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Formula 1

The perilous balancing act F1 risks getting wrong

by Edd Straw
9 min read

The battle between sport and entertainment ended long ago. A truce was called and a mutually-beneficial peace agreed to create what has mostly been a win-win relationship.

But as the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Prix proved, the clash of cultures that results from seeing sport as an entertainment product can occasionally be disastrous.

Sport, certainly in its big-time, mega-money, globally-consumed form – and that includes Formula 1 as the pinnacle of motorsport – craves eyeballs. And by buying into the need to be a form of entertainment, it gets the attention its business model requires. We have long since been in a boom for the sport/entertainment alliance.

Those eyeballs are valuable because they are connected, via the optic nerve, to the brain. The brain can then decide to spend money on the sport in question, whether it’s directly or indirectly. There are countless ways to do that ranging from the most traditional, say buying a ticket to watch, to the cutting edge for those who embrace the world of non-fungible tokens and the like.

The more entertaining it is, the more people spend.

Dec 12 : Abu Dhabi Grand Prix review

People wanting sport to be entertaining isn’t new in itself. Nobody sits down to watch a grand prix not hoping that it’s going to be a thriller. But the difference between an entertaining sport and sport as entertainment is the latter needs to guarantee drama to keep those eyeballs.

So for those running it, it’s not simply about being the custodians of a great sport, but ensuring your offering gets bigger and better with every passing year and has an appeal far beyond the ‘hardcore fans’.

The change can be insidious. When did the phrase ‘spice up the show’ and its variants become part of the F1 paddock dialogue? That need to deliver excitement arose as F1 grew as a television product through the 1980s and the idea of it as a ‘show’ seemed to take root through the 1990s.

Purely from a personal perspective, it feels like this became even more important in the first decade of the century to the point where it almost became the be-all and end-all.,

Liberty Media, Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA, teams, drivers, promoters, engineers – everyone has played a part in shaping modern F1 into this show.

Media outlets, The Race included, play their part too, as do the fans who flock to social media to condemn both dull races and perceived outrages where things were at the other end of the scale. Everyone is complicit, primarily because it’s the way of the world but also because we all want F1 to thrive.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship United States Grand Prix Qualifying Day Austin, Usa

And this is where the problem arises. Many of the big missteps in F1’s recent history have been rooted in this desire to improve the show.

Elimination qualifying in 2016 is the classic example of this. It proved to be spectacularly ill-advised and not thought through. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of how F1 works, in particular the tyres and ERS, could have predicted how it would play out despite claims you have to try things to see if they work. And even if it had worked, in a hypothetical world where it was possible to run a series of laps at 100% pace, it would have moved too far away from the purpose of qualifying.

Sports are by definition artificial. They exist in the real world and are subject to the laws of physics, but they are built on a framework of rules and regulations that are created.

The idea is that these rules create a fair sporting battleground where what happened is unpredictable and rooted in reality. But we can’t rely on that to guarantee entertainment. If that was the case, Nicholas Latifi would have crashed on cue a lap or two earlier.

There’s also the problem that controversy is actually a good thing for the sport as entertainment. Four days after the Abu Dhabi GP, what happened is still a massive talking point and despite much of this being criticism, that’s good news for the social media metrics and holding the fickle attention of a global audience.

F1 is not scripted. And while the conclusion of the Abu Dhabi GP was rendered ridiculous by poor management of the race, it was not a fix even if it did create a situation that favoured Max Verstappen. But the mistakes made late in that race appear to be a direct consequence of FIA race director Michael Masi having the ‘the show’ in mind.

Ensuring the race restarts if possible is on the right side of the line. Nobody likes to see races finishing under the safety car except those who benefit from it, so provided the correct processes are followed and it’s done in a safe way, there’s no problem there. After all, restarts taking too long has been criticised in the past.

The smoking gun that reveals race control was a little too mindful of the show was the message at 18:27 stating “lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake” being followed four minutes later by one stating that five lapped cars – the ones getting in the way of potential last-lap drama – would be allowed to overtake.

Given the laps left, the first instruction was the sensible one, and either Masi should have stuck with that or just got on with letting all the lapped cars out of the way earlier. The other alternative was to accept there wasn’t time to get all of this done and allow the race to finish under the safety car.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew tweeted after this that “this is what happens when a sport decides to turn itself into scripted entertainment. Rules stop being rules, The only guiding principle is what sells the product”.

He was absolutely on the money, but it goes beyond that. While the outcome itself is not pre-ordained, the odds are rigged in favour of a highly-storied race or championship by the very way that the rules are written.

A pure sporting competition will frame the rules to create a level playing field, understandable and clear rules of engagement and ways to penalise those who transgress. But the need for entertainment is why measures such as the recently-introduced standing restart exist.

Before that, the restart happened under the safety car. From a sporting perspective, that is surely the fairest way to do it as it at least preserves the running order, even if the hard-earned gaps are lost.

So this drive for entertainment is baked into the rules. There are many cogent arguments why the race should have been red-flagged to avoid the controversy, but that would have reset the race and was not necessary because the Latifi accident did not justify it. So that would have been a sport as entertainment decision to do so.

At Mugello last year, the timing of the safety car lights being extinguished became a talking point amid suspicions it was being left late deliberately to make the restarts a bit more exciting and unpredictable. This contributed to the most unpredictable restart of them all, with a big accident causing another red flag.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Race Day Mugello, Italy

Consider the motivation of so many recent changes. The rule forcing the 10 fastest qualifiers to start on the Q2 tyres that they set their best laptime on? Entertainment. The requirement to run different tyre compounds? Entertainment. The DRS? Entertainment. Fastest lap point? Entertainment. The list goes on and on. This is not an argument to make grand prix racing as arcane, technical or dull as possible, simply to understand the power the entertainment imperative has wielded in recent times.

Abu Dhabi is also a timely reminder that manufactured drama is a dangerous road to go down. At times, the Netflix Drive to Survive series has strayed in this direction with the way certain incidents and rivalries are portrayed.

I’ve criticised that before and the consensus in response appears to be that because it brings in new fans, it’s a positive and that I should not be discouraging that. That’s a problematic argument.

New fans are unquestionably a good thing – come one come all -, but why sell them something that isn’t true? At heart, sport sells because it is reality. And it’s essential that is held onto. F1 does not lack amazing stories to tell, so why create some narratives that come out of the reality TV playbook?

That anything can happen in F1 and it usually does, to paraphrase Murray Walker, is an essential part of that appeal. But it’s gripping precisely because it can be dull. Not every ‘episode’ of F1 will deliver a cliffhanger, a shock revelation or some special guest star, but some will. That’s what separates a sport from a soap opera.

F1 is a long way from going the full WWE route, but the Abu Dhabi GP is a warning. And the controversy is about far more than simply who won the world championship, or indeed Michael Masi’s role as race director.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

Masi is not directing a film, he is directing a race. And F1 as a wider entity should let the race director do their job without worrying about the entertainment value. And there are external pressures that create that, which played into what happened in Abu Dhabi. Included in that is the knowledge that there would have been criticism if such an eagerly-anticipated grand prix had ended under the safety car even if the battle at the front was already effectively over.

The rules and regulations must be followed correctly because, without that, you no longer have a sport. Teams and drivers can push the limits because that’s their job, but not race control. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s difficult to see Masi remaining as F1’s race director after this, but while the sport as entertainment narrative would be well served by him carrying the can alone that wouldn’t solve the wider problem.

That’s not to suggest Masi didn’t make an error given the regulation on the timing of the safety car coming into the pits the lap after lapped cars are let past is emphatic, or that he should avoid taking any responsibility, but one act of bloodletting leaves systemic problems intact.

F1 has come a long way under Liberty Media and the collaboration with the FIA has been encouraging. But it’s essential that the regulator is allowed first and foremost to regulate.

The key part of the FIA’s job is good governance and administration, something that Liberty Media as the commercial rights holder also needs to recognise.

They need to work together, but with the commercial rights holder focusing on F1 as entertainment and the FIA on F1 as a sporting entity.

Motorsport is a complicated business given the machinery involved and the regulations are always going to require constant evolution. What’s more, there’s nothing wrong with shaping those rules to ensure an equitable battleground that should lend itself to exciting racing because without that F1 would be far worse off and a well-structured, well-formulated sporting contest should be entertaining.

But those rules should be followed, those administering the race should be able to focus on doing their jobs properly without pressure to engineer drama – or the baying of team bosses in their ears.

What’s more, the watching world also – media included – has to accept that sometimes this means a race might end under the safety car, and that the dramatic climax isn’t guaranteed. Even if it does sometimes mean fewer eyeballs.

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