On September 28th 2008, during lap 14 of the Singapore Grand Prix Nelson Piquet Junior, son of the three-time world champion and Renault’s young charger, spun his car exiting turn 17 and crashed heavily into a concrete wall. It was initially attributed to a simple mistake by a young and relatively inexperienced driver but many were suspicious of the incident. Their suspicions were aided by the fact that Piquet’s team-mate Fernando Alonso won the race thanks to the fortuitous safety car period following Piquet’s crash.
The truth eventually came out; Piquet had crashed on purpose in order to help Alonso win the race at the behest of senior team officials, in particular, team boss Flavio Briatore. Piquet skulked away from Formula One after being dropped by Renault and Briatore, disgraced and showing little remorse, was banned from the sport for life.
The sentence was later reduced, and now we’re told that Briatore, the least popular man associated with Formula One has been charged with the task of making Formula One popular again. Right…
The appointment follows the meagre turn out for the 2014 German Grand Prix – just 52,000 fans – and a reaction to the dwindling number of television viewers across Europe. But what can be done? And is Briatore the right man for the job?
On that second query, no; in the opinion of this armchair racer and motor racing blogger Briatore cannot be taken seriously enough for his ideas to be considered credible and therefore implemented for the good of the sport and for the increased enjoyment for the fans. His decision to allow that incident in Singapore has tainted his reputation beyond repair. Myself and many others, hold little if any respect for Flavio.
If the sport’s popularity is suffering however, then something must be done, and if Briatore is the man appointed to head up the changes then my humble opinions are unlikely to alter the fact that the sport’s future may lay in his hands.
The first signs that there was an issue were from Italy where television viewership stands at a couple of blokes in a pizzeria who have lost the TV remote and can’t change over to the football. The lack of an Italian driver coupled with Ferrari’s failure to deliver a championship since 2007 may have something to do with that. But the dreadful turn out in Germany was a more obvious slap in the face for those charged with promoting the sport – namely one Bernard Charles Ecclestone.
Dear old Bernie’s personal struggles have been well documented and so the last thing he needed was problems at the office, but he hasn’t helped himself: when Formula One introduced its new fuel-efficient, future-focused V6 engines for 2014 there was uproar from fans regarding the lack of roar from the engines. Step forward the sport’s saviour and chief champion, Ecclestone, to point out that the racing, the actual reason we all fell in love with the sport in the first place, was still thrilling, tantalising and intriguing…
…at least, that’s what you’d think the sport’s commercial rights holder and most prominent promoter would say. Instead, more than simply jumping on the bandwagon and sharing a bench seat with the noise naysayers, Bernie drove the thing, picking up as many passengers as he could – and probably charging them a ticket price.
If someone as influential as Bernie was so down on the sport then are we surprised so many people switched off?
It’s time we – Bernie included – focused on the positives the sport has to offer; the wheel-to-wheel combat, the unique personalities the sport hosts, the colour and the drama of it all.
The truth is, we don’t need Flavio Briatore to make Formula One popular again; reducing ticket prices would be a good start; for the average family of Formula One fans to attend a Grand Prix weekend it’s likely they’d have to forgive that year’s family holiday, all for the sake of three days cooped up in a tent within the confines of a Grand Prix facility. For many, that simply isn’t feasible and sadly it’s unlikely to change; race hosts are forced to pay such substantial fees to hold a Grand Prix that they have no choice but to pass the majority of that cost onto the fans.
As for television viewership, perhaps I’m unqualified to suggest a solution – I’ve watched the last 228 Grand Prix and with perhaps the exception of the 2005 United States Grand Prix, been thrilled by each and every one of them. But why might others choose not to watch? My theory, if you’ll humour me, is that the most appealing aspect the sport has to offer is being stifled, metaphorically muzzled and partially hidden from the fans; the drivers.
Formula One plays host to some extraordinary and unique characters; the sport is akin to a soap opera, based around a travelling circus rather than a London pub or an Australian residential street. It needs its character’s personalities to blossom and shine through, speak their mind, be themselves, allowed to clash with others, feud, fight and befriend. I don’t doubt that if the drivers in particular were given free rein to speak their minds as the likes of James Hunt and Niki Lauda once did, then the sport’s appeal would only grow, for the same reason Eastenders, Neighbours and all those other soaps garner such large fans bases – it’s the characters that make the show.
Considering that, perhaps Flavio Briatore is an ideal candidate to fix F1; every show needs a villain…