In one of his many polemics against life’s irritants, Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell rails against “opinionated weather forecasters telling me it’s going to be a miserable day”.
His reprise on A Country Practice, taken from the Four Lads That Shook The Wirral album, is scathing: “I quite like a bit of drizzle, so stick to the facts”. There is no evidence as to whether Nigel enjoys Formula One or not, but his words, in an unlikely happenstance that might perversely appeal to the great songsmith, seem curiously apt as the sport returns after the summer break this weekend at Spa.
For much of the opening 10 meetings this season, little but misery abounded, apparently. The word crisis was bandied around with careless abandon, and a variety of factors were called to account. The financial disparity between teams was looking to become untenable for the smaller outfits and vested interests among the big six meant a solution was not forthcoming, with even Bernie Ecclestone throwing up his hands and declaring himself powerless. Then, there was the Mercedes dominance that had allegedly turned the spectacle into, at worst, a procession, and at best, a two-horse race. While finally, and the most oft-quoted problem: attendances and viewing figures were down – F1, it was suggested, might be in terminal decline.
Of them all, the genuinely urgent threat is to the smaller teams. The sport requires a decent-sized grid to be credible, and at least 16 cars for FOM to meet its commercial obligations. Of five new teams to have entered since 2000, only Marussia is still there, clinging on for dear life, while Haas Racing will try its luck next year. The FIA has just rejected two new applications from unidentified teams to join F1 on the grounds of not meeting the criteria.
It does not take great imagination to surmise that part of this was an inability to prove long-term financial viability, with neither the FIA nor FOM wishing to repeat the public embarrassment of teams going under mid-season, as happened last year to Caterham and Marussia. In a difficult economic climate this puts an even greater emphasis on ensuring the likes of Force India and Sauber – two of the most vocal critics of the current structure – can continue. If F1 is going to have a properly miserable day, it is this that is going to cause it and hence it is the biggest challenge to the future of the sport.
The other issues are less clear cut, however. Of course, having several teams competing for the win, rather than Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in a race of their own, would be preferable. But it has ever been thus in F1. Occasional technical and driver dominance has long been a part of the sport – it is accepted by both teams and fans as part and parcel of the competition. To take two obvious and relatively recent examples, there was no such panic when Michael Schumacher was winning everything and then with compliant rather than competitive team-mates. Nor when McLaren’s MP4 won four titles on the trot including 15 from 16 races in 1988.
“We must work to catch Mercedes” is the refrain from the garages, while for those who follow the sport this situation is nothing new and there is still plenty to enjoy. The fight between Hamilton and Rosberg has been sanctioned by Mercedes – they are allowed to race – and over the past season and a half the proximity in performance between Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull and now also Toro Rosso, Lotus, Force India and Sauber has made for some thrilling midfield battles. Yes, the show needs competition out front, but many of us, it seems, can also enjoy a spot of drizzle.
The question, however, of how many are enjoying it is raised the most. The last two rounds at Silverstone and Hungary, after poor starts from Mercedes, resulted in absolutely cracking races. Suddenly the sun was shining on F1 again.
How quickly things change. But let’s stick to the facts. There is no escaping the fact that viewing figures are down. The FIA published numbers at the beginning of the year that confirmed a global fall from 600 million in 2008 to 450 million in 2013. That major drop, however, came about over a period when there was a switch to pay-per-view TV in many regions. Last year the total was a more stable 425 million. There is clearly work to be done here but hardly yet a crisis.
In the UK it is another story again. Contrary to what might be expected from what has been decried as a largely lacklustre season, the numbers are up. The BBC – which has shown only five races live thus far this season – has viewing figures for people watching for 15 minutes or more now at 21 million – 1 million up on this point last year. Their live peak at Canada was 5.5 million (up from 5.2 million in 2014) and Silverstone too was up from 4.3 million to 4.9 million. Then there was Hungary which, despite Sky suffering in the numbers game according to BARB figures (the broadcaster does not release them – due to its subscription-based model), took a combined peak audience of 5.98 million – that’s Celebrity Masterchef and not a mile off EastEnders territory.
Having a British world champion doubtless helps, but it also indicates quite how powerful free-to-air TV still is – even with only a highlights show – and that the sport is not necessarily on a downward trajectory. Even in race day attendances, as the Silverstone sellout this year proved – with proper marketing and some more realistic pricing (a factor Ecclestone could influence directly by dropping hosting fees) – people still want to come and watch the racing.
As they doubtless will here in Belgium. Enthusiasts from across Europe will arrive in force such is the draw of one of the classic tracks. I have come for years as a fan, to F1, sportscar racing across six hours and 24; just four hours from Calais with a following wind, to pitch tent at the Elephant campsite (basically, a farmer’s field with portashowers) alongside a huge, friendly and knowledgeable British contingent. Here great swathes of the old layout can still be driven as public roads and at the track, where accents from across the continent mingle, the challenge and atmosphere is truly special.
As it is at Silverstone and as it is at Suzuka. Should these greats disappear from the calendar, then it truly will be time to ring the crisis bell.
This article was written by Giles Richards, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 19th August 2015 18.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010