As NASCAR devotees on this site, you’ll be more than acutely aware of the advent in motorsport of gimmicks to enhance the spectacle. To be honest, the somewhat stuffy world of F1 has always looked down upon the idea of “tactical yellow flags” and the like toward the end of the races in order to bunch up the field. After the Schumacher dominated processions of the early 2000’s though, and conscious of the fans beginning to switch off, more and more tweaks have come into the sport at the behest of Mr. Ecclestone. We are at the point now where we have DRS to aid overtaking and highly degradable tires to ensure an element of strategic chaos. Have we, however, crossed the line between sport and entertainment?? Do us racing fans really have such short attention spans as to need to be constantly thrilled throughout a race? Is this not rather (as has been mooted by Mark Webber)…..*shudder*……becoming like the WWF Wrestling?? Let’s look at the arguments for and against….
Do you remember the bad old days? The days where patently quicker cars would sit staring at the gearbox of the driver ahead just waiting….interminably….for them to pit. The seemingly single chance to overtake existing when the other car was no longer in front. Even so recently as 2010 Fernando Alonso, following a strategy error from his Ferrari team, saw his title hopes disappear in the season ending Abu Dhabi race as he sat behind the MUCH slower Renault of Vitaly Petrov. This was racing at it’s most tactical. It’s most boring…..and the patience of even the most committed fan was being tested to the limit. Something had to be done. Welcome on board DRS and fast degrading tires.
At the end of the day Formula One is a sport. It’s the entertainment business. Yes, of course there are engineering challenges. Of course it is seen as the very pinnacle of motor car development. Yet it needs, desperately, to entertain. With the recent switch in the UK to transmission on the relatively costly Sky channels, from the free-to-air terrestrial BBC, that need became all the more pressing. F1 would simply not exist at all were it not for the fans, and the fans need to be excited and retained. Were the recent changes to actually fly in the face of the sport as competition, we’d have drivers winning in inferior machines. Nico Hulkenburg’s Sauber could be hustling and beating the Red Bull of Seb Vettel. However, despite all the changes and disgruntled noises, the cream is still rising to the top. The best car and driver packages are still those most likely to prevail, which would strongly indicate that the competitive nature of the sport itself is not being degraded quite so quickly as the rubber on which they run.
One of the hardest things for a fan of any motor series to get their head around is the concept of a driver and car package purposefully performing well within themselves. Tire conservation is, in reality, a terribly boring principle on which to go racing. Where it becomes too much is when it’s the core tenet of a race. The drivers are, metaphorically, plodding around the track at 60% capacity because they know to push harder will strategically wreck their race. That’s not racing as a sport, that’s strategy gone mad. Any real race fan ultimately wants to see who is the quickest at driving the quickest car. 100%. All the time. It may be a little naïve to expect that, but what we the fans would like is seat of the pants, four wheel drift, edge of sanity type racing. We want the drivers to show us just what it is that we can’t do! Rather predictably as well, that’s actually what the drivers themselves would like too.
The reality is that under the current specification, F1 is no longer about which car/driver combination is quickest, it’s about who can best conserve their equipment. That’s not racing in the purest sense at all. Speaking of purity, those dyed-in-the-wool fans of the sport itself, the ‘geeks’ of F1 if you will, in particular feel short changed. The management of the sport have decided that to maximize revenue, they need to appeal to those casual fans who will only watch if what they see before them is a spectacle. Doesn’t that expression “maximize revenue” hurt? Too right it does.
Let’s whip up an analogy of sorts here. If you’re an athletics fan, and your particular preference is the sprint races, do you really want to see Usain Bolt conserving his shoes by running half-paced in order to win? Of course not. In motor sport terms, F1 is the equivalent to a sprint – an hour and a half race from the start line to the finish. If you want to watch endurance racing, you’re well catered for with the ALMS, Le Mans and sportscar races. If you want the best of the best, the quickest of the quickest, then F1 should be your port of call. Balancing tires against pace is a challenge, of course, but it’s an ‘invisible’ challenge faced by the drivers and teams, not one that can really be embraced by either the purist, or the casual fan. I’m going to be a bit controversial here (and will probably be moaned at in the comments section) but if you want to watch an overtaking-fest, where passes come and go throughout the race, often to little end effect (until the conclusion of the race), then perhaps you’re best with NASCAR? Ouch!
In conclusion then…..well, I’m going to sit on the fence. I am a purist when it comes to F1, but I’m also a realist. Is watching the fastest driver in the fastest car run away with a race somewhat dull? Well yes. Granted. Though it does always hold some interest, it would be a retrograde step to go back to the days where you pretty much knew the result before the beginning of the Grand Prix weekend. However is a constant festival of meaningless overtaking equally as dull? Absolutely, yes to that too. There’s a happy medium to be struck somewhere along the line and, with the advent of more amenable aerodynamic tweaks unlikely, for what it’s worth my feeling is that DRS needs to be carefully managed to the extent that it gives a driver the enhanced ability to get alongside another car, but still requiring the bravery and skill to brake later, take a better line, and complete a maneuver. Let’s do away with the brittle tires and get back to driver skill when it comes to what is fast becoming the lost art of overtaking.
Enjoy the race in Spain this weekend!
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About the author
Andy joined Frontstretch in 2012 as our lead correspondent for Formula One. Adding a little international flavor, the Englishman pens a weekend column called Slipstream Saturdays looking at the latest news within racing’s biggest world series. A promoter by trade, the longtime fan still catches NASCAR on occasion, but his heart will always be connected to open-wheel.
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