For the first time in 37 years, Joe takes (forced) gardening leave! Here are his views on what F1 can learn for this time away from the races.
In a world without motorsport, column writing becomes a little more of a challenge. You didn’t come here to read about viruses. You want to know about racing. But F1 stopped a month ago, or rather it never really started. We went to Australia for a race that never happened. And then we all went home and have been locked up in confinement ever since.
An old F1 driver who took up commentating when his racing days were done rang me the other day and enthused about rediscovering springtime. For the last 41 years, he has always been on the road in the spring and has missed watching as the world revives after the winter. I have been on the road for a mere 37 years and I feel the same way. I’m enjoying my ‘gardening leave.’ I am very fortunate to live in the countryside, away from cities, and I have a large garden where I spend most of my time these days – digging, weeding, seeding lawns and tidying things up. When I am not doing that I’m repairing clocks, remodelling bookcases and generally pottering around the house – something that, in F1, one simply doesn’t do very often. Fortunately, I don’t have to write every day and I feel for those who do because news from F1 is thin on the ground and once you have written about date changes and budget cap conversations, there is precious little else.
So what should we do in the F1 world? Taking a step back and looking at the sport, without the daily rush, is a very positive thing. We don’t know when things can restart and thus far the sport has shown none of the recklessness that we see from politicians who realise that the economic troubles that are coming will result in them losing elections. They are so desperate to cling on to power that they are willing to take unacceptable risks with the lives of their people who may become victims of the pandemic if the lockdowns are lifted too early. It’s an object lesson about modern politics. These are not people to be trusted. But there are exceptions and, it is heart-warming to see that elections and share prices do not trump moral issues.
Grand Prix racing has survived two lengthy and painful wars, so I’m not worried about the sport. It will survive and come back when the time is right. It may be a little different but F1 is famous for its ability to change quickly and so there is no reason why it cannot do so again. At the moment there are no signs that any of the F1 teams are in any serious danger of collapsing. What is more worrying is the impact the pandemic is having on smaller teams, which are funded by the drivers themselves. We will likely lose a few of them. By the same token, national motorsport will be able to revive before any international activity and this may help boost such championships.
F1 is in the process of looking at how best to prepare for the future. It is not a simple business, because there are many different challenges that may not appear to be obvious. Race promoters want to hold races, but they cannot do so behind closed doors. They need the revenues from ticket sales. TV stations are keen to get the sport back, but people are less keen to invest in pay-TV when they don’t know what they are going to get and free-to-air channels are facing a situation in which even if the sport restarts, they cannot find advertisers to fund their rights fee payments. Advertising has slowed dramatically. Sponsors are not interested in racing when it isn’t happening. And restarting the F1 calendar is a complex game. It is not sufficient to have a country that is clear of the virus (none will be until there is a vaccine). Those countries which have kept things under control are not about to allow thousands of people in without taking precautions. Most countries that are opening up are doing so without major events. It is the last thing on their ‘to do’ lists. And there are problems with freight. There are currently insufficient flights available to move critical medical supplies around and so finding the planes needed to run frivolous F1 races is going to be difficult.
However, while there is a sea of negative things at the moment, there are also positive things to consider. F1 has long needed a dose of reality with regard to its budgets. The pandemic is forcing the teams to think in a more sensible manner. There is also very good news in the world of virtual racing. Admittedly, the traditional F1 fans tend to be older than those who live more virtual lives, but all the current activity is getting youngsters excited about F1 racing and, a percentage of them will become fans as a result of having watched the virtual races that are now taking place, with real racing stars driving virtual machines. And when real racing returns, virtual racing will still be there and will provide the sport with new revenue streams that were previously weak. Who knows? In the future, we may see a real F1 race every other week and a virtual event on the free weekends…
Motor racing is unique in that it is the only major sport in which one does the same thing in the real world and in the virtual world. You don’t play soccer or tennis by pressing buttons. This is a big advantage that motorsport has yet to fully understand and exploit.
So, all is not lost. The sky has not fallen in. The sport will return, hopefully at a time when it is sensible to do so – and not before.
In the meantime, it’s back to the garden…
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.