29 August 2014
F1: Kate Walker: The rock and the hard place
Kate Walker points out that "improving the show" could be pointless for F1 if people aren't able to see it in the first place
If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If Formula One offers fans a brilliant season of racing - arguably the best in recent memory - but there's no one there to watch it, can the sport survive?
The catchphrase of Formula One in 2014 is “improving the show”. But whatever efforts are made to make our sport more attractive to spectators, any discussions on the matter that have taken place between the paddock's big cheeses have wilfully ignored the neon pink 800lb gorilla spotlit in the corner: we have made it impossible for all but the most dedicated to follow our sport.
In my last season as a TV spectator, grands prix were held every two weeks, with the odd back-to-back shaking up the schedule. Last season we had seven back-to-backs, and no scheduling consistency. This season the gaps between races are so erratic that few can remember which race is taking place when without double-checking the calendar. Planning to watch F1 on TV is not as easy as it could be.
And that's assuming the fan in question has already subscribed to a TV service that carries the package.
Much ink has already been spilled on the way in which the move to subscription-only TV packages has slashed F1's viewing figures. Casual fans who might have sat through a race on a Sunday afternoon in the absence of anything better to watch no longer have that option.
Crucially, however, the lack of background exposure means that Formula One is no longer a topic of national discussion around office water-coolers. By fading from casual public notice, the sport is not only costing itself money as sponsorship income collapses, but it is also keeping itself hidden from potential future fans who can bring the viewing figures back up (and with them the sponsorship cash).
As things stand right now, Formula One is offering top tier entertainment. We have the Mercedes rivalry (with your choice of hero and villain!) we have Daniel Ricciardo blowing his multi-titled teammate out of the water while sneaking into championship contention as the Silver Arrows stumble; Fernando Alonso continues to wring the neck out of his car while Kimi Raikkonen looks to have joined the party at last.
Then there's the Williams renaissance, and a season that has so far offered epic grands prix in Bahrain, Canada, Germany, and Hungary, with excellent racing at the bulk of the other venues visited thus far.
Both sets of championship standings have their own stories to tell, from teammate wars to the decline of McLaren (although the British team look to be improving), while Marussia's lead over Sauber in the constructors' fight adds its own dimension of drama to the mid-field.
As a form of on-track entertainment, Formula One is in some of the rudest health it's ever been.
But given that no one can afford to watch it - either on track or on TV (and let's not even go into our ridiculous relationship with the internet…) - the quality of our show is irrelevant. The big cheeses need to forget about fixing the show and instead focus their attention on improving the access to grow the fanbase.
By Kate Walker
Kate Walker is a senior F1 writer for Crash.net. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, she keeps an eye on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that makes Formula One a political melodrama.
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