â€œIt’s boring,â€ they’re all saying. ”The same people win every time.â€ F1 in ’02? Or even last year? Well, yes, but significantly these criticisms are being levelled at the 2005 Premiership football season in England. So should either sport pay any attention to the nay-sayers?
The critics who insist that sport exists only to entertain us are often quick to blame the leading team of the day for making a race or match boring. Chelsea in 2005 are in much the same position that Ferrari were from 2001 to 2004.
Both are dominant as much thanks to the talents of the players and staff that make their team as the mega-bucks that brought them all together in the first place. And both are accused of spoiling their sports because of their dominance and by ‘killing the game’. In Chelsea’s case, they have perfected low-risk play, suffocating matches with a ruthlessly defensive 5-4-1 formation. Ferrari have achieved the same by using low-risk refuelling strategies to pass cars in the pits and by making Rubens Barrichello utterly subservient to Michael Schumacher.
This leads us to an obvious conclusion: allowing sports teams to spend unlimited funds on their team will inevitably turn sport into a spending exercise. Though salary caps may be the only realistic option available to the Football Association to combat the problem in the Premiership, this would be too crude an approach in Formula One where more subtle approaches are available: restricting the cars in such a manner to reduce the performance advantage gained through high expenses, and by reducing testing.
Another essential point is that sports teams exist to win, not to entertain. The rules of competition must therefore strive to keep the playing field level and the competition pure. Recent changes to the Formula One rules have caused unfortunate unintended consequences that could have been prevented had the FIA – and most of all Max Mosley – been more careful.
Double-penalising a driver who retires from a race by making him run early in qualifying is one example. Imposing two-race engines causing teams to reduce their testing on a race weekend is another, which exacerbated the problems at the disastrous United States Grand Prix when many teams realised too late in the day that their tyres suffered from a serious defect.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between sport as a challenging physical endeavour and sport as entertainment. In American motor sport the pendulum has undoubtedly swung more towards the latter than the former. In NASCAR, for example, a ridiculously contrived points-scoring system is engineered to keep the championship battle alive in the final rounds, under-rewarding drivers who amass points through consistency.
Perhaps the greatest offence of pandering to popular perception in the face of keeping motor sport pure is success ballasting, which sadly has grown more popular throughout Europe, especially in touring cars. This was even considered in the package of changes to be introduced for the 2003 Formula One season and, thankfully, was rejected. Success ballasting simply puts the leading driver at an immediate and often insurmountable disadvantage, which is hardly sporting.
Really, the cries of ‘boring’ being levelled at Formula One and football say more about contemporary audiences than contemporary sports. Sky Sports Premiership football, FOCA TV and their peers have turned sport into just something else to watch on television – not a weekend at rain-swept Silverstone or an afternoon on the terraces. Sports channels need ratings as much as new episodes of Desperate Housewives – fickle channel-surfers will skip past anything that offers them anything less than instant gratification.
And herein lies the most simple answer to making Formula One more entertaining – sort the TV coverage out. The standard Formula One television feed has far too few on-board cameras and the often amateurish production by local directors means a lot of significant action is missed. The premiere of A1 Grand Prix last weekend, with multi-angle and in-car replays of accidents, was a lesson in how to do motor sport coverage. This needs sorting out before they start fiddling with the formula again.