Motor sport fans often bemoan the loss of the spirit of Formula One. The heroic ideals of death or glory, sportsmanship over winning and David beating Goliath appear to have disappeared in the mists of time; and the reality is no amount of fiddling with regulations that fix the wheel rim sizes, create bigger diffusers, make engines louder and offer a wider range of tyre selections will return F1 to the rose tinted notions of yesteryear.
Having been introduced to Formula One during the seventies, I remember well the days before professionalism ruled the drivers’ roost. ‘Hunt the Shunt’ was frequently reported to be ‘off his face’ when arriving at a race circuit. I also remember the days before scientific pragmatism became the philosophy behind the lexicon for motor racing engineers and I erupted with joy watching a pesky ‘foreigner’ Ferrari’s burst into flames again and again. The 1980’s were about pushing the envelope, whatever the cost, the motto appeared to be ‘win or bust’.
From 1970 to 1980, 8 different drivers won the F1 championship. That number fell to 6 from 1980 to 1990 though improved marginally to 7 from 1990-2000. This was an F1 era where for the drivers, little appeared to be certain. Britain’s beloved Damon Hill finally won a his world title in 1996 in a dominant Williams, but was unceremoniously pitched over board by team owner Frank Williams for the following season – which by the way was won by another Williams’ driver, Jacques Villeneuve.
The 16 years since the turn of the millennium has yielded just 6 different Formula One champion drivers and given the best predictions for 2017, by the end of the season this may well be 6 drivers in 17 years. This is just one indicator of the predictability that has over time increasingly crept into the sport, something which frustrates the fans. Interestingly during these era’s, the constructors’ championship has offered up far less variety. Between 1970-80 there were five different winners; 1980-90 – 3; 1990-2000 – 4; 2000-2015 – 5. It’s probable that most non-Italian F1 fans care less about winning constructors than winning drivers.
One of the reasons for this decline in the variety of F1 driver champions is undeniably due to winning teams retaining drivers for longer in the modern era. During the 80’s and 90’s world champions were more frequently ditched and sometimes the very season following their victorious year. This is something that now is almost unthinkable.
The list of F1 statistics over the decades provides a plethora of examples to plot the ever-increasing predictability in Formula One, which maybe the readers would like to explore in the comments section.
Whilst the number of different driver champions has fallen, a glance at the constructors’ table of historical winners would suggest otherwise.
From 1970-1980 there were five different constructor winners, including one time champions Tyrell. From 1980 to 1990 this number was just 3 and from 1990-2000 there were four different winning constructors. Over the past 15 years, one time winners Brawn mean that in fact 5 different teams have won the constructors title.
The rise in F1’s predictability is blamed by many observers on the explosion in spending, though a glance at the variety of wining constructors since 1970 probably suggests this is too simplistic an explanation.
It does seem that expectations in F1 have changed, win or bust is no longer an acceptable attitude and the sight of a flaming Ferrari is now most rare indeed. It may be that the engineers are responsible for the philosophy of expedience and the endless pursuit of reliability – and Pat Symonds did recently confess that Williams may have won more races in 2014-15 had they been prepared to turn up, and possibly blow up their engines.
Yet it’s not just the engineers who have participated in the changing of the spirit of Formula One, the modern driver embodies this mentality too. Sebastian Vettel is today quoted by Bild as being optimistic for 2016 because, “No one expected three victories [in 2015]. Almost more important is the consistency that we had. This shows that we are on the right track.”
Really? So consistency is better than winning Seb? The mantra of the pragmatist appears to reign supreme.
Yet all is not lost. In terms of reliability, the MacHonda of 2015 was in fact a modern day representation of the ‘blazing inferno’s’ that were the Ferrari’s of the 1980’s. Part way through the season the Woking team and their Japanese engine partners decided they had nothing to lose and repeatedly upgraded the power unit in attempts to find the desperately needed solutions. Granted, this was no ‘win or bust’ mentality, rather more of a ‘finish or bust’ act of desperation.
Long in the tooth fans of Formula One may view the past decades through rose tinted spectacles but the death or glory mentality, which typified F1 in its early years, is for many thankfully consigned to the pages of history. If Formula One is to reinvent itself, of course the issues of despots, corporate bankers greed, weak leadership from the FIA, nepotism – and just about any other negative connotation we can lay at the feet of F1- should be resolved.
But despite all that, fundamentally, the sport needs to address the issue of predictability; most fans don’t want a Lewis’ Hamilton victory parade week in week out – neither one for Sebastian Vettel. So unpredictability needs to return to Formula One and in the modern world this can only happen if it is actively engineered somehow into the sport. Of course any solution must be explainable to the supporters as being fair and not purely contrived.
The new Pirelli tyre regulations may offer up some unpredictability for the first third of 2016. Though many F1 commentators believe this is at best a temporary solution in providing some unpredictability and the teams will quickly get on top of these regulations – and soon all be doing the same thing again.
Until predictability in Formula One is properly addressed, attendances and viewing numbers will in all likelihood continue on their downward spiral.
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity” – Gilda Radner