It feels as though Formula 1 has rolled through Europe and barely taken its foot off the throttle – apart from the odd new face here or there, nothing seems to have really changed. Is the 2014 season really readying itself for one last European hurrah before the start of that (increasingly lengthy) final drag that leads us to Abu Dhabi, the double-points denouement that Bernie Ecclestone so hopes will produce a truly showbiz-tastic showdown for the World Championship?
That got me thinking, about just what (if anything) Formula 1 needs to do in order to spice up the all-important ‘show’. Is double-points-at-the-final-race necessarily the answer, or is it merely symptomatic of the decision-makers’ inability or reluctance to look deeper, and further, at the apparent ‘problem’?
If you’re a Formula 1 purist, the sport offers an endless, intertwined network of news, spice, intrigue, excitement and enlightenment. Formula 1 is your soap opera, your Sunday movie premiere, your sport – and you’re fiercely proud and protective of it.
And that’s perfectly fine.
However, if you’re a casual fan, and if your lengthy pan-channel surf brings you to Formula 1 on a lazy Sunday afternoon only a few times a year, what’s there to hold your attention if you’re only marginally interested, or if you’re looking to see something special, unique or unusual while you watch?
Which F1 Driver Are You?
Formula 1 has made huge strides to create uniformity. Perhaps that’s down to the obsessive natures of the figureheads that have fashioned the sport into its current guise; turning it from a disorganised and rag-tag collective of amateur garagistes, who sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t appear at a race weekend, into a gleaming and professional world, where all the same teams, with the same drivers, turn up week-in and week-out to contest near-identical-length epreuves on tracks that, even to the trained eye, seem at least superficially similar.
One could argue that that very uniformity has come at the price of differentiation. Nowadays, there’s arguably too little variation in the product to get you coming back if your first taste doesn’t leave you wanting more. That’s great for the purists, those who immediately ‘get’ it, but modern sports can achieve the same thing through different methods – in football, try telling that to football fans who get their national league, the FA Cup, the European championships, international friendlies, and a host of Euro and international qualifiers and tournaments.
Cricket is played at county and international level – at tests, the Ashes, one-day internationals, and, most pertinently, as Twenty20, a mode of the sport that was specifically created to make it easier to watch and digest. And don’t say it’s just not cricket – it is; it’s just shaded and shaped by different influences and influencers, but it all complements the game as a whole.
You could argue that grand prix racing’s different international venues add colour and tone to the calendar, but is it enough? And shouldn’t we be doing a bit more than that?
After all, the best races have become famous because they each have their own special unique selling point: Monaco is legendary because it’s the street race, and it carries a glitz and glamour that no race will ever equal; Singapore is the night race; Monza, the fast race, and the home of the tifosi; Abu Dhabi, the dusk race.
The purists know and love a few more venues, too – Spa is the grandee of the lot, buried within the Ardennes forests, the racetrack the drivers love best; Interlagos, an intense cauldron of fandom, where the weather can play havoc; and Suzuka a sinuous, unforgiving strip of Tarmac. But a casual fan probably wouldn’t differentiate them from places such as Sepang, the Hungaroring or Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya – tracks at which even the purists would struggle to identify one singular, distinctive, unique feature.
If we’re readying Formula 1 for its makeover, let’s try and give the majority of races a USP. And if the circuits don’t necessarily merit one, let’s be creative. After all, it took years of planning and a mental leap to make night racing a reality. It’s commonplace now (we have three ‘dark’ races on the 2014 calendar), so why not be equally adventurous, and consider looking at unique start-times, reversed grids, split-events, sprint-races, points for qualifying and fastest laps, and performance bonuses.
I know, those are big cognitive leaps to make. And the cynics would urge caution – which is another part of the problem.
One of the excuses that Formula 1 uses to qualify its reluctance to new ideas is that it doesn’t have the means to properly evaluate them. Rightly, it claims that it can’t tinker with the format of a race weekend during a World Championship event, upon the world stage. What is less openly stated is that we’ve allowed in-season testing to return through the back door, and that it offers a perfectly reasonable means to execute new ideas in a completely free environment.
For instance, what’s to stop the FIA from running actual race simulations during those tests in order to evaluate proposed new regulations? Any team that wouldn’t be willing to participate would simply forfeit their running time. And the organisers could impose limitations to ensure teams didn’t subvert the test for their own means (eg, they could be excluded from running if, for instance, a pit-stop took longer than a mandatorily fixed time, or if lap-times fell below a pre-established baseline).
The Belgian Grand Prix, by Darren Heath
Admittedly, such tests wouldn’t offer up all the answers, but they’d be a useful starting point for examining new ideas, and – most crucially – stamping out any flaws and shortfalls before they were put to full public scrutiny.
I’m sure fans would also relish the opportunity to openly attend a ‘test grand prix’ where teams started in reverse order, or where standing restarts were practised. And broadcasters could test-run the coverage, with journalists examining and dissecting proceedings from the media centre. Wouldn’t it be utterly fascinating?
Not all of it would work, mind; that’s not the point. We’d have opened the sport up to some worthwhile experimentation, and some good ideas would stick, and, just as important, the forum would create further fresh thinking that, in turn, would push the sport on. Both the FIA and FOM could use it to experiment with new forms of media engagement, too – experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.
A few weeks ago, in this very column, I lamented the sport’s abandonment of non-championship races (the last was held way back in 1983). Not only did we lose the concept of hosting unique events that offered teams a brilliant opportunity to blood new drivers and try out new ideas, but we also lost some of the spirit of openness and camaraderie that existed when racing was more than just simply championship-minded.
I still believe that non-championship races would work. The idea of introducing focused and measured tests to evaluate the sport, with the added prospect of a form of competition during the sessions, just seems too tantalising to ignore completely.
The sport needs to be open to these fresh, new (and, sometimes, old!) ideas.
Think about it: nobody complained when Formula 3000 segued into GP2, and the notion of a double-header race weekend was introduced, and, with it, the concept of the top eight from Saturday’s result reverse-gridded for Sunday. Think about how radical that sounds as an idea, especially within the context of Formula 1’s most visible, and arguably most important, feeder formula. Yet nobody bats an eyelid about it now.
Equally, if we’re all still so mentally conflicted over the idea of double-points in the seasonal finale in Abu Dhabi (and, let’s face it, we are), why not simply run two races during that last race of the year? You’ve got your double-points, you’ve maintained your sporting equality, and you’ve doubled the spectacle and the content available to worldwide broadcasters.
What’s not to like?
And while we’re on the subject of new ideas, let’s make some of the areas of fresh thinking a little easier to digest. The Sporting and Technical Working Groups have recently bestowed upon us both DRS and ERS. But isn’t talk of a drag reduction system, and its respective detection and deployment zones, a little overly complex?
If you were a scientist for a toothpaste company, do you think they’d let you call your new product the Plaque Prevention Compound? No, they’d instantly throw it under the noses of their marketers (and, no, that’s not a dirty word) and ask them to create a suitably vibrant name for it. I don’t know much about marketing, but lots of marketers do; and I’m just as sure they’d cringe at the term Drag Reduction System as they would at Plaque Prevention Compound. Equally, ERS should be called Hybrid; not calling it Hybrid is idiotic, frankly.
Indeed, I’m led to believe that many new health and beauty products are as much marketing-led as they are science-led. By that, their properties are initiated by market research, conceptualised by the marketing team, and made a reality by the scientists and engineers.
Belgian Grand Prix in pictures
Yet Formula 1 continues to do the opposite: it empowers its engineers and scientists (all bright people) to create new regulations, throws them to the marketing department to unravel, before finally presenting them to the unwitting public. It’s only at that point that we find out what’s working and what’s not.
The sport should approach rule-changes and new ideas with a clearer idea of what the market wants. And let’s make a modest start: kick out the acronyms, clear the clutter, and work on making Formula 1’s lengthy and laborious list of terms and appellations striking, simple, sexy and fast.
Let’s say it how it is, and call DRS the Speedwing, because, well, that’s exactly what it is. And the Speedwing works in the Speedwing Zone, because, well, that’s exactly what it is. See where this is going?
Why are our tyres called Prime and Option? What the hell is that supposed to convey? They should be Hard and Soft. Simple, innit?
It’s not rocket-science, it’s Formula 1. It’s big, fun and fast. Let’s keep it that way.