OCTOBER 23, 2004
Formula 1 has now had the chance of a few hours to digest Max Mosley's new rules for 2005, 2006 and 2007 and the implications that come with them, and while some remain convinced that it is not the right thing for the sport to be doing, others are looking at the situation in a more positive way and want to concentrate on the way forward rather than trying to fight a lost cause. One can find fault in the way that things have been done. It is not difficult to do but the FIA argues as Jean-Marie Balestre (Mosley's precedessor) once used to, that it was the only way to get things done.
Even if the rules leave only small margins for development and technical innovation there is still a margin and wherever there is a margin and there are F1 engineers with money, there will be development. Finding an edge over the opposition will remain possible, although this edge may come more from the human element in the car than from the machinery. One can argue, in fact, that the new rules will put the onus on the ability of the drivers much more than has been the case. And, of course, aerodynamic development will continue as long as there are wings and sidepods. The problem with this is that the largest pile of well-spent money will be rewarded with success - but that has always been the case in Grand Prix racing.
The important thing for the sport is to make sure that the money supply continues for all the teams and that is really where the F1 world is currently losing out. There is no concerted effort to improve the way the sport is viewed. The danger of all the politics over the rules and such things as the British GP and the bickering that goes on every week, coupled with a total domination of the racing by one uncompromising team, has created a sense of crisis and as a result sponsorship rate cards are in danger of coming down and teams face the problem of going out of business. Having cheaper engines does undoubtedly help the small teams to survive but it is a huge balancing act.
The point that needs to be made over and over again is that the popularity of the sport depends on the characters involved. It is no good having dull faceless individuals. The sport is a soap opera and needs to remain so. We may not like all the characters involved but we keep watching. What is hugely important is also that the sport has drivers who are allowed to be themselves and speak their mind. They must be allowed to have opinions, even if they are dumb opinions. What we do not need are character-less automatons who have nothing to talk about other than lap times and are not allowed to have anything but positive opinions. Formula 1 needs to understand that the best way to have favourable press is not to demand editing rights but rather to be genuinely convincing in the way things are done.
The most important thing is for the sport to keep those involved (be they participants or spectators) passionate about it. The technical regulations are really not the key in this respect. Racers will race with what they are given.
Internecine politics, manipulation, lies and distortions do more damage to a sport than any regulations.
There is a ready example of all this in the United States of America where the Indy Racing League
and Champ Car racing are struggling along while NASCAR soars ahead to challenge the National Football League to be the US's biggest sport. The IRL is heavily restricted in terms of technical development. but there are margins which allow one team to gain an advantage over another as we have seen this year with Honda engines. The restrictions that exist on testing mean that there is an incentive for teams to run more cars. But the racing is good. The problem for IRL is that for so many years the split with CART disillusioned the media and drove away the fans. The passion died and the fans have still not come back. There are signs that the series will get more "bums on seats" and will gradually build up a TV audience but the damage may take years to repair.
Formula 1 needs to avoid going down the same route. The sport needs to invest in itself to create a better TV show. That is key. The TV technology exists to do that and there is even experience available to do a great deal more to improve the show, but no-one is willing to pay for it. The sport does not treat its fans well. The drive to make money means that there are restrictions which need not be there. Short-termism rules the day and as long as that remains the case the image of the sport will be of a world that is in crisis.
What is needed, perhaps, is not technical change but attitude change from all concerned.
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