On arrival in Texas this week, Lewis Hamilton proclaimed himself in love with Formula One all over again. Recent evidence suggests is firmly in the minority. Although the sport still has fans, to the hundreds of thousands who filled Silverstone this summer, even many who retain an interest in motor racing’s top category are ready to accept the proposition that it is in deep trouble.
If F1 needs to exist at all, it has to be at the leading edge of technology. But it is also a sport. And only the most irredeemable of nerds could possibly enjoy a competition between drivers at the wheel of 200mph vehicles being decided by groups of data analysts sitting at desks in English industrial estates, staring at banks of computer screens and crunching numbers before sending instructions to a track thousands of miles away, where they can be relayed to the driver by his race engineer in the sort of dispassionate tone your dentist might use when inviting you to open a little wider.
The sound of drivers being told how to take corners by people who have never raced in their lives represents only one of the problems. Others include the introduction of well-intentioned gimmicks like DRS, created to improve the chances of overtaking, and technical restrictions devised to reduce costs, which end up acting as a barrier to the sort of continuous development that enables teams to catch up and compete with their rivals, thus stifling the sort of competition on which the sport used to thrive.
What real fan does not despise the idea of “tokens” for engine development, or grid penalties for exceeding the permitted number of replacement engines and gearboxes? Who thinks it is a good idea, rather than yet another bit of artificial nonsense, to enforce the use of two different tyre compounds during each race? Who cannot look at those ridiculously complicated front wings, modified at every race in accordance with the latest wind-tunnel research, without thinking: what a waste of money, even by Formula One’s usual standards?
And then, of course, there are the circuits. Once you only had to look at a photograph of a grand prix to know where it had been taken: the cars raced against a backdrop of Monaco’s Belle Epoque architecture and Zandvoort’s seaside dunes, through the swoop down to Spa’s Eau Rouge and the heat-shimmer of Monza’s endless main straight, or around the banked Karussell turn at the old Nürburgring. The new circuits may be in exotic locations but they all look the same: a bunch of lines painted on endless, featureless deserts of asphalt. And by swelling the number of races to 20 a season, that impression is only increased. Race after race goes by in an undifferentiated swirl, interrupted and enlivened only by the handful of circuits that survive from the pre‑globalisation era.
In principle, taking the sport to India, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Russia or Abu Dhabi was no bad thing. But the expansion was done with an undue emphasis on profit and little concern for the health of the series. Several of those adventures ended in failure, leaving purpose-built circuits abandoned, and it will be interesting to see the future of the US Grand Prix in the light of diminishing ticket sales since the first race in Austin, well publicised and well attended, in 2012.
If it is to survive, Formula One needs fast, intelligent and decisive action in the form of sensible policies imposed by clear-headed people motivated solely by a concern for the sport. So when Bernie Ecclestone and his old pal Max Mosley re-emerged in tandem this week to put themselves forward as its saviours, it was hard to stop laughing. These self-proclaimed saviours are the very people whose activities over a period of 30 years created the setting for the present mess, first when Mosley – as president of the FIA, the governing body – , and then when Ecclestone sold a controlling interest in those rights to CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm that has since without making any kind of meaningful investment in its future.
The last time Mosley had a bright idea, it was to introduce new small-budget teams to fill out the grid, thus helping Ecclestone fulfil his contractual commitment to the broadcasters and race promoters. Three teams answered the call back in 2010. One of them, the Spanish-run HRT, disappeared after three miserable seasons. Another, known first as Lotus and then as Caterham, lasted one year longer. The third, originally called Virgin, then Marussia and now Manor, narrowly escaped closure last year.
Mosley and Ecclestone will spread the blame between the seemingly laissez-faire approach of the current FIA president, Jean Todt, to and the decisions of the leading engineers who make up the sport’s technical committee and were allowed to devise the present set of regulations. Letting the competitors make the rules is always a bad idea but the two Englishmen long ago proved they are not the ones to put a stop to it. The only reason Ecclestone is still permitted to run the sport is that there remain in the paddock a number of significant figures whom he helped to make very rich.
In examining the dreaded duo’s statements, it is always necessary to look for hidden motives. Ecclestone’s call for a return to the old V8 engines is made in the guise of wanting more noise and closer competition but it would represent a slap in the face for the manufacturers – Mercedes, Renault, Fiat/Ferrari, Honda – who are spending hundreds of millions of pounds developing the new generation of hybrid-technology power units. He would be glad to see the back of them and their reluctance to accept his supreme authority.
Not a week goes by without Ecclestone, who celebrates his 85th birthday next week, saying something ludicrous or doing something questionable. In the past month alone he has lavished praise on Putin, tried to bully Ferrari and Mercedes into giving , signed a new deal with (who supplied tyres to his Brabham team in the 1980s) and attempted to drive the sport’s technology backwards. A return to the old reliance on internal combustion engines, instantly depriving Formula One of a hard-won chance of regaining its technological relevance to a future in which every street will have recharging points for electric cars, would be a final insult.