Wednesday 24th February may appear as just another day in the world for an average person, but for a Formula 1 fan it goes down as yet another footnote of F1’s numerous PR woes. For a sport that is clearly searching for direction and vision, the powers that be decided to shake up qualifying. Just as the majority of its fanbase was flabbergasted when the FIA announced the mandate of a single helmet paint scheme before the eve of last season, social media was filled with more proverbial long faces over another unnecessary rule change.
It stems from three issues that engulf Formula 1 worse than ever: bureaucracy, ennui and nostalgia. It appears the FIA have suffered a diminishing control over its premier sport since Max Mosley left, who although many saw him to be a figure of ridicule and detachment from salient issues, he knew how to avoid the inmates running the asylum throughout the majority of his tenure. Whilst many cringed at Bernie Ecclestone’s recent quips about his hatred of democracy, in the context of F1 it is a political system which fails to work well at all. The infamous FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) was proof of F1’s constructors’ inability to work and harmonise as a working group. Formed at a meeting in Maranello on 29 July 2008, the organisation became notorious for partaking within the FIA-FOTA dispute of 2009. Mosley stanchly proposed a £40 million budget cap for 2010 in an attempt to attract new independent constructors, but FOTA rejected this, as well as many of the FIA’s additional proposals. FOTA announced they wanted a unanimous agreement upon technical and sporting regulations between themselves and the FIA before renewing the Concorde Agreement, which was due for review. There were attempts between both parties to smear each other with claims that both were jeopardising the existence of F1, which led to six of the FOTA teams announcing a withdrawal from submitting entries for the 2010 season. Eventually, it dawned upon FOTA the regulations had already been set in Paris at the FIA’s headquarters. The reputation of Mosley had already fallen on a slippery slope from his Nazi sex orgy allegations from the previous year, which meant FOTA were able to demand his removal. Whilst FOTA eventually withdrew their threat of creating a breakaway series, the teams eventually became disinterested with running FOTA and it was discontinued by early 2014.
Ennui is a feeling that not only affects the actions of the political figures within the sport, regardless of the organisation they work for, but particularly that of the fans and drivers. Whilst it is a great thing that Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 website has taken social media far more seriously over the past year, it has profited upon a whim which leaves fans yearning for a worrying and unhealthy nostalgia. Watching videos of Juan Pablo Montoya set the fastest average lap speed record at Monza during 2004 is something that provides a weapon for fans to lampoon modern Formula 1 as a depilated, inferior sporting product. The visceral sensation of the noise emitted by an old fashioned V10 engine leaves viewers harking back to an era when Michael Schumacher and Ferrari drove the masses to tedium and boredom. Back in 2004, many retired superstars such as Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell bemoaned the lack of overtaking and competition, as well as a perception that the electronically-aided cars were less challenging to drive (sound familiar?). However, Prost also spoke of the task he faced in his era of fuel saving and tyre management during the 1980’s, driving heavy turbocharged monsters that broke down with alarming regularity. Prost and Mansell were many who berated the V10 chassis regulations of the time, which allowed refuelling and tyre changes. Michael Schumacher’s ingenious victory at that year’s French Grand Prix illustrated what many saw as farcical, where he won having seized advantage of Magny Cours’ short pitlane to pit four times to achieve the optimum strategy to beat Fernando Alonso’s pole-sitting Renault by 8.329 seconds.
Conincidentally, it set the FIA’s Overtaking Working Group into intense study and action. The regulations derived from its studies led to the narrowing of wings, removal of aero appendages and slick tyres by the advent of 2009. Thanks to the FIA-FOTA dispute, it was an organisation that became discredited and the current Strategy Group now influences a lot of regulations within the sport. It has been subjected to many complaints, particularly from Force India and Sauber who filed reports of its legality to the EU commission, vilifying its lack of concern for fiscal controls for constructors and its manipulation of power between group members. The Strategy Group permits the top five constructors from the previous season’s constructor standings to dictate the organisation’s decisions. In deference to a refusal to learn from the past, it is calling for a return to bigger aero appendages and a return of refuelling despite many statistics proving the introduction of the refuel ban, the much-maligned DRS and heat sensitive Pirelli almost trebling overtaking in the past five years in comparison to the seasons between 2005-09. This was an era where cars struggled to overtake due to pit strategies which attempted to seize of refuelling to move cars up the order through tactical ingenuity rather than wheel-to-wheel action.
Having been a fan of Formula 1 since 2002, Martin Brundle produced a tweet during Tuesday which aptly summed Formula 1’s problems. The number of rule changes causes endless confusion for not just fans, but its participants who are persistently dissatisfied by the sport’s politicking. Tinkering and manipulating rules to fit whims with artificial solutions is clearly not the way to go and it leaves fans nostalgic. Many egregious regulations since 2003 include:
- One lap qualifying (manipulated into an aggregate system for the early races of 2005)
- Parc Ferme rules (no tinkering with car’s setup post-qualifying, with aberrations later permitted for reliability and safety)
- The fuel burn credit system implement for the newly introduced three tier qualifying of 2006. This was abolished when refuelling was banned for 2010.
- The maximum time for cars returning to the pits during safety car periods, leaving myself and others confused when Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella were disqualified during 2007 Canadian Grand Prix
- Banning teams from doing a pit-stop “dummy”- where pit crews pretend their car would enter the pits by rushing into pit box positions to fool rival teams
- The engine freeze on V8s post-2006, which left a lot of its technology obsolete to car manufacturers and eventually led to the much-maligned V6 turbo hybrids
- The KERS system (which none of the teams had called for), causing the weight limits of cars to be increased and penalise heavier drivers such as Mark Webber plus many more
As a fan of this sport I am at my wits’ end, particularly with older fans that yearn for the 1980’s. Ironically, this was the era infamous for the FISA-FOCA war (a forbearer of the FIA-FOTA dispute), where issues such as prize money, political power, superlicences and various issues set the tone of a poisonous atmosphere of strenuous political turmoil for decades to come within F1. From reading historical websites dedicated to motorsports, the arrivals of car manufacturers during this era such as BMW, Renault, Honda & Alfa Romeo sparked astronomical budget increases, with lower teams such as Tyrrell & Ligier, who were once competitive, to become also-rans who would get lapped five or six times come the end of this decade. In my time as F1 fan, many teams have closed down or sold due to financial issues. Prost, Arrows, HRT & Caterham were liquated due to huge debts, whilst BAR, Jordan and Virgin were sold and re-sold to their current guises of Mercedes, Force India & Manor. In addition, Minardi became Toro Rosso (thanks to Red Bull’s buyout), Jaguar sold what it saw as a sinking ship to Red Bull, Sauber became BMW Sauber, but reverted back to its original guise when the Bavarian giant grew tired of funding its grand project, whilst Toyota admitted defeat after spending billions through a stubborn committee-led management system. It is clear the vested interests of manufacturers cannot commit to unanimity and the FIA needs to set a blueprint upon this criterion:
- Financial viability through budget constraints
- Value for money and entertainment for fans
- Limits upon the political powers of manufacturers and corporations
- A safety back-up plan when major teams and sponsors flee the sport
- An agreement to find corporations to commit to investing within independent outfits such as Williams, Haas, Sauber & Manor without jeopardising their futures or threatening to overhaul their management in favour of their brands’ identities
- A fairer share of TV money between the CVC and constructors (as well as reviewing historical payments to successful teams such as Ferrari)
- Removal of lengthy, tedious press conferences which pander too heavily towards sponsors
- A stable, coherent set of regulations easy to understand by all and requiring little tinkering.
I love Formula 1 to pieces, but it is not immune to criticism. My view of its relationship with social media is that whilst has improved, its Twitter and Instagram have become complacent. It needs to explore why fans love their drivers and their teams, where maybe perhaps a “fan-board” on the Formula 1 website with pictures and messages supporting whoever will appear. This would lessen the need to show old videos of races gone past and a cessation of glorifying the sport’s murky and questionable past.