There is a fine line that separates innovation from revolution. Formula 1 has just begun its 74th season, a far from obvious milestone for a sport born in 1950 embracing the charm of a new technology.
Through seven decades Formula 1 has evolved, shed its skin several times and in different ways, accepting technological challenges that have traced paths or adapting to an evolving society. Seventy years later there are many challenges won as well as unhappy decisions in the archive, but above all there is a unique path, a tradition that no new project will ever have. It is the added value of Formula 1.
There are many aspects of this sport that have survived over time, becoming a common thread between what sport is today and what it was in the past, fixed points never involved in the many steps that have had to follow the course of innovation. Among these there is the format of the race weekend.
Over the years, the weekend has been the subject of various format changes, but three points have always been fundamental: free practice, qualifying, the race. The qualifying format has been modified on several occasions, but the three fundamental components have always been in place.
An important push came from Liberty Media with the introduction of the qualifying race, a variation of the format that touched a fundamental point, since the Grand Prix grid has always been formed on the basis of fast laps. Speaking yesterday from Portimao (in the context of the opening stage of the MotoGP world championship) former Ferrari boss and current Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali went further, stating that he in support of reducing free practice to a minimum, given that it only affects the engineers but does not involve the public. The goal, Domenicali reiterated, is to provide spectacularity every time you take to the track.
But what is the limit at which the show must stop? It’s perfectly fine to innovate, open up to new generations, keep up with the times and with new communication channels, everything is perfect. But since it is still a sport in the end, there must be a line beyond which the nature of a spectacle must stop. It depends on the nature of what is being offered to the public, the old and inflated comparison between boxing and wrestling is very fitting. Formula 1 has given up testing (because they didn’t bring earnings) and increased the number of races that bring money instead.
They reduced free practice from 90 to 60 minutes, then practically canceled it on weekends with the Sprint race, where it all ends on Friday morning following an hour of activity on a dirty track.
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Stefano Domenicali speaks of a further step and confirms that he would almost completely cancel on track activity not strictly linked to an official ranking. This is equivalent to a further growth in the importance of work on simulators, which are increasingly destined to become the fundamental step between success and defeat. Rather than the boring Friday activity of the engineers, there will be the celebration of what team got the correlation right. Is it a step forward?
Friday has already been squeezed enough in the hope of getting even more in terms of audience, but we are still talking about a working day and as such it will never guarantee shares up to the rest of the weekend.
Does it make sense to go further? It is true that an ‘ordinary’ Friday does not excite large crowds, but it is a fundamental step in preparing for the race weekend. Is it boring for the fans? Maybe, but there are also fans who constantly follow the two free practice sessions (the TV data confirm this) and to think that on Friday at noon millions of people gather in front of the televisions to watch the sprint race which determines the starting grid of another sprint events seems clearly unlikely. The circuits are already full, what’s the point of forcing the hand further?
The commercial rights holder ultimately does its job, which is to maximize profits. Among the many aspects that Liberty Media has taken on (successfully) there is not that of protecting the DNA of Formula 1, on the other hand it is not written anywhere that the US company will continue to manage the sport in the long run, and once the scepter has been handed over, whether or not the pieces will remain is not a problem for those who leave. Instead, it is a matter for the FIA, whose presence is not felt as it would be required in these cases.
The International Federation holds the role of guarantor, it is the (non-profit) entity that must safeguard precisely those values that business tends to undermine. Minimizing free practice is fine for Liberty Media, less so for Formula 1, and this is where the FIA needs to come into the picture. It’s up to them to make the borderline visible to everyone, remembering that it is healthy to want to grow and innovate, but it is also risky and potentially suicidal to want to completely change.
It is important that the FIA makes its voice heard now, because the risk of changes in these months will potentially be higher. The failure of the regulations that should have leveled the values in the field is putting the system under stress.
The promoters who have paid large sums to host a race in the second half of the season know that they will most likely see a championship already over, and even the Las Vegas show will hardly have any impact on the world title.
A scenario that always has to be taken into account when selling (or buying) a sports show: an incredible show like the 2021 Formula 1 season can take shape, or a boring era of dominance with a low-adrenaline team-driver combination can exist. It is the unpredictability of a sport. If there was a script it would no longer be a sport.