How to Address the Declining Popularity of Formula 1
52,000 people attended the 2014 German Grand Prix. If that line doesn’t get the attention of Formula 1 teams and stakeholders, rest assured, both sponsors and broadcasters will be quick to raise it at their next contract negotiations. That is of course if they even turn up to the table. Not since the disputes of the early ’80s between the Ecclestone-led FOCA teams and the Ballestre-led FISA teams, has the future of Formula 1 been put under so much threat in such a public fashion. I say this because while the ’80s may have seen teams boycott races, drivers strike and, races stripped of their championship status, the fans came in their droves and few teams struggled to find a sponsor.
Fast forward thirty years and despite pioneering cutting-edge technology, world-class driving talent, and close on-track action, crowd numbers are down and front-running teams are struggling to find backers. Where has the sport gone wrong? How is the same product, now beamed out to an even larger and more diverse audience, appearing to be losing popularity?
Organisation = Sterilisation
I want to suggest that the root cause of the current state of Formula 1 is derived largely from the immense control conducted over the sports brand. While the control over a sports product can ensure a degree of quality control, Formula 1’s presentation has been placed in a straight jacket and deprived of the opportunity to embrace some of it’s greatest qualities. In expanding on this point, let me provide a few examples of where this can be seen and what effect it has had on retaining and attracting a new audience to the sport.
Should greater organisation and control over the Formula 1 brand have brought with it less creativity and individuality in its presentation? One thing that a sport such as Formula 1 should be able to embrace and utilise, is the benefit of different cultures, traditions and talents, imposing their flare on the Formula 1 brand. Take a look at race programs as an example. It’s hard to believe, but ever since the late ’80s, the cover design of race programs has been controlled by Formula 1. No doubt introduced to ensure a level of quality was maintained from race-to-race throughout the entire season. The last ten years has seen the official race program become a shadow of its former collectible glory, a symbol of laziness, complacency and an all round lack of care for the sport it aims to inform its fans on. The Formula 1 program hit an all time low in 2004 when the cover design featured a generic photograph of a piece of body work, devoid of any markings save for the host county’s flag, the circuit, and the round number. The following year featured a close up of the right rear tyre of a Formula 1 car breaking traction, which in the case of the Monaco program, could’ve easily been mistaken for a car with a blown engine, such was the extent of the smoke occupying the shot. It is an indictment on the sport’s officials when they fail to properly promote the one race that doesn’t need promoting. The programs this year are hopeless to say the least, a re-hash of the 2009 wire-outline of a Formula 1 driver with the addition of the host nation scrawled across it in a stylised script. If Formula 1 is to maintain control over the production of the program, why not advertise the city in which the race is being held, or the track on which the race is being run? Give something back to the track owners that are so devoid of funds following the payment of exorbitant hosting fees.
Remember the days when you could turn up to a Formula 1 race and look through tens of stalls containing Formula 1 memorabilia of all kinds? I do and I was only 6 or 7. Turn up to a grand prix these days and all you get are the same stalls, one after another selling the same officially licensed merchandise from the top teams. The ‘F1 Village’ is well organised, but there in lies its problem, it’s too safe, there’s nothing distinctively different on offer at the track that you can’t get online, there are no local vendors selling unique items, or collectibles from years gone past. I will admit that at Melbourne there is one stand at the track which does sell helmets, pictures, and memorabilia but there is not enough of this. Ted Kravitz provided a fantastic view of the wonderful items on sale at the Libreria Autodromo in Monza during his notebook segment for Sky Sports F1, the store contains a treasure trove of old motor racing items and it is not hard to see the genuine excitement on the face of Kravitz as he inspects the display cabinets. Formula 1 needs to embrace its history and merchandising and memorabilia is a wonderful means with which to capture the passion of the fans.
The current presentation of Formula 1 can be traced back to the introduction of digital television in 1997. Offered initially to only a limited amount of European nations, the service provided a multi-channel format through the acquisition by FOM of brand new broadcasting facilities that would accompany Formula 1 to every race. While the subscription-based digital television venture failed to make a profit, the facilities ensured the sports owners would no longer rely solely on the local broadcasters for the on-track action. The decision has ensured a high quality broadcast but has also taken away the individual touches that they brought to the presentation of Formula 1 such as varying graphics and camera positions. Consider driver interviews, which are now confined to ‘the pen’ where drivers move mechanically from one media outlet to another in an efficient and methodical manner. No longer do you get the interview from the driver as they are getting out of the car, at the side of the track, or as they rush to their motor home, because all reporters know where to find them following a retirement or the race finish. This technique provides safe but ultimately uninteresting viewing for the audience. Perhaps aware of this, Formula 1 introduced a camera into the pre-podium green room which has provided some brilliant moments including the spat between Massa and Alonso following the 2007 European Grand Prix or Mark Webber’s relaxed choice of words at the conclusion of the 2009 Spanish Grand Prix. In this context, drivers don’t have time to put their corporate face on and the result can be brilliant to watch. Aside from this however, the presentation of each race follows the same routine, in a choreographed, mechanical form that further distances the audience from the emotions of the drivers and the country in which the race is taking place.
When asked by Autosport magazine in June of this year about whether Formula 1 would officially embrace the use of social media to assist its fans in viewing content Bernie Ecclestone was blunt “No we’re commercial… if they find people to pay us [to do that] then I will be happy”. What is astonishing about Ecclestone’s response is that it fails to address why he believes social media would not assist Formula 1’s declining popularity. Instead of answering why social media would not be good for fans and Formula 1, Ecclestone answers why social media is not good for himself and FOM. In this writers view Ecclestone’s view is not surprising, what is however, is that a man with a limited ownership in a company can be kept in charge despite showing a total disregard to addressing the sports future growth. While I am somewhat impartial to giving Bernie ideas on how to make money through embracing social media and technology, one method could be to have every broadcast of a Formula 1 race placed on a database from which the sport could then charge a subscription-based fee for fans to access. This would be an invaluable tool for both enthusiasts of the sport, and enable new converts to educate themselves on the sports history and its underpinnings. Connected with each video could be an area that enables people to upload old photos of that race, including old home videos, so as to provide an increasing database of Formula history. Add to this you could have drivers and commentators provide exclusive commentary on certain parts of the race which you could promote by giving sneak previews on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Formula 1 could make a fortune from social media and wouldn’t have to give up broadcasting rights at all, because the history of the sport is it’s most valuable asset.
The control of the Formula 1 brand has led to exceptionally high standards being demanded by any circuit venue seeking to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix. While the FOM deals with the locations seeking to host a circuit, it is the role of the FIA to oversee the requirements that this circuit must have. It is my opinion that the FIA have sterilised the sport by placing far too much emphasis on the safety requirements of circuits without any consideration to the damage such decisions have had on the appeal of the sport.
I have written a couple of posts on circuit design and location and believe it is the greatest factor currently affecting the appeal of Formula 1. There are three key factors that determine a great F1 venue: locality, appearance and layout. If a track fails in any one of these areas, it’s ability to maintain a profit, let alone an audience is questionable. At present Melbourne, Monaco, Canada, Silverstone, Spa, Monza, Singapore and Suzuka satisfy these criteria, but that is being put under serious threat by the FIA.
From a locality perspective, tracks like Monza, Silverstone and Spa have the unattainable advantage of history on their side. They are distinctively Formula 1, tracks in which the greats of the past have raced and for which the ardent supporters of Formula 1 will always converge. For tracks like Melbourne, Monaco, Canada, and Singapore, you need only an aerial shot to make people around the world stand up and take notice. The reaction from these events is “I don’t know what Formula 1 is, I don’t really like motor racing, but damn!! That place looks like it’s having fun!!” How many people don’t like Formula 1 but still go to Montreal during race weekend because the place is alive. Concerts are on, the bars are full and the parties go on into the night. These are races where both Formula 1 and the host city benefit from each other. In contrast to China and Malaysia where race weekends can come and go without the locals ever knowing they’d occurred.
But a great venue is nothing without a visually spectacular, and physically challenging circuit. Something that blows the audience away with its beauty, accentuates the power of the cars, and tests the skills of the drivers, features that should ultimately produce great racing. The reaction that motor racing enthusiasts should have from these venues is “Wow I love motor racing and that looks like the place to watch it!!” But it is here where the FIA have been massively detrimental to the sports appeal.
Over the last ten years, the FIA has set about taking the two most disliked elements from Formula 1’s newest venues and imposed them onto the older circuits. Those elements are ‘space’ and ‘tarmac’ and their implementation at Spa, Silverstone, Monaco, and Monza have placed into doubt their circuits once fearsome driving challenges.
Let’s take Monaco as an example. There the introduction of tarmac is not an issue because the track never had the space for gravel traps or grass verges. Instead space has been imposed. At St. Devout the inside barrier has been removed and replaced with a curb, at the second swimming pool chicane again the inside barrier on the second turn has been removed and replaced with a curb, La Rascasse has been opened up to reduce it effectively to one turn… Why?? Why take away the appeal of a street circuit to the spectators by distancing the cars from the walls? In doing so you lose the sensation of speed, decrease the accuracy and skill required of the driver, and you affect the racing by enabling drivers to consistently exit corners at constant speeds, and make the slim chance of overtaking around the principality that little bit harder. The detraction of these decisions is multiplied for the viewing audience at home who don’t have the benefit of the sound and smell to distract them from the lack of excitement on the circuit.
So why do this? Is it to ensure that multiple car pile-ups don’t occur? Is it to ensure the track doesn’t get blocked? Is it to ensure the race isn’t interrupted by safety cars? Is it for safety purposes? Is it to assist day-to-day traffic around Monaco? Most of these questions can be answered by saying “That’s Monaco!” As to issues of safety, haven’t the innovations of the modern Formula 1 car ensured that the barriers don’t need to be removed? This argument is not reserved for to the slowest circuit on the Formula 1 calendar as the sports greatest circuits have been altered despite accidents vindicating the safety of both the circuits and cars.
At Spa, Monza, and Suzuka, the implementation of space and tarmac has seen the vandalising of some of motor racing’s greatest corners. The challenge of Eau Rouge, Blanchimont, 130R, and Parabolica, have been removed despite the fact that modern Formula 1 cars have crashed their in the most fearsome ways possible with drivers emerging with only minor injuries. Villeneuve and Zonta at Eau Rouge in ’99, Burti at Blanchimont in ’01, McNish at 130R in ’02, and never at the Parabolica because no one has had a serious crash at the Parabolica in 24 years. The recent removal of the sand trap on the outside of the Parabolica turn in time for this years Italian Grand Prix sparked enormous controversy. When questioned about this decision, Charlie Whiting was quoted by Autosport as saying that the decision to tarmac the outside of the turn was “requested for safety reasons by the FIA and the drivers…”. In the FIA driver press conference ahead of the Grand Prix, Magnussen, Bottas, Chilton, Hamilton, Rosberg, and Alonso were all asked on their opinion to change the corner. None of them expressed a desire for the change to be made, most hinting that the decision shouldn’t have been made. Such were their answers that David Croft of Sky F1 had to ask Alonso, “How many of the drivers were consulted and who were the drivers that wanted that tarmac put there?” Alonso’s answer was predictable but telling “I don’t know.” Are we to believe that the FIA made the change without consulting arguably the greatest driver of his generation? Or did the FIA Race Director make the decision without consulting anyone? I’m not going to suggest that Charlie Whiting was lying when he spoke to Autosport but he certainly has a lot of explaining to do.
It’s perhaps important to note that the FIA hasn’t altered all circuits where there has been a serious accident. Take the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, host of the Canadian Grand Prix, as an example. Following Robert Kubica’s enormous accident in 2007, absolutely nothing was done to alter the circuit layout. Absolutely nothing! But why not? Perhaps the most important question to consider when these accidents occur is whether any doubts are raised over the safety of the circuit. At the time of Kubica’s crash no one blamed the circuit, it was merely the perfect storm that led his car to exit the track at high speed at a place it normally would not. Perhaps the reason no one complained about the circuit safety was because Kubica couldn’t have gone off in a more dangerous fashion and yet emerged with relatively minor injuries, telling the media that he remembered the entire accident. The fact is that the FIA’s impeccable attention to car safety ensured that no changes needed to be made to the circuit. Why couldn’t the FIA have reacted the same way before implementing changes to the corners referred to above? When was the demand made by drivers and spectators that Eau Rouge should be able to be taken flat out? Is it any wonder that the Canadian Grand Prix is still so highly regarded and why it continually produces fantastic racing? While it may not be the oldest circuit on the calendar, having hosted it’s first race in 1978, Montreal is sadly the only circuit on the current calendar that has been able to retain the ‘old style’ in what defines the ‘old style circuit’.
So what dictates the need for track changes in Formula 1? Why are changes to track safety being imposed without complaints being made by drivers? Are the sports stakeholders and the FIA aware that even in the name of safety, the image of the sport is of paramount importance?
Appearance v Safety
The short answer to the above question is “Yes. But No.” Just as in the case of its presentation, Formula 1 has shown a consciousness at times to maintain the image of the sport in the face of ever-mounting control over where and how and who controls the brand. In the area of safety Formula 1 has shown very recently an awareness towards the negative image of the sport that can be derived through the implementation of aesthetically unappealing safety regulations. Teams have disapproved of introducing roll cages to prevent drivers being struck by errant objects on track while for 2015, front wing regulations will be amended to ensure that safety requirements will not result in the widely criticised designs seen this year. Other examples include the ‘X-Wings’ pioneered on the 1997 Tyrrell, Arrows’ ‘Central Wing’ in practice for the 2001 Monaco Grand Prix, and the ‘Tower Wings’ on the 2006 BMW Sauber for the French Grand Prix. On almost every occasion the FIA banned these devices on ‘safety grounds’, FIA speak for ‘They’re ugly. Get rid of them!”. But for all the decisions made by the FIA to protect the appearance of the cars, never have I heard such decisions be made of the decision to implement safety features on circuits. It’s almost as though the FIA are unaware of the detrimental effect excessive circuit safety has on Formula 1. When Eau Rouge was altered to a flat out kink, where was the FIA saying ‘Do you think altering the characteristics of the most important series of corners in the sport may be detrimental to it’s appeal?” Where was this person! Circuits shouldn’t be designed to accommodate for unimaginably catastrophic failures on cars, the cars should and, as has been shown on many occasions, they do.
At this point I should clarify that Formula 1 should not be dangerous in a negligent fashion, flat out corners should not be surrounded by concrete walls, lamp posts and other fixed objects should not be present within track limits, just like Formula 1 cars should not crumble under exposed sunlight. I don’t attend Formula 1 races to see crashes and I certainly don’t watch the sport to see drivers get injured. Having said this however, the admiration I have for Formula 1 drivers is derived from there driving skills which are inherently undertaken within a risky environment. Never before however has the skills of a Formula 1 driver been so hard to convey to an audience than today, the time has come for the sports governing body to accept that the cars are safe enough and that, no matter what the cost, and no matter how great the inconvenience, the sport’s owners must accept that they went too far and begin to re-invest into restoring the challenge back into its greatest circuits and reduce the safety requirements of those being constructed. Let me stress that, the Sport’s Owners, not the track owners, and not the cities that choose to pay the hosting fees. Put the sand traps back in, make drivers decide whether to lift on entry into 130R and through Eau Rouge. The outside of a turn should be white line, curb, grass, gravel, tyre wall, fence. Drivers should be punished for their mistake by car damage or reduced exit corner speed, and only this way will the paying spectator gain an instant appreciation and admiration for the skills of a modern Formula 1 driver. The message to the FIA is loud and clear; You can make extremely safe Formula 1 cars look and sound very dangerous but you can’t make extremely safe race circuits look exciting.
Attracting the New Generation
Aside from the appearance and appeal of the sport, there are external factors as to why Formula 1 needs to do all it can to liven up its appearance and highlight the skills of it’s competitors. Bernie Ecclestone attributed the low attendance at the German Grand Prix this year to the wider variety of sports on offer to the public these days. But what sports exist today that didn’t exist twenty years ago? One answer could be extreme sports such as skateboarding, BMX, aerial motocross, winter sports, surfing and wake boarding, sports that require immense displays of skill and bravery from their participants. The popularity of these sports is not derived from their danger, no one attends these sports to see its participants get injured, in fact, unlike motor racing, less spectators would attend for the purpose of seeing accidents. Instead, the danger of the sport serves to heighten the admiration, amazement and excitement that spectators derive from watching them perform, something that is increasingly less apparent in Formula 1. Formula 1 has to not only contend, but compete with this category of sport because this is what captures the attention and attendance of the next generation. Extreme sports display themselves in vibrant and creative ways, utilising the personalities of their athletes who are less encumbered by the demands of their sponsors. They are not always politically correct, they’re rough around the edges, but they are relatable and the sports stakeholders and partners benefit from this in the long run. A Formula 1 driver is hard to see at the best of times so the sport does itself no favours when it introduces measures that detract from the visual spectacle of the sport as it undermines the immense skill and fitness of its competitors.
Was the German Grand Prix a Warning?
Is it any wonder then that a circuit like Hockenheim, a track now devoid of its most distinctive features, in the name of greater safety, and increased revenue, would be suffering terrible attendance figures. Hermann Tilke, the man behind many of Formula 1’s most recent venues recently revealed this year of the desire to maintain the circuits distinctive long straights. However, the necessary safety requirements, which included increasing the circuits width, could not be implemented without cutting down the precious pines. With the circuit owners encouraged by the thought of a smaller land area and increased seating capacity, the decision was made to remove the straights. But twelve years later and having agreed to alternate hosting rights with the Nurburgring amid financial difficulties, not even a German championship contender, driving a works Mercedes could attract the fans on race day. Perhaps as some suggested, the German fans were ‘sported-out’ following their victory in the FIFA World Cup, perhaps it was the lack of noise produced by the new V6 engines, or perhaps Germans only support their first champion in a given sport and quickly move on to the next. A lack of German enthusiasm or the sports new formula are hard to blame, after all, large attendances were seen at Silverstone, Canada, Monaco and Austria. Perhaps they all went to Austria? Perhaps. But perhaps Hockenheim became a venue that mirrors so many of the new venues that have come and gone from Formula 1 in recent years. Venues that can’t rely on history, are located too far away from a major city, have no visibly exciting or interesting landscape features, and have a layout with no immense challenge to drivers. Hockenheim had history, appearance and a unique challenge to drivers, but by removing those straights, it managed to eliminate them all and the fans are showing their disapproval accordingly.
Formula 1 needs to appreciate that the rules of the sport are not the problem, it’s the image of the sport that needs to change, its presentation less choreographed and stale, its history embraced through the use of technology, it’s circuits exciting to fans and challenging to drivers with corners restored to their former profile of greatness, because if Formula 1 isn’t working in Germany then Formula 1 just isn’t working.