By its very nature, grand prix racing is artificial.
In what other sport does the equipment matter as much as, or perhaps more than, the competitor? Lionel Messi does not owe his status as the world’s greatest footballer to a particularly well-designed pair of boots, just as Usain Bolt is not the fastest man of all time because his shorts are the most aerodynamic. They are simply the best in their respective sports, but the best racing driver won’t necessarily take the F1 title. It will be the best combination of driver and car.
And that’s fine. The majority of Formula One fans enjoy the fact that both man and machine must achieve unified perfection to conquer the world championship. If you want to watch one-make racing there are Volkswagen Sciroccos aplenty at your local track.
But in recent years Formula One has made a number of changes that some people believe are eroding its sporting values and turning it into a cheap-thrills light-entertainment package.
And worryingly, despite widespread fan disapproval, they look set to make even more.
Late last year it was announced that the 2014 season finale in Abu Dhabi would be worth double points – 50 for first, 36 for second, and so on. There are two reasons behind this: it is a means to keep the world title alive until the final race; and it is an incentive for people to watch Abu Dhabi, which pays many millions to host a grand prix but tends to produce a very average contest, and thus attracts a so-so TV audience.
Most fans agree that double points is a bad joke, with a survey conducted by the popular F1 Fanatic website finding that 91% of readers did not support the change. Despite this and plenty of other calls to drop the idea, F1 will go ahead with it anyway. Why? To improve the show for the fans. The same fans who think the idea is a farce.
Permanent driver numbers were also implemented for 2014. There’s nothing wrong with this as such, but it feels like another move to distract the audience from the real problems. It might have made more sense if teams were told to ensure the numbers were clearly visible on the cars, but at the moment they seem to be doing their best to hide them.
DRS also continues to leave a bad taste in the mouth, but it’s now been around for so long that it is, sadly, becoming part of the furniture. Still, it is boring. DRS passes lack excitement as they usually involve one car cruising past another on a straight. It has also destroyed the art of defensive driving. Keeping another car behind, despite it being quicker, is a tremendous skill, but since the introduction of DRS it has become near impossible, no matter how good the defending driver is. Remember Fernando Alonso keeping Michael Schumacher behind during the closing laps of the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix? There was no overtake, but it was still a fantastic conclusion to the race. DRS on the other hand does nothing to improve the spectacle.
Yes, the spectacle. Apparently it’s not good enough, and that is why the F1 Commission is looking for yet more ways to ‘spice up the show’. Hamilton and Rosberg going toe to toe for the win in Bahrain and Spain? Not good enough. Daniel Ricciardo’s late charge to a maiden victory in Canada? Terribly boring. Marussia finally breaking their points duck in Monaco? That put people to sleep.
Firstly they plan to create sparks - literally - by fitting titanium skid blocks underneath the cars. Sparking cars were a feature of the eighties and early nineties and were undeniably a great sight – at the time.
But dipping back into the past and artificially recreating it in the modern day is a lazy, shallow way to improve your product. It is like a TV show reviving a popular character from its past in a flimsy new storyline. It is patronising to suggest that fans will enjoy F1 more because of some brightly-coloured sparks, begging the question of how much credit the commission gives its audience.
Which brings us to the new-for-2015 safety car rules. As of next year, drivers will form up on the grid at the end of a safety car period and the race will restart in the same way that it begins.
Perhaps this is something that Formula One fans want, but if they do they’ve kept it very quiet. The current safety car rules are fine; if anything, this new format would encourage more accidents and thus yet more safety car periods, which would be incredibly tedious to watch. Admittedly the safety car creates an artificial leveller anyway - it cuts the leader’s advantage significantly - but by completing another standing start you punish them even further and in a wholly contrived way. It meddles with the competitive element in what some would feel to be an unacceptable manner.
F1 seems to have its sights fixed on fans who have almost no attention span, zero interest in long-form stories, and a constant thirst for action. As it pushes ever harder for this audience, the sport is in danger of alienating its core followers. There are plenty of other great racing series out there. It isn’t just Ferrari who are casting eyes towards Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship – fans are drifting that way too. The WEC allows a story to unfold over several hours of racing, while Formula One is becoming a succession of short bursts that do not form a cohesive narrative. Viewers with a short attention span cannot be kept entertained for long anyway. Sooner or later they will drift away to something else.
Fans aren’t the only ones being forced out. This month Adrian Newey, the most successful designer in modern F1, announced that he will scale back his involvement with the Red Bull team as of next season.
Newey is a creative genius, but the increasing restrictions on the sport's technical regs have undoubtedly played a part in his decision to reduce his involvement in F1. He has said as much. When you force one of the most gifted car designers in racing history out of the sport it is a sign that you’re getting something horribly wrong.
Aside from NASCAR, which has adopted a ludicrous new championship format for 2014, no other series is embracing such shallow, gimmicky ideas. And who knows, maybe F1 will head that way soon, too.
Perhaps the F1 Commission should cast its eye over Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor's New Clothes. Because if they do not put more thought into the direction they are taking the sport, Formula One may suddenly find itself standing naked in front of a laughing global audience.