By Matt Bishop, England
F1 Racing Editor in Chief
Despite its self-proclaimed worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, Formula One is waning in the public limelight. Matt Bishop nails down one of Formula One's biggest problem today - and suggests how to fix it
So, with five rounds of the 2005 FIA Formula One World Championship to run, Fernando Alonso holds a significant but fast-shrinking lead over Kimi Raikkonen. And neither man looks likely to flinch. No, our two 20-something hot-shoes are not only the quickest but also the steeliest drivers to have entered the Grand Prix arena since, well, since Michael Schumacher qualified a humble Jordan-Ford 191 a sensational seventh on his F1 debut at Spa-Francorchamps 14 long years ago. Believe me, this one could go down to the wire.
And after Michael exits stage left, whenever that will be, our two 20-somethings will continue to co-dominate the sport, and doubtless fight for Championships down to the wire, whatever the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and/or Jenson Button and/or anyone else might have to say about it, until they're 30-somethings. And then they'll co-dominate it some more. It will be a long and fabulous duel. It will be what Senna-Schumacher would have been, had Ayrton lived...
Equally, our heroes' current motors - the rakishly radical McLaren MP4-20 and the swoopily swift Renault R25 - are as techy-sexy as any racing cars ever built.
So, to recap my whistle-stop summary of 2005-model-year F1, the cars are truly awesome, the drivers magnificently skilled, and the title battle nail-bitingly close. But, despite all that, no-one cares.
Let me explain - or, to be precise, let me exemplify. Those of you who live in the United Kingdom (as I do), or who are ex-pat Brits, will be fully familiar with the Sunday Times. (Bear with me here, please, dear reader.) And even those of you who are not British and have never visited the UK may well know of the Sunday Times, for it has been Britain's biggest-selling quality newspaper for a very long time.
The August 28th edition carried a hefty sports section, as has every edition for some years now, and I'm here to tell you that its 24 densely type-set broadsheet pages contained not one word on the subject of F1.
Not. One. Word.
Page after page was devoted to test cricket and association football, as one would expect of the sports section of a British newspaper in late August. But late August is also the time of year when the F1 season traditionally hots-up - and this year, as you know, it's hotting-up good and proper. And yet, where only a few years ago ST readers would have found F1 comment, analysis and insight from some of the best F1 journalists around, on August 28th the acres of football and cricket coverage were leavened by articles about rugby union, rugby league, golf, tennis, boxing, athletics, horse racing, cycling, squash and kite surfing. But no F1.
No. F1. At. All.
Why not? Why, when the leading cars (both of which are British-made, incidentally) are so awesome, the leading drivers so skilled, and their title battle so close, does no-one care? Why is Alonso-Raikkonen apparently so much less captivating than, say, Schumacher-Hakkinen (for Michael-v-Mika accounted for tens of thousands of column inches between 1998 and 2000)? And whom, if anyone, should we blame?
The sport's commercial interests are controlled by that sly old dog, Bernie Ecclestone. And there was a time when a sly old dog was exactly what the sport needed. Ambitious and ruthless, Bernie got the best of every deal he ever did with hapless event organisers, and rammed the sport down TV programmers' throats with equal vigour. As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, and the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, the sport got bigger as Bernie got richer - and that was fine and dandy because everyone else in the sport was getting richer and bigger, too.
But you know what they say about old dogs, even sly ones, don't you? Yes, that's right: they can't learn new tricks.
Ecclestone's stated philosophy has always been: let the sport PR itself. In practice, what has happened is that the teams have spent vast sums of money on PR-ing themselves and their sponsors, and the F1 brand itself has benefited by association. (Well, think about it: you can't promote a team or a sponsor or even a driver without also promoting the sport itself, can you? And, on the back of the vast PR budgets of cigarette companies and oil companies and tyre companies and, of course, car companies themselves, that is exactly what has occurred over the past 30 years or so.)
And yet it isn't working any more, is it? It isn't working because there really is such a thing as bad publicity, whatever the old proverb says. And, over the past year or three, a whole host of F1 bigwigs have been heaping bad publicity on the sport - whether it be Paul Stoddart telling everyone that Max Mosley "is unfit to be FIA president", whether it be Max Mosley telling everyone that Ron Dennis "isn't the sharpest knife in the box", whether it be Bernie Ecclestone telling everyone that Silverstone "is a dump"... and so on. I could, as you well know, go on. And on. And on. There has been too much of it.
And now, following the disgrace and disaster of 'Indy-gate' - where neither the FIA nor the team owners realised until too late that the other side really wasn't bluffing, and Ecclestone failed to sort things out - some of F1's big cheeses are perhaps at last waking up to the unpalatable truth that it isn't only the sports editor of the Sunday Times who has lost interest. No, it would appear that F1 has finally slipped off a too-often-disappointed world's radar screen - which means that someone has got to put it back on. And fast.
A lot of people can do their bit - obviously, I hope this column helps, in its own small way - but only one man still has the power to make a real difference, and that man is Ecclestone. And, unless you believe, as some paddock cynics do, that Bernie's aim in recent years has been surreptitiously to erode the value of F1 so that he can buy it back from the German banks who currently own it at a fraction of the price at which he sold it to them... it surely follows that he must want to make that real difference.
So how about it, Bernie? How about actively PR-ing the sport you did so much to build up with such visionary zeal all those years ago? The F1 world is full of clever spin doctors, smart corporate strategists and resourceful 'lifestyle' merchants, but they're all employed by drivers, teams, sponsors and so on. Not one of them is ever asked to bend his/her mind to the task of (re)branding F1 itself.
Even the FIA's communications director, the canny Richard Woods, is delimited by his job description to merely putting a positive spin on the way the FIA president runs the regulatory side of the sport. How much better, after Mosley has been safely re-elected to the FIA presidency this autumn (as seems all but certain, despite Max's unpopularity with certain F1 team principals), if Woods were to be tasked instead with heading-up a properly funded F1 PR department whose sole brief was to reignite the world's interest in what remains a formidably slick, wonderfully enthralling and therefore prodigiously marketable sport?
Kite surfing? More important to the sports editor of the Sunday Times than F1? Doesn't that hurt your pride, Bernie? If not, it should do.