What do viewers at home love about F1? It is great wheel-to-wheel racing? Lots of overtaking? Strategy calls? Or the venues? Looking at the polarised reactions to this past weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix got me wondering.
A few of the journalists were pretty effusive about the race. Will Buxton was particularly euphoric:
Epic race. One of the best of the season. Wow.
I saw that this drew a few hoots of derision, including from me! Because from the comments made by other fans watching at home was that… well… it was a bit dull really.
It wasn’t a stinker by any means. There was some good action and a fair few talking points. But large stretches of the race were rather processional. Hardly epic.
The epic race without the racing
Will Buxton justified his comments:
No sarcasm. Epic race. ALO VET lap trading, WEB early stop and brill drive, HAM / WEB moment, GLO driving arse off. KUB amazing.
There is some truth in what he says. While Webber and Kubica provided some entertainment, this was only because they were out of phase with the surrounding cars strategy-wise, so were not on an equal footing with the drivers they were battling with.
As for the battle at the front, the problem was that Alonso’s victory was never truly in doubt. He commanded the track all weekend, and always even looked like he might have a bit extra left in the tank too.
During the first phase of the race, Vettel drifted back to 3.5s behind Alonso. After the pitstops, the gap eventually grew to over 2s before slowly decreasing again. Vettel did get mighty close to the end of the race, but this was typical Alonso driving conservatively.
Renault engineers always talked about how conservative Alonso was as a driver. They never had to tell him to turn the engine down; he had already done it.
So it was in Singapore. Alonso had done just enough to establish himself as the certain winner of the Singapore Grand Prix and had the whole situation under control.
It may have looked good on the timing screens. I did indeed get excited when purple sectors were being set and Vettel started to decrease the gap. But the “lap battle” was partly down to the street circuit becoming cleaner and faster towards the end of the race.
I’m sure they were playing with each other, but neither looked to be pushing particularly hard. Alonso was always in control, and Vettel never looked interested in truly pressurising.
At the start of the race, Vettel had ceded the first corner, setting the tone for his race. It did not look like he was particularly interested in winning — a suspicion confirmed by Vettel’s comments that passing Alonso would have been too risky. And why bother? Alonso is the ultimate defensive driver, as his amazing battle with Michael Schumacher at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix demonstrated.
The bottom line is that if you hold a race on a street circuit with one overtaking spot — two at a push — then the racing isn’t epic. There might be stuff surrounding the racing — strategy, crashes, pretty buildings… But not much overtaking.
Interesting, yes. Epic, no. The ingredients simply weren’t there.
Epic racing or epic facilities?
There is a trend for certain venues to be talked up a lot by the F1 circus, no matter how good the racing is. I particularly remember Valencia Street Circuit — which has served up three of the most turgid grands prix seen in the last decade — was universally praised by the teams as being a great venue for grand prix racing.
Scratch the surface of the headlines, though, and you see that they are not so interested in the racing itself. Ron Dennis said that the 2008 European Grand Prix at Valencia was so great that it made him “ashamed to be English”. But it left most others ashamed to be F1 fans, it was so bereft of racing.
Of course, Ron Dennis was thinking about the facilities. Facilities are apparently the only thing that matter in F1 these days. Never mind what the viewers at home make of the track. As long as the venue is equipped with a shiny silver throne for the McLaren chief to do his golden business in, who cares about the people at home?
Similarly, the journalists have clear favourite places to visit and places they can’t stand. China? Don’t talk to them about it. And spare a thought for poor, poor Magny-Cours. It was so awful — not because of the circuit, of course, but because it was in the middle of nowhere, as the journalists never missed the chance to remind us!
Meanwhile, Melbourne is always the “great place for a race” — is that code for a booze-up? And Singapore is now “epic”.
Never mind the fact that the Marina Bay Street Circuit is not great for overtaking. Never mind that the 2008 race needed a manufactured crash to pep it up, and that the 2009 race was voted the fourth worst of the season by F1 Fanatic readers.
TV coverage demonstrates skewed priorities
The scenario was not helped by some rather lacklustre television coverage from FOM this weekend. It looked to me like the director was more used to directing pop music videos than motorsport.
Coverage at night races is always dominated by shots of the lit-up buildings and the scenery surrounding the circuit. It feels more like the Singapore Grand Prix is more like an advert for Singapore than a motor race. Who was going to bed last weekend without seeing that flashing “Your Singapore” banner in their sleep?
When it comes to races like this, Bernie Ecclestone’s priorities are clear. Why else would the bland coverage of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have won an FIA award for best coverage of the season? Much of the race action was missed. Anyone not paying full attention would have thought that the race was won by a hotel that looks like a giant flashing lady-toy, so fixated were the cameras on anything but the cars.
Those in the inner circle in F1 should remember that the fans at home are looking for epic racing — not epic Holywood movies, epic nightlife or epic superloos.