On tap this week:
- Changes needed in F1
- NASCAR's marketing savvy
- Bad times for Honda
- Formula E fallacies
- Quote of the Week: Piquet repeats dad's Long Beach success
- No more grid girls in Le Mans
Hot on the heels of Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone insisting a week ago at the Malaysian Grand Prix that the sport needs to spice things up, Pirelli's racing boss got into the act last week with his own ideas.
Essentially, the tire maker's motorsport director Paul Hembery thinks F1 should be more like NASCAR with accessible drivers and paddocks, so fans feel that the sport and its players actually care about them. That would be an excellent place to start, and much better than Ecclestone's ideas of double points for the final three races, sprinklers that randomly wet tracks during grands prix, and jumbled up grids where the fastest driver in qualifying gets points but doesn't start on pole.
In addition to Hembery's push for more accessibility, there are two more ways the sport can try to help improve the fan experience.
First, although there's no doubt that moving F1 from free to pay channels is great for the bottom line, it makes many fans feel they are just cash machines designed to help enrich billionaires. It's no surprise that countries where F1 switched to a pay model also saw significant reductions in viewership, which makes the sport harder for teams to sell to sponsors. Plus casual observers or those curious about the sport will not pay to watch, which means F1 squanders an opportunity to hook new fans or replace those who stop watching for whatever reason.
Second, control of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) - it flattens the rear wing of the car and allows a greater top speed. Controlling it will help increase overtaking. As it stands, DRS is available to drivers who are a second or less behind a rival and only deploys in a predetermined straightaway. Unfortunately, DRS also sucks most of the skill out of passing by essentially making the leading car a slower sitting duck. Instead of letting the sanctioning body decide, F1 should give drivers a set number of DRS pushes per race and let them decide how best to use them. That would allow them to deploy it a few times on in-lap and out-laps to open a larger gap to a rival before and after a pitstop, to defend against overtaking attempts, or to try to reel in and pass another driver at the end of a grand prix, all of which would make the racing more interesting and exciting.
Marketing savvy continues to be one of the main reasons NASCAR has been so successful in the past two decades while IndyCar has floundered. Like it or not, the stock car series marketing crew easily runs rings around its open wheel cousins, expertly promoting its sport and drivers and seeing opportunities to cast its sport in a positive light. Take, for example, the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by the Indiana state legislature late last month. NASCAR joined several other sports in strongly condemning the legislation and boldly went as far to say that it was "disappointed" by it. "We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance," NASCAR senior vice-president Brett Jewkes said in an official statement. "We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race."
On the other hand, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which also spoke for IndyCar, issued a statement that was weak at best. It didn't even mention the legislation and only insisted that the Speedway warmly welcomes "all who share our enthusiasm for motorsports." Considering the Speedway probably generates somewhere in the area of $1-billion in economic activity for the Indiana economy with its three races, it had an easy leadership opportunity land right in its lap and then blissfully let NASCAR sit in the driver's seat.
By the numbers
With two Formula One grands prix and the IndyCar season opener in the books, it looks like it will be a long year for Honda in open wheel racing. In three races so far this season, the best a Honda-powered car could do was a seventh place in the IndyCar Grand Prix of St, Petersburg, Fla., with rival Chevy taking the top-6 spots when all was said and done. It was the same story in qualifying in Florida, where Chevy swept the top-4 places. In addition, Honda's new IndyCar "aero kit" seems to be more fragile and less effective than Chevy's, giving the Japanese manufacturer lots of work to do on that front.
Over in F1, the only finish so far for the Honda-powered McLaren outfit was an 11th by Jenson Button in the season opener in Australia, who was two laps behind winner Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes. The good news is that the F1 team took a massive step forward in Malaysia and showed better pace in qualifying and the race, even if both cars were knocked out in the first qualifying session and then retired from the grand prix with engine-related issues. "In Melbourne we were 4.6 seconds behind the polesitter, and here it is something of 2.6 seconds," said McLaren's Fernando Alonso. "We feel that we are much better here than where we thought we would be after Melbourne. We are making the right calls and for sure I will not have to quit after Q1 for long."
It seems that Formula E's boss needs to brush up on his racing history. In trying to promote his series' Long Beach stop on the weekend, Alejandro Agag insisted his grid is better than IndyCar's, which lines up there in two weeks. Formula E, he said, offers an "opportunity for race fans to see drivers who've won at Monaco" as well as F1 world champions. Unfortunately, Agag's comments seemed to speak more to arrogance than the quality of his series. Yes, there are former F1 drivers in the Formula E field, but many are also-rans and pay drivers who are not huge names or draws. Agag might also be surprised to learn that IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya has not only won the Monaco Grand Prix, but he alone has also scored six more F1 victories than all 29 drivers who have lined up on the Formula E grid so far. And, while those who want to see an F1 champion can attend a Formula E race and hope that they catch a glimpse of team owner and four-time titlist Alain Prost, they could also head to Long Beach and easily expect run into Mario Andretti in the paddock, probably get a chance to chat with the always approachable racing legend, and walk away with an autograph to boot.
Quote of the week
"I felt so comfortable here and to wear the replica of my dad's helmet means a lot — it's 35 years since he won his first F1 race here and now I've won my first Formula E race on the same track."
— Nelson Piquet Jr. after winning the Long Beach ePrix on the same track where his father, three-time world champion Nelson Piquet Sr., scored his maiden F1 victory in 1980 U.S. West Grand Prix while driving for Brabham.
The last word
Starting with the Apr. 12 season opener at the famed Silverstone Circuit, World Endurance Championship (WEC) races will no longer feature scantily clad "grid girls" standing beside the cars before the race. With many series trying to attract women fans and several featuring female drivers, ditching the overt sex objects on the grid is a logical move. Whether or not other series will follow suit is anyone's guess, but the WEC should be applauded for its leadership. While long overdue, the series which counts the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its biggest draw made a decision because it needs to reflect the times, its chief executive Gerard Neveu stressed. "For me that is the past," he said. "The condition of women is a little bit different now."
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