Formula One: a perpetual state of revolution - and the fastest growing sport of the digital age
Emergence of Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Verstappen and Ricciardo has given fans new idols to worship
Looking back, it is difficult to imagine there has ever been a time in Formula One as tumultuous as the last 20 years.
With the emergence of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, among others, fans have had rivalries to deliberate and new idols to worship.
But behind the scenes, as it rushed around the globe at a furious pace to a growing list of exotic destinations, F1 has been in a perpetual state of revolution, a continual political bloodbath, staggering from one crisis to the next, financially chaotic and technically at sea.
In each decade, leading teams that were the immutable face of F1 had to threaten to form a breakaway series to resolve a painful debate about the ever-changing rules and the division of the enormous prize fund.
But it is fair to reflect that in the cauldron of the last few decades F1 finally grew up. The debate was no longer about whether to use V10, V8 or V6 engines. It was about the very nature of its being: did it want to be proper competition or just a motorised show? Boxing or World Federation Wrestling? Was it a rasping Nirvana or Miley Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball?
More recently it was feared that new American owners, Liberty Media, favoured Cyrus and razzmatazz. Now the jury is out.
Almost unaided, the global audience soared to a healthy 600 million by 2008 then plunged alarmingly close to half that figure in the face of Mercedes’s relentless domination, before being resurrected by Liberty’s most recent social-media push.
In the past two decades, free-to-air television deals were replaced by lucrative pay-per-view contracts and, more recently, the internet. There is a YouTube feed, e-sports, digital games for the iPad and mobile phone as well as a presence on Facebook and Twitter. It’s marketeers' claim that F1 is now the fastest growing sport of the digital age.
Former boss Bernie Ecclestone believed in a few exclusive multimillion pound television deals. Liberty Media prefers economies of scale: giving access to many millions of fans paying just a dozen or so dollars a time.
Who could have imagined that a sport that started about 70 years ago by a handful of enthusiasts racing for their own amusement would be sold in 2017 for £4.4 billion (Dh21bn).
The relentless safety drive that followed the death of its greatest racer, Ayrton Senna, on an apocalyptic weekend at Imola in 1994, led some to complain the sport was now “too safe”, with its wide tarmac run-off areas, HANS, halos and nannying stewards.
But the truth was borne out in Japan 2014 when rising star Jules Bianchi careered into a rescue crane in driving rain. He emerged apparently physically unscathed thanks to safety improvements but the force of the impact severed the two parts of his brain and he died, still in a coma, the following summer. At Spa 2019 Anthoine Hubert was killed in the F2 support race.
And Michael Schumacher’s fate overshadowed the age. Raised to godlike status as he rampaged to a record seven titles at the opening of the millennium, the German was horribly injured in a skiing accident. As his minders concealed his true condition, speculation and rumour have been rife.
Schumacher became something akin to Banquo’s ghost, looming large over the fortnightly F1 paddock feast that is a Grand Prix.
For a while his protégé Sebastian Vettel promised to inherit the mantle of the sport’s supreme racer but Daniel Riccardo, then Max Verstappen and even Ferrari new boy Charles Leclerc got the better of him. Vettel wasn’t even the best racer in his own team, let alone history.
And at Vettel’s zenith Lewis Hamilton arrived to put the German’s claims to greatness in true perspective.
Before the era began no one could have imagined its defining figure would have braided hair, gold earrings, a diamond nose stud and tattoos on his neck. Nor that he would be anything other than white.
But Hamilton and Schumacher have become remarkable bookends of the age.
Fernando Alonso became an icon too, but desperate team-hopping led to him all too often being in the wrong place and car at the wrong time; two titles were scant reward for a racer of his calibre.
Since 2000 F1 racing has not been without its moments, of course. Look to Bahrain 2014, the madness of Baku 2017, Brazil 2003, 2008 & 2012, Button’s 2011 Canada epic and Abu Dhabi’s four-way title showdown in 2010. But all too often the racing failed to deliver.
In a ‘woke’ world, though, F1 finally realised it was no longer enough to be entertaining (which it was having enough trouble with); it had to be relevant, too.
Where once it was couldn’t have cared less about any global effect other than its revenue it now claims, for all its globe trotting, to be carbon neutral.
And an era that started with monstrous three-litre V10 naturally aspirated engines, ended with tiny 1600cc V6 turbo hybrid units using road-car fuel and power boosted by energy harvested from friction and heat.
Who could have imagined that, one day, the roaring sound of the engines, would be all but muted? Nor that the word "engine" itself would be consigned to history, replaced by ICE (internal combustion engine) and PU (power units).
Even the language has changed thanks to an armoury of futuristic new acronyms: the ECU, ERS, ICE, HANS, DRS, MGU-K and, of course, MGU-H. Tyres are no longer simply black; in this mad new world they are yellow, white, blue, green and even red.
Twenty years ago the only thing on the steering wheel was the retaining bolt. Now it bristles with a bewildering array of buttons, dials and rotary switches, making drivers high-speed keyboard warriors as much as racers.
With the old ways have gone the old guys.
A generation of team owners, many of them founders, have been replaced by corporations: among them Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore, Norbert Haug, Tom Walkinshaw, Paul Stoddart, Peter Sauber and Max Mosley.
Bernie Ecclestone, too, the biggest of the sport’s big beasts, responsible largely for what F1 has become, has been moved upstairs. But not so high, he likes to joke, he can no longer see what is going on.
Despite two decades of relentless change and bloody internecine warfare, F1 has emerged in rude health with new stars, new leaders, new owners, new perspective, a will to change and, thanks to Liberty and Technical Director Ross Brawn, a road map to what promises to be a better future from 2021 with the biggest rule changes in the sport’s history.
What F1 makes of the chance remains to be seen. If the past 20 years are anything to go by the least that could be said is that it will certainly be a wild ride.
Updated: December 30, 2019 03:19 PM