Formula One – Time For Major Changes

Mario Andretti, Canadian Grand Prix 1977. [Photo by Jack Webster]

Mario Andretti, Canadian Grand Prix 1977. [Photo by Jack Webster]

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

Not that long ago, Formula One racing was the pinnacle of motorsport. It was the top rung, the place all aspiring drivers wanted to be. Its drivers were heroes, death defying gladiators who put it all on the line each race, going wheel to wheel with one another, pushing themselves and their cars to the limit, all in pursuit of the ultimate prize – The Formula One Drivers World Championship.

Formula One’s history is populated with legendary names: Fangio, Moss, Clark, Hill, Brabham, Rindt, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Lauda, Villeneuve, Andretti, Mansell, Prost, Senna, Schumacher and many more.

What did all these, and many more, Formula One drivers have in common? They were all personalities, heroes, larger than life figures who were worshiped by legions of fans from around the world. Their driving feats were celebrated worldwide; their individual personalities made them stand out from the crowd. They were Formula One drivers and they were not like us, they were unique both in talent and bravery and they all possessed that special something that is hard to name – for like astronauts and test pilots they all had the “right stuff”.

In the early days and through the 1970’s we lost too many of these heroes. Racing has always been, and continues to be, a very dangerous business. However, with the advent of safer cars, circuits and vastly improved driver safety equipment, the carnage of the past has been largely brought under control.

Perhaps therein lies the main problem. There is too much control in Formula One. What was once a driver’s championship has been reduced to an engineering exercise where the factory with the largest budget dominates the sport. Today it is Mercedes, in the recent past it was Red Bull and who knows who it will be in future. The regulations have been written so tightly that there is no room left for innovation and drivers have become almost interchangeable components. There is so much technology in play in Formula One, it is not surprising that fan interest has waned in recent years and the entire Formula One grid is in turmoil. Hybrid F1 engines? Seriously?

Fans have become weary of tuning into a Formula One race on TV only to see the end result decided by the first turn of the first lap. One team, one car, is so dominant that frankly it is surprising that enough funding is found for enough cars to fill the grid. The mid field running teams have virtually no chance at victory, and the bottom third of the grid might as well not show up.

That is the state of affairs today in Formula One, and unless the powers that be make some significant changes quickly, we are afraid that Formula One as we once knew it will cease to exist.

It is time for some radical thinking with some radical solutions.

Step one: Substantially reduce the technology in use. Keep the safety improvements, but ditch the engineers, computers and hi-tech driver aids. Get rid of the high cost computerized steering wheels and push button gear shifting – make the drivers change the gears like all of the drivers from Fangio to Senna had to do, with a gear shift. Give the cars more power, take away most of the aero devices, make them harder to drive and let us see who really has the skills to pilot these machines. Talent, not driver provided sponsorship, should determine who drives a Formula One car. Let’s make it a real Driver’s World Championship again, not just a video game. Do these things and the competition will improve, the fan base will increase and Formula One can once again regain its rightful place at the top of the racing pyramid.

Step two: Get the fans back into the picture. Formula One is more isolated from its fans than ever. A Formula One fan who goes to a race: 1. Never gets to see a car close up and 2. Never gets to see, let alone meet, a driver. The fans pay their hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of sitting far removed from the scene, isolated from any intimate involvement in the event. A very smart man, Don Panoz, revitalized sports car racing in the United States when he started the American Le Mans Series. He knew the importance of fans to the spectacle of racing and he specifically designed his series “For the Fans” as the American Le Mans Series logo so accurately described. Have autograph sessions, let the fans see the cars and drivers up close, make their attendance important to the event, and not just window dressing in the background for the TV shots.

Step three: Encourage the drivers to be themselves. One doesn’t get to the pinnacle of the sport by being a wallflower or just a corporate spokesperson. Let them be who they are and don’t over coach them in what to say and how to say it. Corporate money has too much of a say in all sports, and in Formula One it has become strangling. Where is our James Hunt or Niki Lauda in today’s crop of drivers? Who knows, they might already be there, but they are so filtered and scripted that their real personalities never have the opportunity to be on display.

Step four: Get costs under control. Formula One budgets are insane; the amount of money needed to run even a back marker team is unrealistic and unsustainable. By cutting the technology currently used in the sport, budgets could at least begin to decrease and stabilize. Also, come up with a fair system for distribution of the TV rights money, so the smaller teams can come a bit closer to the funding of the major teams. More competition means more fans and TV viewers, equaling more money for everyone.

These four steps are at least a beginning in solving some of the problems that Formula One has. Frankly, the current state of the sport is so critical and if something radical is not done, the sport we have loved and followed for years is in jeopardy of not surviving. As lifelong fans of Formula One, we feel that would be a real shame.

Let’s hope that the people in charge of Formula One at least begin to make the changes needed before it is too late.

The clock is ticking.

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