Is F1 too big to fail?

It is apparent to all who follow and adore F1 that something is inherently broken in the way that the sport operates today, as it continually fails to balance the demands of shareholders and profits, with financial pressures for teams, and retaining its global fan base.

While a consensus is slowly being reached by those outside the sport that change is required, those operating at the pinnacle of motorsport appear powerless to enact a meaningful overhaul. Such a stubborn perseverance in the face of adversity is either a sign of bravery or stupidity.

This raises the question, is F1 too big to fail?

Changing with the times

We have only to look a few year back into the annuals of racing history to find a poignant example of what F1 must avoid becoming.

The Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was once one of the leading global race series and the home of the foremost American open-wheel talent.

The series experienced its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, featuring household names such as Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi – all of whom also raced in F1. However in 1996 the Indy Racing League (IRL) was formed after frustrations peaked about CART’s inability to move with the times.

Many promising young open-wheel drivers, including Jeff Gordon, were turned away due to lack of opportunity, instead making the transition into NASCAR. Meanwhile IRL, under the governance of Tony George, introduced new technical rules for less expensive cars, which drew greater interest from manufacturers.

IRL’s creation alone certainly didn’t spell the end of CART. In 1998 the series’ IPO raised US$100 million and in 2003 CART races were shown in over 152 counties worldwide by 27 networks. In fact, the 2003 Telmex Grand Prix of Monterrey drew over 10.4 million viewers globally, and the series achieved 2.85 million peak-hour viewers per event across the first five races of the 2003 in Brazil alone.

Even as the series waned and teetered on the edge of financial instability, it still boasted talent such as Alex Zinardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gil de Ferran and four-time Champion Sebastien Bourdais.

Yet, in the end, financial collapse was inescapable and IRL had already claimed the crown as North America’s leading open-wheel series. What was left of CART was cannibalised and incorporated into IRL, with little trace of this once-famous championship, except a stark reminder of what can go wrong.


What F1 must learn

While CART may appear to be a very different beast to F1, the lessons that its demise teach us should still ring loudly in the ears of those at the helm of motorsport’s most recognisable name.

F1 has today announced the rejection of an independent, cheaper engine, as the saga of cost cutting and achieving financial stability in a sport based on progressive R&D continues to rumble on.

The loss of several teams in recent years, as many other reportedly hang by the balance at present, has clearly done nothing to empower change, and made F1 an increasingly unattainable progression for GP2 and GP3 teams.

Furthermore, much like in CART, we have already witnessed many promising talents pursuing other racing paths, such as the World Endurance Championship, due to a lack of available seats in F1, and surely one need look no further than the loss of design guru Adrian Newey to understand that the series’ current structure is unsustainable.

Finally, and perhaps most profound, F1 has done little to attract or engage fans. CART was mocked for its heavy promotions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but at least they were trying. F1 has lost a total of 75 million viewers over the past six years alone and appears determined to be an exclusionary brand rather than an exclusive one.

Without significant change, is it beyond the realms of possibility that F1 could suffer the same fate?


I’d love to hear your views, please leave them in the comments below or join the debate on Twitter.

One Comment Add yours

  1. somersf1 says:

    F1 falls into both the sporting and entertainment category, especially as on the whole it is now found mostly on PTV channels. As you have already stated those dwindling audience figures have as much to do with FOM doing a poor job of promotion as the poor racing we see on track. Afterall, broadcasters, sponsors and circuit promotors all pay their way but are the only ones actively promoting the sport. The dwindling audience figures are for me a misnomer too, firstly I don’t wholeheartidly agree that the figures his Bernieness used to present were entirely accurate. Secondly, the current ones are inaccurate, as the switch from terrestrial viewers to PAYG has led to a pirating culture (something that can be softened but needs a change of tact to do so, think of the Netflix model), that means you don’t have the metrics to how many are actually watching the sport.

    Regulate, strangulate and try to cost cap the teams as much as you like and they’ll just find more inventive ways in which to spend the same if not more money, all in an attempt to find a tenth. Afterall, when the FIA banned track testing, when they restricted wind tunnel time, when they limited CFD etc etc they thought they’d be cutting costs.. Did they? No, they simply shifted the focus to other tools.

    F1 has always been on the ‘brink’, costs have always been too high and the cycle continues. It is but a pyramid scheme that serves to empower those at the top (FOM) and keep the fighters at the bottom.


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