Throughout this past weekend, I did my best to ignore headlines at ESPN.
I didn’t want to know who had claimed pole in the Canadian Grand Prix, and then I didn’t want to know who won.
It turns out, I didn’t need to avoid ESPN. Even after I knew the results, I didn’t see any Formula 1-related stories passing by ESPN’s main web page.
That’s a problem for the sport here in America. ESPN stirs the sports drink, so to speak, and during a weekend when F1 is just across our northern border, I expected a bit more attention to be paid.
Now, I realize that Fox has the claim on Formula 1. This weekend, the Canadian Grand Prix actually aired on Fox; the rest of the time, it is the Fox affiliate, Speed. As a result, ESPN has a variety of explicit and implicit discouragements to “promote” the sport.
But tell me why I never saw anything at my local news websites, including one that prides itself on being “big”, the LA Times?
The answer is simple: Despite a race scheduled for America in a few months, and maybe two in the coming years, F1 remains off the mainstream radar. When even sports sections aren’t giving it the time of day — but are covering European soccer — there is something wrong.
I think I know what the answer is. But, before I go there, this admission:
F1 probably can do OK in America with what its got going. It’ll continue to claim a few hundred thousand people via TV coverage, and the novelty of a GP will bring out fans to the races. (Well, maybe. Hopefully?)
But it won’t crack most people’s perception. It won’t go beyond a niche sport. It won’t get anywhere near NASCAR.
In my mind, the last time non-serious race fans had F1 on their minds, a certain driver was in a certain car. (A few of you might want to look away at this point.) It wasn’t that long ago, only a decade.
Yes, Michael Schumacher was winning a lot in his Ferrari. For F1 fans, it might have gotten boring and repetitive. But for non-race fans, there was a name they could remember and, perhaps more importantly, the brand they could picture (and maybe lust after, too).
F1 needs those casual fans. (It needs to hope things don’t get to a point where current, hardcore fans are alienated, I’ll grant you that.)
How does it get them? Re-create Schumacher at Ferrari.
You know where I’m going, right?
Sebastian Vettel needs to jump to Ferrari. But he needs to do more than that. He needs to jump to Ferrari and he needs to win a title or two. Ferrari needs to be back on top with a driver who is charismatic enough to incite fans both for and against him.
Who better than the guy with the finger?
What also helps — from an American perspective — with its being Vettel to “save” the sport is that he’s got two F1 titles under his belt already. So if he goes to Ferrari and wins that first title for the Scuderia, Americans can hear about the three- (or four? or five?) time champion.
America loves a winner, after all. And it loves the posh, Italian sleekness of Ferrari.
Winner + Ferrari. That’s what F1 needs to capture America’s attention. And the sport needs to have that attention to succeed here.
Oh, and an American driver certainly wouldn’t hurt.