F1 still needs a heart under all the razzmatazz: The Editor
F1 is succeeding in its ambition to expand in the US and reach out to younger fans. But it shouldn't forget what made it successful in the first place
“It’s official: F1 has cracked America”. That was a headline that greeted scenes of a sell-out Circuit of the Americas during the Austin race weekend. According to organisers the event attracted crowds of just under 400,000 fans, creating an atmosphere that had seldom been seen at a Formula 1 event in the nation before.
A few days later pre-sale tickets for next year’s Miami Grand Prix sold out in just 40 minutes, despite the fact that they were eye-wateringly expensive: the cheapest three-day passes started at around £500 rising to just under £2000.
Leaving aside the fact that F1 will never truly ‘crack’ America until there is a US driver able to follow Phil Hill and Mario Andretti to World Championship glory, much of the credit for this surge in popularity has been put down to the so-called ‘Netflix Effect’. It is not the first time the TV series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which uses documentary style camera work, overlaid with a heavily edited narrative to create bitesized hits of adrenaline and drama, has been credited with rejuvenating interest in the sport.
“It’s got to be the single most important impact in North America,” McLaren Racing’s CEO Zak Brown said, “Almost every comment you get out of someone from the US, they reference Drive to Survive.”
Its accessibility is regarded as key in attracting a new younger generation of fans and the numbers seem to bear this out: US broadcaster ESPN recently revealed that the sport’s average viewing figures have climbed from 547,000 people in 2018 to just under one million in 2021.
However, with the fourth series set to begin early next year, there are signs that some in the paddock are tiring of what critics say is its sensationalist style. Max Verstappen gave voice to them ahead of the Texas race: “I understand that it needs to be done to boost the popularity in America. But from my side as a driver, I don’t like being part of it,” he said. “They faked a few rivalries which don’t really exist.” The championship leader went on to say that he had decided not to take part any further and had declined to do interviews with the series.
Verstappen’s Mexican team-mate Sergio Pérez took the opposite view: “What it has done for Formula 1 is tremendous. The way they sell the sport is a bit of a drama. It is a show but at the end of the day it is good for the sport and is good for the fans so I am happy with it.”
Of course both drivers are entitled to their opinion and I have no desire to concoct a ‘fake’ sense of division between them. But the two viewpoints are indicative of a larger debate within the sport which pits traditionalists, who see the essence of F1 in the racing, and those who regard F1 as being as much about the ‘show’ as about what happens in track.
“Pre-sale tickets for next year’s Miami Grand Prix sold out in just 40 minutes”
Broadly, one side admires the purity of racing and rejoices in – rather than recoils from – its complexity and at times its impenetrability. It is a sport that rewards those who put the effort in to understand it, they say. The second group are less tied to traditions and see F1 in the context of a changing sporting landscape where you must reach out to new fans, evolve and react to fresh demands. F1 is just one of many sports people can follow; it must make a compelling case for itself rather than expect fans to be satisfied with the status quo.
The second argument is clearly in the ascendant currently. And as F1 expands further into the US with all that that entails in terms of showmanship, it is likely to increase rather than dial down its razzmatazz.
In my view, something that keeps the sport alive, relevant and fresh in a changing world is to be applauded. But equally the powers that be would do well not to completely ignore those traditionalists. Authenticity and purity of challenge are at the heart of what F1 is all about, as that great American writer Ernest Hemingway observed when he listed mountaineering, bull fighting and motor racing as the only three true sports. The rest, he said, are merely games.
TO PALL MALL AND THE ANNUAL RAC MOTORING book awards which took place in early November. From a small gathering of perhaps 20 people eight years ago when the awards first launched, the event has now grown into a fullblown ceremony complete with champagne reception, and the winners up on stage with a microphone. It was good to see so many people there – and the variety of titles that had been nominated spoke of an industry that may be niche but is in rude heath.
There were a record number of submissions for this year’s awards, with 52 entries representing 26 different publishers from around the world – from major houses and independents to self-published authors. They were all assessed by a panel of six expert judges including our own Gordon Cruickshank.
The overall winner was a stupendously expensive and already sold out book on the Lamborghini Miura, but I found my attention drawn to other nominations and category winners, from a ‘labour of love’ deep dive into the much-maligned Reliant Robin (Tipping Point: Designing a Great British Underdog, by Reliant designer Andy Plumb) to Peter Grimsdale’s beautifully written Racing in the Dark: When the Bentley Boys Conquered Le Mans.
My vote, though (for what it is worth), has to go Tom Kristensen’s remarkable autobiography Mr Le Mans published by Evro. Searingly honest, dramatic and unexpectedly emotional, it is motor racing memoir at its best.
Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90