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Clarkson: 'Formula One is a mess'
As we all know, Formula One is a mess. You’ve got the head honcho telling all and sundry that no one can afford to buy any of the products made by the sponsors, you’ve got teams in administration, you’ve got more overtaking in the average British multistorey, and you’ve got double points in the last race, which means the whole season has been a complete waste of time. But it could be worse. It could be rallying.
I was staying with a friend recently who did not have Sky television, which meant that, on a Saturday morning, I was extremely stuck for something to watch. There was a rerun of the celebrities in the jungle from 2008, lots of blonde women selling bric-a-brac at auctions and some homes under a hammer… which sounded a lot better than it actually was.
This meant that on a grisly, grey and damp Saturday morning, I found myself watching ITV4, a channel for programmes which aren’t quite interesting enough to be shown on ITV1, 2 or 3. The natural home, these days,then, for the World Rally Championship.
Ooh, it was dull. I watched a small Volkswagen - which is nothing like any Volkswagen you can actually buy - driving through a wood in Wales for a few minutes and then the driver, who was either called Dai or Miko, told us in an approximation of English about the problems he had encountered while driving through the wood. Then we saw a Citroen doing exactly the same thing. Before weheard from its Dai or Miko telling us about his problems.
There was a time when the British round of the World Rally Championship was billed as Britain’s most watched sporting event. A quarter of a million people would see the cars live, boasted the organisers. No one ever pointed out that this included all the people who saw them going from stage to stage while they were on their way to buy some washers from B&Q.
But, whatever, it sure as hell isn’t a quarter of a million people any more. In fact, judging by the footage shown on ITV4, it was about 32. Most of whom were plainly mad.
There was one chap, in a T-shirt, standing right at the edge of the road, exactly where the car would end up if something went wrong, shaking his fist exuberantly at the driver as he whizzed by.
So let’s examine his thought processes here. He’s woken up and thought: “I know what I’ll do today. I’ll put on a T-shirt, which is completely inappropriate for the Welsh weather in November, and walk for miles through a wood so that I can cheer on a man I’ve never met as he drives past in his Hyundai.” Needless to say, he was on his own. This is because a) he couldn’t make any of his friends see that his planned day out was a good idea or b) he doesn’t have any friends.
None of the spectators do, it would seem. All 32 of them were to be seen, standing alone, in their own bit of dampness. Many had old-fashioned Zenit cameras with telephoto lenses so they could take dismal, amateurish pictures of the Hyundai as it rumbled by.
Why? Who are they going to show them to? Who’s going to say: “Hey John. Can you show me the 2,000 rubbish photographs you took of that Hyundai last weekend?” Nobody is. They’re going to end up on his hard drive, along with all the Health & Efficiency downloads.
Maybe, if he gets a shot of a crash, things would be different, but the chances of this happening are about nil. ITV4 had a helicopter and many cameras covering the black spots but, while I was watching at least, there wasn’t even a minor parking bump.
Maybe crashes aren’t allowed any more. I mean, according to the rally website, it’s a carbon-neutral event - how is that possible? And for all those people in Wales who don’t speak English, all of the information is available online in Welsh. Against an inclusive, sustainable background like that, it would be wrong to have one of the competitors rolling down a hill.
So why then are car companies such as Citroen and Volkswagen spending millions to take part, when they must know their efforts are being watched by six people on ITV4 and live by 32 friendless men with questionable hard drives?
Well, Hyundai at least has what it says is an answer. It says the brand is already engaged with sports thanks to its sponsorship of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, that makes sense. The World Cup is watched by pretty well everyone in the civilised world (not America), so why follow it up with rallying? Isn’t that a bit like winning an Oscar for your role as a promiscuous cowboy and then doing a car commercial? Apparently not. Hyundai says, “Motorsport is a perfect home for a car manufacturer.” You don’t say…
But that brings us back to the problem. Since they banned the short-wheelbase quattros and the fire-spitting Peugeots, rallying has lost its sheen. Nobody who has a life is going to trudge through a wood, at night, to watch a Finn go by in a Polo, no matter how big its rear spoiler might be.
And, on a number of occasions this year, F1 has played to 80,000 people, all of whom had turned up dressed as seats.
Elsewhere, we find rich kids in Lambos and old people in historics and God knows who in MGs whizzing about obscure racetracks at weekends… and nobody is watching. The grandstand at the Croft circuit in Yorkshire is the sort of thing you would normally find on a school sports day.
And yet, in America, they have stadiums that can seat 250,000 and they’re packed all the time…
This is because in America the organisers know that motor racing needs to be a show. It’s not organised forthe benefit of the drivers or the manufacturers’ marketing departments. It’s done for the benefit of the crowds. Because ultimately, that’s who pays the bills.
We need to explain to the drivers that if they want to be paid to drive quickly around corners, there needs to be less run-off area and a bit more fire. And they need to develop personalities. They need to stop talking about the problems they had with the dirty side of the track, or with a broken intercom, and shag their teammate’s girlfriend. We need some tabloid villains.
And then we get to the cars. What is a Red Bull? Or a Williams? And why would you want to watch someone you’ve never heard of driving a Citroen up a hill in Wales?
To motivate the masses, we need to see the carmakers’ best cars going head to head. Bentley Continentals versus Nissan GT-Rs versus the BMW M6 Gran Coupe. And we want drivers we’ve heard of, people we can root for and people we can hate. Pit Darcey Bussell in a Lamborghini Aventador against Anton Dec in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, on a circuit, or in a wood - or better still, in a bit of both - and half the country would turn up. Stick with Miko and Dai in a Citroen, and motorsport is doomed.