Yesterday I had a most interesting time at Canal+ in Paris, where I was asked to take part in a programme called Les Specialistes de F1. This is basically a talk show about F1, with opinions being expressed by various people with different roles within the sport. This particular programme featured Thibault Larue (the name, for those who are not tuned to the ways of the French, is pronounced Tea-Bo). He is a fellow F1 journalist for the last 15-odd years. The presentatrice (anchorwoman) Margot (the t is silent) Laffite is an accomplished automobile journalist, TV presenter and racing driver, who has known F1 all her life thanks to the fact that she is the daughter of Jacques Laffite, who was one of the top F1 drivers in the early 1980s, winning six races and equalling Graham Hill’s long-standing record for Grand Prix starts (176) before breaking both of his legs in a crash at the start of the 1986 British Grand Prix. The others involved were Jerome d’Ambrosio, a Formula E racer (and winner) who had a brief F1 career but did not have the sponsorship to get enough time to make his name, and TV reporter Laurent Dupin who specialises in F1.
Put a group like this together and you are going to get some interesting opinions because there are many different levels that exist in the sport. I believe that at least part of the failure of the sport at the moment is that the media does not have the tools to do a great job. There could be way better TV coverage than there is, there could be way more data integrated into the coverage, there could be way more access allowed and drivers could be way more open and less terrified of being themselves. Part of the process of creating heroes is having people who are not bland and vanilla-flavoured. It is hard to idolise those who talk about failing to maximise the potential and forever say that “tomorrow is another day”. This is a complex subject but it comes in part from the teams and sponsors who want to always be politically correct, in part from the drivers who are taught blandness from the age of about eight onwards. Interesting opinions create discussion and that is exactly what F1 needs. At the same time heroes must also be people. Real people. F1 drivers who hide behind high hedges and don’t talk to the media are not helping the sport at all – this is why Bernie Ecclestone was recently critical of Sebastian Vettel and why he views Lewis Hamilton as a great star. Lewis lives the way he wants to live and he’s a character. Perhaps he is a little odd, but what’s wrong with that? We’re all a little odd. Dealing with people who are unwilling to show their characters means that journalists are like artists with brushes but without paint.
Another element is the sport’s refusal to properly engage with social media and its desire to charge for everything. This is so short-sighted, but one must expect such things from the dull-witted financiers who know how to juggle figures but are not good at things that require any imagination and vision. They know that if you have money you can make money. They are really nothing more than asset-strippers and one has to say that one of the things that Bernie Ecclestone must take the blame for is that he let these people into the sport. The key to long-term success is to get rid of them and pump some more life back into the sport.
One can blame the governing body for failing to govern and not keeping control of what is important. It should not be for the competitors to make the rules. The governing body should do that, with input from those involved.
In the modern day and age, everyone can have an opinion thanks to social media. Some of these opinions have no value at all and are formulated by blockheads. The skill is to know who to listen to and who to ignore and even in that respect F1 is complicated because fans have different levels of interest. I think the best way to describe this is to use a parallel with the different dimensions in physics.
You can watch F1 in one dimension. You’re not interested in anything other than spectacular racing, crashes and so on. You probably could not name all the drivers on the grid, but you are part of the audience that F1 tells sponsors that it has and so you have a right to a voice, even if perhaps you don’t really have any idea about the way the sport works. Those who have more interest watch the sport in a two-dimensional way. They understand that racing is about strategy and managing the technical side of the cars. Probably this group can name all the drivers. The third dimension is for people who see the many different levels of activity that come together to create the sport. They understand that the drivers are only part of a huge team and may understand the importance of every element involved. Finally you have the fourth dimension for those who understand the history of the sport and know how F1 became as it is and where it could be going in the future. For those who have done more than scratch the surface, the racing is never really dull but do they have more right to an opinion than those who don’t really care?
What F1 should aim to do is to amuse and inform so that everyone gets to the fourth dimension…