Need For SpeedJose Maria Miñarro Vivancos

Ernest Hemingway once said that there only existed three sports: mountaineering, bull fighting and motorsport. The rest, he said, were just games. Yet if Hemingway made this calculation based on the nature of the sports, their very real danger, the battle of man vs death encapsulated succinctly within the arena, upon the mountains, or on the track, then there is little to substantiate Formula 1’s continued claim to sporting hegemony over the triviality of football or cricket. Of course, Hemingway’s claim that a sport can only be called such when the fear of death lurks around every corner is probably rather antiquated. Yet his distaste for the banality of simple ‘games’ does somewhat characterise both the tameness of modern racing and the way in which it inspires the mainstream sporting public – or, more accurately, the way it fails to do so.

For years, there was no sport more glamorous, exciting, manly or frightening as Formula 1. Anybody who has seen ‘Rush’ can testify to the romanticised mystique Formula 1 and its drivers once had over the public. The Formula 1 drivers of those days, that strange mix of wealthy eccentrics and daredevil playboys, became everyday household icons. They commanded public respect, not just because of their talent, but because of the risks and dangers they faced on a daily basis, refusing to brake and instead stamping down on the throttle that little bit harder. Perhaps the most memorable example of the drivers hero status is when 5 time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio was kidnapped during the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix and was treated so well by his captors that they became life-long friends following his release.

Today, Formula 1 drivers have sunk into the mire of celebrity athletes over whom they once gazed. Perhaps slightly better paid (Michael Schumacher made £80 million a year during the height of his career, second only to Tiger Woods), but nevertheless indistinguishable among the pages of sports newspapers in terms of popularity from the many tennis players, footballers or cricketers who take up the first few back pages. The decline of the driver’s status is important because it is indicative of a decline of a sport. Formula 1, for all its international viewing, simply does not capture the public imagination as it once did. And the question everyone in Formula 1’s international bubble would like to ask is why?

Sometimes sports go out of fashion, and sometimes, there is very little the sport can do about it. Formula 1 has suffered through the inevitable passing of time. The uniqueness of fast cars hurtling around corners at breakneck speeds, which once so fascinated the public, no longer differentiates itself not just from other forms of motorsport but even some people’s daily lifestyle. The fact that mass-produced consumer cars now have higher top speeds and larger engines, and can be found routinely parked anywhere in Kensington, means the mystique of the car itself has paled among the technological improvements of our time. Few people would argue that the improvements in driver safety have been a bad thing, and with no driver casualty in Formula 1 since 1994 they are undoubtedly right. But what drew Hemingway amongst others to Formula 1 in earlier periods was the unnerving proximity of death every time a driver approached the high banking at Monza. Imagine a tightrope walker walks along a tightrope across the Twin Towers; then he does it again two feet above the ground. Effectively, the feat is the same, yet we all know which of the two really creates drama.

How thrilling...Nathan Rupert

On another level, Formula 1 has itself been trapped in a decline propagated by the very mechanics of the sport. Technological improvements have meant that cars are now so similar, and so much faster, that overtaking has become harder against cars similar in speed, or on circuits covered at too fast a rate to truly allow for opportunities. The question of cost constantly dogs the minds of the Formula 1 elite. The rising cost of sporting maintenance led to the bankruptcy of potential championship rivals or else contributors to Formula 1’s excitement. Yet artificial cost cutting leads to complex rule changes and sterile racing propagated by an easier car which no longer significantly challenges the driver.

Having said that, if Bernie Ecclestone happens to ever read this article, he would be well within his rights to point out that so far, the reasons for Formula 1’s own existentialist crisis have little to do with modern management, and far more with longstanding technological and sporting trends which Formula 1 is unable to resist. Yet its sufferings are exacerbated by the many problems which Formula 1 and its management have created themselves.

Formula 1 was once the attraction because it represented not just the pinnacle of motorsport but the pinnacle of speed itself among all sports. An increasing - sometimes necessary but often pedantic - drive for driver safety, and, more harmfully, a will to align Formula 1 development with companies’ consumer demands has meant Formula 1 is little faster than GP2, its baby series. In 2014, Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham was in fact 0.4 seconds slower during qualifying than the pole lap of the GP2 series. Lack of speed has made cars easier to drive as well, a complaint aired recently by Williams’ Felipe Massa. A lack of difficulty places less responsibility on the driver, who becomes little more than a human machine designed to see who has made the fastest car.

This trend continues. V12 engines and the noise with which they once made Formula 1 spectacles great have been pared right down to V6’s. Important innovations, like the need to improve aerodynamics to enable overtaking in the so-called ‘dirty airs’ of leading cars, are being neglected. The need to force through consumer-relatable products in Formula 1 has also managed to drive up costs; the new hybrid engines cost more than £18 million apiece. As it stands, Sauber are on the verge of bankruptcy and Williams have been forced to come to terms with huge losses after their most successful season in a decade. These measures of dumbing down the sport to be compatible with consumer reality have robbed Formula 1 of its exceptional, mystical, adrenalin-fuelled nature. People do not want a sport in tune with their Volkswagen; people want a magic sport which allows escapism into a world of petrol-reeking competition.

The latest Formula 1 modelMichael Gil

Technicalities are, however, not the real reason for its decline. Above all, sport, and Formula 1 in its glorious heyday, survives through excitement and competition. Today, a stale sense of artificiality oozes around races like a bad odour. Constant rule tinkering has created winners out of nothing. Brawn, and their innovative double diffuser, took advantage of just such a rule change to romp home with the title in 2009 after a season so bad it had bankrupted the team. The same can be said of Mercedes, who benefitted from rule changes at the end of the 2013 season and have now managed to dominate a sport which they were previously only on the periphery of.

Of course there is no real problem with sporting domination. Yet it leaves a sour taste when the management of the sport can change the rules so drastically that the average Aston Villa can in the next season cruise to title success as Chelsea chase a top half finish. And that’s before getting to the absurdity of the many artificial rules introduced during the race - rules on which tyres to use, and when they must be used; an artificial overtaking system in place only for specific circumstances; the accusation against Pirelli for making tyres too durable, which they resolved by making tyres artificially worse to create tyre issues for the teams and drivers. The very real suggestion to employ sprinkler systems to dampen the track for added excitement is the very tip of an iceberg of artificial absurdity floating in the sea of self-doubt that is Formula 1.

This article began with a pompous quotation, so it might as well finish with one. Albert Camus once said, ‘there can be no passion without a struggle’. Perhaps worse is a struggle artificially managed, because it is quite clear that the passion for Formula 1 is evaporating quicker than Bernie Ecclestone can introduce another set of new rules. Upon asking my brother for his thoughts on this, he proposed the abolition of Monaco as a track since it inspired only boredom. I can only disagree. Monaco is the one track which evokes the memories of a Formula 1 steeped in the popular consciousness, a sport of freedom, danger, glamour, and mostly raw emotion and competition. Monaco as a venue can still embody this true Formula 1 spirit – if only the sport could cast off its shackles and unleash the beast.

Memories of a glorious pastTerry Blanchard

 

 

 

 

 

 

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