Why F1’s qualifying catastrophe is just one symptom of motorsport’s inevitable decline

Formula E cars racing

Formula 1 is in crisis at the moment. Barely a week goes by without an obviously nonsensical rule being proposed, un-proposed or re-imposed.

Dominating F1’s politics just now is a calamitous decision to revamp the qualifying system. The new format had foreseeable negative consequences such as no cars being on track for large portions of it.

Following the new format’s disastrous debut in Australia, almost everyone seems to agree that it needs changing. But because the large number of stakeholders involved cannot unanimously agree on an alternative, we are stuck with it. So fans sat through another predictably turgid qualifying session for Bahrain.

This is just the latest of a long line of misguided attempts to “spice up the show” in F1. Contrivances such as DRS and high-degradation tyres are driving long-term fans to distraction. But the powers that be remain convinced that such changes are required to attract new viewers to the sport.

Generational shift

The thing is that they are probably right. Motorsport is struggling to remain relevant to future generations. In common with other cultural titans of the late 20th century such as TV, Formula 1’s core base is now ageing.

Millennials are much less interested in cars than previous generations. This inevitably leads to less interest in motorsport.

Bernie Ecclestone 2012 Bahrain (cropped)

Nor are millennials particularly interested in watching TV. This makes F1’s increasing reliance on long-term deals with pay TV companies particularly disturbing.

In the UK, Sky now own the rights up to 2024. Think about how much the media has been transformed in the past eight years, and consider how irrelevant Sky Sports might be in another eight years’ time.

In this context, Bernie Ecclestone’s insistence that F1 doesn’t need to chase younger viewers almost seems like an acceptance of defeat.

When technology overtakes motorsport

Racing has always necessarily been closely linked to technology. The cliche says that the first motor race took place when the second car was built. But racing goes back much further than that.

Puy-du-Fou-4

Humans have raced each other on foot for sport for around 4,000 years. Later ancient civilisations raced chariots. When the bicycle was invented, bike racing ensued. So when motor cars were invented, it was inevitable that motor racing would be as well.

It was equally inevitable that the evolution of motorsport would be closely related to advances in road car technology. For many viewers, F1 is all about technological superiority.

For several decades, technology created highly entertaining motor racing. Choose your golden era. Whether you were brought up on grand prix racing in the 1960s or the 1990s, the spectacle was created by the technology of the time. That was what sport was about: pure man and machine pitted against one another.

But the time came when technology began to detract from the spectacle. At various points over the past 25 years, F1 has banned electronic advances such as traction control and ABS. These devices are regular components of road cars today. But on the racetrack they are deemed to detract from the spectacle of watching skilled drivers race against each other.

Many viewers also dislike the way a driver is told to change engine settings throughout the race. It creates a perception that drivers are not highly skilled.

Yet how can it be that a Formula 1 car — supposedly the pinnacle of technology — is less technologically advanced than almost any road car?

The pinnacle of technology is no longer entertaining

F1 needs to use the right sorts of technology to maintain its cutting edge image. But it also needs to remove technologies that reduce the amount of entertainment. This tension helps to explain the mess F1 finds itself in today.

The ‘Formula’ in Formula 1 tells us that technology has always been controlled to some degree for whatever reason. Cost, safety, road relevance and even the entertainment factor are all valid reasons to change the formula.

But now technology has advanced so much that these goals increasingly conflict with each other. This situation now threatens the very relevance of motorsport as a whole.

Hamilton Canada 2015

Take the move to hybrid power units. No matter how entertaining people found high-pitched screeching V8s and V10s, the fact is that this is a technology of the past. It is ridiculous for the pinnacle of motorsport to keep going down that path when all major road car manufacturers are selling hybrid or electric technology to the person on the street.

Yet many fans quickly developed a dislike for F1’s new power units. Less noise and a difference in the way the cars express themselves on the track have left many fans pining for the older engines, despite the clear technological superiority of the new power units.

Aerodynamics is another problematic area for F1. Too much downforce is perceived to make things too easy for the driver in clear air. Yet the wake caused by a modern F1 car as such that it is said to make overtaking almost impossible.

No matter how much the FIA tries to restrict aerodynamics, teams always seem to manage to claw the downforce back. Hence the introduction of contrived devices such as DRS.

Now the F1 strategy group is planning to radically increase the amount downforce on F1 cars from next season to make them faster. Observers seem agreed that this will also make it even more difficult to overtake.

Why F1 has lost its direction

Competing and conflicting demands such as this is why F1 has found itself going down the rabbit hole of “spicing up the show”. F1 is no longer about building a fast car, putting in some fast drivers, and hoping the best entertainment will come out of that naturally.

Now F1 needs to choose between whether it wants to be the fastest, the most technologically advanced, or the most entertaining. It can’t have all three. Oh, and don’t forget the need to cut costs and improve safety at the same time. This is why Formula 1 now seems directionless.

The current qualifying debacle is just the latest attempt to square the circle. The idea was to mix up the grid in the hope of putting faster cars behind slower cars during the race to increase the amount of overtaking. But in the process, they made qualifying itself laughably dull — without actually doing much to mix up the grid.

Most of F1’s contentious rule changes are running into this problem. One goal conflicts with another.

The missed opportunity of Formula E

I was struck by a tweet former F1 driver and current Formula E and World Endurance driver Lucas di Grassi published a few months ago.

Spark-Renault SRT 01 E (Formula E)

Formula E as a concept is welcome and required today. I was very excited before the first Formula E season began. But for me, and many others, it was a bit of a let down.

The racing hasn’t always been very exciting. Moreover, the cars look rather slow and clumsy. This is despite efforts to make them look quicker by putting them on twisty, narrow street circuits and using tight camera angles on TV coverage.

I have been enjoying the second season a lot more. The fact that teams can create their own powertrains has probably helped the racing.

Yet there are a few big niggles remaining with Formula E. Chief among them is the utterly odious fan boost concept, where the three drivers with the most votes on social media are given an artificial speed boost during the race. Any championship with such a rule can barely call itself a sport.

It will be interesting to see how Formula E evolves over the coming years. One thing seems certain. Formula E is not attracting anything like the audiences that Formula 1 currently gets. It seems unlikely it ever will — particularly if younger generations are fundamentally not interested in driving cars.

Roborace: The logical conclusion of technological advances

A photo posted by Roborace (@roborace) on

Formula E’s mooted support series, Roborace, looks set to be even more divisive. It will be a series for autonomous vehicles — driverless cars.

This is the logical conclusion of racing’s inherent reliance on technology. With driverless vehicles on our streets coming within touching distance, it is only natural we would want to race them too.

I have seen a lot of motorsport people making their displeasure about the concept known. But if people on the streets will soon be using them every day, the motorsport industry has to reflect that to remain relevant.

Whether a racing competition not involving drivers can be entertaining remains to be seen. For me, as someone with an interest in technology, artificial intelligence and driverless cars, I personally cannot wait to see how it shakes out.

Motorsport’s upcoming existential crisis

This all points to an uncertain future for motorsport. The automotive industry as a whole is about to be disrupted massively. That is bound to impact on motorsport.

Younger generations are losing interest in cars generally. Technology is bringing us to the stage where vehicles don’t need drivers. The technology we already have has been harming the entertainment factor of motorsport — arguably for the past few decades.

Motorsport will survive in some form or another. But it needs to work out what it stands for and why it exists. It’s going to be a bumpy few years for motorsport.

1 comment

  1. The powers-that-be did not allow the teams an acceptable alternative to the current qualifying format – they only allowed a choice of keeping the format as is or changing just Q3 back to 2015 format. The teams hated both options (with some differences as to which was less palatable), hence no change. (The team managers’ meeting that originally decided to go back to 2015 format was declared invalid by the FIA). That these were the only two options on the table is down to the FIA having sold control of certain governing powers to Bernie in exchange for 1% of the income from F1 back in late 2013, and Bernie having motive to look for his pockets first and everyone else’s interests not at all. (My strong suspicion, which fits the apparent facts, is that Bernie has decided to try cutting CVC out of the income equation by scuttling F1 and building a Bernie-controlled, FIA-kept-to-a-minimun, nobody-else-can-gainsay-Bernie series of “I can’t believe it’s not F1” in its place. Obviously if one does so, the last thing one wants is for the series to be replaced to be successful…

    It’s not so much a lack of unanimity as the FIA not behaving in the interests of the sport.

    F1 cannot be the most technologically advanced or the most entertaining, and for much of its time Indycar has in any case been faster. The problem is that the search for entertainment has made it much less entertaining, showing that the leadership cannot even achieve a goal it has expressed for itself. The hybrids used in F1 are years behind their WEC equivalents and, in certain configurations, even GP2 is now faster. When one considers that DRS “overtakes” are really one driver pressing a button to go faster than another, F1 not only puts its overtake rating in comparison to other motorsport but to computer games. If the average gamer can do more overtakes on an arcade racing game than F1 can do with DRS or similar “push-button-to-pass” techniques, it makes the computer games more compelling than the F1 from the perspective of overtakes. Plus arcade computer games tend to be cheaper than a Sky subscription…

    Not every modern technology has to be reflected for F1 to remain relevant. Otherwise F1 would have become outmoded with the banning of ABS brakes in 1993. Roborace feels more like the sort of split between horse racing and car racing than a separate “car racing” series, since an essential component of car racing – the person within it – is removed. It is more akin to remote control car racing. Just as horse racing is still relevant to a couple of million people for each major event (not least due to the betting scene), so car racing will still be a minority sport even in the coming decades, where Roborace has a plausible chance of taking WEC’s, WTCC’s and/or WRC’s. The thing is, Roborace can only replace F1 as the main sport involving cars in an era where computer programming is considered equal to humans. I’m sure, in the coming decades and centuries, that era will come. But until then, F1’s main problem is itself.

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