The Trouble with Formula One

It used to be so easy to defend my love for Formula One. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching Formula One with my father on Sunday afternoons. As I entered my teens, the Sunday Afternoons became Sunday Nights, and then pretty soon the wee hours of Monday morning. I can still clearly recall the incredible day when Mark Webber drove his vastly inferior Minardi to a fifth place finish in Melbourne in his debut Grand Prix. I remember duels between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, which only Murray Walker’s impassioned commentary could describe. I remember how the cars used to roar in all their V10 glory.  The sport of my childhood delivered drama, beauty, endurance and pure energy.

But these are all memories. As hard as it is to admit, F1 has become boring.The drama once generated by racing on the field barely exists. Drivers struggle to overtake without the assistance of DRS, and races are often won from qualifying the day before. Fans have reacted – they simply don’t attend races, nor watch them on tv anymore. Even Bernie Eccelstone, the “benevolent” dictator of the sport who makes Sepp Blatter look transparent admitted last year that the sport was at an “unacceptable state”. So what can be done?

Solving this isn’t as difficult as it sounds. The reality is that while it’s fantastic that F1 has made an effort to expand its calendar to include tracks in Russia, Korea, India and China, the tracks at these races bore fans to tears. Nearly every track introduced to the calendar since 1999 has been designed by one man – Hermann Tilke. And they’re all rubbish (with the exception of Istanbul). These tracks are designed to be safer – so much so that it’s nearly impossible for a driver error to actually be punished in a racing situation, as Jackie Stewart noted in 2011. Anyone who didn’t fall asleep watching the Russian Grand Prix last year will understand what he means.

But Tilke-designed tracks make up nearly half of the races in the 2015 F1 season. They also make up races in countries that have struggled to attract a crowd for various reasons. Watching racing in front of empty white elephants isn’t fun for anyone involved in the sport. Meanwhile, tried, tested and loved tracks such as Imola and Magny-Cours continue to be left off the calendar, whilst Ecclestone has thanked loyal fans with the prospect of more Tilke snore-fests in Qatar and Azerbaijan for 2016.

The focus for Formula One needs to be to get the fans back by re-engaging them in racing at its purest form. Ecclestone needs to forget about changing the rules every year and introducing prosthetic methods that encourage overtaking, and return the sport to tracks that encourage this naturally.

But there is an inherent problem in this. The hundreds of millions of dollars rights paid by new frontiers such as India and Russia to host the sport isn’t something that traditional tracks are keen to flesh out. Ecclestone himself is more interested in earning money for his Formula One corporation from building terrible tracks in new countries than to see the sport excite and entice new viewers.

Paradoxically though, it appears as if the sport couldn’t continue without Ecclestone’s monetary support. Ecclestone is the fan’s worst best friend, and doesn’t appear to be about to voluntarily move on from the dynasty he has created for himself. Formula One for him is like one very long and lavish party that he continues to throw himself, and he doesn’t really have any incentive to stop so long as it continues to serve his own economic and social interests.

Is the sport doomed to mediocrity and boredom whilst Ecclestone continues to run the show? I would argue yes, but as far as I can see there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. I’m still excited for the season to kick off, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep it up much longer.