Whichever way you look at it, the top levels of motorsport seem to be in disarray.
Surely the blame has to fall on the man at the top, and that’s Jean Todt. Or “Dato’ Seri Jean Todt” as we’re supposed to call him, although I have no idea what he did to deserve that title, any more than I can figure how he deserves to remain the President of the FIA.
Let’s look at the state of Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship. And since I’m more interested in rallying than roundie-roundies, let’s start with the latter.
This weekend we have a round of the WRC, Wales Rally GB, or “The RAC” as I, and many people, still call it. It has an entry of just 31 cars and crews. No, not 31 World Rally Cars, 31 in total. There are no British privateers. There is no terrestrial TV coverage in the UK, unless you count a small local Welsh channel which broadcasts only in Welsh.
Only a handful of years ago, the entry list was more than 100. Back in “My Day” – which is to say the 1960s and 70s – the entry list was capped at 180, and if you didn’t submit your entry within a few days of the opening date, you ended up on a Reserve List, willingly preparing your car and getting it to the start, in the hope someone dropped out. Back in the rally’s early days, entries often exceeded 300.
If you lived in the UK, or in fact, many parts of Northern Europe, it was the rally to do. Your status in the motorsport community was significantly elevated if you were “doing the RAC.” You could even earn yourself several free pints from friends, just by being accepted as a volunteer member of someone’s Service Crew. You could proudly wear your little tin badge on your rally jacket … some people having year tags that seemed to stretch down to their knees. But now; we have an event which no one seems to want to do. What happened?
TV happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. And to a lesser degree, the lousy economy happened. It’s a sad fact that some years ago, the Forestry Commission, which owns all the best rally roads in the UK, realized it could make more money renting its roads to rally organizers, than by fulfilling its primary mission, that of growing trees. That turned the RAC into probably the most expensive rally in the world. But it happened some years ago, so the lack of TV coverage must be the primary cause of the RAC’s current decline.
And who is responsible for selecting the global broadcaster and promoter? The FIA. So, why isn’t there one? Last year there was one, until late in the year when some Russian millionaire was arrested in a Latvian banking scandal. He was an owner of the company which bought the WRC broadcasting rights from the TV company which handled the production which … etc., etc. The details don’t matter. The result does. The TV company went broke and the WRC had no global broadcaster. Clearly no effective due diligence was done by the FIA, otherwise, seemingly unsavory characters would not have been granted control of the WRC’s global broadcasting rights.
Now, some nine months later, the FIA, controlled by one M.Todt, is still procrastinating about who should get the contract. It was supposed to have been awarded to someone in January, before the first round of the WRC. There have been rumors and counter-rumors ever since. Now, we hear, plans will be outlined “soon”. What nonsense is this! Meanwhile, the TV audience for WRC events is down, somewhere between 35% and 70%, depending on which country and which event you consider. The audience for Rally Sweden, for instance, was only about one third of 2011. Hardly surprising when no one is producing TV programs for global distribution.
And without a major global TV presence, the WRC as a whole, is declining. There are really only two manufacturer teams … Citroën and Ford. (Imagine F1 with only Ferrari & McLaren, plus a few garagistes. Actually, you should imagine it carefully, because that’s the direction we’re headed.) MINI dabbles on the sidelines, but is not eligible to score points. That team seems to be in as much disarray as the WRC itself, being owned and run at various times by BMW, Prodrive, Mini Team Italy or is it Portugal this month, with drivers getting swapped in and out depending on the wind direction or the availability of millions of Atkodollars. What a mess. And VW is supposed to join this mess next year, but I can tell you, if I was on the board, I would be seriously questioning why.
Meanwhile, the Eurosport-supported Intercontinental Rally Challenge, grows by leaps and bounds. Entry lists often top 100. Many events have a number of whole stages shown live, with stunning TV images from in-car, ground and helicopter. You see, M.Todt, it can be done right. Just watch one stage on Eurosport and you’ll be convinced.
And then there’s Formula 1…
M. Todt says costs have to come down. No argument there. Not from teams, suppliers, TV companies nor race fans. So what does he propose? New engines. He wants to abandon the proven 2.4 liter V8s in favor of unknown 1.6 liter turbo-charged engines. He wants all the teams to spend way more money, and for several years, developing and testing new engines, in order to save money. This surely is the same as fixing something that ain’t broke. How does the man keep his job?
Supposedly 1.6 liter turbos are more relevant to today’s motoring needs. It’s what car companies are, or will be, building and installing in their road cars.
But seriously, when did F1 have any relevance to road cars? I don’t see any carbon fiber end plates on my road car. My steering wheel doesn’t have 101 buttons to control everything from brake bias to fuel mapping. I haven’t noticed any DRS Zones on the Federal Highway.
F1 is a sport. It’s the top level of motorsport. It’s about research, education, challenge, and entertainment. There may be spin-offs along the way that benefit road cars, but that doesn’t mean an F1 car has to be a Kancil with a sexy aerodynamic body.
Then there’s the fact that F1 wants and needs to have a greater presence in North America.
There, they only care about big engines. If F1 cars have V8s, they are credible. Americans only think about cubic inches, so “2.4 liters” doesn’t mean much. No one has to tell them that “2.4 liters” translates to “rather piddly.”
If you swap these V8s for something the size of a lawn mower engine, the Americans will have even less interest in F1 than they do now. The mental image of twenty-four (or fewer) lawn mowers buzzing around the streets of New Jersey isn’t going to excite anyone. This needs a rethink, M. Todt. Now.
And let’s get back to television…
F1 coverage is rubbish. I’m sorry. It really is rubbish. Not just here in SEAsia, but worldwide. Thanks to the internet it’s possible to download (legally, or otherwise … but mostly otherwise) just about any racing coverage from any part of the world. Try watching NASCAR. Any series. Doesn’t need to be top-level. You will be stunned by the quality of the production. “Professional” is the only word I can think of to describe it.
I watched the Indy 500. There were five, or maybe six commentators covering the event, from every part of the circuit. In three and half hours, not one person made a mistake. Not one person hesitated. Not one person said anything stupid. No one began a sentence with “Well, yes, no, errm, obviously, like, ya know, potentially…” or any of the other rubbish we regularly get on local so-called English-language broadcasts.
To attract new viewers to F1, especially the younger generation, the screen needs to look more like a video game, with considerably more information. NASCAR and other series are shown with cartoon-like bubbles following the cars, displaying anything from tire choice to time gaps. A scrolling ticker across the top of the screen is always showing positions and lap times … with meaningful driver names, not just “BUT” or “MSC”. If this constitutes a “dumbing-down” of the sport, well, I’m all for it if it means F1 will survive.
To me, increasing the amount of on-screen info is just common sense. What use is there in having the number-of-laps box turn from white to yellow, if somewhere on the circuit there is a problem needing a yellow flag? How hard would it be to show “T3” or whatever, just so we know where the problem has occurred. Or even “T3 CAR 12”. This is the information age, and we’re not getting any.
And as a final comment concerning TV, why, oh why, do we need commercial breaks? By which I mean, complete breaks. Canada’s TSN, for instance, continues to show F1 in a smaller window, while also airing commercials. To my mind this is a win-win situation. When I watch F1 on Astro, a commercial break provides a good opportunity to visit the fridge for another beer, so I never actually see the commercials. With TSN, I need to be stocked up on beer before the broadcast, because I can still watch the action during the breaks. And, even though I have one eye on F1, I do pay attention to the ads. So, as I say, this is a no-brainer, win-win scenario… which is more than enough clichés for one blog post.
To my mind, the bottom line (oops, there goes another one) is – the fault has to lie at the top of the corporate tree. Think BP, Barclays Bank, News of the World, to name a few.
Monsieur Todt’s days should now be over. He’s done enough damage. Time for someone new to glue the pieces of F1 and WRC back together. If someone would like to put his head on the block, I’ll gladly pull the lever.