Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, as the saying goes. Many issues swirl around modern F1, but there is a theme that runs through all of them, and with it the whirlwind turns suddenly into a stick of rock. The sense that things in this sport aren’t what they once were, and for the worse, is everywhere you go right now.
Literally, it seems. It was even on full show in recent days and weeks with what you’d have thought would be the rather inoffensive matter of the annual round of pre-season car launches. The F1 launch has changed, as time was they were grand – McLaren inviting the Spice Girls along to serenade at its new mount in 1997 springs to mind of course, as does quintessentially Benetton’s antics in Sicily in 1996.
It was something that fell by the wayside in the sport’s drive for cost saving in the late noughties, and now launches are far more austere. Many teams indeed make do with rolling the car out of the garage on a cold morning of the opening day of testing, to be greeted by whichever photographers and journos had chosen to gather, or even just with publishing a few images of the new machine online. And judging by comments I’ve encountered lately many miss the grandiose old days.
In some senses they have a point. Quite why Renault chose to do its much-heralded launch marking its return as a constructor with neither the new car nor the livery it would use in the first race is anyone’s guess. And why so many teams ‘launch’ in effect on the first test’s opening day rather than do something separate a few days before and therefore ensure undivided media attention is beyond my naïve understanding also. As has been pointed out it’s absurd that a sport as PR-obsessed as F1 – PR staff putting digital recorders under drivers’ noses every time they open their mouths and all – in fact often gives the impression that it does not understand PR’s most basic rules.
Yet I’m old enough to remember those days of dry ice-fest launches that are being harked back to now, and at the time they were far from universally popular. Mainly on the grounds of them being viewed as ostentatious; triumphs of style over substance.
I’m old enough to remember those days of dry ice-fest launches that are being harked back to now, and at the time they were far from universally popular.
Here’s the view of legendary scribe Nigel Roebuck in 2001 on the very subject, summing up the view: “As a rule of thumb, it has often seemed to me, the more elaborate the wedding the more short-lived the marriage, and it’s an impression I have long had, too, when it comes to F1 launches. Times without number, we’ve had the fanfare, the cabaret, the dry ice, the interminable speeches, after which the covers are pulled from some vehicle which then goes on to score five World Championship points, or something. On not a few occasions, one has wondered if the money squandered on the launch might not have been better spent on making the car a bit quicker.”
Further as if to prove the inverse relationship of style and substance, the hardy perennials and then habitual title-baggers of Williams would then, almost alone, still make do with the sort of ‘rolling the car out of the garage on a cold morning of the opening day of testing’ that we see so regularly today.
“The other extreme has always been Williams” Roebuck went on in 2001. “Frank [Williams] and Patrick [Head] are no-nonsense individuals, in whose world PR stands first for ‘Pure Racers’. When they launch a new car, it tends to be pleasingly haphazard, along the lines of, ‘Well, there’s the car, and if anyone wants to talk to us about it, we’re here, sort of thing’. For years and years, they would do that – and then go off and win the first race.
“There are echoes here of the late John Cooper, and it’s an attitude I like, not least because it always suggests to me that at Williams they have their priorities right.”
As Baz Luhrmann said cynically in ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)’, nostalgia is “fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth”. Quite.
And as I’m quoting the great Mr Roebuck I should take the opportunity to say I’m very happy to hear that he’s recovering after his recent sudden illness. I’ve been a voracious consumer of his writing for decades and I would say also he has been my main inspiration as an F1 writer bar none. I’ve been glad to read so many others saying the same in recent days too.
On the launch issue, I’ve heard some argue that it’s a characteristic of the social media age in that it gives a conspicuous platform for complaint that didn’t previously exist, and therefore we’ll always hear someone out there airing objections. Perhaps, but it seems a characteristic of F1 more broadly also. Looking back through contemporary writing of previous F1 eras another stick of rock message running through is the state of being malcontent. Really the moments of calm are remarkable mainly in how fleeting they are. Rarely do they last more than a season. The 1.5 litre engines used from 1961 to 1965 were considered gutless. The ground effect era of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had its many problems, absurdities and sheer dangers. Death and injury in action for drivers, and sometimes for spectators, was a regular occurrence in F1 right through all of this indeed up to the mid-1980s. At many points of the sport’s past too grids were small and the pace gaps between cars often gigantic. From 1984 to 1988 in an era now looked back on fondly fuel was strictly rationed for races and therefore many Sundays were economy runs. The more modern ‘refuelling era’ was associated with soporific on-track fare. One could cite many more grumbles from many other periods.
Indeed in this ilk I recall reading an Autosport article not so long ago which tried to pin down when exactly F1’s ‘golden age’ was, and the author concluded that none of them were.
It seems a characteristic of F1 more broadly also. Looking back through contemporary writing of previous F1 eras another stick of rock message running through is the state of being malcontent.
Perhaps rather than sayings about nostalgia it’s another old saying that is more instructive in explaining the sport’s tendency to look back yearningly. That the grass is always greener on the other side. As well as that no matter what you do, you’ll never please everyone.
The sense that things aren’t as good as they used to be in F1 was around also in recent days when Indonesian Rio Haryanto was confirmed for the final available 2016 race seat, at Manor. Haryanto is thought to have considerable financial backing, both public and private, and this played its full part in Manor’s decision presumably. Rumours have bubbled indeed of the fight for this seat being an auction to a large extent. Whatever was the case plenty of self-disgust in and around the sport ensued.
Of course on many levels the ire is understandable, as for slots in F1 to in effect be purchased flies in the face of any sense of sporting merit. Indeed this possibly is the factor of F1 that most confuses my uninitiated non-F1 fan acquaintances – to take a deliberately extreme analogy, imagine if a rich but modestly-talented sprinter was to purchase his place in the 100m Olympic final… And in this specific case Alexander Rossi, who impressed us a lot in the seat late last season, missed out. As well as that Rossi clearly is far from the first talented driver recently to be passed over on these grounds.
It all had an echo with a few things Mark Webber said late last year. “The depth [of drivers] has never been weaker,” he told the BBC. “We need to get the calibre that we have at the front of the grid. We need more depth…If you go from the top 10 back, there are a lot of pay drivers. This is not good.”
Webber not long after expanded on the matter, telling Sky: “There have always been commercially-driven drivers on the grid in F1, don’t get me wrong, but in ‘02 when I started, or 2010, even mid-‘90s, I just think there was a sniff more depth.”
Webber is right in this case to keep the nostalgia in check somewhat by saying that pay drivers are a near-constant in F1 history. They don’t even necessarily militate against talent either – smart alecks like to point out that the first F1 races for Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso all owed something to money they brought with them. It’s difficult to see either how the pay driver can ever be eliminated totally given F1 teams will almost certainly always be commercial entities that have to raise their own revenue, and there’s no way in a market economy of stopping a driver bringing cash or being linked to sponsor investment.
Haryanto instead falls more into a category that is rather common these days, in that it cannot be denied that money is the chief discriminator of him getting his F1 seat but equally he has a solid enough CV which suggests he’ll be competent at least.
It’s odd that Webber mentioned the mid-1990s though as that era was in fact rather a peak – or should that be depth? – of the egregious pay driver. Those who fell into this category on F1 grids in that time are several. And many of them compared with any pilot who’ll start in Melbourne this year, including even apparent pariahs such as Haryanto, were terrible. Giovanni Lavaggi and of course the so-bad-he’s-good Taki Inoue among a few others to be blunt hardly seemed competent and made all wonder what the minimum requirements of an F1 superlicence actually were. Perhaps Webber in this particular sub-point fell foul of nostalgia’s bum steers.
Haryanto instead falls more into a category that is rather common these days, in that it cannot be denied that money is the chief discriminator of him getting his F1 seat but equally he has a solid enough CV which suggests he’ll be competent at least, much more so than the Lavaggis of this world anyway. You could say that his case is not too far detached from that of Marcus Ericsson, perhaps even from Esteban Gutierrez’s. The pay driver it seems has changed a little over time.
Haryanto finished fourth in last year’s GP2 standings, and while observers of that series say that outcome flattered him a bit as he was rather reliant on results in reverse-grid sprint races (all three of his race wins and half of his points came from there) as well as that it was his crack number four at a GP2 campaign, they also say he is handy enough and possessed of good race craft.
But equally the criticisms about pay drivers can’t be dismissed entirely as reflecting the same sort of nostalgia already described. It is clear that an (im)perfect storm exists in current F1 to make the pay driver more necessary for a team’s survival than has usually been so before. The repeated failure of cost control, the price tags on the engine and tyres, the ridiculous skew in FOM money to the handful at the top, in some cases no matter what. They all scarcely require reiteration. That there are fewer seats available on the grid generally, itself related to the above financial problems, only intensifies the matter by making it yet harder for the more ‘merit’ cases to get their breaks.
The criticisms about pay drivers can’t be dismissed entirely as reflecting the same sort of nostalgia already described. It is clear that an (im)perfect storm exists in current F1 to make the pay driver more necessary for a team’s survival than has usually been so before.
It all goes further too. I often look at the handsome sponsorship on cars in Indycar and NASCAR which both with the greatest respect don’t have close to F1’s global reach. Then I compare it to an F1 grid where many teams do not have a title sponsor – and many logos that are there are associated with the team’s ownership or, natch, to drivers – and wonder if F1 is getting something very wrong. This is something Joe Saward indeed wondered out loud a couple of years back:
“The…question that F1 never seems to ask itself is why sponsors do not want to be involved in F1, if it is clear that the sport is a very good way to deliver a message in the world’s developing markets” he said. “It is easier to say that these are difficult times, rather than perhaps have to face up to the reality that F1 could present a better image to the world.
“There is not enough work done on improving F1 demographics to make the sport attractive to mass market consumer companies that one sees in other racing championships. The brands involved are often global but F1 is not chosen by the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway or M&Ms. Why are chains such as Office Depot, Target and Walmart not using the sport? Or UPS, Black & Decker and other such products that one might expect to see with F1’s demographic?”
The answer to this could of course fill an article on its own but as Saward suggested perhaps the sport’s rather aloof and even amoral projected image are chief among them.
I also recall fairly recently reading that even F1’s celebrated TV cash cow might not be all that, as its entire global TV rights income is only roughly the same as for the Turkish Premier League in football, at around $490m.
I’ve long got the impression furthermore that the sport’s promotion of itself leaves much to be desired. Much more could be done in terms of putting drivers on chat shows, doing car demonstrations within cities and the like. This applies especially to new countries that F1 visits but also to established ones. As for why it’s all so feeble, I’ve heard it said that Bernie sees it as the teams’ responsibility and the teams consider it to be Bernie’s (or perhaps other teams’).
We can add to this mix the sport’s tendency to abandon established fan bases, as well as for its TV coverage to disappeared behind paywalls (I’ve heard Spain has just become the latest). F1 almost entirely ignored social media until about a year ago too. It all adds up to a sport being undersold, and that is neglecting to sow any seeds to grow its fan base.
Greater focus on all of these perhaps healthier sources of income would reduce the necessity of driver-raised finance. And is it even possible that the causal arrows point the other way too, that given the sport always has driver-raised finance to fall back on that it has neglected these more organic means of raising revenue?
Whatever is the case though none of this is Haryanto’s fault nor is it even really Manor’s. To end with yet another saying, and an apt one: don’t hate the player, hate the game.