Flop gear: the failure of Formula 1

Formula 1 racing is a sexy sport … so how come it’s also so incredibly boring? Seriously, it takes a particular kind of genius to take something whose components include astonishing cars, vast amounts of cash, high-speed chases, fit drivers and hot women hangers-on and turn it into an afternoon of mind-crushing dreariness.

This question seems particularly relevant this week as the BBC has let it be known that it is thinking of ditching its live coverage of F1 in order to save enough money to keep BBC4 afloat. That’s right, BBC4; Formula 1 motor racing could be sacrificed to save such televisual highlights as The Wonder of Weeds, Botany: A Blooming History, The Beauty of Maps and a programme on the history of the apple. BBC4 doesn’t actually have a TV show called Watching Paint Dry but we can surely be confident that it is in development. It speaks volumes that even this thinnest of TV gruel is deemed tastier fare than the hours of tedium that surround live F1. The BBC’s hawkish stance may simply be a negotiating tactic to reduce the cost of broadcast rights but frankly crown green bowling would be a better bet. It may lack glamour but it’s cheaper, less predictable and would sit well with the BBC4 schedule.

TV access to F1 has rarely been more comprehensive. You can watch the whole race, obviously; see their view of the car ahead; there’s live qualifying (God spare us) and then several hours lead-up followed by a two- or three-hour procession punctuated only by safety cars and the high drama of a pit stop. A recent race had commentators in paroxysms of joy as the second-placed driver overtook the leader on the final lap. It was high drama indeed and almost made up for the fact that a rain-lashed race had been interrupted so often by the safety car it had seemingly lasted for hours. One could argue that under huge pressure the leader had made a crucial mistake at the wheel; but alternatively one might conclude that he’d simply nodded off at the monotony of it all.

The most exciting F1 moments don’t even take place on the track. The big question in any race is whether the team can fit new tyres in the seven seconds needed to get the driver back out in first place? It’s not so much a race as a pit-stop challenge. We can admire the technological proficiency, but in the same unemotional way that we marvel at unmanned space flight.

It wasn’t always this way. True, F1 always involved cars driving 80 times round a track but the outcome wasn’t predetermined solely by the relative merits of the cars – a situation which can see a world champion reduced to an also-ran in the space of a season. Racing was really dangerous; crashes were spectacular; people died. I’m not saying this was a good thing but, let’s be honest, it was why most people watched. Somehow, it just isn’t the same without the frisson of excitement you can only get when a car leaves the track and ploughs into a bank of spectators.

Once, drivers were like gladiators, risking death to win; chicanes were hazardous, bends lethal. They were outsize personalities who you believed visited Monte Carlo for reasons other than tax efficiency. Young boys wanted to be like them. Of course, young boys want to be like Lewis Hamilton but only for the money and the evenings with Nicole Scherzinger. These days the suits who run the sport seem more colourful than the drivers.

The BBC’s move coincides with the release of a film celebrating the life of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest driver of all time, whose death at the wheel in 1994 led to the safety crackdowns that have now pretty much outlawed anything exciting. Dangerous bends have been straightened and there are hefty penalties for dangerous driving, reckless passing and failure to stop at a box junction. Lewis Hamilton is now regularly criticised for dangerous manoeuvres such as, well, overtaking.

A sport of drama, speed and skill has been reduced to one of tedium and engineering. On second thought perhaps it belongs on BBC4 after all.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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