The past week has seen Formula 1 finally set itself upon a path back towards a state of health which, I think, anyone involved in the sport either professionally or vicariously will admit was required. The grand sweeping changes many deemed necessary have, thankfully, been averted in favour of far more sensible, piecemeal, amendments to a show which is merely damaged and far from broken.
I’ve said it on air, and it’s an argument I stand by, but when one cuts one’s finger, one does not amputate one’s hand. Overreaction only serves to compound an issue.
With the World Motor Sport Council meeting in Mexico this week, I found the array of drivers and representatives of the sport gathered there to be in fine voice. Juan Pablo Montoya, for example, spoke eloquently, calmly and sensibly on the topic of Formula 1, something which has not always been the case. For many years JPM seemed to hold a bitterness towards the championship, but his words of caution this week held resonance at a time of soul searching for the sport.
The pursuit of faster cars, he claimed, was not the golden chalice that many believed it to be. Far from it. Faster cars merely highlight the differences between the teams and increase the disparity. So while the headline targets of the Strategy Group to increase F1 speeds by five or six seconds a lap may seem noble, they may also prove to be a false dawn.
I’ve often argued that it’s the same concept one uses when karting with friends. Sure, your bravado tells you that you all want the quickest karts you can lay your hands on, but the disparity between friends and the vast difference in experience and talent means you’ll never get a decent race. Put everyone in the slowest rental karts you can find, and the chances are you’ll have a hugely entertaining afternoon.
It’s a line Monisha Kaltenbourn also took. Because while faster cars are a great headline, who in the grandstands really cares about laptime? What they want is a race. And simply making the cars faster will not do that.
The move towards putting the race back in the hands of a driver is something that will provide a greater show for the fans and something of which I’ve already stated I’m an advocate. And not just at the start. Once again, I refer you to the comments of Juan Pablo Montoya. Take away the data that tells a driver his tyre temperatures, and let him feel again. Take away the dashboard on his wheel. Take away the engineer in his ear telling him he’s critical on this or that.
When Max Verstappen tells the world he turns his dashboard off in races because he’s so sick of having to constantly refer to data and he just wants to listen to the car and feel it underneath him, I think it tells you something.
Perhaps we have moved too far away from the essence of what makes Formula 1, Formula 1.
Just yesterday I was having a chat with my girlfriend’s Father about the sport and he asked me to explain why people were making a fuss about the sound of modern engines. Did it really make a difference?
I played him a video of an onboard lap from 2015 with Jenson Button’s McLaren Honda, and then Jenson Button’s 2004 Imola pole lap in the BAR Honda. His face visibly lit up with the sound of that screaming V10.
“Oh,” he smiled. “Now I understand.”
At Silverstone I had a catch up with a friend and colleague, someone with whom I have worked in various guises over my time in Formula 1 and who now finds himself in a prominent position at the very heart of the sport. His candour and honesty is one of the things I like most about him. And last weekend he was on sparkling form.
“The thing is,” he imparted, “ When we were growing up, the one thing we all aspired towards was owning a sports car. A Ferrari, an Aston Martin… whatever. We wanted a sportscar. These days, kids just want a mobile phone. A sodding phone. How are we supposed to appeal to them?
“The problem as I see it is that we’re trying to sell ourselves to people that aren’t interested. Is a kid whose sole interest is the difference between an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 6 going to give a damn whether we’re running V8s or V6s? Maybe we’ve become so lost in trying to please everyone that we’re pleasing no-one. Do you remember what it was like a decade ago?
“It was girls, fags, booze, noise, speed, danger! That’s Formula 1. That’s what this is. That’s what it should be anyway. Yes it’s politically incorrect, but fuck it. That’s what this is!”
As Charlie Whiting handed out his dictum that those caught crossing the white line at Copse would have their qualifying times taken away and Alexander Rossi was handed a five second time penalty in the Sunday morning GP2 race for pulling off one of the ballsiest passes you’ll see this year around the outside of Copse and putting his right front half an inch over the white line… I had to agree.
Where has the danger gone and that beautiful line to be run between risk and reward? Motorsport should be as nerve wracking and exhilarating as the thought of a slug trying to negotiate his way down a razorblade. That’s the perfect lap. On the edge. Where one wrong move is game over. 500 yards of asphalt run off does not a hero create.
“We’ve been telling that to the FIA for years,” said a dear friend and racer when we discussed the white line issue in Silverstone. “We’ve told them in WEC like we told them in F1, bring back the grass, bring back the gravel. Please. There has to be a penalty if you take it too far. Not a race ending penalty, but something that naturally deters you. Put a grass strip exactly one and a half times the width of an LMP1 car on the outside of every kerb, and you can put a mile of asphalt on the other side. Just give us that natural deterrent. And that’s the other thing. It’s natural. It’s grass for heaven’s sake. Digging it all up and covering it in tarmac isn’t exactly helping their green credentials is it?”
Perhaps we have lost our way. Perhaps we’ve tried so hard to please a public who might not even be interested in the product that we’ve lost sight of what we really are.
My daughter is five years old. She loves My Little Pony. She loves pretty much every Disney Princess you can name. Do they try and make their products appeal to me, a 34 year old man? No. And why? Because they know that I’m not their audience. Sure I can tell you the difference between Princess Twilight Sparkle, Rarity and AppleJack, and I can tell you why pretty much every Disney Princess would have got themselves in far less trouble if they’d just listened to their fathers, but only because my daughter is so engrossed in their worlds. They don’t try to sell to me because I’m not a five year old girl.
And that’s a really important lesson.
When Jeremy Clarkson was fired from Top Gear, his dismissal caused consternation around the world. Many people have tried to copy the Top Gear format, but nobody has or will ever be able to out-Clarkson Clarkson. Like him or loathe him, he was nothing but himself. And I always found it ironic that he chose to lambast Formula 1 so regularly. Because he and F1 were and are born of the same cloth.
Their popularity lies in the fact that they are, or at least were, so uncompromisingly themselves. Politically incorrect, fossil fuel burning, unapologetic. Speed. Power. Fags, booze, pretty girls in short skirts. Reckless, daring, nigh on crazy heroes who lived a life of excess.
People decry modern F1 drivers for not having the personalities of their forefathers in eras long gone, but when the sport represents such an apologetic façade, is it any wonder its protagonists are forced to do the same?
If these fan surveys tell us anything it is that the people who watch this sport want their sport back.
Perhaps its time to stop apologising for what we are and just embrace it. Warts and all and as unpopular to the politically correct majority as it may be.
Because deep down, in places some of us rarely admit… everyone loves a rebel. And there are far too few of them left.