The BBC’s decision to end it’s F1 contract – three years earlier than planned, and only four years into the “shared” deal with Sky Sports – has been met with derision from stalwart F1 fans. But you can’t help but feel that the way the sport is functioning right now, it’s almost the best decision that could have been made.
Formula One has painted itself into a corner with complex engine rules that fans are struggling to understand, and the engine manufacturers themselves are becoming the dominant political force in the sport. Races are contested between the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in identical cars, and 2015 had the elements of surprise, like rain, intra-team collisions and technical failures surgically removed thanks to the tightening of efficiency of the way the German marque operates their team.
The other key factor affecting the promotion and broadcasting in Britain primarily is the waning interest of the Great British public.
Try as we might, there’s isn’t enough of a warming towards Lewis Hamilton and his march to three world championships. Not that there isn’t support, of course, but the casual British fan gravitates towards the story of triumph by a heroic underdog rather than a display of dominance or excellence. It’s engrained in our sports viewing psyche.
And despite the emulation of his hero Ayrton Senna by winning that third drivers title, Hamilton is now more synonymous for his love of his pet dogs, tattoos, changing hair colour, earrings, dress sense and increasing desire to become the next big thing in music. He’s almost an anti-ambassador for Formula One – instead of being the poster boy it so desperately craves, he’s introducing fans to areas of culture that they might never have heard of. The voting in the BBC’s Sports Personality award displayed at least some resistance to this.
The other British interests are at the other end of the grid putting on a brave face for the cameras whenever it’s called for. How long can Jenson Button spend shrugging his shoulders and grinning shrewdly, like through the whole of 2015, when his Honda power unit clung on long enough for him to finish 14th? He’s still universally popular with the fans, but even that can’t keep him on the grid forever.
Even further back, and despite his cameo on the Canadian GP coverage scalding Romain Grosjean in a Romford accent, is Will Stevens exposed enough to become a household name?
Both fit the plucky British underdog character that hooks us and keeps us intrigued, but you have to ask if there’s a point if the euphoric, memorable payoff will never arrive to satisfy us.
That’s probably the worst thing about Formula One, something that is making it less attractive for broadcasters to invest in; the discerning lack of unpredictability (or, if you will, the abundance of unpredictability).
The constant bureaucratic manner in which the rules and regulations are run is negating technological innovation, to come up with something original that gives a team a slight edge. If anything is invented, there’s protest after protest until it’s banned. Rulebooks have become so layered with sub articles and headers that loopholes have become like a trophy animal in a safari; they’re endangered beyond belief and callously exploited by the rich, richer and richest teams alike.
What is Formula One sold on then? It’s a prestigious, unique sport which boasts a great history; footage of heroes such as Senna, Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio come as part of the broadcast package in that Channel 4 will now get its hands on the FOM video vault. Die hard fans will lap that up, and TV channels with a strong production budget will source from these archives.
The other strong selling point for F1 is its potential. Yes, 2015 wasn’t as an exciting season as some from recent memory, but 2016 could see Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari challenge the Mercedes duo. It could see a team like Force India or Williams become more regular podium finishers, and it could see Max Verstappen carry on his reputation as the most exciting teenager on four wheels – none of these prophecies can be reviewed until November at the latest, so it’s all a guessing game. But it’s a game that experts, pundits, bloggers and fans play non-stop until early March, and creates a sense of “what if” that’s alluring and intoxicating.
Are both these factors enough for a British broadcaster to sign away £35m a season? Not for one as big as the BBC, and with the state the sport is currently in, who can blame them?