The watering down of Formula 1

This week Ferrari caused a ripple when it published a provocative article on its blog, The Horse Whisperer. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full, not only because it makes an interesting point, but because it elegantly quotes Adam Smith. (Motorsport, economics and my home town of Kirkcaldy all in one little paragraph!)

This is the legacy of the holy war waged by the former FIA president. The cause in question was to allow smaller teams to get into Formula 1. This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it. In the meantime, we have lost two constructors along the way, in the shape of BMW and Toyota, while at Renault, there’s not much left other than the name. Was it all worth it?

As fans have watched the progress (and non-progress) of the new teams over winter, many will have been wondering just how much of a success the FIA’s initiative to introduce new teams have been. A lot of political turmoil was caused last year when the FIA all of a sudden decided that ten teams on the grid is not enough.

Never mind the fact that there were just ten teams on the grid for the majority of the past decade, and it was never viewed as a problem before. And never mind that it was Max Mosley who originally said that the existence of teams like Williams was not how he envisaged the future of Formula 1.

Just like that — to prove some kind of political point, or maybe just for a bit of a scrap — he changed his mind. New privateers were now essential for the future of the sport. Manufacturers were driven out, to the point where basically only Mercedes are left (and Ferrari remain, but clearly unhappy with the way the sport is run).

Quantity over quality?

Formula 1 2010 brings yet another radical new look to the sport. There is no doubt that the greatly shaken-up grid has generated a large amount of interest. But there is a distinctly different style to the grid. This brings us to ask: is the new way better than the old way?

In recent years, the emphasis has been on the quality of the participants. Yes, there were relatively few entrants. Costs were sky-high. But viewers were guaranteed to be watching the best of the best.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the 20 drivers in F1 were among the 25-or-so most capable people for the job. Pay drivers, who have been a fixture of motorsport since its earliest days, had all but vanished. Even the very worst of recent F1 drivers — the likes of Romain Grosjean or Nelsinho Piquet — would put drivers like Jean-Denis Délétraz or Ricardo Rosset in the shade.

I am all for new and privateer teams coming into F1. But it should be a proper process, and not rushed and contrived like the situation this year.

Although the history of the F1 Rejects — the remarkable drivers who ploughed on with their F1 careers despite not ever having a hope of achieving anything — is long and proud, the pinnacle of motorsport ought to be the pinnacle of motorsport. Right now, F1 is going through a process of artificial watering down. This is thanks to the FIA.

The FIA’s fundamental misunderstanding of motorsport

I have been genuinely worried by the FIA in recent years. They seem to have genuinely no idea what makes motorsport great. Witness the continued decline of the World Rally Championship. While it is currently undergoing a slight boost thanks to Kimi Räikkönen, it is otherwise a shadow of its former self. Meanwhile, the relatively new Intercontinental Rally Challenge, just a few years old and more or less invented by a television company, continues to gain admirers.

IRC is attracting attention because it gives the fans what they want. Meanwhile, the FIA continue to do mad things with the WRC, such as messing around with the calendar unnecessarily.

Up until recently, the idea that the FIA were totally clueless was just a hunch of mine. Sure, it has appeared that way for a long time. But maybe they saw the bigger picture. Perhaps the crazy “world engine” concept — whereby Formula 1, World Rally and World Touring cars would all share the same engine — really was needed in order to save the environment.

Well, no. It simply derives from a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes motorsport exciting to so many people.

The January edition of the excellent Motor Sport magazine podcast contained a truly shocking revelation that I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of. I urge you to listen to it. The relevant section is 35 minutes and 50 seconds in.

Motorsport journalist Nigel Roebuck recounts a meeting with Max Mosley:

He did actually say at one point — and he meant it, he wasn’t being facetious — we were talking about the spectators and he said, “Would they miss the noise, Nigel, do you think?”

I couldn’t believe he was asking the question. I said, “Max, the noise is half of it.”

And then he said, “I always find when I’m watching the race on television, the engine noise is such a distraction. I can’t hear what the commentator’s saying sometimes.”

And he wasn’t being facetious. It did strike me then — it does worry me. You know, “you and Bernie are the most powerful people in motor racing, and you’re not actually sure of the answer to that question. In which case, you’ve missed the point entirely.”

Thanks to the FIA’s recent moves, we are now in a situation where Formula 1 is no longer the elite sport that it was. I have recently been asked if the 107% rule — whereby excessively slow cars are weeded out during qualifying — is still in force. It hasn’t been for years, but it’s telling that some people haven’t even noticed that the rule was ditched long ago, but are now interested to find out if it still exists.

For the past few years, it didn’t matter whether the 107% rule existed or not. Every team was capable of producing a competitive car. Not this year.

Incidentally, the quotes from Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone about the introduction of the 107% rule are very interesting in relation to their recent policy of encouraging more small teams, regardless of their quality:

Max Mosley: “Any small team which is properly organised will be able to get within the the 107 per cent margin.”

Bernie Ecclestone: “Formula 1 is the best. And we don’t need anything in it that isn’t the best.”

5 comments

  1. Max was simply Bernie’s puppet. Whatever Bernie wanted long term is the the direction Max headed things. Perhaps WRC was distracting people from F1?

  2. […] más allá, ¿acaso se ven los motores cuando se televisan las carreras? Como mucho, se escuchan. Y hasta esto le parecía molesto a algunos mandamases, como Mosley. Entonces, ¿para qué vamos a gastar ingentes cantidades de dinero y esfuerzo en evolucionar algo […]