Clarkson on: Formula One
Have you ever tried sleeping while watching a game of football on the television? It’s impossible, because every time you close your eyes, and spend a moment in that no-man’s-land between consciousness and a drunken afternoon stupor, there’s a roar from the crowd, and you are snapped back to reality to see what’s going on.
It’s the same story with rugby, and even tennis. But Formula One is different. Once the cars have zoomed away from the line, you have an almost constant background din, as soothing, if you turn the sound down a bit, as the waves on a beach. And you never hear the crowd oohing and aahing, partly because they would be drowned out by James Allen, and partly because there’s never anything to ooh and aah about.
As a result of this, and because you know who’s going to win, you will be sound asleep by lap two.
The viewing figures for the re-run of the Australian grand prix, show that between 4.10pm – just after lunch – and 6pm, three million people were in front of their televisions. But they don’t show – they can’t – how many were in the land of nod. I know I was.
The important figure, for the future of Formula One is how many got up at 2am to watch the race live. And the answer to that is half-a-million. Some of these, for sure, will have been night-watchmen who’d rather watch anything than a grainy CCTV image of the night. But most will have been the sport’s true fans. And I’m sorry, but half-a-million isn’t enough.
If the sponsors think that a mere five hundred thousand people are bothering to watch their money being turned into vapours and noise, they’ll find something else to put their stickers on. Avocets and bees probably. And I can’t blame them. With numbers that small, it’d be easier and cheaper to pull out of F1 and send the fans a tenner every week.
Worse, why would Weetabix spend its money on television advertising if the number of people watching would fit into a guardsman’s hat? They won’t. Which means ITV will pull out and F1, the glory of motor engineering will end up on Men ’n’ Motors between Camel Racing from Dubai with Nick Knowles and Extreme Ironing with Ant and Lard.
The big question is why so many people have tuned out of F1 in recent years, and the simple answer is this: it’s mind-numbingly boring. You have no idea which driver is which, you can’t see them doing anything other than turning a steering wheel, and when they get out, they talk like they’re flatlining.
Everyone is crediting Lewis Hamilton with greatness, and, I must say, his opening corner manoeuvres at the first two races were genuinely breathtaking, but then at the end of the race he gets out and thanks each of the viewers personally, and the team, and the people who made his stupid tyres. No, no, no. Come on, man. You should get out and shout, “I’m going on the podium now and then I’m going on some women.”
You know this new kid Koivanainenenenan? Why has he not celebrated his elevation to F1 by setting fire to Martin Brundle’s trousers? Why has he not smeared six inches of snot down the side of Kimi’s Ferrari? René Arnoux, I’m told, used to sleep with his boss’s wife. Nelson Piquet used to piss in the car. And still Lewis drones on and on about Ron Dennis and how kind he’s been for reminding him to drink water on a hot day.
"The big question is why so many people have tuned out of F1, and the simple answer is this: it’s mind-numbingly boring"
Act your age, son. Get drunk. And get laid.
We’ve all read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, and if you haven’t, you should. He paints a picture of early test pilots up in the high desert of California, hanging their balls over the line every day and then if – and he does mean if – they landed safely, tearing into Vegas in their Corvettes, to go drinking and screwing around.
Even when seven were chosen to become the Mercury astronauts, and they had to be chisel-jawed, superhero, family men, for their cover shots on Time magazine, the high jinks didn’t stop. They were young. They were doing something dangerous. And they lived. F1 drivers should be the same, not standing around on the grid drinking Ribena from a bloody squeezy bottle.
Then there’s the business of racing. At the moment, they set off, race to the first corner and then spend the next two hours following one another around the track. The only excitement comes in the pits and I’m sorry, but if I want to see men changing tyres and putting petrol in the tank, I’ll pop down to my local Kwik-Fit.
I’ve had many ideas over the years for enlivening the spectacle. Once I even said that a driver a year should be sacrificed to keep us all entertained. But I’ve since realised this was cruel and ridiculous. A broken leg or fractured skull would be just as satisfactory.
I’ve had other thoughts, too. We’re told the cars lose front end grip when tucked in the turbulent wake of another, so overtaking is impossible. Hmm. I’d like to put that to the test by paying the drivers £25,000 a year and then giving them a million pounds a point. This, I feel sure, would overcome any ‘aerodynamic’ difficulties.
Or, if it doesn’t, how’s this for a plan... Bernie Ecclestone employs all the drivers and farms them out, on a rota basis, to the teams. So, in the course of a season, each driver would drive each of the cars. The best man would still win the drivers’, and the best team would still win the constructors’ championship, but we’d get to see Kimi trying to carve his way through the field in a crap car while some no-hoper struggles to get to grips with the Ferrari up front.
What we must avoid is the American system whereby a pace car is sent on the track at the whim of a TV producer. It’s great for bunching everyone up but this is bit like asking Roger Federer to wear a suit of armour when playing Tim Henman. Yes, it levels the playing field but you don’t have a sense that the best man won.
We must also avoid endless rule changes. No one ever says “Hmm, I like football, but let’s see if it would be better if everyone wore their shorts back-to-front.”
And anyway, making the cars different every year means the richer teams can adapt, while the poorer ones can’t. It means the gulf between the front and the back of the grid gets wider and wider and wider.
Finally, we’ve got to look at the world’s tracks. Who cares whether James Allen has a Wi-Fi receiver in his commentary booth or whether they allow cigarette advertising. All that matters is that overtaking is possible on Every Single Corner.
I like F1. I really do. I like the idea that the car makers go to engineering firms to design the absolute best, road-going rocket that current technology allows. But I want it to be glamorous and exciting. I’d go to Ron Dennis if I wanted my VAT doing, but not for a wild night out with drugs and hookers.
Someone, and I think it’s going to have to be me, must lay down a new set of once-and-for-all rules, every single one of which is geared to make sure the car behind can easily get past the one in front. Oh, and that Earth Car. No. Just no, OK.