We are now five races into the 2023 F1 season, and despite continued Red Bull dominance, we have seen plenty of changes on and off the track. The Miami Grand Prix debuted a new feature of the increasingly long pre-race fanfare, with the drivers being introduced by LL Cool-J to the crowds. Each driver was hailed as some form of ‘the most exciting driver on the grid’ while walking out of jets of smoke to pom-pommed cheerleaders. Opinion is divided over the merits of this sort of segment: while Hamilton has voiced his support, others like Norris and Verstappen have suggested they are less eager and find it awkward. And when watching, that isn’t too hard to tell.
The high-up bosses and decision-makers of Formula 1 are keenly aware of the influx of fans in recent years and are eager to keep expanding and cater to this new generation. A large aspect of this seems to be a push to ramp up the entertainment and ‘show’ factor of the weekend. This is seen particularly in America, where there are now 3 races this season, with Miami being introduced last year and Las Vegas new for this year; the newer races lend themselves more to experimentation with the format, without upsetting the traditionalists. F1 has been trying to ‘break America’ for years, and largely thanks to Drive to Survive, now you could say it has. Moreover, the relatively new owners of F1, Liberty Media, are themselves America and the cynic might well detect a heavy dose of Americanisation behind recent developments both on and off track.
Pageantry is nothing new for Formula 1, but in recent years it seems that there has been a shift towards increasing the celebrity of all the drivers. Certainly, social media has made this easier, but there is a marked and concerted impetus from teams to commercialise and commodify their drivers. This is not necessarily a bad thing – human interest and drama are an important part of most sport, and helps people get invested on a personal level. People loved Drive to Survive so much because it provided this aspect of the sport, which is – for many – undeniably gripping and enjoyable. Nevertheless, the pressure on drivers to be public personalities seems greater than ever.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the fate of Daniel Ricciardo. Once the darling of the paddock, magnetic and charming, he seemed a real contender for a future title with Red Bull. Enter Max Verstappen, and exit Danny Ric. A series of optimistic but unsuccessful team changes later, the
Australian found himself seatless for the 2023 season. That is until the unthinkable happened, and his return to Red Bull was announced – but as a reserve or ‘third’ driver. Fans were thrilled at the prospect of a return to his glory days, but Christian Horner made explicit the clinical reality that it was, in short, a personality hire. They recognised his incredible PR potential and realised that perhaps this is what was needed to patch up the team’s toxic reputation.
More universally, the desire for drama and excitement in the race itself has led to some decisions which were at best controversial and at worst outright condemned by drivers and fans alike. I don’t even need to say more than Abu Dhabi for people to offer their passionately held opinions. But perhaps even more concerningly, Spa 2021 demonstrated the subservience of safety to spectacle, when lives were arguably recklessly and even knowingly endangered (more than usual) in undrivable conditions. Vettel’s warnings being quickly followed by Norris’ huge crash was like a scene out of a tragedy; the wise tragic warning was ignored, and it was lucky the consequent disaster wasn’t of the kind seen in other races in Spa over the years. On the opposite end of the scale, some would argue that over several years – despite Massi’s departure – there have been increased instances of yellow and red flags when perhaps they are not obviously needed, with the hope of some restart drama. Add in the still-developing vision of sprint races, which seem sometimes just another opportunity for drivers to ruin their cars before Raceday at vast expense, and you begin to wonder if multiple crashes a weekend is actually all they’re really looking for.
Perhaps the problem here lies in the ‘boring’ nature of some tracks, which are not only more difficult to overtake on, but are also shadowed by successive eras of Mercedes and Red Bull dominance. A variety of track styles and conditions are integral to the format of the sport. Nevertheless, there are some tracks which are staples of the calendar being eyed up for removal: those in charge argue they haven’t been as exciting in recent years, while many in the community believe it would be an outrage to remove tracks of such historic significance. Thus, the traditionalists find fault in the changemakers, and vice versa, as it ever was. It is difficult to think of a sport which redefines itself as keenly and consistently as Formula 1 does currently, but perhaps this is the secret to its enduring allure and renown. A compromise between maintaining the integrity of the sport itself, and attracting and entertaining an ever-growing audience must be found.
Image Credit: Meghana Geetha