The drivers must again become the stars of Formula One rather than the boffins who now dominate the sport, says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery, whose contract as F1’s tyre supplier expires at the end of 2016.
“We have a sport which is very much dominated by technology. But I’d like to see the drivers positioned so that they are the kings, the stars who people are following and looking up to.”
Pirelli view F1 as the pinnacle of their involvement in more than 250 championships in 54 countries, and it is their position as a major sponsor, as well as the people who supply the rubber, which lends resonance to Hembery’s voice.
Ferrari’s success at the Malaysian Grand Prix has persuaded no one that Formula One is no longer in crisis, with declining viewing figures, collapsing sponsorships and more than half the teams in a dire financial position As the sport prepares for the third race of the season in China on Sunday Hembery said: “I’d like to see the drivers becoming the heroes. The fans want a hero. They want an iconic person to follow. And they want to know that when driver X is winning he’s actually making a difference.
“When people sit in a bar and watch Lewis Hamilton win a race they think great, but they also think that five other drivers in that Mercedes car could have done the same job, and that is a shame.”
Hembery also wants the drivers to become more accessible, and cites a recent speedway event he attended in Las Vegas. “The garages at the back of the pits had glass windows, so the fans were looking into the garages, and they also had a window which slid open at the back of the garage and the stars were giving autographs. And this was an event that had 100,000 people, so people can’t say more people go to F1.”
Hembery says that Nascar should be the model for F1. “In Nascar the driver is the king. Even the guy at the bottom is a superstar with a multi-million dollar contract. I would love to see our drivers held in that esteem. In F1 the driver has to become an international superstar, like David Beckham. But we’ve got drivers who don’t understand why it’s crap to change a helmet every race, and moan and bitch about it.
“Everyone knows an iconic driver’s helmet, going back to Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna. It’s part of their identity, because fans can’t see them with their hats on. So it was a very good thing telling them to register a helmet design and keep with it.”
In Malaysia Bernie Ecclestone met with teams in an attempt to make changes. F1’s chief executive talked about mixing up the grid positions, the use of sprinklers and double points for the last three races. Hembery would go further. “I thought qualifying on Friday night was a good idea, so you can actually win something, and the promoters have something to sell. And maybe a sprint race on the Saturday, an extra product, so Saturday fans actually see a result and podium places.”
He added: “It’s not for us to tell people what should change, and how it should change, but change is needed. We’re anxious to understand what’s going to happen in 2017, when we will be looking at a new contract. We’d like to see what the plan is. We are in the entertainment business. Some people get ruffled by that idea, but if we don’t entertain people don’t watch us, and then the sponsors won’t come, and the cycle continues.
“The current business model is clearly not working for enough people. Change is needed and the current mechanism for change is very cumbersome and very slow. We’ve got too many people with different vested interests. Someone has got to put a marker in the ground and say this is it. We can’t spend another year going round in circles trying to find the big compromise.”
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