Brought to you by John Myburgh
In the short time between FP3 and Qualifying, Team Principals are usually engaged in frenetic activity which includes final preparations for their cars and drivers, along with pressing the flesh of important sponsors. So when Bernie calls an emergency meeting for the top brass in F1, something big is afoot.
The most likely rumour fitting this extra-ordinary event was that Ecclestone had reconsidered his position on racing in Russia. This was not to be the case.
In fact, the topic of the meeting was no surprise to anyone in the end in that it was Bernie banging the drum and rousing the troops for more spicing up of what he now calls, “the show”.
What was a big deal, was that Ecclestone was insisting the teams accept his decision to recall disgraced former team boss who was found guilty of race rigging – Flavio Briatore.
The F1 supremo has become obsessed with this issue because as the year unfolds, the fall in the global TV audience continues and the recent collapse in attendance numbers at the German GP have highlighted the fact that people are turning off to F1 and the sport is failing to attract a new audience.
It appears that Briatore will be joined by Christian Horner, Marco Mattiacci and Toto Wolff and form an F1 ‘popularity working group’. Wolff explains, “A couple of guys will sit together [to work out what to do], because it’s difficult to do when you invite everybody and come up with priorities and solutions.”
Speaking to a smattering of F1 writers, Wolff added “We’ll probably get you guys involved to avoid the situation last time when you found our ideas really s***! So that’s the procedure”.
Following Christian Horner’s little outburst when he lectured F1 reporters about being negative, this is clearly the buzz word of the moment. Wolff insists, “It wasn’t a negative meeting, we have seen some great racing and some packed race tracks, at Austria, Montreal and Silverstone.
But then we have seen smaller audiences here and at Hockenheim – why is that? So we’re going to come together and come up with ideas.”
Flavio has been chunnering away in the background for some time about ways to improve the current F1 show, and one of his ideas includes a ballast handicap system, whereby the faster/winning cars will receive a weight penalty to the playing field.
One individual who was at the meeting, revealed off the record, the ballast idea had found a surprising level of approval from those present.
Meanwhile, the BBC recently reported that in Asia, technology has been developed which will deliver virtual fans to venues lacking in attendees and atmosphere.
Fan Robots are in the pipeline for a Korean baseball team who can cheer, chant and even perform a Mexican wave. The robots can be operated by real fans over the internet, and even the face of the bot can reflect the face of the fan operating the machine.
There is an opportunity to monetarise the army of robot fans, as real fans can pay to operate a bot for a sections of the sporting event, then handing over to others ready to pay based upon simple supply and demand.
Of course, no one is certain how misbehaving robots, getting abusive, drunk and throwing food will be handled yet. The spectre of the robot hooligan does indeed loom large on the horizon.
Then again, if fanbots are recruited for Formula 1, we may see what would have been an empty grandstand filled with an army of mechanised fans holding up different messages from Ecclestone. “Bernie says…”
There was a recent move in Japan to develop technology which could re-create live matches using holographic technology in other locations. It would mean, in theory, that several stadiums full of fans could be watching the same match at once.
The development of the technology was halted when the brown envelopes under the cushions of the FIFA delegates seats, meant that Qatar beat Japan in their bid to host the 2012 Football World Cup.
This persistent debate over the F1 “show” and fans race attendance is absurd, particularly when hundreds of man hours and millions of wasteful words merely result in ideas such as double points, trumpet exhausts and now a weighting handicap system.
F1 is being run by fools because the answers to the problems of falling fan numbers are simple.
Two years ago, fans could attend a race weekend and hire FanVision. This gave the viewer a mobile hand held device which delivered commentary and pictures for all of the on track action.
Ecclestone refused to extend the FanVision contract, believing FOM would be delivering a solution which would create a direct and more profitable revenue stream.
However, Tata communications have not yet delivered the blanket WIFI transmission technology at F1 circuits yet, so the planned mobile device application to replace FanVision has been neutered.
Within a short time, every premier league club will be offering this technology to football fans according to BBC Sports business correspondent Matt Cutler.
Hardcore fans will attend F1 racing with or without FanVision or whatever one day will be its replacement. However, FanVision had become very popular with a significant section of race going fans and anecdotal evidence this writer has seen, suggests most of these folk are staying away from F1.
Further, a TJ13 representative speaking to a senior individual from Santander at the British GP was told they had struggled to fill their huge corporate ticket allocation and the biggest complaint from guests the previous year was the loss of FanVision.
Of course the escalating cost of attending an F1 race hits everyone, and this too is preventing F1 fans from enjoying their sport in person.
Yet the single biggest reason F1 is losing ground in TV land, has been the move from free to air TV to subscription based channels.
BSkyB’s recent acquisition of Rupert Murdoch’s pay-TV assets in Italy and Germany, Sky Italia and 57.4% of Sky Deutschland, created a European powerhouse with c20 million subscribers.
One London City analyst commented that this would mean BSkyB would be well placed to buy broadcasting rights on a pan-European basis if that ever replaces the current country-by-country basis.
This could clearly affect Formula 1 TV audiences if the UK fall in viewing numbers is replicated since SKY UK obtained the rights to broadcast all races exclusively.
The return of Briatore to F1 will have a ‘marmite’ effect on F1 fans. Some will appreciate the return of Flavio’s flamboyant character, whilst others will question the wisdom of giving responsibility to a man who was found guilty of corrupting the field of competition.
F1 is facing dangerous time as the commercial rights holder’s CVC realise they have extracted the maximum value from their investment and want out. The perception that F1 revenues have reached a high water mark under Ecclestone’s current business plan is widespread. However, this has led to the senior figures of the sport acting like headless chickens as they lurch from one “sh^t idea” – Toto’s words – to another.
There is an obvious and simple 5 plan solution to an F1 future of unfettered joy and harmony, which is blindingly obvious.
Until then, our heroes will ‘think tank’ themselves silly and bring on the trumpeting exhausts, exploding sparks, probably quadruple points, Azerbaijan, the handicap ballast and maybe next the Hanwha Eagles Fanbots…… the list, whilst not quite endless, appears to grow by the week.