Formula One Approves Rule Changes for Next Season

Updated: 05 July 2014 15:57 IST

At this point, seven of the season's eight races have been won by the same team - Mercedes, which built the fastest, quietest, most efficient engine according to the new stipulations - and now the series faces one of its regular crises over how the rules should be tailored to improve the show.

Formula One Approves Rule Changes for Next Season
Mercedes-AMG's British driver Lewis Hamilton leaves the pits during the second practice session at the Silverstone circuit. © AFP

In its first season with revamped technical regulations designed to make the traditionally gas-guzzling series more environmentally friendly, Formula One is now steeped in a process of soul-searching as it seeks to become more fan-friendly.

At this point, seven of the season's eight races have been won by the same team - Mercedes, which built the fastest, quietest, most efficient engine according to the new stipulations - and now the series faces one of its regular crises over how the rules should be tailored to improve the show.

But the return to the Silverstone circuit this weekend for the 50th edition of the British Grand Prix is also a reminder that despite constant rule-changes since the first race at Silverstone in 1950 - which was also the first race of the Formula One series - the top level of auto racing has survived for decades with stretches of domination by one team or driver or another without trying to spice up the show.

Last week the series nonetheless approved a number of changes for 2015 aimed at doing just that. Modifications to engines this season resulted in quiet cars, a radical step in a series where much of the spectacle has long been associated with the eardrum-breaking roar of the engines. The new rules for next season include adding titanium underbellies to produce sparks that fly out of the rear end of the cars as they race on the track at high speed; standing starts after safety-car periods, rather than the current rolling starts, to increase the chance of a change in leader; and promoting risk-taking and passing with more lenience toward drivers who run into other drivers.

At least one recent proposal has not yet been approved, however: adding sound to the quiet engines by putting "trumpets" on the exhaust pipes.

In the early years of the series, fans accepted long, processional races dominated by a single car or driver as simply part of the nature of the sport. But as Formula One has become a global event with a worldwide television audience, competing with other global sports like soccer and tennis or even with popular entertainment for fans and advertisers, the series has become more sensitive to the idea of catering to fans and their evolving tastes.

It has changed the rules frequently in the past decade to liven things up, including creating various power-burst mechanisms to facilitate passing, reducing tire life to force pit stops, and overhauling the qualifying sessions.

Although team leaders, drivers and the news media now speak regularly about the need to please the fans and provide them with a better show, the most publicized and vocal critics of the series this year have not been the fans, but the series itself. Foremost among them are the directors of the Ferrari team, whose engine has failed to perform as well as that of Mercedes.

"I know that Formula One is about Ferrari, and that Ferrari is about Formula One," said Marco Mattiacci, Ferrari's sporting director. "We will work in order to improve and to make sure that we will have a Formula One that will appeal to a wider audience."

The crux of the problem this year is not a lack of show, however. The series has had eight fabulous races with surprise winners, underdogs finishing on the podium and the two teammates who lead the championship engaged in a protracted battle on track and off.

So why the crisis about lack of excitement? The first reason may be Ferrari's engine troubles. It is difficult to imagine that the team would complain if it were winning every race.

But the main complaint of Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, is that the series is trying too hard to be environmentally friendly, thereby forcing drivers to race according to fuel-economy needs rather than in all-out pursuit of victory in a high-speed race to the end. He even went so far as to say at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in mid-June that the world's leading endurance race was a better auto sport show than Formula One and that Ferrari would consider joining Le Mans in the future. He apparently did not realize, however, that Le Mans is on an even greater fuel-saving campaign than Formula One, with a per-lap fuel quota rather than a limit per race as in Formula One.

But evidence of a decline in Formula One's popularity among fans can be seen in a television-ratings drop in some of the series' major markets, including Germany and Italy. For the first five races of this year, ratings in Italy were down 20 percent compared with last year, according to the Spanish sports daily Marca, and in Germany they fell 10 percent last year and have continued to drop a further 3 percent this year. These figures reflect a decision by the series' promoter to show the races on pay-television channels, instead of the free-to-air broadcasters that helped the series build its worldwide popularity over the last 40 years. Fans who have had free access to a television show their entire lives may now be reluctant to pay for it.

Meanwhile, Formula One has not effectively turned to the Internet to reach fans. But the Internet is now the only mass medium that can replace television to give sponsors exposure to the sport's hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

One reason Bernie Ecclestone, the series' promoter, who has made himself and the series rich thanks to television contracts, has not turned to the Internet is because he does not know how to make money from it. And that remains a challenge for the sport.

"We know that it's taken a while for Formula One to do more in social media and it's a fact of life today, you can't ignore it," said Monisha Kaltenborn, director and part owner of the Sauber team.

"We have to be careful and assess very carefully how we open it and how we can still monetize on it, because these are revenue streams which, if they come in correctly and the distribution is also the right way, it has, of course, an impact on all the other issues we are combating right now," she added, referring to broadcasting of Formula One. "So, it's all somehow connected - but you have to be careful when you open up to these kind of mechanisms.

© 2014, The New York Times News Service



Topics : Formula 1 Mercedes
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