Formula 1 appears to be surrounded by an unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Everywhere you look, there seem to be bad news stories.
These news stories are mostly not of the headline-grabbing nature of the scandals that engulfed the sport during Max Mosley’s tenure. We don’t have a spygate or a spankgate or a binning-it-into-the-wall-deliberatelygate. Instead, there number of micro problems. They are low-profile, but each of them is a little grenade waiting to go off — and there are lots of them.
Bernie Ecclestone’s uncertain future
Perhaps the most high-profile story is that surrounding the future role of Bernie Ecclestone, who has effectively run the sport for around 40 years. I am in no position to comment on the accusations of bribery, for which he will appear on trial later this year. But it does seem as though Mr Ecclestone will not be in charge of F1 for much longer.
If anyone can carry on forever it’s Bernie Ecclestone. But at the age of 83 and with a serious court case coming up, it might be time to consider stopping soon.
So who will be the successor? Some say it might be Christian Horner. Others say Justin King, who is due to step down from his current role as CEO of Sainsbury’s in July.
Another alternative is that the sport comes to be run by an anonymous board from a smoke-filled room. In that scenario, the sport would become corporate, distant from fans and participants alike.
Whatever happens, it is likely that the sport will not be as well-run as it was by Bernie Ecclestone. No matter what your personal opinion is about Mr Ecclestone, the bottom line is that he made the sport what it is. He is irreplaceable.
Armageddon in Australia?
2014 sees a raft of major technical changes to the cars. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, even the most well-prepared teams are likely to suffer major reliability problems as they struggle to get to grips with the complicated new power units.
The new power units are undoubtedly interesting. New and different technology is to be welcomed. The old V8s, which had been around for years on end, had become dull from a technical standpoint.
But with so many teams facing so many problems, Formula 1 finds itself facing the very real possibility that the first few races will be a farce.
A bit of unreliability is no bad thing from an entertainment point of view. But can Formula 1 afford to see all of its cars failing when it is supposed to be selling itself as the pinnacle of motorsport and technological excellence?
Rumours continue to swirl around certain teams’ financial situation. Combined with the high costs associated with developing such different cars for 2014, could we be seeing one or more teams going out of business soon?
The Formula One Teams’ Association disbanded this week. It had already been weakened for some time, after Red Bull, Ferrari, Sauber and Toro Rosso left. But it still represented the best hope that Formula 1 had for bringing the teams together to sort out the sport’s issues.
Not everything Fota did was for the good of the sport. But its demise will make life even more difficult for the smaller teams.
Tumbling viewing figures
It remains to be seen whether Formula 1’s relatively new strategy of switching to pay TV services across the globe will pay off. But the early evidence suggests that the strategy may be backfiring.
In 2013, Formula 1 audiences dropped by a staggering 10 per cent. Overall, 50 million viewers worldwide were lost.
Bernie Ecclestone explained it away as being an inevitable consequence of Sebastian Vettel’s dominance in the second half of the season. But if you lock your content behind a paywall, it is inevitable that some viewers will be priced out.
Suffocating focus on “the show” and disillusioned fans
The purity of Formula 1 has been undermined by the monstrosity that is DRS. The system creates a fundamentally unfair situation, threatening Formula 1’s integrity as a sport. Moreover, it has single-handedly killed the art of defensive driving, which was one of the most important aspects of a driver’s skillset, and one of the most joyous to witness.
Then there are the tyres that are deliberately designed to underperform. This has inhibited wheel-to-wheel racing, and created farcical and unsafe situations such as the high-speed tyre blowouts at Silverstone last year.
As if that wasn’t enough, now F1 fans have their heads in their hands over the fact that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be a double points race.
All of these changes are supposed to be for the good of “the show”, a nebulous phrase that seems to reduce the sport down to a mere spectacle on a par with reality TV shows.
Given that viewing figures are tumbling, you have to wonder about the effect this is having. Fans are angered that their voice over these issues are not being heard, and purists are beginning to switch off.
What are the consequences?
With all of this bad news going on just now, it’s difficult to say that Formula 1 is in healthy shape. In fact, it probably has never been in such a bad shape since I began watching the sport in the 1990s.
A lot of the problems are caused by the power struggles and disagreements over what direction F1 should go in. Should it be a WWE-style entertainment show sold to the highest bidder on pay TV? Should its cars be road-relevant and eco-friendly? It’s an ideological battle.
It is particularly ominous that all this comes at a time when Bernie Ecclestone’s future is in doubt. It’s probably no coincidence either.
If this is a sign of power struggles to come, Formula 1 may have a rather rocky future.