British Grand Prix 2015: Processions and profits have brought F1 to the edge of the abyss

Amid the excitement of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Kevin Garside examines how a sport featuring 200mph racing has lost some of its allure and offers solutions to the lack of competition

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The Independent Online

Where is Formula One’s Dustin Brown apocalypse, the shattering of the peace by a random traveller none saw coming? Centre Court at Wimbledon convulsed like an episode of Game of Thrones, the unfathomable outsider driving a blade through the established order. If Rafa Nadal operated in Formula One, he would still be king.

The heads of the F1 families, also known as the Strategy Group, a committee of eight led by commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, FIA president Jean Todt, plus the team principals at Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams and Force India, met in Biggin Hill this week to address once more F1’s fading allure.

Their recommendations, both short and long term, include a reduction of driver aids, engine development and cost reductions, greater tyre choice and radical revisions to car design for 2017, embracing wider wheels, new wings and floor shape. For next year there might even be changes to qualifying and the format of race weekends.

Bring it on, but don’t hold your breath. There is a structural difficulty the size of Texas besetting the leadership of the sport. Part of that is allowing teams with competing interests a role in deciding the shape the future might take, a little like asking Manchester United to vote for a reduction in Champions League places for Premier League teams. It will never happen.

There is also the more fundamental flaw presented by an ownership model that places the sport’s interests in the hands of financial speculators, for whom profit, not substance and long-term health, is paramount.

That change is necessary is beyond argument. The dead hand of predictability has dragged F1 to the edge of the abyss. The last time a season reached the final race with more than one team dreaming of victory was 2010. Even Lewis Hamilton’s title rampage in 2008, as arresting as the final race turned out to be, was a contest between only two teams. Before that we had the Schumacher years, when the great man had the season wrapped up for Ferrari by July. At least Mercedes allow their boys to duel, a feature that is keeping interest alive. Just.

It must be said it takes some doing, stripping the drama from a sport in which the protagonists tear along the asphalt at 200mph-plus. To travel in an F1 car, even one as emasculated as this, is still on the outer limit of the extreme sporting experience, one that would have you or me screaming for mercy before we left the pit lane.

I was down for three days, utterly discombobulated, after just 10 minutes in a simulator, never mind the real thing. Punters gathered at Copse stood mouths agape as the cars burned around the corner at 190mph before hammering into the thrilling Maggots, Becketts, Chapel  complex.

You don’t have to love racing to feel the primal pull of speed. The problem in this phase of Formula One’s evolution is the absence of competition associated with it. This has been a long time brewing, and is ultimately a consequence of a leadership lacking joined-up thinking, and forgetting that the contest is not between cars so much as drivers.

Last week in a London park, Formula E’s electric dream delivered the very thing F1 cannot, a denouement in which drivers from different teams were hunting the championship crown. Here was a category which boasts neither the quickest cars nor the best drivers arrowing in on sport’s essence. The cars, being broadly similar, were not at the centre of the enterprise, merely the mechanism through which human agency made the difference.

Nelson Piquet Jnr began the race with a five-point championship lead, but having qualified no higher than 16th on a grid of 20, needed to pass cars to win. With six laps of the 30 remaining he had climbed to eighth and into the championship lead a point clear of Sébastien Buemi, who needed to get by Bruno Senna in fifth to claim the title. The race to the flag was riveting stuff, Senna’s beam broadening as the chequered flag neared to ensure his fellow Brazilian would be king.

Even the eco police at Greenpeace were impressed, offering their endorsement of the Battersea Park pageant. “This championship has showcased some of the recent innovations in electric vehicles in the most spectacular way. It was a great demonstration that there are always alternatives to fossil fuels, and no technological barriers to a cleaner future,” gushed a spokeswoman.

Formula E is a 10-race novelty that visits a bucket list of major cities, including London, Moscow, Miami and Buenos Aires, plus motor sport staples Monaco and Long Beach. In other words, races are playing out in places where the product is relevant.

At least a part of the erosion of meaning in F1 is a consequence of chasing the dollar in parts of the world where racing culture has no traction. And so we find ourselves in a situation where the sport has been sacrificed in its European heartlands in favour of developing countries for whom the association with F1 is about geo-political projection rather than the love of the game. The sport gambled on becoming largely a TV event, but with the absence of excitement it is hard to see how much longer broadcasters might sell processions. 

Mercedes, housed in Stuttgart, will not race in front of German fans this year because neither the Nürburgring nor Hockenheim can match the tens of millions the likes of state-backed races in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, China, Singapore, Malaysia etc are prepared to pay. Italy is hanging on. Silverstone was on the verge of mortgaging half the 800-acre estate to keep the British Grand Prix.

The 17-year-deal, signed in 2009, has a notional 10 years to run, but with a built-in escalator of the purchase price biting deeper every year, you wonder if the contract will endure. Madness when you consider 140,000 will pass through the gates tomorrow. More than 80,000 turned up yesterday to watch practice for a race the outcome of which is known, barring rain or a miracle.

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