Monday, 25 June 2012
The danger of the Formula One lottery
After six races this season we have had six different drivers on the top of the podium.
This wouldn’t be quite so head- shakingly bizarre if it hadn’t followed a season in which we had got used to Sebastian Vettel finishing on pole on Saturday and on the podium on Sunday.
Opinions have been split as to what effect this driver lottery is having on the sport.
McLaren principal Martin Whitmarsh is excited:
"A few years ago people were talking about processional races, and the fact they were so predictable, well, we certainly haven't a predictable season. I think an unpredictable race and an unpredictable season is what fans want."
Triple F1 champion Niki Lauda is concerned:
"If this continues...then we will lose spectators or interest because the main public wants to see the world champions winning."
While McLaren driver Jenson Button is sitting on the fence:
"Everyone is excited about so many different winners, which initially was great for the fans and great for the sport... But there will be a time when the fans will say 'So anyone can win a grand prix, everyone can lose a grand prix like that."
I tend to agree with Button because I am perplexed, and worryingly, even more perplexed about a sport I have always found rather perplexing.
Admittedly no F1 geek - I have done my best to follow the sport and keep up to date with the main developments. Drag reduction systems to one side, what I have always enjoyed about F1 is the driving.
It is the drivers I care about, the adjustable rear wing not so much.
My immediate response to having six different race winners already was similar to Whitmarsh’s. That it was refreshing and would crucially ensure we didn’t have to see too much of Vettel’s index-finger salute. Surely such diversity would make for a very exciting season...
However, after some reflection I think Niki Lauda is right. We do need to see the world champions winning because the more superficial F1 followers need to make some sense out of the sport.
Football relies on fans knowing there are strong teams, so-so teams and not so good teams. Over the years there is little change to this hierarchy, well... unless a billionaire takes over your club and shakes things up a little.
Familiarity is important to sport as it makes fans feel comfortable.
This is why men’s tennis has proved popular over the last year because audiences enjoy watching Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic physically destroy each other in one grand slam final after another.
Would we enjoy football or tennis so much if there were six rivals for the title? I do not believe so because it is rivalry that drives sport and makes it such a fascinating world. And the intensity of a rivalry gets stronger as the competitive pool gets smaller.
Sports fans love nothing better than seeing Manchester United and Manchester City vie for the title or Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna compete for a race victory.
In addition to the multitude of race winners, there is another reason to fear for the future of Formula One – and that is the sport’s increasing complexity. Because after such a strange start to the season the question many will be asking is why? And it is likely the answers will leave them disappointed (if they can be bothered to find the answers in the first place).
While many changes have been made to the car this season, many believe it is the quick degredation of the Pirelli tyres, and thus the need for the right strategy, which has led to the unpredictable nature of the races so far.
F1 races are now being dictated by when a tyre reaches its optimum window of performance...ah the romance!
When such significance is given to tyres, strategy and diffusers, one wonders if there is any need for drivers in the sport at all? Could we not just replace them with robots or aardvarks?
In Canada there will be at least ten drivers on the grid who could cross the chequered flag first. So who are fans going to cheer on? And if strategy means we might as well roll a dice then aren’t drivers just a sideshow. Herein lies a real problem facing F1.
The sport needs to keep a careful equilibrium between the stuff the average sports fan understands (good driver, fast car, smart engineer) and stuff they don’t (diffusers, tyres and strategy). Technological developments made to the car should not become more important than the audience’s fascination with the drivers, because if they do what we have left is a business, not a sport (which some would argue anyway).
I do not believe every F1 fan wants to spend time researching tyre degradation to make sense of what is occurring this season. But that doesn’t mean these fans are not important as they make up a large percentage of TV viewers and spectators.
What many followers do want to see is the top teams and drivers competing against each other. The romantics might like the idea any driver could win but Lauda is quite right to worry about this prolonged lottery.
With the sixth race winner crossing the finishing line last Sunday in Monaco, even the mechanics and team principles were left scratching their heads. When the people who create the sport can’t explain what is happening, one can surmise they’ve taken things a tad too far.
So come on guys, when are we going to get back to the driving?