A terrible year for Formula One

Ugly but fast
I seldom feel moved to blog much these days, and even more rarely on F1, but sadly as this year draws to a close I do feel a bit of a need. It has been a terrible year for F1.

There is only one place to start: Jules Bianchi’s accident in the Japanese grand prix. The best thing that can be found to say is that Jules is still alive, but his prospects for recovery are deeply uncertain, beyond that it will be extremely difficult. His accident was of course not fatal (although as I understand it nothing should be taken for granted about his recovery) – although no driver has been killed at a race weekend since 1994, three marshals have been, the most recent instance being at last year’s Canadian grand prix (although it is 13 years since such a fatality occurred in a crash involving an F1 car). Additionally Maria de Villota’s testing accident in 2012 was implicated in her sudden death a year later. Set against such matters of life and death, gripes about how a particular sporting contest is run are fairly trivial stuff, and everything that follows is with that caveat.

Overall, F1’s leadership has been found desperately lacking this year, to the extent that the long-term viability of the sport in its current form has been called into question (customer cars and /or three-car teams would effectively mean the end of F1 as we have known it to date, as it would become a manufacturer formula and be vulnerable to shrinking to a single car series if some manufacturers get fed up and leave). Smaller teams are folding – aside from Marussia’s confirmed demise and Caterham’s very possible one, it will be a pleasant surprise if all the other teams are on the grid in Melbourne, and beyond that the long-term viability and competitiveness of Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso (still up for sale?) are open to question. The smaller teams are frozen out from decision-making, and being squeezed by high costs for engines. It’s not sustainable. Not only has there not been leadership to police costs or manage the distribution of revenues better, but Bernie Ecclestone has indicated he’d be happy to see several teams go to the wall.

Joe Saward can run down F1’s business structure more authoritatively than me (or more or less anyone else), but in short it is optimised to turn a profit for the venture capitalists who own it, who would in turn probably like to sell it and move on. But to do so they need a clear plan for F1’s future, which Bernie Ecclestone seems incapable of providing; they have tried and failed to move against him and appoint a new leader – one has to get out of bed pretty early to catch out Mr E, as he has shown time and time again. But what does he offer? Tawdry (probably) bribery-related scandal, a willingness to see F1 used by unpleasant political regimes (Putin being the worst and most recent example, but in a long line), a total failure to grasp the nature of modern communication and particularly social media, and an inability to land races that wold be good for F1, such as the proposed grand prix in/near New York.

F1’s lack of effective leadership has been made stark this year not only by the financial problems afflicting it, but also by its signal failure to sell a really good story: the new engines in F1 are genuinely bold and innovative, producing roughly the same performance as the previous ones for 60% less fuel. As impressive pieces of technology, and highly relevant to trends in road car manufacturing, these engines should have been the centrepiece of a concerted promotional effort for F1. What did we get instead? A row about how they sounded quieter than the old engines, which frankly most people got used to within a few races. Pathetic.

It appears that the European Commission may soon investigate F1 and find its governance to be a breach of competition law. Let’s hope so. The only problem is that such an investigation is likely to take years, by which time things in F1 may well have moved on again, for better or worse.

Massa_9882_USGP_2014
But unfortunately F1 has more than just its leadership to blame for the problems of 2014. Poor judgement was in evidence across the sport. Take, for instance, the ugly cars, many of them with penis-like protrusions on their noses in order to satisfy new technical regulations. This was widely foreseen after the sport’s engineering working group agreed the new regs, but nobody changed it.

Worse still, Pirelli spend much of 2013 being slagged off by the teams for producing on-the-edge tyres, just like they’d been asked to. Never mind that the conundrums this posed for teams in devising their race strategy added a massive new level of interest and excitement to F1 racing – in 2014 Pirelli turned up with much more conservative tyres, and as a result we had more boring races than we’ve had for ages.

Another own-goal was the mid-season attempt to ban ‘driver coaching’. There may or may not be something to be said for that – though given that driver radio is now at least partly broadcast, I think this is banning something that adds extra interest, as the viewer can better understand how teams and drivers are approaching the races. Instead, more information will now be passed via steering wheel screens – far less easy for the viewer to understand. Even if one doesn’t like engineers providing so much information to drivers, it was mad to try to change the rules mid-season.

Plus: double points. Thank goodness that didn’t prove decisive to the title, as that really would have made F1 a laughing stock.

Of course, all of the above problems could have been averted or fixed by effective leadership in the sport.

There were good things about F1 in 2014. Given that one team won nearly all the races, the title battle was surprisingly gripping, and Hamilton’s win thoroughly well deserved, with a massive haul of race wins and many impressive drives through the field to his credit. As an aside, I don’t understand why so many pundits have argued Nico Rosberg showed he’s more than a number two driver this year: he showed very much that he’s a Berger not a Senna, a Coulthard not a Hakkinen, a Barrichello not a Schumacher – a hugely quick and capable driver, but ultimately not one who can go out and take a title by its throat when it’s needed. Then again, the season also saw the emergence of several exciting young drivers who one would expect to gun for titles if they get the machinery, particularly Ricciardo and Bottas. For those who like their driver market intrigue, 2014 also served up some great helpings of that.

But overall, Formula 1 cannot afford another season like 2014. More teams going under or, heaven forbid, another serious driver injury, could push it towards a crisis from which it won’t bounce back in recognisable form. Unfortunately, leadership to set the sport on a sustainable new course is nowhere to be found.

Pictures by labete and Joe McGowan on Flickr.

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