I chose of course to open my rant (and yes, this will be a rant!) on the degree of entertainment we are seeing in F1 with a very famous quote from the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe. Standing in the center of the arena after a massive amount of bloodshed in a minimum amount of time, he exclaims: “Are you not entertained?!”, leaving the crowd slightly puzzled before they start cheering him on even stronger. It’s the feeling I get after the Miami Grand Prix and Baku…where spectacle on and off track or lack thereof have sparked debate on the attractiveness of the F1 viewing experience.
The boring Baku debacle
After a spring holiday that separated the first three races of the ’23 season from the Baku weekend by a whopping 4 weeks due to the cancelation of the Chinese Grand Prix, we were yearning for some action. What we got was an action-packed Azerbaijan, where a full Saturday ‘Mini Prix’ was crammed into a weekend format with Friday qualifying for the Sunday Grand Prix. The result? A race on Sunday that was as ‘mheh’ as they come. Red Bull dominant, top 6 or 8 hardly surprising and very little on track battles worth remembering if it wasn’t for the Saturday incident between ‘Princess’ George and a pretty mad Max.
The support races were much more exciting, but I will forgive anyone for not watching those if you have any kind of personal or family life. How many live sessions can you digest on any given weekend? F1 is taking the risk of drowning out attention for feeder series (F2, F3 and arguably F1 Academy) by making F1 omni-available, 23 weekends per season (or 30 if Domenicali has his way). And if they feel this increases viewership: 3 days of ‘sessions that really matter’. Never mind that the teams have to get a very complex machine tuned in to varying track circumstances in one FP session, having to guess track evolution and tire wear. If you feel F1 should just be random entertainment, you’re being served. If you feel the pinnacle of motorsport was about perfecting the balance between man and machine to come close to 100% performance, you’re cheated out of the last 5 to 10%. Why? Because teams just don’t have the time to finetune and can’t afford to gamble, It’s about putting the car down on the track and finding a fast compromise.
The argument for the action-packed Baku schedule was that viewers find Free Practice boring. That’s true for many of them, I guess. But I fnd warm ing-up boring when going to a soccer match and they never skipped that and went straight into the game. Professional fighters spar and train months in the lead-up to a fight. Boring. They should announce the match and make them go straight into the ring. You get my point: saying that practice and perfecting your craft is boring to watch, is not taking the athletes (and in this case the engineers too), seriously.
Another day in paradise
Anyway, Miami took entertainment in a different direction. It is, as I like to paraphrase Counting Crows, where they faked paradise and repaved a parking lot. I struggle to comprehend how F1 wants to be net zero emissions by 2030 if they purpose build a track for a single weekend, including a plastic ocean. Miami was all about the who-is-who of showbiz, sports and entertainment showing up. No support races from F2 or F3 that could distract from the main event for viewers around the globe. It was about the Roger Federers of this world…and the embarrassment of the legendary Jackie Stewart having to fight through security guards to go fetch him so Brundle could have two words from him. Martin Brundle, who was once again ignored by most of the celebs he wanted to speak to, but who seem more interested in other A-list celebs than in the drivers or sport. Here’s a Miami ‘24 idea: organize am Oscar-like red carpet moment with the journalists and walk the celebs out to the grid through there, so they know they are expected to actually talk to the press who is lined up there. Good stuff for the tabloids, undoubtedly. As an F1 fan, I truly couldn’t care less which ignorant influencer or slightly overrated sports superstar they drag out there. I get the cross-over effect these appearances have and how it might attract new viewers. Great. Don’t make it interfere with the race-prep!
Did the race live up to the pre-race hype?
Several hours before the race, we had a traditional driver presentation in classic cars for grandstands that were once again not even half full. For a sold-out weekend with crazy ticket (and catering!) prices, you might expect people to try and be in their seats and actually catch a glimpse of what’s-his-name from who’s-that-team. But luckily, just before they went racing, the drivers were brought out again. This time for a Made-in-the-USA presentation requiring a huge build-up of a stage-entrance on the grid, seating for an impressive orchestra directed by Will.I.Am and driver intro’s hosted by ringmaster LL Cool J. Some say it was a bit cringe, but I get the fact you want to present the gladiators to the crowd one last time before they go and do their thing. It fits the gladiator theme of this column nicely too. It’s just not the optimal build-up to the optimal performance. Entertainment should be what the sport produces, not be produced at the peril of the sport. Which seems to be just the point the drivers made in their sit-down with the FIA, disgruntled as they were to not have been consulted on either the decision to do this extra appearance, or for the shortening of the DRS zones.
The latter proved to be a pretty good decision. Larger DRS zones were not required, and many passes actually demanded drivers make an outbreaking move to complete. That’s what you like to see. Not just a straight line overtake, but some fuss about which line to take into a corner. Maybe cutting back on the next one or following into another DRS-zone. The racing on Sunday in Miami was therefore pretty widely criticized for reasons that I do not fully comprehend.
How many races a year do we see:
- A championship leader having to battle from P9 to the front
- Different strategies playing out in a rather surprising way
- 3 wide overtaking moves on start-finish
- A Haas starting P4 and battling a Ferrari like there’s no tomorrow
- A 7-time WDC being asked to let his teammate pass
- Teammates fighting over P1 just laps from the finish
- All car’s but two finishing in the same lap
The tires that don’t get tired
If we should lay blame for a slightly predictable end, it would be Verstappen’s brilliant performance, assuring another Red Bull 1-2 result. However we could also be pointing a finger at Pirelli. It is not normal that a Medium tire lasts about 10 laps in Baku and 15 to 20 in Miami, with Hards actually being able to go the whole race distance. Max was flying in Miami, but it’s not normal to be putting in fastest lap after fastest lap on 40 laps old hards when your teammate can hardly match them on the same compound that’s 20 laps fresher. The Hards just simply have no drop-off, killing any alternative tire strategy. It was Medium-Hard for the top 7 to make a good impression off the line, and a few Hards from there down the grid for the drivers out of position. And then there was the Big Bet from McLaren, who were maybe confusing Miami with Las Vegas by gambling on a gain of places at the start and a really quick shift to the Hards, maybe under red or SC. There was however never any pace in the car. Piastry had loads of issues o manage on board and Lando got rear-ended by a disastrous De Vries. Still, nobody DNF-ed, no mayor crashes and no (other) impressive screw-ups.
Perfection isn’t entertaining
It comes down to the simple fact that a job really well done rarely attracts attention. It’s problem-free and looks almost straightforward. Max made coming from 9th look easy, even though the last time anybody went from exactly P9 to a win was Lauda in ’84. Red Bull makes a 2.2 second stop for Perez seem routine. Doesn’t even get noticed. Alonso’s podium was actually his 4th in 5 races and him doing some live TV commentary on his teammate’s pass proved just how on top of his own race he was. It was worth a giggle or two. The Merc’s went 4th and 6th almost unnoticed, even though Lewis did get asked to let George, who outqualified him for the 4th time, pass him in the race. On any normal day, we would find this a more than acceptable race. Maybe not a classic, but a big step up from the 45-overtake snoozefest Miami actually was last year. But well-executed races and overtakes are apparently not entertaining us anymore. We need more. And we need it now. And so the search for ever more entertainment will go on, under the inspired leadership of Liberty Media and Domenicali.
Something tells me that the more they search for it, the less we’ll get it. More races means less development time and crucially also less budget to bring updates to cars. The Mini Prix sprint weekends make for safe bets on setup and favor big teams with good sim-capabilities. Experienced drivers will do better than rookies, which is great if the really good guys can go until they’re in their mid 40’s. Because we’ll still have only 10 teams (remember: sharing is not in F1’s vocabulary….), there’s maybe room for one rookie every year. That is, if a retiree isn’t asked to come back because of their great marketability. So the feeder series get crowded out by all the live F1 and many will be wondering where that next rookie actually came from. Maybe they’ll even have to do a nice pre-race presentation by then, so we’ll know who that guy or girl is and can relate to them. I can’t wait… (for some common sense to kick in).