It is a curiosity of sport that we crave the elite – the best quality and entertainment – but when that leads to dominance we recoil in the horror of boredom.
Manchester City this season are as good an example as any but even going further afield, all but one of the major European football leagues are already decided and we are not yet through lent. Mainstream football gave up all attempts at meaningful competition this year and embraced ennui.
Most admire the quality and marvel at the technical prowess of teams like City and Barcelona but just as many now yawn at the predictability and begin to wonder if any sport will be able to reverse the trend of the rich getting richer and champions rolling onwards into back-to-back champs and then gilded, established dynasties.
International cricket is becoming the same, with India, England and Australia hoarding the lion’s share of the cash while global rugby is an All-Black procession. And it grates.
Manchester City’s dominance this season means the Premier League is short of intrigue (Getty)
Sports fans crave two major tenets and those are entertainment and unpredictability. Those behind the NFL’s growing popularity in the UK believe the capacity of teams to go from worst to first in a couple of seasons as a crucial factor in its rise outside American shores. Mechanisms to ensure parity retain the necessary intrigue virtually by decree – a sport where the only way to stay bad is exceptional levels of incompetence (that’s you, the Cleveland Browns).
Executives of top-six Premier League clubs have privately admitted that Leicester City’s title win, though frustrating for their expensively-assembled squads, was good business, it is why match-fixing – the removal of unpredictability – is such a heinous crime in the eyes of fans and, ahead of this new Formula One season, it was the sport’s new chief executive Chase Carey who broke its own omertà to say in the open that his sport needs to move away from what has become a globetrotting procession where Lewis Hamilton ends up soullessly spraying champagne in the direction of the closet underling on a near-weekly basis.
Carey said he wanted to make F1 “more competitive, less predictable and with more action.” Easier said than done when Ferrari and Mercedes wield so much power. The latter have won the last four constructors’ championships since the V6 engine change. Red Bull won the four before that. Lewis Hamilton has won three of the last four drivers’ titles. Sebastian Vettel notched four before that. Formula One’s intrigue is largely lost.
Perhaps someone will go wheel-to-wheel for fifth place while Hamilton continues his procession to first but that doesn’t exactly fill the senses. Continuing to trot out a product like that is complacency and it is a complacency not going unnoticed.
“The new Formula One has to be right first time,” says Chase as his sport looks to reboot. “We’ve got to get it bullseye first time.”
It is a rare admission of desperation from a sport aware of the world changing around it.
Because as the new Formula One season arrives, so too does a collective shrug from the public. Liberty Media, the sport’s new owner, has learned some harsh lessons in the year or so since its £6.4bn takeover and outside the hardcore support it is yet to truly convince.
While the sport itself is well-known, their plans for it are not. Confusion reigns.
Formula 1: Official intro video
Carey, for example, dismisses Formula E, an idea conceived in part by motorsport’s global governing body, the FIA, in 2011 and executed by former F1 magnate Alejandro Agag. Carey described it as more akin to a “street party” than a direct rival. They are, he said, “not a competitor to us in many ways.”
But Formula One’s commercial boss Sean Bratches has spent this week talking up the need for the traditionalists to wake up and follow the lead of their electric cousins.
“We want to really engage fans through food courts, static car shows, Pirelli show tyres, sponsor activations, merchandise sales.
“In the broadest sense we are trying to reposition F1 from a motorsport company to a media and entertainment brand.”
Chase Carey, Formula One chief executive, faces big decisions on the horizon (Getty)
At such a time of flux for F1, Formula E is just finding its feet. It has more of a start-up feel when compared to the behemoth of Bernie Ecclestone’s making, but as founder and president Agag explains to The Independent, this might just be a far more relevant motorsport to the 21st century. That word comes up more than once:
“The idea came about from a group of people already in motorsport – what you might call traditional motorsport – and we recognised the need for a more relevant motorsport.
“It would be more in touch with the worries of the younger generation now – the big challenges of climate change and pollution – there was a need for that.
“It was an idea, a crazy idea, and many people in the world of motorsport said it wasn’t going to work but we were able, after three years of hard work, to do this. But everything is the result of the key idea behind it which is relevant motorsport. Because people love motorsport and those same people tend to love new technologies and innovation and those things came together to work and it exploded.”
Formula E Gen2 car unveiled at Geneva International Motor Show
Now in its fourth season, Formula E is only just beginning to make a splash in traditional media. But on social media, where they concentrate their efforts using influencer marketing and a tone more suited to its principally millennial and Generation Z audience, they are already enjoying significant success.
No race was ever won on social media though, even if Formula E’s attempts to introduce ‘Fan Boost’ mean that whoever wins an online popularity contest before each weekend receives and extra 30kw (roughly 40bhp) kick during the race.
That may not last forever, a smart method for promoting engagement but largely a gimmick that ends up insignificant over the course of the season. Far more important features of the world’s first major electric motorsport are the battery-powered cars, the low price and accessibility of a largely street-circuit calendar and, in stark comparison to its petrol-fuelled cousin, unpredictability.
“I think the races are much closer because when you watch the races you don’t know who will win.
“In Formula E the uncertainty is complete – anyone can win these races, and I mean anyone. This is very good, we love it but it is a different type of racing with the management of the batteries, the backdrop of the cities, it is just a very different show,” says Agag.
Alejandro Agag does not see Formula E as a rival for F1, rather a complementary pursuit (EPA)
Notably he is keen not to get into a tit-for-tat with F1, where he cut his teeth in motorsport before a brief period as chairman of QPR. It means those looking for a war of words between sports powered by electric and fossil fuels will need to look elsewhere.
“I think fans can watch both. I think we don’t compete with each other,” he says.
“The better Formula One does, the better we will do. Because I don’t think it’s a zero sum game where they lose and we win. We compete with football, golf, tennis. They are our competitors. Young people who watch Formula One watch Formula E because they are complementary. Formula One and us are in the same boat.”
But where is that boat headed?
At a time when manufacturers are threatening to leave F1, they are queueing up to join Formula E – perhaps most understandable when you look at it from a research and development angle.
For years it was F1 engineering that brought about innovation that would transfer to the cars we bought on the roads. In an era of halos and vehicles more akin to spaceships, that time appears to have passed but electric car technology is an essential and growing part of every automotive manufacturer’s future. To assist that, the build of each car – wing shapes and the like – is identical across the grid with teams focusing on the electric racing technology instead. The batteries used within the sport already race faster and last twice as long as those in the first season, four years ago, and those advances will be in consumer showrooms across the world within a decade.
“The reality is the technical side of it is very different,” says James Barclay, team director of the Panasonic Jaguar team.
“We develop our own e-motors, our own invertors, our own gearboxes and our own suspensions, all our control systems… and the reason Formula E do that is because these we want to focus on the technologies for cars that are going to drive on the road.
“We could go and spend tens of millions on aerodynamics, tweaking angles, but it doesn’t improve the racing, the show, or create new technologies. So we’ve focused on innovations that are going to drive the development of electric cars forward.”
James Barclay says Jaguar are focused on innovation (Getty)
Nissan, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes are set to join the likes of Audi and Jaguar Land Rover – amongst others – in plugging themselves into Formula E, while McLaren are designing the battery that will be used in each car next season. The names are significant for those who have got this sport off the ground.
“We said we were going to do races in cities and we have done it. It was uncharted waters but now we come back to these cities and we know how to do it because we have done it. They said we couldn’t attract the manufacturers but we have done it,” adds Agag.
“We know we can execute.”
But perhaps the most significant thing, beyond the relevance of more environmentally-friendly vehicles and the integration of esports and social media, remains that unpredictability. It is what those American sports have played on as they look to crack the UK market and it underpins the burgeoning interest in Formula E.
Formula E has enjoyed huge crowds but is just as proud of its social media reach (Getty)
Eleven different drivers have been on the podium in six races so far this season. The top 10 on the grid has never had fewer than seven teams represented. Three champions in three years, likely to become four this season unless Jean-Eric Vergne falls apart, provide the much-needed uncertainty. What Agag wants now is the continued growth:
“It will be very big by season 10, very big, because I see the things that you guys don’t see. I see the other companies coming very interested. I can see other people that are interested, I can see other cities that want races, a big fan following and the huge growth of the digital fanbase as the cars get faster and better. The growth is exponential. So this is a very good, digital motorsport entertainment product.
“Bernie Ecclestone used to say that a driver is famous because of Formula 1, not because of the driver. When they leave Formula 1 they lose a lot of stardust. Lewis Hamilton is not famous because of Lewis Hamilton, he is famous because of Formula 1.
“When Formula E is huge, the winner will be huge because of Formula E. So our mission isn’t to take Formula 1 drivers, we just want good drivers, and then the winner will become a big deal for what he has done with us.
“And anyone can win.”
When you strip back everything else – whatever the car, whatever the sport, whatever the competition – that might just be the most important bit.
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