If you read the news about Formula 1 at the moment, it seems there must be an awful lot wrong with it. The boss certainly won’t argue, switching between iterations of the word for human excrement to describe the sport he built and still runs. And David Coulthard, a former grand prix winner whose production company is now involved with the broadcast of F1 in Britain, is now apologising on behalf of a sport it seems he only once loved. “When I was young I aspired to be part (of) F1,” he tweeted on Good Friday. “Today I apologise more often than not when people mention it”.
Even the drivers of today are leading a revolt, although they insist their open letter of last week was not a “blind and disrespectful attack”. But what on earth are they complaining about? They drive the most technologically-advanced and mind-blowing open wheeler cars on the best circuits all over the world whilst earning more money than God. Right? What on earth is wrong with them?
To a first-time, F1-viewing Millennial, the sport today – just as it was at the height of its so-called glory days a couple of decades ago – is still F1. Rows and rows of cool-looking racing cars revving their engines, ready to screech off into battle. Nothing has changed. But that’s not quite right.
The very first problem is that the Millennial is probably not looking at those rows of cars in the first place. Because they’re on TV. Happening live. “Live?” You know, that thing that happens in red, blue and green when it’s actually happening? “You mean Xbox Live?” You get the picture. Try, for example, typing ‘Formula 1’ into the Youtube search box. At the time of writing, the first result is an illegal replay of the Australian grand prix, in a tiny box with a jerky frame-rate and sped-up sound and commentary so as to avoid the anti-piracy software. They’re supposed to pry themselves away from real-time, live racing on Forza Motorsport in glorious HD for this? No chance. The world has sped into the internet era whilst F1 is run by an increasingly embittered 85-year-old who made his billions selling television rights to his highly-exclusive product. “I’m not interested in tweeting, Facebook and whatever this nonsense is,” Ecclestone said recently. “Young kids will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to go and buy one? They can’t afford it.”
It’s hard to believe F1’s strategy is really to ignore young people who don’t have any money, but all the evidence is there. By 2019, F1’s core British market will have to set aside some of those Rolex-buying pounds to unlock Sky’s paywall. Ecclestone, and his bosses at the private equity firm CVC – who according to one F1 team chief is “raping the sport” – have chased the money to the point that diminishing free-to-air television ratings is actually the plan rather than item number 1 at the next crisis meeting.
These are problems even before the Minecraft-playing Millennial has somehow managed to get a F1 grid in the high-definition he demands in 2016 in front of him. What happens when world champion Lewis Hamilton actually drops the clutch? Herein lies problem number 2. Hamilton, for instance, has arrived in the Far East or some oil-rich Gulf state in his red shiny jet from Hollywood, where he has been sitting alongside a catwalk rather than a bench-press trainer. This is the ultimate athlete? The ultra-fit Michael Schumacher of today? But what about Jenson Button, who does triathlons? “I’m not this fit because you have to be for Formula 1,” he says. “Not anymore. I’m this fit because it’s my hobby.”
Button’s love for swim-bike-run began to develop at the very height of F1 as an athletic pursuit, ten years ago. When g-forces were high. When pale drivers would flop onto the steps at steamy Sepang. These days, while the pussycat-purring V6 engines have a lot of torque and top speed, the Pirelli tyres have about as much grip and durability as an English muffin. And that’s not just because Ecclestone ordered this brand of crumbling rubber to force drivers to make pitstops for the ‘show’. Precisely when the Millenials might actually have been impressed by the blurs of whince-inducing technology and talent through fast F1 corners ten years ago, ‘cornering speed’ was a dirty word in F1 strategy meetings as downforce was convicted of compromising safety and sentenced to the annals of mere history.
Ah, safety. The enemy of any extreme sport. Anyone who has ever bought a ticket to a F1 race knows that “Motorsport is dangerous” is printed on the back. But is that really so true today? Fernando Alonso had a few aches and pains after his high-profile, 300kph flip through the Albert Park gravel trap, but otherwise had barely a scratch on him. “You wouldn’t know for sure without a detailed analysis but generally speaking those sorts of accidents (20 years ago) result in serious injury or death,” said former FIA president Max Mosley. Well, how about this for a detailed analysis? Martin Brundle cartwheeled through the exact same Melbourne gravel 20 years ago and was similarly unscathed, even though his Jordan cracked like a raw egg.
But here’s the difference: while Alonso was whisked off to the 21st century medical centre to be given an all-clear that any TV viewer could have given him when he got to his feet unaided, a dizzy Brundle rolled out of the 50 remaining per cent of his car only to sprint back to the pits to get into the spare one to be ready for the re-start. “I just thought ‘I can get back in the spare car’. That’s what you’re hard-wired to do, really,” he recalled. “It was a no-brainer.” Not anymore it’s not.
Ah, the spare car. Remember that? That thing – like qualifying tyres and one-lap-special engines – that was banned some years ago to cut costs for teams that spend nine-digit sums per year on going racing anyway. Racing that didn’t happen at all for Alonso in Melbourne because a) he was protesting his health to panicky medical officials and b) his spare car exists only in the glorious days when F1 drivers were proper gladiators.
Now, a driver negotiates the latest 90-degree variation of a Hermann Tilke-penned corner whilst fiddling with dozens of dials and juggling crumbling Pirelli tyre wear and a purring engine set deliberately on half-throttle in order to save enough fuel to get to the chequered flag at pedestrian speed. Back then, spectators with ears stuffed full with cotton wool would wonder how on earth man and machine were conquering common sense and the laws of physics to scream through one of those iconic corners that is probably now home only to weeds, long abandoned by CVC for an oil-rich government like Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Pass the Xbox remote, would you?
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