Formula 1 has always succeeded in spite of itself. The racing has never really been riveting and domination has been the rule rather than the exception. What sustained interest in F1 was the off-track glamour and intrigue.
The glitz in the pits and the wars behind doors fuelled fascination like a soap opera. Here was a serial drama involving privileged people, big money, even bigger egos and high stakes for success.
The power plays, in-fighting, back-stabbing and political machinations were way more absorbing than the racing. They kept F1 in the spotlight and, like a cringeworthy reality TV show, you were compelled to keep watching against your better judgement.
Years ago, I dubbed it “Hollywood On Wheels”. F1’s allure was addictive and its flaws were forgotten amid on-going controversy and scandal. It defied perpetually predictable outcomes on the track to thrive and grow. But not anymore.
After three years of crushing Mercedes-Benz domination, F1 has finally jumped the shark. A precipitous decline in attendances and viewers signals mass disaffection. Even hardcore F1 fans are deserting in droves.
And no wonder. The racing is rubbish and as a sporting spectacle, its sucks. It’s no coincidence, either, that the fall has coincided with the cars sounding like strangled animals rather than ear-splitting banshees.
The problem is that F1 is now so far up its own arse it can’t see the obvious failings. The much-vaunted changes for this season have only made things worse.
Sure, the more muscular cars look better, are faster and more physical. But with a wider, lower stance and fatter tyres, they couldn’t fail to be more imposing than the previous narrow-gutted eyesores. They are a long way from the aesthetic appeal of the low, lithe and unadorned machines of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And they’re aurally awful. It’s not the lack of volume that offends so much as the discordant drone of the turbo-muffled hybrid powertrains. They sound like dying sheep.
The so-called road car-relevant technology is a crock. It’s irrelevant and exorbitantly expensive. Screaming V10s and shrieking V12s that hurt your ears and raise the hairs on the back of your neck are what fans want.
F1 is about being mean, not green. Bring back the raucous racers and much of the appeal will be restored.
While they are quicker, the new cars have fallen short of predictions that they would be the fastest F1 racers ever. But as predicted, increased aerodynamic downforce and grippier, more durable tyres have made overtaking even more difficult.
The cars are more sensitive to aero wake, which combined with shorter braking distances, mitigates against passing moves into corners. And fewer pit stops because the tyres are maintaining grip longer removes a strategic variation.
Yes, the drivers are working harder, but to what end? That they’re happier is a warning sign because in my long experience, what excites drivers is the antithesis of entertaining racing. If the snooze-fest season-opening Australian Grand Prix was any guide, overtaking action is going to be as rare as rocking horse shit. OK, Albert Park isn’t a passing paradise and subsequent circuits may be more conducive, but not by much.
The only glimmer of improved competition provided by the AGP was that Ferrari has re-emerged as a credible threat to Mercedes and that Sebastian Vettel will engage in an enthralling fight with Lewis Hamilton for the title.
Let’s hope so because Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen aren’t looking like threats. The Red Bull RB13 isn’t yet the aero wonder that was expected from chassis design genius Adrian Newey, stifling the super-talents of ‘Our Dan’ and ‘Mad Max’.
How the rule-makers have got it so hopelessly and expensively wrong – yet again – is beyond belief. Except it isn’t because they let the boffins decide. The solution is actually simple, but the process of change is prohibitive.
The best hope long-term is Ross Brawn, the new sporting boss of F1. He is the classic poacher-turned-game keeper, having been the technical mastermind of the world championship successes of Benetton, Ferrari and his eponymous team (the basis of the all-conquering Mercedes AMG squad).
If anyone knows how to cure the sport’s racing ills, it’s Brawn. But to do it, he’ll have to overcome F1’s convoluted regulatory system. That will be no easy feat given the vested techno-centric interests involved. For F1’s sake, wish him luck. He’ll need it.