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Formula One

CATCH US IF YOU CAN

Max Verstappen's race to the F1 title makes it this year’s biggest sporting non-event. But is it because we now, as a watching public, know more about the people involved than the sport itself?  

WORDS: Sam Cooper PHOTOGRAPHY: Red Bull Media House 

 

When does brilliance become boring? That is the question Formula 1 has been asking itself of late. The 2023 season has been less of a sporting competition and more a scientific experiment of just how far one team, and in particular one driver, can go.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is a generational talent, nurtured by his Formula 1 racing father Jos to do one thing – drive fast and win. At 26, he is already amongst the best to ever do it and on his way to matching the seven championships of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton with the only thing likely to stop him being his frustration with the many labours that come with being a Formula 1 driver. If he had it his way, he would turn up to the track on Friday, speak to no-one but his team and leave Sunday night where he would go back to competing in sim racing events from his Monaco seafront home.

Due to his father’s fame, Verstappen’s life has been played out in front of the lens. A chubby-cheeked child turned into a talented but hot-headed young prodigy before a maiden title saw another transformation. The temper has largely subsided for a near robot-like ability to produce perfection.

The early stages of his Formula 1 career, which began in 2015, were characterised by frustration. Mercedes was at the peak of its powers and Red Bull were unable to lay a glove on them. That all changed in 2021. The RB16B car provided Verstappen a platform to showcase his excellence but the subsequent RB18 and RB19 have pushed the Dutchman to new heights, ones that even he and the team may not have thought possible.

Having beaten Mercedes to the Drivers’ title for the first time since 2013, a new era was ushered in for the 2022 campaign. Massive changes to the regulations with regards to chassis sent Red Bull to the top of the tree. At the same time, Mercedes came tumbling down, the team putting too much faith in an ineffective car design and being too stubborn to admit when they got it wrong. The Silver Arrows had been knocked off their perch, and in their place stepped a Red Bull team that had been chasing an illusive Constructors’ title for nine years. Christian Horner’s side seemed determined more than ever to not only right that stat, but surpass any record of its great rivals.

The first year under the new regulations saw the team start behind Ferrari but soon enough the Milton Keynes outfit wrestled control. Winning all but one of the last 11 races, Red Bull secured the title at a canter but even that success was nothing like we have witnessed in 2023.

 

 

Sergio Perez closes in on George Russell at Monza in the 2023 Italian Grand Prix

 

By almost every metric, Red Bull’s season has been historic. The previous benchmark of dominance had been set by the 1988 McLaren team with Aryton Senna and Alain Prost combining to win all but one of the 16 races, an event witnessed by Horner while he was “still in short trousers”, but it’s Red Bull that constitute the new gold standard. Come the summer break in 2023, it looked not just plausible but likely that Red Bull will go one better than McLaren could.

It was to be the race in Singapore that would end Red Bull’s streak. A track that proved to be a thorn in Mercedes’ side during their years at the top seemed custom-built to bring out the worst of the RB19. For a car that has looked so effortlessly smooth at all times, Verstappen found himself sliding uncontrollably across the tarmac. A double exit in Q2 for the first time since 2018 and a track that does not lend itself to overtaking meant even a six-place improvement on his starting position would see Verstappen end P5. But the status quo was soon resumed. The following race at Suzuka, a favoured track amongst the drivers, Verstappen finished a dust-swallowing 19 seconds ahead of the rest of the field.

Between the Miami Grand Prix and the Italian, Verstappen reached 10 consecutive wins, another record he would add to his collection this time at the expense of Sebastian Vettel. He looks set to take a few more records off the German. Most points in a season, biggest points gap between first and second and at the time of writing he looks likely to surpass his own record of most wins in a single year.

But to reduce the Dutchman’s 2023 charge to numbers would be to do him a disservice. As early as the pre-season test in Bahrain, George Russell predicted Red Bull would win every race this year, but while Sergio Perez has faltered, Verstappen has been an unrelenting cut above the rest. The faint flicker of a title race was extinguished after Perez’s capitulation came at the same time as Verstappen reached a unique level of understanding between driver and car. The Dutchman has won a third title, and it was his easiest yet.

 

Mad Max Verstappen is welcomed home by the Orange Army at the Dutch Grand Prix.

 

And so the question that has often haunted Formula 1 returns, is it boring? The nature of the sport in comparison to others does lend itself to extended periods of dominance. Athletes are less susceptible to injury and although there has been an unusually high number this season, Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo have both broken their hands, Formula 1 drivers tend to be exempt from the aches and pains suffered by other competitors. F1 is also less influenced by luck than other sports. A team such as Manchester City could lose a game by the odd goal – scored from a set piece or a speculative shot from distance. A similar comparison in Formula 1 would be a driver crashing into the wall to open the contest. It’s something which Verstappen has looked incapable of this year.

Periods of dominance are also nothing new, McLaren, Williams and Ferrari all enjoyed sustained success in the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s respectively, but the improvement of reliability is what is making these dynasties last longer. Mercedes won a record eight Constructors' titles in a row, beating the previous tally of six set by Ferrari at the turn of the millennium. With no significant regulation change due until 2026, Red Bull could feasibly add two more Championships to their already bursting trophy cabinet. But, in contrast to previous dominance, this Red Bull team is being watched by a new audience and one that is feeling decidedly short changed.

When American multi-media company Liberty Media acquired the commercial rights to the sport in 2016, they did so at the end of a dramatic year. One which saw team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battle for the world title and almost bring the Mercedes team down with them. The following seasons were less dramatic but behind the scenes, Liberty was still only getting its feet under the table. New race venues were being planned and prepared for, the idea of Sprint events was being formulated, and in 2018 the Netflix cameras were allowed over the velvet rope for the first time, forever altering the perception of the 68-year-old sport.

The resulting docu-series, Drive to Survive, would prove to have an influence on its subject that no other sporting documentary can claim to have had. A glance at the viewing figures, especially from the US, backs up that statement. The sport’s US broadcaster ESPN recorded an average of 554,000 viewers in 2018. In 2022, it was 1.21 million. A poll by Morning Consult in March 2022 found of nearly 1,900 US F1 fans, 53 percent credited Drive to Survive as a reason they became fans. Viewership of the show has increased at a similar rate. The Athletic reports that 288,286 viewers tuned in during the first week of the debut season in 2019. The most recent season attracted more than double that.

Liberty’s opening of the door to the cameras and an expansion of races also coincided perfectly with events unfolding on and around the track. With Drive to Survive now part of the F1 lexicon, and the new fans it drew now tuning into the sport, they were treated to one of the most competitive and dramatic seasons in decades – 2021.

It was a year of endless ups and downs, controversy, and something that Formula 1 had been starved of – a genuine title fight between two different constructors. Ten months of warring boiled down to a single final lap of the final race of the season, with an incident that is still just as radioactive for teams to talk about now two years on.

The sport’s governing body, the FIA, may have suffered as a result of the Abu Dhabi controversy, but for Liberty, business was booming. The cumulative audience for 2021 was 1.55 billion worldwide, a four per cent increase from 2020. The series finale alone drew 108.7 million viewers, 29 per cent higher than the same race in 2020.

Liberty may have – with good reason – thought this was the start of their very own gold rush. The regulation changes in 2022 promised a further reshuffling of the pack and with a cost cap now in place, it put a leash on the bigger teams and in theory prevented them from running away from the rest of the grid. Although plans for an inaugural Miami Grand Prix had long been in place, the explosion of interest in 2021 confirmed the belief that the Florida-based race had enough demand. In 2023, they return to Las Vegas for the first time since racing in Caesars Palace’s car park in 1984. But the mood feels altogether different.

What Liberty, owners of the Bernie Ecclestone-founded Formula One Management (FOM), did not account for was a 65-year-old man from Colchester – Adrian Newey. At a time when other designers were scrambling around for an idea of how to get the best out of the new ground effect focused regulations, Newey simply had recalled the university thesis he had written decades earlier. The RB18 required just four races to take control from Ferrari and from then, the car has only looked back in its rear-view mirror.

Now, two years after the events of 2021, and viewership is going in the wrong direction. Red Bull’s strangulation of both titles has resulted in ESPN averaging 1.24 million viewers compared to last year’s 1.3 million. Fans have switched off after a sustained era of one team and one driver winning. Social media interactions – the new currency in the modern age – are also down from 6.14 million mentions in 2022 to 1.83 million in 2023. Formula 1 had got used to drawing eyeballs away from other sports on a Sunday afternoon, and yet it is now F1 watching its fans turn to other means of entertainment.

While it is not Liberty who defines the sporting regulations, they are not without blame. In their effort to conquer America, they have made unwise steps which has uneased the US fanbase. Away from the on-track action, a storyline that just won’t go away is Andretti Global’s campaign to secure a place on the grid. The IndyCar and American motorsport legends have been angling for a move into Formula 1 since 2021, but have so far found plenty of doors closing rather than opening in front of them.

Although they received approval from the FIA in early October, the Formula 1 teams – reluctant to share their collective pie with another mouth – have argued Andretti would not bring enough value to make up for a loss of income, and Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff in particular has led this charge. An accusation that they did not have a major company behind them was answered with the partnering of General Motors, an alliance which would see a prospective team run as Andretti-Cadillac and yet still, they are no closer to getting a spot.

Of the two controlling parties, it is the FIA that has been more open to the idea. Launching an Expression of Interest process led to a lengthy period of consultation, during which of the four applicants in the hunt, only Andretti were given the seal of approval. But even then, they need to get FOM on their side. This reluctance to see one of America’s biggest racing families added to the grid – plus sky high ticket prices – has the US audience feeling as if it is their money not their talent the sport is after.

So, what comes next for the sport? Drive to Survive promised its audience a season of back and forth, with unlimited intrigue. But now, clips that would have previously been left on the cutting room floor, may have to be used out of desperation in the trailers.

But even if viewing figures are down, interest from big companies is just as high as ever. Red Bull pockets $100 million per season from American multinational computer technology company Oracle. Mercedes receives $75 million a year from Malaysian energy group Petronas and even the world’s entertainment superstars are seemingly interested in getting involved.

While the ‘celebrity owner’ factor has swept footbal, the craze has also permeated into Formula 1. Fresh from taking over Wrexham A.F.C., Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds and TV’s Rob McElhenney became part owners of the Alpine F1 team earlier this year in a deal worth £171 million for a 24 per cent shareholding. There is every sign that they will not be the last either, for while Formula 1 teams are reluctant to sell full control, they are more than open to bringing in major partners and sponsors as a means of inflating bank balances. Jim Ratcliffe’s one-third ownership of the Mercedes team is testament to that.

For all its criticism, the 2023 season was not a complete disaster. To witness a team and driver so in sync, performing at such a high level, is a spectacle not often appreciated until long after the event. Looking back at Michael Schumacher’s career now often looks past the same criticism the sport faces today. This revisionism has even been applied to Hamilton’s dominant run.

But away from Red Bull and Verstappen, 2023 has actually been one of the most tightly contested seasons in F1 history. There have been 11 different drivers from six different teams on the podium. The title of second-best constructor has swung widely from Silverstone to Brackley to Woking and to Maranello.

Each have had their moment in the sun. Aston Martin defied expectations to take a car that finished P7 overall the season before to one that could earn Fernando Alonso his first podium in two years. Mercedes, finally opting to ditch their so-called ‘zero pods’ design in favour of a more conventional approach, found improved performance in Spain and Canada.

But it was McLaren who performed one of the biggest in-season improvements in living memory. At a time when cost cap prevents teams from spending their way out of trouble, McLaren debuted an upgrade package in Austria that would send them flying up the order and with two talented youngsters in Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, the future is looking very bright for one of the sport’s oldest teams.

Another of F1’s veterans, Ferrari, now under the stewardship of Fred Vasseur, are going through a recovery of their own. The SF-23 was designed with fundamental flaws and a new approach is on its way for 2024, but they have found good levels of performance in the meantime, particularly at Monza and then Singapore.  With Carlos Sainz, at the time of writing, being the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race this year.

 

Red Bull number two, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz chew the fat ahead of race day in Singapore. 

 

Further down the grid, Williams are seeing the first flowering of former Mercedes senior staff member James Vowles’ work in a project that could match McLaren’s exploits down the line. Your usual dose of F1 madness can be found at Alpine where they sacked team principal Otmar Szafnauer and 34-year veteran Alan Permane only to ask them to work one more race in the same way departing employees must serve out a notice period.

AlphaTauri have had their moments with the return of Daniel Ricciardo and the impressive debut of Liam Lawson, in after the Australian broke his hand in Zandvoort. Haas too, with the money of new title sponsor MoneyGram behind them, have been able to reach the cost cap for the first time and Ricciardo’s former team-mate Nico Hülkenberg has proven that the talent is still there even after three years out of the sport. That leaves just Alfa Romeo – lacklustre in 2023 – but even they have excitement up ahead in the form of a partnership with Audi, the takeover happening in 2026.

 

Alpha Tauri's 23-year-old Japanese pocket-rocket, Yuki Tsunoda.

 

But these subplots alone are not enough to whet the appetite of an audience over-excited by 2021. So, what can the sport do about it? Formula 1 has not been averse to changing the rules in order to disrupt the status quo. 2022 saw major regulation changes to the chassis, 2026 will see similar done to the power unit, but while those plans are long in the making, the sport’s rule makers, the FIA, has been known to change things with little notice.

During Mercedes’ run, it was a mechanical system known as Front and Rear Interconnected Suspension or FRICS that was outlawed. In early 2005, Ferrari were left dismayed when the FIA made the decision to ban tyre changes, a rule that was reversed in 2006 but not before Renault had snatched the title away. Active suspension – one that uses an onboard system to control vertical movement – put the kibosh on Williams’ dominance in the 1990s. The FIA often />maintains it will not intervene to break up a dominant outfit, but a glance at the history books shows the flaws in that argument.

For now, Red Bull remains unaffected. A technical directive introduced last season and then beefed up this year to curb cars’ porpoising effect was mooted as a possible thorn in the side of Red Bull, only for that claim to quickly be proven false.

Another rule change made ahead of the Singapore race, in regard to the increased policing of flexible parts, was put forward as the cause of the team’s struggle. But that too was dismissed following the race in Suzuka.

Then also comes the question of fairness. Why should one team that simply did the job better than others be made to suffer? Had there not been such a history of meddling then such quick-fire rule changes would be rejected by fans and teams alike but there has been and as such, rule changes are not only allowed but expected.

Liberty and the FIA have a tough line to walk, they have a product that needs a shot of adrenaline in order for it to continue to be a rising star. But without being too heavy-handed, risking jeopardising the integrity of the sport. It is a task that requires a fair amount of teamwork between the two parties which would be easier were they not at war with one another.

The relationship between the two has been tense for as long as both parties have existed.  But of late, the Andretti dilemma has served to drive an even wider wedge between them.

This divide was only worsened when FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem suggested earlier this year that a reported $20 billion Saudi bid for FOM was well ‘over value’. That assertion landed him a strongly worded letter from the usually silent Liberty, and Ben Sulayem was forced to take a step back. Although it has not stopped him sniping from the back benches. Seemingly determined to curry favour with F1 fans, his latest suggestion was to add more teams and have fewer races – two measures that Liberty believes would directly hurt its profits.

It is that profit that will be most concerning to Formula 1. They took the unusual step of promoting and running the Vegas race themselves, meaning there is an enormous bill to foot. To pay for that, Liberty need as many races and as many fans tuning in as possible. As they cannot guarantee that if one team and one driver continues to be so suffocatingly brilliant it will remain the case. The upturn of form in McLaren has brought hope that 2024 could be a closer affair, if not then the question Liberty will be asking itself is has Formula 1’s bubble burst?

 

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