F1’s self-esteem crisis

Hazel Southwell
Sep 8, 2017 · 6 min read

I imagine I’ll get some charmers trundling into my twitter mentions about this explaining that, you idiot, of course what’s important is what the cars look like and the noises they make and we can’t possibly feel at all dignified about the sport until that’s sorted. Which is kind of a child’s Scalextric set view: it must be broken, see, it isn’t doing what it did before.

This year F1 has been actually pretty good. In the sense it’s been pretty ridiculous — but there’s a title fight between two teams, we’ve had a diversity of race winners and ok, the penalty shenanigans are ridiculous but they add a little flavour to the much-stagnated, budget-pinched back of the grid.

Do I love it as much as I used to? Maybe not. It’s rather tempting to go with something sexy and exciting and new in Formula E or the roughed-up underdog of GT racing and just sigh at F1’s idiosyncrasy. But that does leave a bit of a gap to this titanic thing that’s supposedly sitting atop the Iron Throne of motorsport, with about the same enjoyment of most of Westeros’ monarchs.

Do I think F1 could be lovable, should be? Ah, yeah. I’ve developed almost an animosity to its sneering but also occasionally you have to look at this colossal, flailing thing, realise you’re in the structure underneath it and panic a bit. If people can’t learn to love F1, if it can’t learn to love itself — then all of motorsport is going to be in a bit of a pickle, for a few years at least.

What is wrong with Formula 1? It’s pretty much every fan, journalist, driver and casual pub commentator’s favourite topic about the sport, these days. The consensus is that it’s boring and expensive and the same team win all the time and it’s too complicated and no one cares. Maybe millennials are killing it.

Formula 1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport — so what does it say about it when it’s struggling to keep even 10 teams on the grid, its own drivers describe it as ‘unwatchable’ (Daniil Kvyat) and admit that their friends don’t watch it (Carlos Sainz Jr), while genuine excitement for the launch of its tie-in computer game seems higher than that around watching a Grand Prix?

The broadcasting giant that owns a huge chunk of the F1 rights, Sky Sports, has a consistently lacklustre approach to covering it — critiquing the racing more than it enthuses. Maybe rightly so — but it’s a tone that hangs over the whole series like a melisma; it’s almost considered tasteless or not being a real fan to get excited by the modern era. F1 is a business, of course, so there’ll always be some traditional negotiational grumbling involved but it’s starting to be so normal for its userbase to complain about it might as well be an office IT system.

It’s a weird tug of war between not letting go of F1 and not wanting to approve of it. It’s like we’re supposed to tacitly acknowledge that someone has made F1 not good and if only it was allowed to be proper again, without all this red tape or whatever, it’d be great.

And now someone’s going to put a Halo on the cars, which is just the absolute end. We must wring our hands asunder for the whole sport is dead due to a safety feature no one will probably see during the races.

Basically, F1 carries itself with the dignity of a pet recently returned from the vets, furiously sporting a shame-cone and doggedly still humping the sofa as though it’ll bring back what’s now long gone. I still love F1, much as I love my cat but the moments I’m impressed by either are not when they’re throwing a tantrum at engine regulations or being dragged away from the nicer cushions.

No one really shouts about the hybrid tech. No one talks about the fact wanging a V6 round a track faster than the 1990s cars everyone gets misty-eyed over the memory of, like a long-lost teenage lover, is actually rather impressive and skillful and slightly sci-fi. We’re all almost meant to be upset about it, it seems.

Ever since F1 moved to a hybrid engine system, everyone from Bernie downwards has at least vaguely bemoaned it. Couldn’t we at least have V8s or V10s back? Will Liberty let us now? Why not? It moved the FIA’s Jean Todt to point out that manufacturer reputations would not survive a return to V12s (he described it as likely to make “3–4” leave the sport — ie: all of them) and indeed, that it “would not be accepted by society.”

Which is the sort of comment that unfortunately just fuels F1’s weird feelings about being oppressed by progress. What does society know about Formula 1, eh? We need to go back to when cars were men. Oh, F1; I know that this is all complex social posturing and that your ability to enjoy cars going in circles isn’t necessarily coupled to a complex critique of why you feel so emasculated by a KERS unit but at least have a little self-respect.

Hard not to compare it to Formula E, in this particular context. Formula 1 hasn’t, of course, been in the same fight for mere existence that FE has been for the last three years so maybe it doesn’t have to be so dogged about itself and can sit on its ego having a midlife crisis rather than running around forcing people to acknowledge it’s great.

Formula E’s boss, Alejandro Agag, spends a lot of time and effort explaining to people that it is the future. So do the team bosses, drivers, PRs, etc. but it’s particularly notable from Alejandro because it would be almost seen as embarrassing for any of F1’s bosses to talk about its tech as “part of the technology revolution in the motor industry” or “the vision of the future of sustainable mobility.” Partly, you have to suspect, because Formula 1 considers itself too sexy for any of that sort of talk, while grumping around finding itself increasingly irrelevant purely because it can no longer explain how it is.

F1 seems to be approaching its own technology with a sense of resignation. It doesn’t want to move forward — or feels that it isn’t cool to. And look, ok, yes, I know some of that was Bernie. But the new owners don’t want to talk about the current tech being cool either — if anything, discussions are around development being slowed, a ‘steady on’ approach to artificially making the cars louder without purpose.

There’s a bit of me that thinks Bernie, a rascally old savant if there ever was one, probably realised the moment the wheels were coming off. But that doesn’t mean someone with some inspiration can’t do better and maybe F1 needs a year of eating ice cream in its pants before it gets over the breakup but it’s getting pretty urgent now.

Basically: calling F1’s mates, can you get it a nice new dress, do its hair and take it out on the town? Maybe have a manufacturer tell it it looks appealing. Find it a date with a terrestrial broadcaster. Tell it that hybrid engine sounds nice, whatever you think about it.

The problem with driving in circles is that it’s not as obviously apparent that despite the repeated return to the start line, there is only one direction. And whingeing on the radio just makes you sound like an idiot; the hybrid era is going to carry on: like it or else there’s Goodwood Revival this weekend.

Hazel Southwell

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Professional motorsport journalist who puts things here when I know nowhere will really take them but think they need writing.