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Perception Is Reality

FEATURE BY MAT COCH
07/03/2016

Formula One is in desperate trouble and, unless it does something to stem the tide of fans leaving the sport it faces risk of collapse.

It's an opening line that could have been used at almost any point in the sport's 60-plus year history. It was true when the sport ran to Formula 2 regulations, when advertising was introduced, ground effects, tobacco advertising was banned, the influx of gadgets and gizmos in the early 1980s.

It was true then, it is true now. The obstacles it faces may be different, but the broad headlines have always been the same.

Formula One's problem is one of image and perception. It has made itself out to be the pinnacle of motor sport though there are good arguments to be made against this.

It claims to have the best drivers, despite the most exciting youngster since Lewis Hamilton currently twiddling his fingers in Japan.

Teams boast they've the brightest engineers, all tasked not with engineering innovation but exploring grey areas in what has become an over regulated competition.

Formula One is made up of only the best motorsport teams in the world, if you choose to believe them.

The problem is none of that is true, but that Formula One has promoted itself as such for so long it has begun to believe its own hype.

Formula One is the pinnacle of open wheel motor sport, of that there is no argument. Over the past three decades as its presence on global television has increased so too has its popularity. Many of viewers have little grasp (or interest) of the sport prior to the 'Bernie era', and so have bought into the concept that the sport is a flat-out race from lights to flag made up of the best drivers employed by the best teams driving the best cars.

It's total nonsense, but it's been sold so hard for so long that we believe it. Even the drivers believe it and, most worrying, the sport has come to believe it too. It is PR hype, and when you believe your own hype you are in trouble.

That's where the sport now finds itself. The issue it faces is one of perception, not one of finance or competition. For decades the sport has been banging its drum to position itself at the top of the tree, and the problem with being in that position is that it puts a target on your back. Every other category looks for ways to knock you off your perch and the media is only too willing to fire a shot from a grassy knoll in the pursuit of eyeballs. And so things like pay drivers get raised, though they've been the cornerstone of the sport since its very inception. Anything that doesn't tally with the sport's position as the grand poohbah of motorsport is pounced on, even if it means digging through the trash.

That invariably creates negative headlines, which is perfectly fine because nothing sells newspapers like hysteria and negativity. When was the last time you saw a picture of a puppy on the front page? We're all guilty of it, vicariously living through the misfortune of others, it's basically how the news media industry works.

But let's be perfectly frank and admit that racing in recent seasons has been good. There will be some who long for what they view as the glory years of the sport; when drivers pushed all the way; when there was perhaps greater variety; when there wasn't so much money involved. However I challenge you to watch a race from that era now (I really, really challenge you, since FOM makes it damn near impossible for large parts) and be entertained.

Aside from the odd thriller, which can be cherry-picked picked from any era to support whichever argument you choose, Formula One has always been, on track, more or less what it is now; the best qualified at the front and typically went on to win a cabinet full of trophies.

Formula One has always been comparatively processional. Sure, there have been some corkers but by and large the best team and driver runs away with it. A lot.

Jackie Stewart won 27 grands prix from 99 starts. He raced in Formula One for eight seasons and won a third of the races he entered before retiring in 1973. Jim Clark was similarly dominant while none have the starts-to-wins ratio of the maestro himself, Juan-Manuel Fangio, 24 wins from 54 starts.

The sport has always had its dominant drivers; the difference now is it gets broadcast into our homes in detail it's never had before. We understand how a driver won, why they won and, more importantly, why the other guy lost. And that's a problem because there is no mystery left, there is no romance in the knowledge that Lewis Hamilton has the sort of divine talents the likes of Clark, Stewart and Fangio had. We know he did it on strategy, by carrying more speed in the second sector because he ran a higher rear wing and was therefore able to open a two-tenth gap each and every lap. Television has killed the racing car star.

As a consequence we no longer live in awe of these men. We are no longer impressed by their ability to dominate their competitors. It makes the racing boring and therefore we long for some action. We want to see them going wheel-to-wheel and there is a growing push in recent years to manufacture that, no matter the cost.

I don't believe Formula One is in crisis. As fans tune out and sponsors leave, teams will be forced to downsize and change the way they go racing. That's perfectly normal. It happened when computers were introduced into the design office, it happened when test teams were cut. Like it or not the sport is going to change, something we humans are not naturally tolerant of.

However, what those in power need to be aware of is trivialising the sport in pursuit of maintaining an audience, and losing itself as a result.

Formula One has its problems, but every business has. The difference is they aren't broadcast around the world every second weekend with a pack of salivating journalists looking to justify their expense accounts.

Between Formula One insisting it is the biggest and best motor sport category in the world, and the media pulling it to shreds, we've been brainwashed into believing the sport is something it's never been.

Mat Coch

To learn more about Mat and check out his previous features, click here

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Willy56, 14/03/2016 14:10

"When I first became aware of Formula One was during May when the TV network (one of two available) here in Canada would cover the Monaco Grand Prix. It was the only race that you could watch on TV other then short parts of other races that were shown on America'a ABC Sports show Wide World of Sports. At that time Jackie Stewart was the one to watch. The media coverage here did not touch on any other F1 coverage. So after that race you waited another year till Monaco came around again. I began watching full time in the early 2000's when I noticed that F1 was available on TV. This was while Michael was dominate and I quickly got disenchanted by the processions each race and the usual suspects on the podium. Over the years I have watched as regulations have been brought in to try to make amends for lack or on track excitement and drama. It is, or should be all about the on track drama. Artificial factors have tried to bring this but they fail every time. Things like DRS have done more harm then good to the sport. I for one watch much less F1 then I did as it does not excite me anymore. The man in the car has little to do with the outcome at the end of the race other then point it down the track. "

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2. Posted by PeterJ42, 14/03/2016 10:06

"The first race I watched on TV was amazing - Jochen Rindt pressured Jack Brabham into a mistake two corners before the end of the Monaco GP in 1970. And the first race I watched live was amazing too - Jack Brabham running out of fuel and Jochen passing 20 yards from the finish at Brands Hatch, same year. I was hooked - and, aged 13, I cried when Jochen died at Monza three months later.

I learned a lot since about cars, drivers, media and our dreams of being the best. I learned I cannot pick out a good driver. At that first live race was a no-hoper - so I thought - trailing home 8th in a Lotus 49. Yet Emerson was winning races only a couple of months later. Another no-hoper that day in a yellow March - Ronnie Peterson - was to become my hero, when I watched him follow Andretti home race after race in the Lotus 89, showing just how much faster he was, yet never stepping out of line. And I learned that the media can't pick them either - berating "pay driver in a BRM" Lauda. Or "too young" Verstappen.

Throughout that time there has rarely been a year with more than 3 teams with a realistic tilt at the race win, never mind the title. The gap between well funded and also ran has stayed pretty much the same. And a mediocre driver in a good car is much more likely to win than the best driver in a mediocre car.

In every era, whatever the rules differences (and there have been many), there were one or two drivers who really took advantage and maximised what was on offer. Stewart, who brought not one but 2 marques from zero to title winner - Matra and Tyrrell - through his car sorting abilities (his chassis could be shorter than his teammates as he could catch the snap). Prost who knew just what was required in the fuel saving and fragile turbo eras. Schumacher who pounded round Fiorano for weeks in the era of unlimited testing. And Hamilton, whose early years driving remote controlled cars and computer games have played out in the simulator era.

What it has shown up is the flawed "man against machine" story. The idea that the fastest way between two points is pedal to the metal, Finish or Bust. It stands to reason that if the limitation is tyres, protecting those can lead to a better long term result. Or that if the car is quicker with less fuel, then putting less in it and driving more economically may produce a better result. I remember Ken Tyrrell choosing Brundle because, although his lap times matched Alboreto, his brake pads had twice the life - proof, Ken said, that he had mechanical sympathy.

The same applies to drivers. There are some, Maldonado and De Cesaris spring to mind, who can do quick laps, but it seems to take all of their mental energy to do so. Others - Schumacher surely the king here, for whom driving seems to take only 10%, with the rest working out strategy. Schumacher in the less good car, winning races through complex planning with Ross Brawn of ways to undercut, go longer etc.

There have been some rare, heroic drives too. Schumacher, again, almost winning in a car stuck in 5th gear. Stewart's 4 minute win in the wet at the old Nurburgring. Watson's win from 23rd at Long Beach, just weeks after a pundit said the problem with McLaren was two number two drivers.

And some characters. My favourite was Jacques Laffite who when questioned on why Mansell had put the car on pole but he was at the back said - "It is because I am, how you say, a ******"!

What I will say is that there are no fewer characters now. Nor incidents. Nor machinations as people try to outdo eachother in the media and off-track as well as on. The racing, if anything is closer, especially if you look beyond the win, to the fight for places. "Plus ca change - plus ces' la meme chose" (the more that things change, the more they stay the same)."

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3. Posted by airman1, 13/03/2016 11:16

"A fine article, and I agree, almost completely with it, the analysis, the lot. It is important to be able to separate oneself, one personal desires, memories, ideas, from the whole, the Sport, the action, it never really has changed. It really never was much different than it is today. What is different are we, our thoughts, memories, desires. Everything else is the same. One say, "oh well it was more friendly, less tech, cheaper, blah, blah, blah", it was not. F1 in those days, that everyone seems to fondly reminisce these days, was a product of a society of the day. So is the F1 of today, not much changed. If one things that there was no money in F1 in '65, then that someone is a fool, there was money, only less than today, because society as a whole had less money than it has today....same with hype, media, press, nothing really changed...heck I'll bet it was the same when Romans raced chariots, money, girls, fame, attention, tech, cheating.....the works...it's entertainment folks, and it will always reflect the times in which it operates. If there is one problem F1 has today is that it trying to ignore the culture of today, the social media, the young audience, it does not know who to attract the crowd of 15 year old kids, and turn them in 40 year old die hard fans 25 years down the road, that if anything else, is the problem of F1, not the racing, the noise, money, etc. Well done Mat!"

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4. Posted by gturner38, 13/03/2016 4:54

"I've come to the opinion that the biggest problem F1 has is simply too much coverage. We end out with debates that should be internal playing out in the media and technical issues being debated by fans that would go unnoticed in other series. We have good racing with relatively small gaps between the teams, good reliability, and lots of passing, but what we get are complaints about sound or questioning whether or not a driver with sponsorship deserves a ride as if no one ever wrote a check to get into a race car before 2000.

Yes, F1 is the world championship and that in and of itself is special and encourages people to spend extra money on the series. However, it's absolutely correct to say it hasn't always been viewed as the pinnacle of motorsport as that used to be the domain of Le Mans. Just note the direction Ford took when they decided to punish Enzo Ferrari for not selling his company to them in the early 1960s. It only became absurdly expensive when tobacco companies had nowhere else to spend their marketing money. The budgets of the top 5 teams could be cut in half and they would still build fantastic cars since they would be on a Force India budget."

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5. Posted by father guido, 11/03/2016 14:45

"My memory is hearing the phrase. " The more things change, the more they remain the same. " I'm following your thoughts Matt. And, truly I agree. Personally, what deflates me is the fact that I can't appreciate the high tech era. Its an age thing. At least for me. I miss the grit. The pre corporate era. Teams made up of friends determined to prove a point. Jack jumping into the car with no time left to clean up. Last minute recruits from the crowd of friends who just so happened to show up because they blew off work and drove all night living on cigarettes and pot and beer. Never mind food. Couldn't afford that. Parking in the weeds at the far end of the circuit. And jumping the fence so you didn't have to pay. If you got caught. You were out. Not enough money to pay to get in. It was so rough then. The teams were not dependent on you watching the race. They actually needed your help to race. Forget the glam. The glam was in the grit. The corporate high tech world has its place and moment in time. Not to mention the governing bodies and the insurance companies. God bless them. It just doesn't do much for me. If F1 would include at least some grit. I propose that the race begin with a crew of 5 and a driver with the car totally dismantled. For the love of it all, Father Guido."

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6. Posted by Bidet, 11/03/2016 11:05

"I agree with the opinions expressed but the problem is much bigger than just the on track action . F1 is in overall terms now very poor value for money . Both internal and external . Yes Bernie has taken the sport to an unimagined and wealthy position but he's done that for the F1 gang involved and for his own wellbeing not for the public at large . To most people now the drivers are not the main event just young faceless people with little or no substance that do as the team tell them most of the time and hide any possibility of being " real " . The public also think cars are bland , overcomplicated and difficult to understand but mostly far too easy to drive evinced by the team controlling everything during the race including speed . The simple act of placing a large number on the car so people can easily identify a driver is too difficult for the great minds in the FIA to properly sort out . And so it goes on . Hopeless and actualy not at all like the " old days " of F1 . All TV coverage does is try to keep the uninformed viewer up to speed and at the same time confirms it 's not that interesting because of the above . If they were talking about the latest I-Pad tec then great but this is supposed to be a sport isn't it ? It also confirms that what you know in public is not the truth . Reporters hide what they know to avoid being closed down by the team or driver . Pretty useless situation if you think about it . Those reporters who titivate by letting you know that they have some info they can't divulge are just being irritatingly smug and cleaver . Again not good for the sport and rather patronising . Thats a form of exclusion that the sport should take notice of and do something about . Anyone who has been to the Indy 500 will tell you the teams have to be very open in general . You have as a spectator a hired or purchased scanner for the race and you can hear every team chatter in full as the race goes on and that includes two way driver / team and manager to pit crew as well as spotters around the circuit .You can centre on one team by selecting a number or the total voice activity of the race . Now that would bring F1 interest back into play and create a real improvement in the sport regarding teams / driver race activity without another change . Some hopes sadly .
As a matter of interest the Indy 500 drivers have to spend an hour lining up at desks on the Saturday lunchtime to sign autographs and to actually engage in proper conversation with the fans . And thats free. Imagine that in F1 if you can ? No I thought not . Try going to the 500 to see what a real great value motor race is . You might think a bit differently about the purist aspect of F1 and how maybe it could be so much better . "

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7. Posted by Geo, 11/03/2016 5:56

"I'm hearten to hear Mat say the racing has been been great in recent years because it has! I remember watching GP's in the 80's and 90's that hardly had any overtaking or were fuel economy drives. It is sad that the fan surveys and some well versed F1 commentators/jounos opinions on how to fix the sport are largely ignored.
Geo."

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8. Posted by Spindoctor, 10/03/2016 12:56

"@GrahamC nice summation.

My 2p would be to emphasise all those points, particularly the ludicrousness of those minute wing mods at £x,000 a time. Removing that would definitely cut costs....

I'd take issue with Mat Coch's tone, if not much of the substance of this piece.
I'll agree as a greybeard who's been watching F1 since the 1960's that there never was a "golden age", and I'd agree more strongly that we need to stop believing the (mainly Bernie-generated) hype about F1 being a "pinnacle" of anything; except perhaps self-deception.

My problem is that he seems to be suggesting that we shouldn't even try to "fix" F1, that somehow it'll sort itself out through a sort of extended extinction event analogous the that which did for the dinosaurs.
Well, maybe, but surely it would be a bit less traumatic to try and implement changes which address the worst failings, and then see if prople still want to play?"

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9. Posted by GrahamG, 08/03/2016 10:10

"I love the phrase "... trivialising the sport in pursuit of maintaining an audience ..." it sums up everything that is wrong with the "good idea let make sure its banned" philosophy that rules at the moment. It ought to be writ in large letters above Bernie's motor home (or gravestone).
What is different about current F1 to the past is that the regulations are used as a way of crushing innovation hence multi thousand pound front wing modifications to gain a fraction of a fraction of a second.
The reference to LMP1 is well made, there you have a sport packed with innovation and different technical approaches, flat out racing and unpredictable results and F1 did used to have that.
Previously someone came up with an idea, gained some wins then other people improved on it and caught up. Only by constant improvement could a team stay ahead (like Schumacher's endless hard work testing and refinement at Ferrari), now they can sit back in the sure knowledge that no-one will be allowed to innovate and catch up."

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10. Posted by Uffen, 07/03/2016 17:21

"I do not recall the same level of angst regarding F1 in the ground effects, tobacco, eras. The current malaise surrounding F1 are far deeper and have existed for far longer now than anytime I can recall in the last 40 years.
Yes, today we have far too much instant communication but the sport is rapidly becoming a parody of itself."

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11. Posted by Cobra Driver, 07/03/2016 12:27

"Having been in the information technology sector for most of my long career, I find it ironic that I am advocating a retreat from such technology in F1. While I agree with Mr. Coch, that "the good old days" were not so good in most cases, there was a turning point in F1 history where driver skills went out the window to be replaced by over-engineering and almost total reliance on technology. If you wish to recover my interest in F1, remove all data contact between the driver and the pit and revert to a V8/V10 engine formula. And above all, stop tinkering.
"

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12. Posted by Motorsport-fan, 07/03/2016 10:24

"You could make a case for WEC being the pinnacle of motorsport now, more relevent technology to road cars, flat out racing? as I have said in a previous post, we all no what is wrong with F1, but no-one or group wants to put it right, perhaps the F1 bubble needs to be pricked.
We have Formula One cars that look like works of art with a winglet here and a winglet there causing the aero issues, over complicated engines enforcing the idea batteries are best? how about an F1 car powered by a Hydrogen fuel cell? starting to think already the all new 2017 regulations are again going to be a missed opportunity."

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