As Formula 1 heads back to its spiritual home for the British Grand Prix, the F1 Strategy Group met last week to discuss the current challenges the sport faces in waning TV viewership and fan interest as well as a wave of negativity in social media and other online sources.
The group released some of its focuses over the next 24 months as we mentioned here. Vocal critics of the current form include Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Dietrich Mateschitz and aerodynamic engineering genius Adrian Newey. They are joined by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone as well as a throng of frustrated fans around the world.
If we can all agree that F1 has a problem, then it begets the question: Who is to blame? The short answer is, everyone.
When the wave of sustainability consumed the world on the back of a ravenous campaign of climate change and social responsibility, car companies were convinced that they had to make changes. BMW, Toyota and Honda all left F1 in order to be part of a program that more reflected their future aspiration in hybrid cars…because clearly the general public demanded the product. Never mind that seven years on, the hybrid still ranks in the single digits in sales amongst total cars sales in the US.
With this media blitz of sustainability and public shaming of those who “denied” it, the car industry tacked faster than a Ferrari 458 can achieve 60mph. Journalists, who had long enjoyed careers reviewing and writing about cars, suddenly became megaphones for sustainable initiatives. The Chevy Volt was promptly voted car of the year for several publications. I hadn’t seen integrity depart an industry that fast since the last American election.
The press, like F1 and the teams within, are all stakeholders in the series and like the car magazine industry, Formula 1 has stepped in line with the sustainable ideology with the FIA mandating a hybrid engine formula that may appeal to the same percentage of folks who would buy a hybrid car—single digits in total at best.
Williams F1’s, Claire Williams, has often championed the hybrid but that’s not a stretch is it? She also owns Williams Hybrid Power so she has a dog in the hunt. Mercedes and Renault champion the hybrid but then they make hybrid cars and have sunk millions upon millions in that product in order to capitalize and the nascent industry of electric cars. Ferrari went in kicking and screaming but they have found a use for their hybrid technology in the LaFerrari so perhaps they aren’t as sour as once envisaged?
The FIA, like a flapping flag blowing in the wind of social causes, certainly moved toward sustainable energy. So much so that you may have forgotten that their decades-old cause was safety. They still champion safety but it’s done in the penumbra of sustainability these days and tragically it took the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014 for us to all recall the FIA’s dedication to making racing safe.
Team bosses have now turned their focus on the press and social media as the reason F1 struggles of late. The thought here is that the press are being negative and that is creating a snowball effect which is picked up and echoed by fans (mobocracy) in social media. Had the press not become so malignant about F1’s challenges, then the fans surely would have followed the propaganda and remained perfectly enthralled with a sport that hasn’t been itself lately (since 2014 actually).
Herein lies the confusion for me. The FIA and F1 had a compliant press in 2013 who, like car magazines, were praising the bravery of F1 to move toward sustainability. They jumped with glee at the hybrid engine formula and admired Renault and Mercedes for threatening to leave the sport if it didn’t become more socially responsible.
Clearly the press tacked and left behind the reality of the car and racing industry in 2008 in favor of sustainability. If F1 feels they are now negative, then clearly they missed just how fickle and malleable the press can be as it drifts on the waves of cultural and social causes.
F1 and the teams all know how the press works. I’m not revealing anything insightful here. They know the press writes content that interests its readers and sells magazines/prompts clicks. Surely taking aim at the press for their current woes is misplaced frustration? The press is merely echoing what their readers are saying and writing content that their readers want to know or are concerned about. This isn’t revelatory in nature but surely targeting the press for their ills is a case of bad optics.
I’m not the “press” but I have a lot of time for the hardworking men and women who toil at their craft. They were championing the move but the fans have spoken and the press are merely doing their job. Leave them alone; they are doing just fine and good folks.
F1 is the world’s most advanced form of motor racing and I love the sport immeasurably. Am I a fan of electric power units in F1? No. Do I love the World Endurance Championship (WEC)? Yes. Does it have hybrid racing? Yes.
The fact is that hybrids may be and additional way to make the cars much faster and better at racing. I get that plot and I am fine with that. The WEC has shown us this is true. What I ultimately believe is that F1 isn’t dead, it just needs some fine tweaking to really open things up a bit and stop over-engineering the formula.
If the WEC can offer an acceptable Balance of Power (BoP) that would see three different hybrid LMP 1 cars race nose to tail after six hours, I think F1 can do something similar. Open the format and fuel flow but work harder at the BoP. No one complains at the cost of WEC and while not on par with F1 spending levels, isn’t there a lesson in that fact?
There are a lot of things to be slightly excited about with the F1 Strategy Group’s statement and focus but gimmicks will only kill F1. These are some of the smartest folks in the racing business but they will surely kill the series if they keep placing their own agendas above Formula 1. They will kill the series if they continue to ignore what fans truly want in favor of politicizing the series to make a grand statement of global social cause. That’s not good for business and the last time I checked, F1 is a business, not and political ideology.
The fans are equal partners in the blame for their contradictory views on what they want from F1. We want prolific passing, we want refueling, we want danger, we want safety, we want cost-cutting, we want open regulations, we want tire wars, we want difficult cars to drive, we want technology, we want sound, we want we want we want. Fans seem as confused on what F1 truly should be as the owners who run the sport.
Some have cautioned F1 about listening too closely to fans as they don’t know what they want either or at the very least are confused about what they want and what knock-on effects getting it would have. Listen to us but don’t LISTEN to us if you know what I mean. We wanted passing like NASCAR and got DRS…please, don’t listen to us and please don’t offer gimmicks. If F1 has 300 million viewers then so be it but don’t compromise the integrity of the sport because that’s all you have left.
The FIA, FOM and teams need to de-colonize their heads. They are brilliant people and can make the right changes if they stop seeking the quick personal gain in favor of creating a long-term plan for the series in which they will benefit for decades to come. Put the long-term ahead of the short-term for a change and you will not have to blame the press, fans or other scapegoats for your ills. Stop being pragmatists and start being prudent and good stewards of the series in which you thrive.