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Opinion: F1 portrays an image of success but the reality is worrying from the perspective of a core fan

By Tom Gibson | April 23, 2024

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Are you an F1 fan? Let us know how you perceive the current state of the sport.

Opinion: F1 portrays an image of success but the reality is worrying from the perspective of a core fan

For many, F1 is the modern-day example of how sport should be marketed.

Since Liberty Media bought it from CVC Capital Partners in 2017 for $4.4bn, the sport’s general audience has grown astronomically, largely driven by being the first major sport to become dramatized through a Netflix documentary.

Drive to Survive is a terrible show that manufactures drama to create storylines in F1 that the watching audience feels like they simply must follow.

Despite being a terrible show, you cannot argue it hasn’t achieved what it set out to do. Flocks of new fans have snapped up tickets to watch their new heroes at every opportunity, with an average of 300,000 attending every race in 2023, compared to just over 200,000 in 2017 – the year of the takeover.

Forbes estimates F1’s value has grown significantly as a result, valuing it at over $17bn. Liberty Media themselves turned down an offer from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund of over $20bn last year.

But for all the talk of a growing audience and booming financials – F1 sits in a worrying position.

To the core fan, F1 seems intent on hurting itself and it’s becoming increasingly difficult each week to tune in and support the direction of the sport.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way early on – this isn’t a piece designed to criticise the dominance of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. The Dutch driver has arguably already cemented his place in the sport’s list of all-time greats at the tender age of 26.

He will, without a doubt, win his fourth World Championship in 2024 and his fifth in 2025.

Now of course, the certainty around these championship wins isn’t great from a neutral perspective, but in this instance, it’s clear to anyone who wants to see it that sporting greatness is unfolding in front of our eyes – that’s if you’re still watching.

F1’s owners have their hands tied to a degree when it comes to creating a level playing field that would generate more race drama as they have introduced a cost cap already – albeit some teams can’t spend its limit.

What they do have direct control of, though, is the car regulations and the circuits where they race. And time after time they seem to be making bad decisions on both fronts.

The cars

As of 2026, the regulations around the cars will change again and their performance will largely be driven by the engine, as opposed to aerodynamics. The last time this happened was in 2014 at the beginning of the turbo-hybrid era and Mercedes-Benz won eight consecutive constructors titles.

Expert designer, Adrian Newey, has already warned that 2026 will be a strange time for F1 cars as the internal combustion engines effectively become generators for the electric motor. That’s because power output will need to be split 50/50 between the engine and electric motor for the first time as the manufacturers push towards electrification.

The disappointing aspect of this for the fan is that electric cars simply don’t have, and will never have, the same air of excitement that a screaming petrol-powered engine provides.

And, given some manufacturers believe the combustion engine will still be the dominant force on our roads for decades ahead, but simply powered by synthetic fuels, many are asking why F1 and its teams haven’t pursued a formula with an engine powered by sustainable fuels instead.

The circuits

Then we get to the circuits – another killer for the core fan.

Street circuits typically provide poor races and they don’t represent what F1 is about.

Now you could argue the fact that Monaco, arguably the most famous F1 circuit, is a street circuit renders this point completely redundant.

But the speciality in Monaco is that it was a unique challenge that presented a great battle between track and driver. The fact that F1 cars have outgrown Monaco and it’s comfortably the most boring race on the calendar isn’t even relevant here.

Monaco is now one of 7 street circuits on the calendar, and F1 will shortly head to the worst of them, Miami, at the start of May.

As opposed to rolling out street circuit after street circuit, F1 needs to remember what it’s about.

Instead, though, a street circuit in Madrid will join the calendar in 2026 with the Circuit de Catalunya dropping out while the legendary Spa will likely drop off the calendar after 2025.

Other famous circuits such as Monzo, Imola, Zandvoort all have contracts expiring next year too and may be used on rotation from 2026 to accommodate yet more street circuits, with Vietnam rumoured to be a future host.

All of which is highly frustrating for the core F1 who would’ve intended to be there, tuning in, long after Drive to Survive has been forgotten about.

Critics to this piece could rightly argue that it’s drafted from an ageing, European lens – and they would have a point. But when push comes to shove and audiences can see for themselves that Drive to Survive is a far cry from what F1 is actually about – as they are doing now with viewership figures plummeting -  it’s going to be this ageing, European lens that props up the sport from a viewership perspective.

Agree or disagree? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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