One of my very first jobs in journalism was to write about Formula 1 races and the events surrounding them that were sponsored by a popular beer company of that time. These were the early-2000s and the beginning of the era of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s utter dominance of the sport. As a young 20-something guy, going to events where the beer flowed and pretty promoters and big screens showed motor-racing, even though I was never a fan of the red team, was great fun.
But I was and remain a genuine fan of the sport. I remember when we got cable television in the mid-1990s, one of the first live sports broadcasts on Star Sports — and there was only one Star Sports channel back in the day — was Formula 1. I remember watching the fateful San Marino Grand Prix where legendary racing driver Ayrton Senna lost his life. And I have grown up with the sport: I attended all the three races of the ill-fated Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit, the first one as an accredited reporter with access to all the stars of the sport.
Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and as someone who loves driving cars and motorsport, it ought to be a match made in heaven. But lately, I can’t seem to get rid of that nagging feeling that there is something rotten in the world of Formula 1. Do not get me wrong, I am not someone who clamours for the ‘good old days’ of Formula 1. The sport has been at the bleeding edge of technical innovation, it should be remarkable that Formula 1 cars of today run four-cylinder 1.6 litre engines.
Yes, I miss the grunt and the noise of the big V12 and even the V8 engines. But shifting to smaller, more fuel-efficient engines coupled with state-of-the-art energy recovery systems and hybrid powertrains is a sign of commitment to the environment. And it isn’t as if the cars are any slower. In fact, they are much safer as the dramatic accident involving French driver Romain Grosjean at the Sakhir Circuit in 2020 proved. And the sport has effectively beaten off a challenge from Formula E, the all-electric racing series, where the speeds are slower and the racing isn’t quite as good, which is why the top talent still goes to F1.
And the decision by the new media rights owner, the US-based Liberty Media to tie-up with Netflix to have an ‘inside’ account with Drive To Survive has opened up a whole new audience to F1. The sport is also a tremendous showcase for Indian IT major Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) that has built a centralised broadcast system in the United Kingdom. The guys bringing you the broadcast and the camera cutaways are in the UK, and this is done at every race with no data lag and no matter where they are in the world.
But events of the last few months, since the end of the 2021 season, have me wondering if the sport is contriving entertainment rather than sport. The end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where Dutch driver Max Verstappen overtook seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton on the last lap seemed contrived. And I’m not saying this as a fan of either driver — both of them had enough opportunities to put the championship to rest earlier in the season. But some calls by the Race Director at time, Australian Michael Masi were curious to say the least.
And it is not just that, news reports in the past few days have emerged that Red Bull Racing, the team that Max Verstappen drives for, exceeded the budget cap agreed to by all the teams by a substantial margin and there are differing views on what sort of punishment the team should face. But here is the thing. In most sports, if an athlete takes drugs, that is gains a competitive advantage, he or she is disqualified. Breaching an already agreed set of rules is gaining a competitive advantage, and in my opinion, there should be no leeway whatsoever. That said, the Formula 1 authorities haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in more recent examples of cheating. A few seasons ago, Scuderia Ferrari was accused of cheating by manipulating their fuel flow, and F1 and Ferrari reached a confidential settlement whose details remain undisclosed to this day.
The change that’s needed
The fact of the matter is that Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and while the global automotive industry undergoes dramatic changes to its business model thanks to the advent of electric vehicles, the sport has to also change. One change, Formula 1 has said they will undertake is to become a net-zero emitter of carbon by 2030.
How on earth they plan to achieve that in a 23-race season, the longest one ever, in 2023 is befuddling. The season has back-to-back races scheduled in Baku, Azerbaijan followed by Miami, USA. Even if you were not great at world geography in school, you know that those two places aren’t exactly close to each other and this is just the most egregious example. Forget the demands on the teams and the humans driving the cars and the teams of engineers, managers and mechanics, the schedule makes no sense.
Yes, motorsport is not a ‘sustainable’ sport in any manner of speaking, but to watch human beings put their lives on the line driving cars that can and do hit speeds of 350 kmph is enthralling to me and millions of others across the world. As someone who has driven tens of laps around a racetrack, albeit in road-legal cars, I can assure you that it takes a massive physical toll on you. F1 drivers have to be supremely fit and have lightning quick reflexes, and not just the drivers, seeing a team of mechanics change all four tyres in under three seconds is frankly, mind-blowing.
And it is entertaining.
But in the name of entertainment and contriving storylines, F1 cannot lose the essence of the sport, and I fear that it is treading down that path. Back in the mid-1990s, there were only four or five channels on cable television. Today, one is overwhelmed by content, excellent content at that. But the best content is the most genuine content, and that is something that the F1 media rights owners and administrators should remember.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)