Thursday 31 July 2014

Dear Sir, Am I Alone in Thinking? - Buxton gets it bang on

It was a lot like reading one of those letters to a newspaper that starts 'Dear Sir, Am I alone in thinking....?'. And upon reading it concluding no, you're not alone. I think exactly the same.

An article written by F1 journalist and NBC's pit lane reporter (as well as he of the GP2 and GP3 commentary and podium interviews) Will Buxton, cryptically titled 'New Coke', I'm talking about. My reading it gave that rarest of sensations, that of viewing the thoughts of another yet rather feeling you are having your mind read. You can have a scan of it yourself here: I strongly suggest that you do.

Will Buxton (left) - got it spot on
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 on track fare is definitely boring right now. It's letting everyone down. People keep telling us this, after all. And demonstrating as much crisis meetings are being held in response. There was one among the teams and Bernie in Hungary last weekend; another today apparently. Yet another awaits around Monza time as proposed by Ferrari Chairman Luca Montezemolo.

To back it all up this year's TV viewing numbers have been disappointing reportedly, the latest step in a long-term decline on that front. Plus much of the recent German Grand Prix was conducted in front of vast numbers of those disguised convincingly as empty grandstand seats. All pretty irrefutable then? Well, as Buxton points out, no.

He was the equivalent of the child pointing at the emperor and telling all and sundry that the haughty figure has no clothes. Or perhaps one pointing out that the emperor in fact has a bit more ensuring his modesty than everyone was insisting. Contrary to the sound and fury outlined that has been the lingering background music of this F1 campaign, Buxton says something to the effect of 'hang on a minute' and points out that for all of F1's problems surely what is happening on the track itself - for the hour and a half on a Sunday - is not currently one of them. And I'm right with him on this one. It's a relief to know that it wasn't just me.

I'm always a little cautious of those who like to preface their arguments with 'I've watched F1 since year X...' as such claims are I usually find purely personally a bit pompous. But without wishing to become hoist on my own petard I've watched F1 races obsessively since the mid-part of 1986, which I'd like to think gives me some perspective of how this one we're in now is measuring up. And I concur absolutely with Buxton - another whose F1 passion goes back a while - when he says that 'rarely can I recall a season I have enjoyed as much...It is easy to overlook just how good we've got it right now.' I cannot see how even the harshest critic of this campaign cannot rank it as above average at least in the entertainment stakes. More probable is that it's among the best.

The Hungaroring round was an excellent one
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, perhaps this season started slowly in terms of thrills. The Melbourne race that opened the year was around a six or seven out of ten - although reliability aside who was going to win was never in doubt. The Malaysia and China rounds were both a little tepid. Bahrain was excellent though. Spain was a slow burner but exciting at the end. Monaco was, well, Monaco. But then from Canada onwards, some five races and counting, the action has been persistently compelling. Each ranking genuinely somewhere among the top rank of races ever.

There's been plenty of aggressive and electrifying wheel-to-wheel action up and down the order from superb and brave racers (it's one of the ways that the F1 TV coverage has improved - time was not so long ago that the cameras would follow the leaders regardless of what was going on behind), a few drives through the pack and in plenty of the events (I make it five of them) doubt over who the winner was to be right to the very last. Hamilton vs. Rosberg in Bahrain, Alonso vs. Vettel in Silverstone, Alonso vs. Ricciardo in Germany, Bottas's climb to P2 in the British race, Hamilton's just about everywhere. All of these deserved ranking with the most revered performances we have ever witnessed

Which brings me neatly to our current cast of drivers which also can be compared with those of any season: Alonso; both Merc pilots; Hulkenberg; stars that have really been born this campaign in Ricciardo and Bottas; Kvyat, Magnussen, Bianchi and others underline further that the sport's future is in safe hands; even one or two world champions have been humbled in among it all. All the while we've had the thrill of this star cast wrestling with machines with a surfeit of torque over grip. Fears in advance such as mass unreliability and conspicuous fuel conservation runs have barely been borne out. Boring? Hardly.

Granted, we've got single-car domination, but that can happen, particularly in seasons wherein vast rule changes are debuted. One team can and often does hit on the right answers immediately, leaving the rest to catch up. Which they do. And at least with the highly intriguing intra-Merc battle for the title what we have is Senna-Prost rather than Schumacher-Barrichello.

With this the only thing that should be affronting us is that those insisting things are boring have gotten way with it for so long. Quite why they have been and continue to beat this drum isn't clear. Buxton suggests 'Perhaps it is because we are being given exceptional contests almost every racing weekend that we lose sight of how good these races really are. It becomes easier to remember the great races of days past, when those races were rare highlights in otherwise predictable and often dull processions.'

Austria's was another diverting race in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Indeed. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be of course, but something about nostalgia - and not just in F1 but in everything - is that it acts as an incredibly effective filter. The good bits are polished up, perhaps have the ugly parts painted over, and presented on mantelpieces for displaying proudly to all comers. The probably much more abundant unattractive bits are left in the rubbish bin and never thought of again.

Buxton himself offers a few examples. Such as the first ever Hungarian Grand Prix  in 1986, at the height of the much-harked-back-to first 'turbo era'. Then only two cars finished on the lead lap, and only ten made it to the end (the final of which was some six laps down...). And such a result all-in wasn't atypical of the time. Imagine the froth if we got such a result in 2014.

I can offer a few more. We all know about Gilles Villeneuve vs. Rene Arnoux in Dijon in 1979. But that was also a season wherein F1's show - plus ca change - was agonised over. I recall reading a magazine interview with Bernie Ecclestone from the end of that campaign that was dug out some years later, and the concept of 'F1 races being too boring now' was a hostile delivery that BCE had to bat off. Same goes for Ayrton Senna vs. Nigel Mansell in Monaco 1992. Thrilling of course; less widely-recalled is that this season was characterised in the main by Mansell demonstration runs in his insultingly-superior FW14B. Various things indeed were changed in response to it in order to 'liven up the show' (e.g. introduction of safety cars and changes to tyre widths).

Then there's the 'refuelling era' of the mid-to-late 1990s and much of the noughties. Many of those who decry the current era like to talk about then as the time that F1 got it right. Sky Sports in the UK however has - probably inadvertently - done us a service by replaying many races from this time in full as part of its 'Classic F1' series (and as the name suggests these are races hand-picked on the basis of being among the better ones). What often strikes from watching is how little happens in them. In those days a dodo flying over the circuit would not have caused more surprise than witnessing an something like an overtake, you know, on track.

Worse, as Rob Smedley noted a while later what would happen then in the normal run of things was that a race's outcome would be in effect known on a Saturday afternoon with the grid order and starting fuel loads set, barring disasters such as unreliability (an increasingly rare event too). The race would be an exercise of pre-ordained fuel strategies simply playing themselves out and while the drivers certainly worked hard their contribution in some ways was futile, almost like they were just along for the ride if they had the stamina to hang on. I certainly will take what we have now over that without a single shred of hesitation.

F1 in the noughties - not all that
"Formula one". Licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Quite why so many seem determined to do down F1's fare 2014 style isn't clear. Perhaps Buxton is right and it reflects simply the human tendency to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Perhaps it reflects the power of suggestion - we believe it because people keep saying it. Perhaps in some quarters it reflects instead the human tendency to believe only what one wants to believe, regardless of the weight of contrary evidence.

Psychologists have various terms for such phenomena - confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, adherence to paradigm... We know that the new for 2014 regulations divided fans - many not liking the resultant noise of the machines or else the 'green' or conservation-type nature of them in what had been a sport that had often defined itself as offering excess and consumption. Perhaps therefore with this predisposition some have been rather too determined to maintain the view that what we're being served up is unpalatable, no matter what actually is being served up.

But F1 clearly does has its problems in terms of its numbers following as intimated, but as Buxton suggests the best evidence is that the problems lie off the track rather than on: 'it is abundantly clear that it is Formula 1's business model which is broken, not the racing spectacle itself' he noted.

He lists many of them. A ridiculous skewed financial distribution among the teams. A financial model that relies on grossly inflated race hosting fees, which has had the effect of taking the sport away from many of the core fans, and ensuring those venues of this ilk that remain have next to nothing to invest in improving the fans' experience as well as have to charge vastly bloated ticket prices in order to break even. A financial model that relies also on grossly inflated fees for TV rights, which means the sport increasingly is disappearing behind paywalls rather than being available free-to-air, losing swathes of viewers overnight in each shift. Refusal to embrace social media, which is the way sports consumption clearly is going and F1's attitude is particularly regrettable in terms of (not) attracting in younger fans.

He could have added a hobby horse of mine that the sport's general image of amorality - see for example Bernie's trial; cosying up to often unpleasant regimes as part of the chasing of vast hosting fees outlined above - holds it back. Compare F1's global reach with the amount of advertising space purchased on F1 cars at the moment. If you want to be really mean, do this having subtracted those logos related to the team ownership, technical tie-ups and brought by drivers. The thought that corporate entities are scared off by the thought of association with F1's murky image doesn't seem too much of a fanciful one. And not attracting sponsors' income quickens the vicious circle of attracting monies from the troublesome sources already mentioned...

And worryingly it seems that whenever lately this sport's luminaries have met to seek to remedy the situation the one sort of solution proposed - via a spectacular missing of the point - is to suggest yet more gimmicks. Sparks, standing restarts after safety cars and the like. The latest wheeze - disturbingly with lots of support among the teams reportedly - is success ballast; apparently to artificially correct the competitive disparity created in large part by the hideously skewed financial distribution mentioned that the guys at the top created, with some such as Ferrari and Red Bull getting vast sums not based on results but just for being them. A flatter distribution of cash is too simple a solution, clearly. It seems something beyond even Spike Milligan's capacity for surrealist farce.

In terms of the sport's current - and notorious - sources of gimmickry of DRS and gumball Pirelli tyres, I'm someone who on balance at the point of their introduction supported them, or at least tolerated them. Mainly on the grounds that such was the hole F1 had got itself into on the lack of passing that something drastic needed to be done, even as a temporary sticking plaster measure. But now it feels rather like the sport's had its fill of such things (another matter that Buxton outlines). Whatever is the case it hasn't at the broadest level done much to address the slide. The sport certainly doesn't give much sign of an appetite for more. That this game's big players seem to think greater and greater injections of gimmickry is the remedy doesn't really reflect well on their collective wisdom.

So there is a lot wrong with F1, that needs fixing. But as Buxton spells out in large letters, let's not denigrate and meddle with one of the few things that F1, against a few insistent claims, is actually getting right.

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