It wasn’t all that long ago that then-reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso declared that Formula 1 was no longer a sport. The Spaniard’s comments, if readers can be pressed to remember, were in reaction to being assessed a grid penalty for impeding Felipe Massa’s Ferrari during qualifying for the 2006 Italian Grand Prix. Alonso’s declaration, hailed by some and derided by others, highlighted just how farcical officiating had become in the world’s highest level of open-wheel motor racing. Two years later in the chaos which followed the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix, sheer outrage following Lewis Hamilton’s ex-post-facto conviction of improperly ceding an unfairly-gained position brought the legitimacy of Formula 1’s status into question once again. In the years that have passed, standards have changed; race stewards are now assisted by experienced racing drivers, rules of engagement both on and off the circuit have been clarified, and new regulations have been introduced which have seen racing improve by most measures. Despite the progress which has been made, once again, Grand Prix Racing finds itself amidst yet another bout of controversy. Rather than delving into the details – the who, what, when, where, why, and how surrounding the so-called secret tests carried out over the past month at the Circuit de Catalunya by Mercedes and Ferrari, it may be of higher merit for the purposes of this piece to ask a larger, more fundamental question: What is the state of Formula 1 here and now in 2013, and, in what direction is this multi-billion-dollar global circus of cars, drivers, and glamorous personalities going?
Monaco: the race which is the undisputed jewel in the Formula 1 crown. The two-mile street circuit scything its way through the tight streets of the world’s second-smallest state is the ultimate test of driver skill and team strategy – a test which all competitors strive to ace; a race in which only the truly great drivers achieve repeated success. But the 2013 Grand Prix de Monaco wasn’t about driver skill or last-gasp pit wall strategy calls; instead, the event was marred by protests against Mercedes-AMG for their taking part in a one-off private test at the request of official tire supplier Pirelli. The tremendously dominant weekend had by Nico Rosberg, who finished P1 in every session, was all but eclipsed even before the pit lane lights turned green for the start of free-practice one as constructors and media outlets alike began a tsunami of speculation – and protests – in response to Mercedes’ allegedly surreptitious subordination of the FIA’s in-season testing ban. What should have been a celebration of what was by far the greatest weekend in Nico Rosberg’s already respectable Formula 1 career turned into a veritable shouting-match amongst corporate officers and politicians alike.
“So what?” some may ask. Those who are familiar with Formula 1 and have followed it for several years know all too well that, along with being the most expensive sporting competition in the world, it is one of the most politically-charged institutions on the planet. Recent affairs in the world of Grand Prix Racing, the 2007 Spygate saga and the 2008 Singapore race-fixing extravaganza for example, have arguably put American presidential elections to shame. In terms of the textbook Machiavellian lion and fox-ing deftly executed by Ecclestone et alia, as well as the heavy-handed administration of $100-million fines and lifetime bans, these sweeping acts of political expediency would almost definitely make a certain Mr. Kim very proud indeed. There is certainly an argument to be made that the political bickering behind the scenes does in fact add a certain indeterminate something to the feel and flavor of a world championship season, the Senna-Prost rivalry was certainly made all the more intense by the mysterious movement of pole position to the dirty side of the grid on the part of one Mr. Balestre, but the race fan responsible for composing this unnecessarily verbose foray into F1’s philosophical formula is becoming increasingly perturbed and begs to question what this is all for.
Why is it that many an F1 fan is so possessed to turn back the pages of history scouring the internet for clips of no-holds-barred qualifying laps from the turbo era and reminisce about the good old days? Today’s Formula 1 cars are faster over the course of a single lap than they ever have been, and, if technical prowess is what the audience is truly after, then technical comparisons to F1 machinery begin in the realm of aerospace hardware, not the automotive sector. If it’s driver talent that sets hearts racing, then the fact being that there are only 22 men on the planet considered good enough to be sitting on the grid when the five lights go out rests any doubts as to driver competence. What is it about 1986, then, which keeps fans begging for the return of “real racing?” Certainly the thought of a 1.5 liter engine belting out the rapturous 13,000 RPM report of 1,400 horsepower at boost pressures exceeding 5-bar connected to a 5-speed manual gearbox and a chassis with conspicuously little downforce is very attractive even to the most dedicated aficionado of contemporary Formula 1, but in terms of racing action, critics of the current formula are hereby implored to revisit the spectacular displays of driver skill seen in recent events such as at Fuji in 2007 or at Monza in 2008.
There is something, however, about the “good old days” that is somehow, if not intrinsically better. Such elements such as the engines sounding like proper engines or the cars being pleasing to look at are inherently subjective as are any measures of relative driver skill despite the heart-stopping unsettled nature of turbo-era cars dancing on the limit of adhesion waiting for even the slightest error to shoot down any driver’s delusions of grandeur. Some argue that, in those days, men were men – drivers, were drivers, racing was racing, and there weren’t bureaucratic roadblocks preventing constructors from innovating or rivals from settling the score out on the track. However, there certainly have been numerous meritorious improvements in Formula 1 since those days of yore; driver and spectator safety is better today than ever before, and F1’s record of 19 years without a driver fatality is testament to that.
Certainly, nobody wishes undue risk to participants and spectators, but the mystique of the turbo era is something that Formula 1 needs desperately to recapture. What is Formula 1 now, one may ask. Well, all the ingredients are there: talented drivers, world-class facilities, and the fastest cars in the world are ready and waiting, but Formula 1 today isn’t truly all about the best drivers in the best cars at the best race venues in the world; as much action as there is on the track, there is just as much off of it. This season’s Multi-21 scandal and the currently-emerging Mercedesgate have stolen headlines, headlines which should have been occupied by the brutally consistent drives of Kimi Räikkönen, the inspired pole laps of Nico Rosberg in Bahrain and Monaco, and the sensational new promise shown by freshman Jules Bianchi. It may be better, perhaps, that the media do leave Kimi alone – everybody knows that he’s got things under control, but Nico is having the best season of his life, validating that ability which Frank Williams must have seen in him back in 2006, and Jules may very well end up driving a Ferrari in the not-so-distant future; where are the accolades up and down the pit lane for the achievements of these drivers? They are probably there, but they’re being overshadowed by politics.
Is there hope forthcoming in what the future holds for Formula 1? Time will ultimately be the judge of that. A return of turbocharging for 2014 would have given cause for optimism, but the latest decree compliments of the FIA green police has already dashed the hopes of all those quietly willing a return to F1’s glory days as engines will now be officially referred to as “power units”- half petrol, half electric hulks of titanium and batteries which will also be frozen in spec along the lines of the current naturally-aspirated V8s further perpetuating the stagnation of mechanical development. There have also been real doubts as to the subjective qualities of the new breed of Formula 1 car – some have even speculated about artificially amplifying the engine exhaust note as many fear that a somewhat restrictive single turbocharger coupled with KERS, ERS, and other unnecessary scourges will lead to the “power unit” being too quiet. Plus, another sobering reality must be assessed: without the mandated electronic dead weight added in, the new V6s will be generating about 550 horsepower; that’s less than what the current GP2 cars are churning out. Is this what the world’s premier form of auto racing needs?
At the end of the day, what is Formula 1 – a political contest or, contrary to Fernando Alonso’s remarks, a sport? What sets Formula 1 apart from all other forms of racing is that its teams are constructors and that its drivers are the best in the world. Let the constructors be constructors, let them innovate and let them succeed; let drivers be drivers, let them fight for position on track even if it means straying from the racing line every now and again to defend a position; and, more importantly, let the fans be fans; give them the “real racing” that so many of them crave; give them the hair-raising action of a driver fighting a ferocious, fire-spitting car around the streets of Monaco, and let the fans have a say in what the most televised sport in the world will become. Without fans, ultimately, there will be no Formula 1.
It’s time for a rethink, F1; keep the racers racing and send the politics packing. For now, at least, everyone’s still watching.