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“Thoughts on Formula One, Pirelli and Entertainment”

July 1, 2013

The second half of this year’s British Grand Prix produced some fantastic action, culminating in a popular win for Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg.

Stellar performances from the likes of Rosberg, his Mercedes factory teammate Lewis Hamilton, Red Bull pairing Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso amongst others allowed the race to shine.

Yet the opening half showed the sport at its most dishevelled and hungover, as it limped from one tyre failure to the next. It was neither thrilling or exciting – if anything it was simply embarrassing and a terrible shame.

Let’s set aside the scientific reasoning for the failures for this post – those more technically minded can address those issues. For a moment, let’s ask “how did Formula One find itself in this position?”

As much as I am a fan of Formula One, there are occasions when it feels like a sitcom that has exchanged good story writing and episodic foundations for cheap one-liners and celebrity guests. The demand for endless action in recent years – sparked off following the crazy Canadian Grand Prix of 2010 – has seen the line between sport, business, safety and entertainment blur significantly.
Following several years of falling audiences in light of Michael Schumacher domination, worldwide television viewing figures began to rise again from 2009 onward as new stars emerged to weave their tales amongst the somewhat familiar dialogue and setting.

Yet since the 70s, Formula One has on occasion struggled as an entertainment spectacle due to increasing downforce and the resultant dirty air from wings, floors, diffusers, exhausts and tyres rendering overtaking an increasingly rare prospect. A massive increase in reliability has done much to eliminate the unpredictability from a developing event.
Add to that, driver preparation has taken a number of steps forward in the past three decades. Taking into account the current field of twenty-tour, the average number of years spent by drivers in the junior categories is 6.8 – and that’s not including karting. The days of Jody Scheckter jumping into a Formula Ford racer, only eighteen months before his World Championship debut are long gone. Many of the errors that used to define famed overtaking manoeuvres have been rather minimised.

Formula One is entertainment and as such, it needs to satisfy those requirements in order to attract and keep an audience, but where does it stop? Like refuelling in the previous generation of the formula, much of what we are seeing now is a band aid to spice up the show, but those who shape the rules also need to be aware that playing to the headline hunters and casual fan can be a very dangerous game and is rarely won.
There is an inherent risk of the sport alienating its core fanbase and once lost, the hardcore fan rarely returns – one only needs to look at IndyCar and the WRC to see how difficult existence is when the fans have gone away {note 1}. The casual fan, on the other hand, rarely stays.

In this, I do feel for Pirelli. Whether one agrees with their methods or not, they have spiced up the Formula One show to a degree, but with such stringent testing restrictions in place, their task is an unenviable one.

Formula One is entertainment, but it should not be mindless and it certainly should not come at the expense of safety.

{note 1}
For very different reasons, but the point remains the same.

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2 Comments
  1. Rob Parker permalink

    I strongly disagree with the notion that hardcore fans are being driven away from F1 because of the tire issues of late. Or that the risk of such would have anything to do with a bit of drama. It’s entertainment and for those of us who never miss a session on TV, it’s a way of life.

    I haven’t missed an F1 race (on TV) since I started watching seriously in 1991. I have seen nearly every available practice and qualifying session in the last 20 years.

    I have attended a half-dozen races in person. I have friends who have joined me in an F1 and IndyCar fantasy draft for the last 20 years. None of us is ready to bail out in light of any of the issues raised here. Quite the contrary. Most fans I have spoken to were thoroughly entertained on Sunday.

    If you want to make the argument that the racing isn’t safe or pure or in line with what you prefer, I’m all ears. But to call it an embarrassment that will drive real fans away is not at all how this hardcore and his mates see it.

    Respectfully, of course! That’s what makes the world go ’round.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Cheers for the comment Rob,
      The fallout from yesterday’s race has been very interesting and I suppose it also gives a good indication as to how different broadcasters / journalists reported the race. Personally, I found yesterday’s race to be a little too close to the bone in terms of safety, something that appeared to be voiced by a number of drivers post-race.

      Unfortunately, at the moment worldwide television numbers for the sport (reportedly 500 million viewers across the 2012 season) are dropping slowly again after peaking in 2010, although the exact nature of how they are calculated occasionally brings its own set of questions. Whether that is a loss of casual or hardcore fans is much harder to define.
      Actual track attendances are also falling quite noticeably, but that has more to do with the extortionate pricing of tickets and hotels than anything else. It will be interesting to watch how these trends develop over the next few years.

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