Will Gray

Gray Matter: Why F1 needs to re-invent itself carefully

Will Gray

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Recent calls to re-evaluate the Grand Prix weekend and to discuss the way the sport sells itself are long overdue – but balancing tradition and progress will require a delicate approach.

Formula One is understandably proud of its heritage, from its long-standing status as the pinnacle of automotive technology to its reputation for glitz and glamour in the paddock.

Those were the cornerstones that enabled Bernie Ecclestone to establish it as the premium motorsport category and it has remained that way despite re-inventing itself time and again.

On the technical front, super-fuels, tyre wars, turbo engines, hybrid power and active suspension, to name just a few, have all come and gone and, on occasion, come back again. But the only effect these changes really have on the history of the sport is re-balancing the competitiveness of the racing.

It is when the sporting elements start being re-evaluated that the balance between heritage and evolution needs to be tempered.

The last time Formula One decided it had an identity crisis, it spent several years tampering with qualifying and re-formatting the points scoring system in a bid to make racing more exciting, encourage overtaking and benefit teams further down the grid.

But it also devalued some elements that were great about the sport.

The idea of running qualifying with race fuel and in race trim made pole position meaningless, as it was not always the fastest car and driver of the weekend who ended up on pole.

And when the points structure first changed in 2003 it actually reduced the benefit of winning compared to coming second, encouraging drivers to coast home. When it was changed again to the current structure in 2010, it made it extremely difficult to compare historically, making it harder to reflect on the sport’s heritage.

There is, however, always an argument for change.

Until the early 1990s, not all race results counted towards the final championship points tally as drivers were allowed to drop their worst ones to reduce the unfair impact of race retirements. As cars became more reliable, however, it made sense for all outings to count.

Increasing competition from the World Endurance Championship, which has built a significant fan base since its 2012 launch, and Formula E, which is set to hit city streets around the world in a few months, means F1 is right to keep considering change.

But in doing so, it needs to stay true to its roots.

This year, for instance, the introduction of double points for the final race makes it somewhat of a lottery – and if Mercedes continue to dominate with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton trading points with one another, that extra 25 points in the ‘grand final’ may be all that is needed to win the title. How genuine is that?

The suggestion of changing the weekend format is well balanced, as running just one practice session on the Friday, late in the afternoon, would enable teams to arrive a day later and may make it easier for fans to attend.

Ideas of evolving qualifying and racing formats - with suggestions of double races, sprint races, points for qualifying, and so on - all need to be carefully thought out before being committed to.

It is, then, good to hear Ferrari chief Luca di Montezemolo calling for a more holistic conversation over how the sport sells itself, with suggestions that Google and Apple get involved to advise it on how to play in the new media world.

Because that in truth is its biggest challenge.

It is good that the sport’s chiefs recognise the need to embrace a new, younger audience – but doing so will involve more than just tweaking a race series that is not really broken.

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