Readers here may have read the rather odd piece that I published on dailysportscar earlier this month – I was in two minds about publishing it there, but having asked for contributions to a general debate over the winter months on the direction of sportscar racing in general, I felt I had to tie up some loose ends: even if it meant some rather tenuous links.
And then Motor Sport arrived this month, with talk of a revolution in F1, and certainly elements of Mark Hughes’ (and Nigel Roebuck’s) articles struck a chord. If you haven’t bought a copy, I recommend that you do. Especially as, for some months now, it seems to be the only mainstream medium calling time on Bernie’s career. The time has indeed come. An era of post-Bernie may be just around the corner – and if that is the case, it will not just affect Formula 1, but all branches of the sport.
However, one theme that I particularly want to explore in this article, which I alluded to in the DSC article and which also features in Motor Sport, is the matter of procedure. There seems to be an idea these days that procedure is a good thing. A few years ago, when I went into hospital for a fairly major operation to remove a lump that was growing inside my skull, the surgeon came in before the operation to describe how he was going to hook the lump out, through a hole behind my ear, that was to have been drilled previously by a colleague of his. Then the anaesthetist came in to tell me how he was going to ensure that I remained unconscious for the whole time. All very sobering stuff. As he was leaving, I felt it appropriate to wish the anaesthetist “Good Luck”.
“No need for that,” he cheerily replied. “There’s no need for luck, it’s all procedure.” To an extent, this put my mind at rest, but nevertheless, the thought that there was no room for the virtuosity of the various professionals at work on me to demonstrate their skill – their artistry – made me feel more like a car being repaired than a piano being played.
And it is this disapproval of any expression of virtuosity in motor sport, in order for it to gain the approval of the FIA, that I find perturbing. Mark Hughes, in Motor Sport, refers to the ‘punkish’ spirit of the sport in the past, which has been lost today, and I know exactly what he means. Any place for spontaneity is being removed. Unpredictability makes people in authority nervous. But the fans love it.
I have said before that 24 hour races at Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring and Spa have nothing really in common as far as their organisation is concerned; and even if they are part of wider championships, they still stand alone in terms of specific sporting regulations, organising bodies, starting times, practice and qualification procedures and so on and so forth. With the exception of Daytona, they all draw substantial crowds, and yet have minimal impact on the sporting radar of mainstream media. Other races also spring to mind: the Sebring 12 hours, yes; but also the Indianapolis 500, the Monte Carlo rally – all events that have a culture of their own, above and beyond being ‘just another round of a championship’.
Twenty years ago, the great god was television. Great lengths were gone to, in order to ensure that ‘our’ product was suitable for televising. The world has moved on though. The public no longer watches television in the same way as it did twenty years ago. People want a race summary broadcast of an endurance race (in much the same way as they wanted DSJ’s GP reports back in the seventies), but more important today is the niche broadcast to those who have a specific interest. Those who watched BBC Ceefax to get news of Le Mans through the night in the eighties were perhaps ahead of their time.
The reason that what I call the “FIA Formula” evolved was that it made it easier for media organisations. Fixed times for press conferences, practice sessions and races, prescribed podium formats and an entry list fixed for the season meant that life became quite routine, if you were involved in the season-long championship; but it was meaningless for ad hoc reporting. And of course, the market, if you are selling a championship, is those with a season-long interest. The ad-hockers have to look after themselves.
What makes Bathurst, Le Mans, even the Indy 500 appealing is their uniqueness in the motor sporting calendar. By their very nature, they are ad-hoc events. In some ways, they provide a template for others to fit to, if they choose so to do.
What is not quite clear to me is whether the market wants something predictable, or whether part of the fun is in piecing together the various strands of information to extract what is going on. I get the impression, that to an extent, the internet-savvy motor sport fan of the twenty-first century derives a certain pleasure from finding video streaming channels, timing and scoring outlets, news and comment; even commentary (possibly).
But there’s another strand to this argument. Motor racing is something to be experienced first-hand. Formula 1 has undoubtedly sacrificed this principle to the dollars offered by television, but most people I speak to talk of their experiences being at races, seeing cars in the paddock, of talking to drivers and catching them in perhaps an off-guard moment, being – well – human. It’s my belief that it is this aspect that generates the appeal in the first place. Having kindled the fire of interest, then certainly, interest in a race may be clearly maintained by all manner of media outlets. But surely the most critical thing is making something that will get people through the gates in the first place – that is what will guarantee the future fans of the sport.
To my mind, the storyline of the race, whether it is won by clever strategy, sublime driving technique or sheer grunt under the bonnet, doesn’t have the same impact as standing beside the track, watching, feeling, smelling and of course hearing the action take place in front of you. However erudite and entertaining the commentators are, they will never be able to convey the full atmosphere of actually being there. However sophisticated online timing screens are, they are no substitute for seeing a car on and occasionally beyond its limit, controlled by someone whom you might have seen walking in the paddock earlier in the day, or standing in the bar later in the evening.
As always, your thoughts on the matter are welcome!