Sebastian Vettel has done it. His fourth consecutive World Drivers’ Championship, at the age of just 26, surely must secure his status as one of the all-time greats of Formula 1.
He had the celebrations to match the occasion. He took his car to the pit straight in front of the main grandstands, performed spectacular doughnuts, worshiped his car, then climbed the fence to embrace the fans and throw his gloves into the crowd. His beautiful gesture will surely go down as one of the most memorable victory celebrations in the sport’s history.
David Coulthard had the unenviable task of being the party pooper. As he conducted the podium ceremony, it was his uncomfortable job to remind the drivers, the thousands of people in the grandstands, and the millions of viewers watching on TV, that Sebastian Vettel would not officially become World Champion until December. Sebastian Vettel will not be handed his trophy until the FIA Gala Prize-Giving dinner.
Most fans sitting in the grandstand and watching the race on TV will not have heard of the FIA Gala. The FIA website describes it as “the biggest motorsport event of the season”. In reality, it amounts to little more than an annual jolly for FIA officials. It is an awards ceremony in which all the winners are known in advance.
Motorsport, and Formula 1 in particular, thrives on this exclusivity. Formula 1 wants you to feel lucky to be a part of it. This is why the official Formula 1 store used to sell official Formula 1 mousemats for £260. The exclusivity provides the allure. It is an aspirational sport. This is the business model of F1.
Bernie Ecclestone’s masterstroke over the past few decades has been to increase the exclusivity of Formula 1, while simultaneously improving coverage and access for the fans. It is a tricky balancing act, and he does not always get the balance correct, as the £260 mousemats demonstrated.
But Formula 1 gets so much right. Broadcasters are able to pester the drivers and engineers for an interview on the grid mere minutes before the race starts. You would struggle to find another sport that provides this sort of access. And the increasing availability of radio transmissions in recent years has transformed the way the sport is understood by fans.
The emphasis on improving “the show” may sometimes dilute the purity of the sport. But at least it shows a serious concern for the fans and how to keep them entertained.
For this reason, F1 evolves all the time. The official podium ceremony has been improved in the past two years, so that the fans at the circuit can hear directly from the drivers at the first opportunity. While there are a few shaky moments (particularly when the ceremony is conducted by people with not much broadcasting experience), it is a vast improvement over the sterile TV unilaterals and press conferences.
This is why the lack of a public ceremony for the World Championship is such a notable omission. It is ridiculous that the whole world can know who has won the World Drivers’ Championship, yet they cannot see him collect the trophy.
When a football team wins the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA Champions’ League, everyone fan in the stadium and every TV viewer sees the ceremony take place within minutes of the final whistle. When an Olympian wins a gold medal, the world sees their moment.
So when a Formula 1 driver or constructor wins the championship, why is it hidden away in an inaccessible ceremony that takes place months after the event?
It is time for Formula 1 and the FIA to get over itself. After a driver’s sweet victory celebrations, we do not want the sour note of being unable to see him actually receive the trophy.
The sport must get its act together and arrange for the Formula 1 World Championship prize-giving to take place in front of the fans, at the race where the title is clinched.
No doubt there are all sorts of technicalities that explain why the champion cannot be confirmed until the end of the season. But there has to be room for pragmatism as well.
We are talking about a sport that allows the driver behind to reduce his downforce to artificially increase his speed, all in the name of “the show”. F1 should do something that actually would improve the show, and allow the fans to see the champion collect his prize.