One of the most over-used phrases in Formula 1 over the past few years has been “the show”. Ordinarily, it’s a question of improving what the fans at the track and watching on TV at home enjoy as a finished product, with steps being taken to give them more bang for their buck by improving the show.
I have written extensively in the past about the myth surrounding the decline in the global TV audience of F1 that has occurred over the past few years. It is not a result of people simply not relating to F1 anymore or enjoying what they’re seeing, but instead down to the sport’s pursuit of greater revenues through pay TV contracts.
But this has not stopped F1 from trying to spice things up. In 2009, we saw the introduction of KERS to give drivers a power boost to aid overtaking. Two years later, all cars were fitted with DRS (drag reduction system) for the same reason. Most recently, in a bid to keep the championship alive for longer, the final race of the year was turned into a double points round.
All of these decisions were dubious at best, but all were made with one thing in mind: the show.
Because in an ideal world, F1 races would always be thrillers. You would always have a mad fight for the lead, a sprinkling of rain, different strategies and a photo finish.
Alas, this is not the case. Sometimes, as we saw in Australia, races are a bit dull and lack that spark that others have in abundance. It is events such as these that prompt the sport’s powers to make changes to try to spice things up. That was why Pirelli was given the remit of producing a tire that was bad enough to ensure races included two or three stops back in 2011, resulting in a safety debacle two years later.
This is not a problem exclusive to F1 though. It’s simply a fact of sport. Sometimes you will have a one-sided game of football or basketball. Soccer games do end 0-0. Not all hockey games go into overtime.
And yet F1 is unwilling to accept that. Part of the perceived problem comes in the dominance of one single team, as exemplified by Mercedes in 2014. The German marque stormed to 16 wins and 18 pole positions – both records – last year and should probably have enjoyed a perfect season.
The possible ‘turn off’ for fans can be understood here. It is perhaps less entertaining to tune in every week knowing that a Mercedes is 95% certain to win the race. However, given the tenacity of the fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg last year, it seems strange to think that this would be a reason not to watch.
For Red Bull though, this dominance is killing its interest in F1. Following yet another crushing victory for the Silver Arrows at the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago, in a race where it suggest that it has lost not one bit of its advantage over the winter, Helmut Marko said that Red Bull could quit F1 altogether unless some efforts were made to equalize the field.
In short: Mercedes was too good, and Red Bull didn’t like it.
Unsurprisingly, many within the F1 community called “sour grapes” on this one. What made it all the more ironic was the fact that Red Bull had enjoyed a similar, if not so devastating, level of dominance between 2010 and 2013. Lewis Hamilton himself wryly called the comments from Marko “funny” earlier this week.
In this current era, Mercedes has clearly done a better job than the rest of the field, hence why it enjoys an advantage that is so big it has left Red Bull reeling.
But why should there be any kind of equalization in F1? Why should Mercedes be punished for simply doing a better job than the rest of the field? Red Bull’s argument was “it happened to us” – the ban on blown diffusers did slice its advantage between 2011 and 2012 – and so the same should happen again to Mercedes.
Yet Mercedes isn’t the real problem for Red Bull. The problem lies closer to home with its engine supplier, Renault. Because of the reliance on the power units in this era of F1, Red Bull has lost ground.
However, it is not impossible to cut the gap. Ferrari has made a fine start to the year and produced a brilliant display in practice today, with the advances made with its power unit also aiding Sauber. The gap to Mercedes may not be so big.
Again, this is part of sport. Sometimes, you have spells where one team is unbeatable. Ferrari’s domination between 2000 and 2004 was devastating, but the rest of the field kept on fighting. It was no reason to quit.
Equalization is a very tricky road to go down. Ultimately, if we wanted to know which driver was the best, the entire field would be put in the same car. You’ve then effectively got GP2. F1 is about the entire package – driver, team, engine – working in harmony.
What’s more, if it did happen, Mercedes would surely ask why it has bothered pouring money into its F1 programme to succeed as it has, only to then be pegged back. The team must be praised for its pledge to continue developing and innovating to maintain its incredible level of dominance. It hasn’t eased off because it is winning. If anything, the taste of success has spurred it on to find more.
The situation may not be good for Red Bull, but Mercedes must not be harangued for simply doing a better job than the other teams. The rest of the field has accepted it and pledged to redouble its efforts. Equalization is not the answer.
If Red Bull is committed to a future in F1 – which, with Audi and Renault reportedly sniffing around, it may not be – it should accept that defeat is part and parcel of sport.
The show may be important to F1, but it must remember its identity. It must entertain in a natural and organic way.
Equalization would only falsify the sport – “sport” being the key word in all of this.