By Nathan Green
Opinion. Noun. Def: A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge:
Example: ‘That, in my opinion, is right.’
Formula 1 is, without any doubt or controversy, the absolute pinnacle of motorsport technology and safety. However, recently, for example, audience numbers have dropped by around 50 million, or 10%. For anybodies money, that is a significant chunk.
Many people have exclaimed that the racing has become uneventful, even boring, and that too much emphasis has been placed on reliability, safety, driver aids and strategy when compared to the apparently full-on, balls-out racing of previous eras, when the cars regularly smashed up, blew up or rolled over and lots of people died.
In the sixties and seventies in particular, Formula 1 captivated a huge worldwide audience thanks to, quite frankly, insane driving skills and an abhorrent safety record. I use the word ‘insane’ because piloting a Formula 1 car during that era exposed drivers to 200mph top speeds with hardly any safety devices. I say ‘piloting’ because the cars would frequently become airborne and collide with obstacles you’d expect the Red Bull Air Racers to be contesting with.
In fact, in 1968, Scottish racing icon and all round gentleman, Jim Clark, was killed during a Formula racing event in Hockenheim, Germany, when his car left the track at high speed, throwing him out of the cockpit and into a tree 15 feet above the ground. He died the same day as a result of a broken neck and a fractured skull. May he rest in peace.
After this horrific event, it was Jim Clark’s fellow drivers who decided enough was enough, it was time for change.
Although their ‘jobs’ were extremely well paid and afforded them a life of luxury and fame, the fact that their peers were being killed on an almost weekly basis lead the drivers to question the ethics of their sport. Surely human life should not be considered a disposable commodity while the F1 establishment were busy selling the television rights to a world audience, and the competing teams, mostly mainstream vehicle manufacturers, were chasing the worldwide accolade of a Formula 1 championship win and the associated sales success.
In the late sixties, lots of pressure was applied by the drivers to the powers that be to make changes to improve safety, reduce injuries and eliminate deaths in Formula 1. Initially, the people at the top of the F1 hierarchy seemed somewhat ignorant and reluctant to change, mostly due to the costs involved, apparently. Some might say they were too busy selling massive advertising deals to multinational companies and increasing their personal wealth whilst the very people who provided the skill and entertainment quite literally crashed and burned in front of a live audience. Obviously I would never suggest such a thing, partly because I’m not that outlandish but mostly Bernie Ecclestone is a multi-billionaire supported by a legal team worth more than the Manchester City starting eleven. It may be unwise to suggest such things about such powerful people, me thinks.
All I know is millions of people weirdly (or not?) find entertainment value in watching car crash videos on YouTube. Furthermore, I have watched interviews of F1 fans suggesting they mainly go to see a crash, particularly at Monaco where there are usually many crashes. Oh to seek happiness and humour in other peoples’ misfortune, aren’t we an adorable species sometimes?
Anyway, I digress. Eventually, and thankfully, the safety of the highly regaled drivers and race track attending spectators did become a prime focus for the purveyors of Formula 1 and the important thing is this- since those fateful days, much has changed. Yes, advertising revenues still provide a massive income for Bernie and his cronies, however, nobody has died driving an F1 car since the tragic death of Formula 1 legend, Ayrton Senna, at the 1994 Italian Grand Prix.
The single reason for this? The huge leap forward in safety. A modern F1 car is a marvel of material technology- carbon fibre, Nomex and Zylon all add their own level of protection. All three combined make for a super strong, shatter and splinter-proof monocoque chassis with an unrivalled safety record.
How safe is Formula 1 these days? Here’s an example- in 2008, during a test session, Lewis Hamilton hit a tyre wall, travelling backwards at approximately 180mph. He suffered no serious injuries, only winding himself and ending up a little shaken, as perhaps, you would. Later, during an interview with Jeremy Clarkson, Lewis described this massive car crash as ‘quite a nice shunt’.
Wow. I can only imagine Jim Clark would have said something quite different had he survived his crash in his Lotus 48 back in ’68. That’s the profound effect these advancements in safety have provided, it really has made a life or death difference.
In conjunction with car safety, huge measures have been taken to protect spectators and improve the way accidents are managed. These days, at least 5 fire engines, each manned by 4 fire fighters, are available at any one time during a race weekend. Ambulances and dozens of doctors and health professionals are on hand at all times, backed up by helicopter which are on permanent standby, just in case injuries cannot be effectively treated at the scene.
To avoid needing a trip to hospital, or the morgue, every driver and member of the pit crew wears an overall made with a Nomex brand fibre in which they can survive for 11 seconds in temperatures of 840 degrees Celsius. By comparison that is the approximate temperature of lava ejected during a volcanic eruption. Toasty to say the least.
Also impressive is the 12,000 microthreads that now make up a Formula 1 drivers helmet? Each one of these microthreads is 15 times thinner than a single human hair. The total length of all the threads processed in one helmet is approximately 16,000 kilometres. Excellent news considering F1 drivers, like most of us, operate much more effectively without any holes in their heads or swelling in their brains.
Formula 1 cars are technically fantastic and, now, are relatively safe. The drivers are still insane but none of them are dying or being gravely injured on a regular basis. The investments made in promoting a vast improvement in safety are not conducive to a drop in audience numbers. The reason for the drop, I believe, is the huge gap in performance and ability between the top teams and the teams fighting for position on the back half of the grid.
Let’s compare Formula 1 to the Barclay’s Premier League. Car racing versus football. International level sport, broadcast internationally versus national level sport, also broadcast internationally. The television audience for Premier League games over one season is 4.7 billion people and the broadcasting contracts for 2013-16 are worth £5.5 billion. By comparison, the television audience for Formula 1 is 450 million and only brings in around £300 million in revenue each season.
Why, you might ask, would a national sport invoke such a massive global response? Because, dear readers, the Barclay’s Premier League showcases some of the worlds best footballers but has a propensity for being relatively evenly matched, especially when compared to the teams competing in Formula 1.
The outrageous financial difference displayed by F1 team operations, if compared to football, would reflect a Premier League made up of Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Leeds United, Swindon Town, Forest Green Rovers, Shortwood United and the Stroud Harriers.
The drop is due to F1’s unattractiveness to the average television viewer. The die-hard fans will always watch due to a genuine interest in the sport. However, it is the season packed with close, nail-biting racing that provides an upward trend in viewer numbers. F1 audiences have historically increased when the point differential between the highest and lowest performer is minimal. Unfortunately, the big boys who keep winning everything will make this very difficult to achieve because the more genuine contenders there are in the Formula 1 championship, the less chance they have of winning it. They would rather keep winning the easy money instead of battling it out every season just to please the viewers.
And that, in my opinion, is wrong.