“Decline” is never a good word to see attached to anything one loves.
The tone in the F1 paddock this weekend is one of soul-searching, as people speak openly of a sport “in decline” and requiring a root and branch refresh.
This has been triggered by the latest intervention from Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo, who has called for a summit meeting to discuss the future direction of the sport.
“Formula One isn’t working,” he told the Wall Street Journal last week. “It’s declining because [the FIA] have forgotten that people watch the racing for the excitement. Nobody watches racing for the efficiency.”
Although the Ferrari boss has “cried wolf” many times, there is growing traction for the idea that F1 needs a rethink.
Yesterday in the FIA drivers’ press conference, six current F1 drivers engaged with the idea, largely agreed that the sport needs a refresh and even proposed ideas as to how to improve things, taking ideas from other series. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso called for fans to make suggestions.
The general dissatisfaction is not new – people always have complaints whether it be overtaking, the design of the cars, the lack of access to drivers, DRS or many other factors.
Before the season started F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone was talking down his own product, criticising the show and especially the hybrid turbos for lacking soul and making the racing too confusing. Montezemolo lambasted the sport in Bahrain – ironically just a few hours before one of the most exciting races for years.
Montezemolo’s words are undermined by the perception that he wouldn’t be saying these things if Ferrari were winning, while cynics see some plot in Ecclestone’s words to drive down the share value of the sport so he can pull off some financial masterstroke.
But CVC, the majority shareholders, are too smart for that. They know they have a very valuable asset, but one that needs to be steered in the correct direction for the future. At present we have nothing but negativity coming from leading figures, talking the sport down.
Nevertheless momentum for change is palpably building; this time the soul searching seems seems to be biting more deeply.
It’s not just about engine noise and confusing the public, it’s about the whole premise of understating where this elite global motor sport series is going wrong; put simply why viewer numbers are dropping and why the under 25s are not engaging with it, raising the question of where the future audience will come from.
The answer, as everyone knows, lies in the digital world, in social media and mobile platforms. But it’s much more complex than that. It requires promotion in key markets, it needs drivers to put far more effort into building up their profiles in their own countries and also in ones which do not have their own driver, to attract in new and younger audiences.
But to make meaningful change and set a plan, you have to start from a first premise and the problem is that no-one can agree what that first premise is. F1 is a sport of perpetual change and flux. Where is the starting point?
Some would argue – as the drivers did yesterday, that the starting point is cost. It’s ludicrous for teams to spent €200 million a year, when Marussia can go racing perfectly well with €50 million. There must be a figure below €100m which the teams could get to. But the top teams have blocked efforts to rationalise and the deadline of June 30 is fast approaching for cost control measures which can take effect next year. Small and medium sized teams feel they are being led, powerless, towards some form of customer car situation.
The FIA president Jean Todt has tried this year to drive through meaningful cost controls, but with 10 days until the deadline, the signs are that this will not happen.
Today in Austria, the subject will be front of mind as six of the team bosses will discuss this topic in the second FIA press conference. It will be worth keeping an eye on.
What is interesting here is that Montezemolo’s intervention is not one of his occasional salvoes; there is a feeling it is more co-ordinated than that, with Ecclestone in the loop and Todt’s FIA the target.
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