It is advisable to look both ways before tinkering with Formula One. I know from experience that serious petrolheads treat their sport more like a religion than a gas-guzzling and noisy (well it used to be) spectacle. But that’s fair enough. Formula One has a long and fascinating history, with heroes, great settings and triumphs and tragedies to beat almost any other sport. In the old days it used to be extremely dangerous.
Thankfully that is no longer the case (I would argue that National Hunt jockeys need to be braver than F1 drivers these days). Under the guidance of its extraordinary, octogenarian ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, it has been transformed from a chaotic mish-mash of disconnected events into a tightly controlled, lucrative television spectacular.
But there is a problem. Audiences are falling. New contracts with pay-per-view channels cloud an already complex picture but the sport is haemorrhaging viewers, with estimates suggesting the global audience has fallen from 600 million to 425 million. At the same time, teams are struggling to find the millions in commercial sponsorship they need to develop competitive cars. It is long past the time for Formula One to change its offer – and quite dramatically.
There is always the dream of putting all the drivers into the same machinery and seeing who really is quickest, but that’s never going to happen, sadly. So how about something more achievable? How about moving away from the time-honoured pattern of qualifying on a Saturday and one, long Grand Prix on a Sunday?
Viewing habits have changed and I know I am not alone in finding it hard to stay awake during an entire 70-lap race. There is evidence too that Formula One now appeals more to an older generation. It’s often dad – and sometimes mum – at home watching it on a Sunday afternoon while the kids are out doing something a bit more interesting.
There have been some classic, action-packed races in recent seasons but all too often there is a burst of activity at the start before it settles down and the cars go round and round, punctuated by the occasional overtake or pit-stop. Those in the know love this bit. There is the game of strategy playing itself out, the speculation about tyre wear and the commentators finding things to say about paddock stuff (driver-related gossip, recollections of former races, media tittle-tattle) because – honestly – there isn’t too much going on.
The most interesting part of a race is the start. So why not do it twice? This would put drivers right on their mettle.
My solution would be to recognise that by far the most interesting part of a race is the start. So why not do it twice per weekend? The answer would be to have a slightly shorter Grand Prix, preceded by a compact version – for example a 10-lap sprint. This would put drivers right on their mettle and would demand a completely different, max-out approach. There would be no pit-stops and errors would be difficult to recover from. The appeal of a weekend would be enhanced – doubled in fact – and I, for one, would be sitting up and watching.
Then there is the conundrum of “Quali” as they call it in the paddock. The estimable Martin Brundle reckons the current format is the best yet and he has driven in a few versions. Alas, for me, it is a real switch-off. Boring. The first session is 18 minutes long and is there to sort out the slowest six – or four, or five – drivers depending on how many teams have run out of money. There is no pressure on the top guys at all. Then we have another interminable 15 minutes to get rid of the next tranche. The only exciting part is the last two minutes of the top-10 shootout when it’s pedal-to-the-metal time and pole position is up for grabs.
I am not sure what the solution to Qualifying is, but there has to be a shorter, more exciting way of ranking some of the world’s fastest men. My suspicion is that cutting it down to its essentials is the route to go. Shorter, more intense, more risk. When there was heavy rain on the track in Malaysia, the second session was reduced to just one lap. Now that was exciting. The drivers knew the downpour was coming and they had to hit it there and then. It was pressure to perform and mistakes were punished – there was no second chance.
Over the years Bernie has tried a few alterations. He proposed once that there should be the facility to deliberately engineer wet races with a trackside sprinkler system. Not a bad idea, but it never happened. Then, last season, he came up with the bizarre concept of double points for the last race – not really a winner – and it was promptly dropped. There has been talk about reversing the top-10 places on the grid.
I guess the question is whether Bernie is the man to oversee radical change? Does he get it when it comes to understanding the viewing habits and priorities of new generations of internet-savvy, social media-friendly fans? Other sports have managed to innovate while protecting their core values and traditions – one-day and Twenty20 cricket, for instance. But you need a bold vision to sell new formats.
For my money, Bernie is an undervalued genius. A brilliant deal-maker, he’s also extremely funny, mischievous and loyal. Although he loves throwing a cat among the pigeons, I am not sure he has it in him to do something radical even though, in his mid-80s, he has proved to be one of the great survivors.
When he does go – which will probably be in a box – his era of benign dictatorship that has been so effective for 40 years will come to an end. In his place there is likely to be some form of management by committee – something Bernie himself is not keen on. At best we can hope for a strong central figure reporting back to a board – much as Bernie does now to CVC Capital Partners, the main owner of Formula One. The challenge facing the new regime will be innovation. Will they have the nerve to do what Bernie has failed to?
Ed Gorman is a freelance journalist and was F1 Correspondent for The Times from 2007 to 2010.