PRUETT: F1’s season of broken headlines

PRUETT: F1’s season of broken headlines

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: F1’s season of broken headlines

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As I’ve written before, it was introduced to Formula 1 in the late 1970s by my father. Mario Andretti had won the title in 1978, and once scale model kits of the Lotus 79-DFV arrived on the shelf at our local toy store, he brought one home as a lovely father-son project that quickly engulfed the dining room table.

I can’t say if I was much help or learned anything about model building throughout the process, but I’ll never forget sitting across the table and listening to his tales of Mario’s amazing drives, of his passion for the late, great Jim Clark and the Scot’s effortless driving style, of the never-got-the-respect-he-deserved Innes Ireland, and the other F1 heroes my father revealed as the little Lotus came together.

With the fascinating new world of F1 in front of me, I began following it in the magazines and newspapers he brought home from his shop, and before long, it became by own sport – something I lived and breathed from afar. By the mid-’80s, Autosport, Road & Track, On Track and Autoweek became my F1 bibles, and with my growing obsession for the sport, my mind turned into a F1 data logger, sampling news, analysis and race reports at a high frequency. My mental ‘Record’ button was pushed in or around 1983, and it has yet to stop.

I’m not saying I can access those memory banks to recall all that I’ve captured – that’s why my office is filled with old racing magazines – but it helps to have some degree of context to frame the sport in modern terms.

At least for what has taken place since I came of age with F1, extreme popularity and wealth has been bestowed upon its participants, and other than the occasional controversy or scandal, dysfunction has been kept to a minimum – at least on the world stage. And then 2014 happened.

From the Dirk Diggler noses to the soft-spoken turbo engines to the horsepower disparity between Mercedes and its rivals, the start to the 2014 season was riddled with criticism. A sense of normalcy eventually returned as calm fell over the heart of the calendar, yet with the championship in the home stretch, F1 has taken a turn for the worse. Fun is as rare as adequate funding.

The grim financial realizations by a number of F1 teams has pitched the sport into absolute disarray, class warfare among the sport’s strongest and weakest teams sits at the heart of the divide, a growing furor over frozen engine specifications and pleas for public funding to keep one of F1’s minnows from drowning has dominated the daily news cycle for far too long. Owing to the size and systematic nature of some of the problems facing F1, it’s hard to imagine the situation greatly improving in the foreseeable future.

Frankly, at the pace the dreary headlines have been flowing, I’m starting to run out of mental storage space. The biggest racing series in the world – widely recognized as the No. 2 sport on the planet – has now become a poorly-written and downright depressing soap opera. Drama is nothing new for F1, but it could be on the verge of overpowering the positives.

Out of curiosity, I went back over the last month of F1 stories, and between the normal bits, the volume of dispiriting news reveals the series – once a giant Jimi Hendrix riff – could be mistaken for Morrissey sobbing over his acoustic guitar.

The headlines slightly differ from one site to the next and, with a quick perusing, they represent F1’s informal State of the Union: Caterham insists team not threatened by affiliated company’s legal issues, McLaren’s Dennis says customer teams can’t win titles, Caterham F1 bosses issue quit threat, Red Bull says Mercedes’ domination isn’t depressing, Kolles admits Caterham future now up to administrators, Fernandes blames Caterham buyer, Caterham management steps back, Caterham set to miss next two races, Marussia set to miss USGP too, F1 teams could supply third cars to troubled rivals, Marussia goes into administration, Andretti: “F1 needs to loosen up”, Mosley warns more teams could soon fall, Renault backs Ferrari on engine freeze, Prost says negativity still hurting F1, F1 cost crisis: What happens next, Ex-boss says Caterham demise “strange”, FIA: F1 crisis justifies costs cut push, No penalty for Caterham, Marussia yet, Sauber says FIA has a duty to take action, Third-car topic remains divisive, F1 is deliberately driving small teams out, claims Force India’s Fernley, Teams do not have answer to financial crisis, Smaller F1 teams plotting next move, Crisis “probably my fault,” Ecclestone concedes.


 

Let’s take a breath before we jump into the next block: Big teams against sacrificing income to help small teams, F1 cost crisis can be solved says Lotus boss, Ferrari not convinced by Mercedes’ more conciliatory stance on engine freeze, Sauber hits out at engine supplier Ferrari, Rebellion would hurt the sport, top teams warn, Surprised Sutil wants Sauber talks after losing ride, Sauber responds to puzzled Sutil’s comments, F1’s small teams work on financial proposal, Marussia team closes its doors; 200 staff made redundant, Closing the power gap in 2015 will be “very difficult,” says Horner, Caterham launches crowdfunding plan, Mallaya denies boycott was threatened, Caterham plan is a disaster, says Bernie Ecclestone, F1 engine-freeze talks collapse, Ecclestone to discuss small-team crisis with CVC, “Don’t spend as much” Ecclestone tells small teams, Lotus boss hits back at Ecclestone, Horner calls for return to V8 engines, Mercedes: Rivals risk harming F1, “Super GP2” plan to boost grid sizes, Ferrari “won’t give up” on engine freeze talks, Sauber urges FIA to take action on costs, Lopez says Caterham crowdfunding plan “sad”.

OK, we’re almost there – one last push before we box: Ecclestone: F1 doesn’t need young fans, Alonso: Small teams vital for F1, Merhi says he has Caterham race deal, Lotterer turns down Caterham offer, “Super GP2” plan prompts new talks plea, F1 set to drop double points next year, Top teams deny suggestions of a hidden agenda, FIA is last hope to resolve F1 cost dispute, Stevens to race second Caterham, Stevens insists Caterham seat worth it, Administrator says there’s a three-week window to save Caterham, and finally – at least for what was posted through Friday, Nov. 21, Red Bull, Ferrari push for new engine rule proposals.

It’s easy to forget that a lot of great racing has taken place this season, yet finding a reprieve from the barrage of disheartening stories only seems to happen when the drivers are on track. Once the engines fall silent, the return to melancholy seems inevitable.

Bernie Ecclestone would have you believe the tidal wave of negativity is due to the media – beat reporters and bloggers alike – drumming up salacious content for their own benefit. It’s a silly notion that lacks merit.

IndyCar went through a nasty season in 2012 where many team owners were pushed to the financial brink, the officiating was often inconsistent, two engine manufacturers fought each other in print and with lawyers behind closed doors, one of those manufacturers threatened to sue the series, an assembly of team owners spent six months trying to get IndyCar’s CEO fired (something that was eventually successful), the third engine manufacturer threatened to sue IndyCar and defaulted on its payments to the series…

It was a sh*tfest at almost every turn. It darkened the tone in many stories throughout 2012, and those stories matched the level of rancor and dissatisfaction in the paddock. Like IndyCar a few years ago, F1’s stories of internal strife appear to mirror what’s taking place in the garages, hospitality suites, and boardrooms, and those tales are being told on a daily basis. Happy series=happy stories. Unhappy series=unhappy stories.

IndyCar’s situation improved in 2013, and by 2014, the series was relatively drama-free. Unlike IndyCar, F1’s problems aren’t new and they won’t be healed with the simple passage of time.

The solutions required to bring F1 out from the very shadow it created are big and scary. There’s nothing close to a consensus among the teams on how to fix things: The haves aren’t willing to help the have-nots, the series is powerless in many ways to affect repairs, and F1’s fans are left wondering if the fun, mesmerizing sport they’ve come to love is in desperate need of an intervention.

F1 will always have problems, but when those problems begin to steadily spill over into the living rooms, tablets, and inboxes of its ardent fans, it’s time to rethink why the sport exists and where it’s headed.

Part of F1’s allure is its exotic nature – the excess and otherworldly technology – that separates it from everything else on the planet. Of late, it feels ordinary – a cable news show where talking heads yell at each other around the clock.

As long as we’re inundated with polarizing gems like Ecclestone: F1 doesn’t need young fans and Marussia team closes its doors; 200 staff made redundant, the series and its ills will be the spectacle, rather than its beloved cars and drivers.

There’s no shortage of sad and gloomy headlines awaiting folks each morning in the real world. Hidden behind F1’s disgruntled multi-millionaires and entrenched captains of industry, you’ll find its fans looking for a thrilling escape. If the negativity, political in-fighting and strife persist, I wonder if fans will start looking for an escape from F1.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

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