Hurrah! Thrilling racing. Faster cars. Higher revving. Louder engines. Formula 1’s Strategy Group has agreed on new regulations for 2017 to save the sport. And they are set up to fail. Again.
One of the greatest hurdles to handle for the inflexible creatures of habit that we are as human beings is change. Nothing is as frightening, nothing leaves us feeling more exposed and out of control, nothing is as difficult to accept and adapt to. At least when things are running smoothly and change threatens to break the patterns of comfort that we hold onto so anxiously. In theory, quite the opposite should be the case when we are stuck in a situation that is far from ideal and change could be the promising flag waving at the horizon to bring us relief, salvation and improvement. Well, in theory.
In reality, change has not only the potential to be an improvement over what we’ve already got but could also make things even worse than they already are. Which is why many of us would probably prefer to stick with their discomfort and keep complaining rather than taking a risk and truly do something about it, while often talking and acting like we are making a huge effort. Add to that the habit of humans to believe that if we’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things. Doctors would call this fear of change ‘metathesiophobia’.
Maybe this is the psychological take that we need to apply here if we want to understand the problems in Formula 1 and the proposals of the so called Strategy Group concerning the future of the series – discussions that worry not only us fans, but, in an increasing manner, teams and other important stakeholders. For a sport that is ill spoken of as producing not enough noise, there seems to be a little too much of it… albeit not from the exhaust pipes of the cars. More efficient engines vs. more horsepower, refuelling vs. no refuelling, smaller tyres vs. wider tyres, yada yada yada, and another season goes by. It’s easy to loose track of what’s actually being decided, and malicious gossip has it that this is because nothing actually IS decided. According to Bernie Ecclestone, “not even the date of the next meeting.”
If this sport has decided to become absolutely fun-free, then that’s the way to go.
I recently found myself in a conversation with a businessman who has been involved with Formula 1 for decades and feels equally frustrated but isn’t ready to give up just yet. “The problem isn’t the cars”, he says. “We ignore the people who are interested in those cars, that’s the problem”. A few years back, I would have heavily disagreed. Not necessarily because things were different back then, but because I had no idea what ordinary fans are offered outside of the illusionary world of the Formula 1 paddock that I found myself in whenever I was near a race track.
Last month I watched my first Formula 1 race from a grandstand. I was excited like a little girl as I approached my 500 EUR seat near the start-finish line of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Don’t get any wrong ideas – I’m not fuzzy. It was just that I couldn’t get anything half decent for a better price. Approaching the racetrack, I join a crowd of a few hundred people from all over the world who push from the train station in Montmeló to the main entrance of the circuit. It’s about a 30-minute walk leading through a typical Spanish village, past a variety of unofficial merchandise stands with 35 EUR hats, a few coffee shops, nothing to get excited about. Once at the circuit, we squeeze through the main gate into the fan zone where we are presented with more merchandise – 55 EUR hats, the official stuff. And as I pull out my camera to start capturing the glamour and frenzy of Formula 1 that we all came to see, I realise… that’s basically it. I look around and feel a sudden panic creeping up as I search for a Formula 1 car, a celebrity, a driver, an engine, a tyre, a helmet, a SCREW. GOD, GIVE ME SOMETHING TO PHOTOGRAPH AND SHARE!!! Tumbleweeds. I take a selfie with a security guy and decide to spice up this expensive adventure with a cold beer, waiting in line with a few dozen grumpy-looking people only to realise that the lukewarm yellow liquid sold to me for the equivalent of a London mortgage is non-alcoholic. Yay. If this sport has decided to become absolutely fun-free, then that’s the way to go.
Privileged as I am, I get a view on the pits and the grid, so that I eventually get to catch a glimpse of a car’s front wing end plate and Lewis Hamilton’s glove – or was it the mechanic’s? Anyway, my earplugs are pushed in, sunscreen is on, non-alcoholic beer in the oily hands and the race is off. I take the earplugs out after the first lap – not needed. What I would need though is binoculars to see the boards indicating the positions of the drivers and the screens to follow the bits of the race track that aren’t right in front of me. After ten laps I give up following the course of the race and the Spanish commentary from the loudspeakers, which are a kilometre away. The grandstand seats around me are empty. And as I join the grumpy crowd marching silently back to the buses past the merchandise two hours later, I cannot help but wonder: why on earth would you pay a few thousand Euros to make such a journey with your mates or family and see THIS?
Sport is entertainment. It is made for people who are passionate about it and who care enough to watch the competitions on TV or travel near and far to see it live, in order to soak up the unique atmosphere and experience the once-in-a-lifetime event that is intended to inspire not only themselves, but also friends, family and followers. The reality is, entertainment is a tough business nowadays. And it’s a very different business from the one that is being addressed by the Formula 1 Strategy Group. What is needed to keep the fans happy and involved? A lot. And at the same time, very little, actually.
Take other racing series, for example the FIA World Endurance Championship. Six hours and more of heart-stopping action, mouth-watering racing machines with an engine sound that makes your blood rush in your ears when you get near them. And you get scarily near. For the price of an unofficial Formula 1 hat (!) you’ll get a ticket for three days including paddock access, music live acts, partying and a prime view on Eau Rouge or Becketts whenever you want. And leave those earplugs in – you’ll need them! Although you might want to take them out for the selfie with the drivers who pass by and chat with you without a gang of security and PR people around them to “protect” them. Want me to sign your shirt? Sure, Mark Webber, why not.
Or just take Formula E. A new series and one that’s not yet in the limelight of the international racing scene, but that will come, I am sure. Formula 1 fans struggle to find any information about their event on the Internet. Social media? Live streams? User-friendly fan content? More tumbleweeds. You buy a ticket for a few hundred Euros, but try and find any official info that would tell you what’s going on around the track, where to go, what to do and how to become part of it all. Formula E takes you there in a few clicks. In an app. One download and you have a complete brochure including programme, interviews, videos, interactive content, stuff to share, save and like, and an overall feeling that gives you something that money can’t buy: a thrill of anticipation. Priceless.
Others have understood what Formula 1’s Strategy Group hasn’t. This isn’t about them. And it’s not about the cars. It’s about the people. A sport that looses its attraction for the supporters is going to die eventually. No matter how profitable it may be in the short term. Meddling with the technical regulations in the hope of finding a solution to problems that lie elsewhere is like curing a disease without knowing what the doctor’s diagnosis is. Unfortunately though, a diagnosis is exactly what’s missing in this strategic equation. But an analysis would mean that you find a problem and naming the problem would mean that you have to do something about it. And that sounds like a lot of change for a bunch of ‘metathesiophobics’.