Formula 1 - Yes or No?

The Writing Man plays his favourite form of golf

My idea of a golf course is one with a small windmill on it, so it’s no surprise that playing competitively does not appeal to me. Work colleagues come into the office on Monday morning more stressed than when they left on Friday afternoon, because on Saturday they spent more time playing in sand than a child with a bucket and spade and half the Spanish Costas all to themselves.

I once tried to make this point in idle conversation, but any justification was impossible because the seven people with me replied instantly – and in total unison – “Why does anybody watch motor racing?” What my bandwagon-jumping friends meant, of course, was “Why does anybody watch Formula 1?” but like so many people they automatically associate ‘Formula 1’ and ‘motor racing’ and assume them to be the same thing.

This is because Formula 1 has a history and profile that most other sports can only dream of. It has over half a century’s worth of stories to tell its grandchildren, backed up by another half century of famous motor racing events that started with the first Grand Prix in 1906 and haven’t stopped rolling off peoples’ tongues since: the Indianapolis 500, the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Mille Miglia. And it is a truly global sport - countries that used to hold Grands Prix want them back, and countries that have never so much as produced a racing driver want to get in on the act.

Yet few other sports attract as much criticism with such regularity. “There’s no overtaking, nothing to get excited about.” Nor are there any personalities, apparently. Maybe not, but the name of Michael Schumacher is as instantly recognisable to the non-sports fan as Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong. Say Juha Kankkunen to a Big Brother contestant and not even a filament bulb would light up above their head. Say Michael Schumacher and the worst response you’re likely to get is “Cars!” (followed by an irritating and self-congratulatory grin).

Some people are even willing – in an age when one person’s stupidity is passed off as another’s liability and rewarded with compensation – to suggest that the sport is too safe. This is nonsense. Formula One is at the forefront of technology, therefore it must also be at the forefront of safety. It’s why ground effect was banned in the 80s, and why V10 engines are to be replaced by V8 engines in 2006. The teams and drivers might not like the perception of ‘dumbing down’, but that is because they’re spending £100million of someone else’s money to be considered the best in the world. You never hear the IRL or Champ Car winners called that, do you?

In 1952 the list of Formula 1 World Champions consisted of two names, but due to a lack of entrants and the dominance of Ferrari the rules were changed for the cars to be built to Formula 2 specification. Even though Ferrari still won every race, the aim of increasing the number of cars entering races succeeded. It didn’t matter whether they were factory backed or privately entered cars; what mattered was having full grids. The point is, even in these early days, the governing body was willing to impose wholesale rule changes to make the racing better.

Renault F1 car at the Autosport show

Such heritage results in accusations that Formula 1, 2005-spec, has sold its soul to the carmakers. After all, their interest is self-promotion, not sport. Ironically, this should be a good thing – the carmakers want to succeed, which should make the sport more competitive. When Ferrari fought with Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Maserati for supremacy the sport was far more accessible. Today it is dependent on the manufacturers’ commitment to keep it alive. This is risky, but also promotes exclusivity and the idea that you have to be good to compete.

However, this idea is wrong. You need money to compete, but you need to be good to win. The question is: are you trying to attract ‘the best’ or are you trying to attract ‘the richest’? Crucially, the richest can afford the best and give them the maximum resources with which to work. No longer can you be in F1 to make up the numbers, so it stands to reason that those competing today must be among the best in the world, both on the track and in the factory. In the past, a moment of inspired thinking might have made your car go faster but it wouldn’t have been tested to within an inch of its life to make sure it wasn’t going to break before the chequered flag.

Formula 1 will always be expensive; it should be, because competitive professional sport is about pushing every boundary and every limit to secure the small advantage that puts you above the rest. Those who work within Formula 1 are rightly of the opinion that if another team wants to be ‘number one’ then they should have to work hard to do so.

Single seater racing at Donington Park

The paying public, however, don’t necessarily care about this and just want to see the best drivers made to work to win races, not drive into the distance unchallenged. But if the public likes good racing, why is British motor sport in a rut? 100,000 people attend the British Grand Prix, yet smaller events are suffering low crowd numbers. Why are so few people attending the events where they can see wheel-to-wheel racing corner after corner (and for a fraction of the price of a Grand Prix ticket)?

I’ll tell you why – because paying a fraction of the price doesn’t allow you to see the most talented drivers seated behind the wheel of cars that represent the pinnacle of automotive endeavour. Sure, there may be the odd ill-conceived rule, but the people who design and build these cars will extract every last thousandth of a second out of them until the boundaries are readjusted.

And because not just anyone can drive these cars. Only these people idolised as heroes. These racers.