Posted on August 20, 2014
By David Coulthard
Declining audiences have led to fears that F1 has lost its way but sport is in good shape as long as it listens to its fans, stays true to itself and allows its protagonists to race freely
It was a welcome summer break but I think everyone is looking forward to getting back to business in Spa next weekend.
What a second half of the season we have before us, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battling it out to be crowned world champion and the rest of the paddock snapping at their heels, hoping to take advantage of any intra-team strife at Mercedes.
It is a mouth-watering prospect and it will be fascinating to see not only what happens but how much interest the championship denouement generates globally.
Because, make no mistake, Formula One is in a very interesting place at the moment with regard to its mainstream appeal and its popularity in general.
Personally, I am optimistic. There is no doubt these have been difficult times for Formula One. The worldwide recession undoubtedly hit the sport, with various teams and sponsors falling by the wayside. Television audiences have been declining year on year while the empty stands at Hockenheim last month were met with hand-wringing and despair in some quarters.
There was even talk of Flavio Briatore returning to head up some kind of think tank, although I’m not sure who started those rumours. Maybe Flavio himself. Either way, it was interesting to hear Bernie Ecclestone stamp them out pretty sharpish.
I don’t think there is any need to panic. Yes, television audiences are down but there is a solid explanation for that. If you put content behind a paywall then ratings are bound to drop. It has been the same in France and Italy. Even in a worst case scenario on the BBC, the highlights will get 2.5 million compared to maybe 1 million on Sky Sports. That does not make the sport any less viable commercially. It is just a different business model.
Where I do think Formula One needs to tread very carefully is in terms of alienating its core audience. Change is unavoidable – indeed, innovation is what drives F1 – but that does not mean forgetting what made the sport so popular in the first place.
That means prototype, open-wheel race cars competing in a series in which the entrants are all chassis manufacturers, developing their own cars rather than buying them ready-made off a larger team.
That means good, honest racing not artificial gimmicks purely designed to throw an element of unpredictability into proceedings. Time and again, fans have said they do not want to be patronised. They want honest competition. If you want manipulation and special effects you go to the movies and watch a James Bond film.
I think some of the developments in recent seasons have been good – I can see sound logic behind the engine change and innovations such as DRS and KERS – but others have been muddled and have risked making things appear too random. I think the fast-degrading tyres have confused fans.
Sport must be emotional, unpredictable but above all honest. That is why I’m so encouraged by this season and the way in which Mercedes have allowed Lewis and Nico to race, to express their characters rather than try to manipulate them.
The team have had the odd PR fire to put out, but overall they are hugely in credit. Mercedes are giving fans what they want; good, honest racing between two guys who are being allowed to fight each other on and off the track.
That will only help Mercedes’ brand and F1’s brand as well. Rivalries and characters are what this sport needs more than anything. That will have the punters flooding back.