the show.
Because you see, if one car running alone is creating a spectacle, then just imagine how exciting it’s going to be whenever two or three of them are locked in battle, as they often will be over the course of a race, whether at the front, middle or back of the pack. And how about those starts and restarts when 22 of them are going at it?
How one devises that overpowered/undergripped car formula is way beyond my technical knowledge, but it is easily within reach of the same brains that brought you blown diffusers, double diffusers, hybrid engines, DRS and the F-duct. And for technical purists who respond to this sea-change by moaning that F1 should be on the cutting edge of technology, I agree; but applying that knowledge and tech to a far more simple and visually compelling formula is not retrograde, nor is it an attempt to put genies back in bottles. It’s simply a way to make F1 appealing to drivers and fans and hopefully draw in new fans.
Finally, of course, this new formula would need to be decided upon and imposed by some benign dictator, while the Strategy Group – F1’s cumbersome melting pot for a wide range of vested interests – could be killed off. Instead, said dictator could individually consult team owners, designers, engineers and drivers but then have the final say in what goes down.
However, a word of warning. Under this new formula, the cars and drivers may become more strung out as the drivers’ and teams’ strengths and weaknesses become more clearly defined or emphasized by the new rules. That is always a risk. But at least now the drivers’ efforts in the cockpit would be more clearly visible and more likely to stir the soul of those who watched.
Given that you’re reading Motorsport.com, I’ll assume you don’t wish to see a sport become meaningless showbiz, and instead prefer it to remain a meritocracy, decided by some folks getting it more right than their rivals.
Let’s accept, therefore, that racing by its very nature cannot be guaranteed to deliver a Monza ’71 or Dijon ’79 every time, and then enjoy the days when circumstances produce a memorable event. Trust me, that’s what long-term Formula 1 fans have always done!
What’s killing the F1 spectacle right now, compared with previous eras, is a desperately unattractive car formula that could so easily be changed if one person had the power, the knowledge and the balls to radically alter the sport’s technical course.
I’m afraid the 2017 measures of adding fatter tires, a wider front wing and a lower rear wing are rather like trying to cure a man’s heart disease by giving him a facelift and a new pair of shoes.