It’s been almost 20 years now that I’ve been following Formula 1. Besides seeing a rise in pay drivers, the sport has undergone tremendous technical changes, seen some dominant eras, and, of course, a few World Champions – some deserving, others not! And, along the way, I’ve had a few realisations – some as a fan, and others as a sports-marketer.
Domination is here to stay – first Ferrari, followed by Red Bull Racing, and now, possibly, Mercedes! The technical regulations are such that the sport does allow for one team to make the most of the regulations, while the others struggle to play catch up. The result of the new regulations of 2014 could well see Mercedes win ‘ALL’ the races this season. Can this be changed? Well, not entirely, because Formula 1 is not a one-make series and the rules do allow teams to creatively push the boundaries and develop a car quicker than the others.
As a fan, I do believe that Formula 1 could benefit if it followed on the lines of a single make series. I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the past few years, the viewership of videos of wheel-to-wheel battles from junior series like GP2, GP3, FR3.5, and others, has gone up since these battles are all but missing from the pinnacle of motorsport. Purists aside, most fans are interested in on-track battles rather than battles being fought out by technical teams in the development of these race-cars. I bet that most of the private team owners as well would be happy to put their efforts into the brand building of their teams while purchasing the technology from likes of Ferrari and Mercedes (yes, I’m referring to customer teams). And if you still disagree, I wonder if you’d relish the prospect of the entire current grid of drivers going head-to-head in GP2 cars (Maldonado excluded!).
The other realization is that Formula 1 is possibly the toughest sport to govern (technically) and commercialise, given the involvement of many heavy-duty stakeholders. I say this in the wake of the fuel sensor issue that Ricciardo faced in the opening round of the current season in Melbourne. And, as the season progresses, I wouldn’t be surprised if more such incidents crop up once the teams start pushing the boundaries to the absolute limit (and beyond) to get back on the pace.
On the commercialization front, the sport has been looking for an Ecclestone replacement for a few years now, and there’s no successor in sight yet. With governments and promoters from nearly 20 countries involved, the FIA, 11 teams that don’t get along on or off-track, plus multiple broadcasters and sponsors, finding the next Mr. E is possibly tougher than playing the role itself. However, it is this role which will gain further importance and face more scrutiny post the Ecclestone era, since the strength of the sport and a large part of the funding for the teams depends on the distribution of the money earned from central revenue deals. And it’s Ecclestone who’s been able to punch way above his weight (and height) to keep the sport with its various stakeholders together while arm-twisting his way into extracting more money for the FOM.
Fans will always be taken for granted, like we have in the past. From the platypus noses to their ‘adult’ versions this year, to the uninspiring sound of the V6 turbo units, and even the double points finish in Abu Dhabi, it’s the fan that has been left out. Then again, it is difficult to come up with a formula for the sport that puts less emphasis on engineering and more on racing. One wonders how it came good in the 80’s and 90’s!
Formula 1 will always be a British sport – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The power of the sport, engineering wise, will always remain central to Europe (the Milton Keynes area to be precise). The only team that has successfully managed to survive outside this space, and succeed, has been Ferrari. Toyota, which was based in Cologne, gave up their campaign after only a few years, and now we hear that American Gene Haas is interested in setting up team operations in the US. While decentralization of the industry will allow it to go global, I’m not entirely sure if the sport is ready for it.
Road relevant technologies have always been talked about in previous seasons – but these have never been implemented before 2014. Given the growing declining interest from sponsors and car manufacturers, it’s crucial that the sport finally shows some relevance in an average fans’ life – apart from just the fortnightly action. As controversial as the current regulations may be, fans should brace for more such regulations to come their way (18-inch tyres maybe?), which may not add to the spectacle, but could add more road-relevance to the sport.
And the realisation of the 2014 season has been that Mercedes has built a superior car as compared to the others – as technical director, Paddy Lowe, said, “with inputs from a certain Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher.” The Hamilton-Rosberg battle will only get more interesting, although it may not necessarily be on-track as much as it could play out on the pit-wall with one driver trying to get the better of the other via different car setup and / or race strategy. For those who love Formula 1, they’ll enjoy it. For those who don’t, well, you’re no worse off anyway!