The Drivers’ World Championship is now over and that is bad news for the sport, with another four races to be held. Already the number of journalists planning to go to India has dived. IF there is no title fight, there is not much interest in the individual races, and going through the wildly long-winded media visa process means that the Indian GP will have a much smaller international press corps than normal. It does not make a great deal of sense to make life difficult for the people who are going there to publicise your country, but the Indian love of bureaucracy is such that nothing is easy. There are serious questions still to be answered about the F1 freight because there is no time after the Delhi race to mess about with customs as the equipment is needed in Abu Dhabi. Given that the BBC is still arguing with the Indian government over a whole bunch of equipment that was sent in for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 is not very promising. Still, if India wants to waste the opportunities that F1 brings, who are we to stop them doing it? It is stupid, but than again they would not be the first nation on earth to be stupid when it came to dealing with F1.
The worry for F1 is that the last four races will get less coverage and that this will affect the overall number of eyeballs, which will then have a knock-on effect on sponsors. These days the money folk want to see very detailed assessment of the return on investment and if they see the numbers going down, they will inevitably argue that their contributions should also reduce.
As an indication of the problem it is worth noting that a lot of the F1 media in Suzuka spent more time on Saturday watching the Rugby World Cup rather than the on track action at Suzuka. The story that day was England versus France rather than Jenson and Lewis versus Sebastian Vettel. There is constant competition for space in the sports pages of the big newspapers and so when a championship is decided there is no real need for other races to be covered.
It is not a new problem and it got me wondering whether or not F1 ought to take a look at other ways to structure the title race to ensure that the sport does not suffer commercially if one team is too dominant. Purists will argue that the World Championship should not use any gimmicky points systems to prolong the excitement, but conversely it is the purists who will watch the sport whatever the rules so in fact what they have to say has less impact for the commercial people in the sport. What the wheeler-dealers need is a way to push up the number of diehard fans by trawling in new casual viewers. F1 needs to do a lot more work in this area, particularly with the younger generations who have very different viewing habits to the average F1 fan. The sport has been stuck in the mud in this respect for some time because of the Formula One group’s terror of the Internet undermining its TV rights structures. This will probably mean that in the end the TV deals will have to become Pan-European, rather than being done nation by nation. That is not necessarily a bad thing as a big TV deal is a big TV deal and as NASCAR has proved very large sums of money can be extracted from TV companies if they believe that the product will work for them.
NASCAR has a very long season and often this meant that the championship was settled before the end of the calendar. The points system was structured in such a way as to reduce the chances of that happening, with very little extra reward for winning races, although that had the negative effect of giving the reliable drivers a big advantage over the fast drivers who sometimes dropped the ball. F1 has tried various points systems to try to avoid this kind of thing but with Red Bull and Vettel being as good as they are this year, the system has failed. NASCAR’s system is different and I suspect that the title will not be sorted out until the big rigs roll up at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in Florida on November 20. Championship showdowns usually have the biggest viewing figures and the closer the title race the bigger the number of people interested.
There is an argument that, in this commercial age of sport, sustaining interest levels until the last race is a necessity, which is why so many sports these days have a play-off system that ensures that there is an exciting showdown at the end of a championship. The easiest way to do this is by using a knock-out system, as happens in most World Cup competitions (and reality TV). In the US they have the play-off system and this has been adapated by NASCAR with the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” system, that was introduced in 2004. This has been twiddled with a little since then, but at the moment it means that the top 10 drivers in the title race (plus two wild card entries) go forward to compete in what amounts to a new mini- competition for the last 10 races, with their points totals being reset, at a level that is mathematically unattainable by all the others. This means that while the rest of the field goes on trying to win races, the fight for the title is the main focus. It is a pretty sensible idea if one wants to avoid the end of season slump in viewing figures.